Debating the second round of the French Presidential election

Submitted by Matthew on 13 December, 2017 - 12:07

At the 2017 AWL conference there was a debate on two opposing resolutions on the second round of the 2017 French Presidential elections.

We present the speeches made in the debate by Martin Thomas and Daniel Randall. Both resolutions can be found here

Against passivity and indifference, for active politics

By Martin Thomas

We have three points of agreement in this debate.

First, that, unlike in the majority of bourgeois run-offs, there was a real difference in France on 7 May.

For the fascist Marine Le Pen even though as yet she lacks the base of a developed fascist party to be elected to the great powers of the French presidency would have been worse than Macron being elected.

Second, that as a general rule we do not vote for bourgeois candidates, even if they are lesser evils in run-offs. We seek third alternatives.

Third, that it is also not an absolute rule never to vote for bourgeois candidates. There is classic Marxist precedent for voting that way in some run-offs where we have no chance to vote for labour movement candidates. .

A rule of thumb has long served in Britain, that if socialists cannot contest elections directly then we vote for bourgeois workers' party candidates, and if there's no bourgeois workers' party candidate we shrug.

But it's only a rule of thumb. As traditional electoral allegiances have loosened, some large grey areas have emerged between bourgeois and bourgeois workers' candidates. What about the Democratic Party in Italy? It is the party of the left, with close informal ties with the unions, and the main successor of the old Italian Communist Party. But it was formed by a merger with a large chunk of the old Christian Democratic Party, and deliberately named itself Democratic Party on the model of the USA's Democrats.

What about where Green parties are more left-wing and pro-union than old social-democratic parties, and have closer links with more combative unions? What about Melenchon in France the main left candidate in the presidential first round, but based on a party which is not a party but just an email list? What about Bernie Sanders?

We need a positive principle to guide us, not just a box-ticking exercise. The principle is that at election time we go for the intervention consistent with our politics outside election times which gets most traction for the idea of an independent working-class voice in politics.

In the circumstances in France this year, activist interventions which voted for the revolutionary left candidates in the presidential first round, used a Macron vote to block Le Pen in the run-off, fomented demonstrations and mobilisations against both Macron and Le Pen throughout, and voted in the legislative elections of 11/18 June for a left-wing majority in parliament to block Macron, could and did cut against passivity and resignation.

And, at the same time, they could say everything against Macron just as well the left-wing 7 May stay-at-home brigade said it.

Abstaining or blank-voting could not, on 7 May, send a clear message. It meant the left passively submerging itself in a predictably big wave of demoralisation, indifference, resignation, and sympathy even on the left for Le Pen's nationalism. Sometimes a shrug is, realistically, the best and clearest gesture we can make. Not on 7 May.

Some, like l'Etincelle, argued that Macron was bound to win anyway, so left-wing votes would be an unnecessary gift to him.

A Macron victory was always probable. But far from certain. The votes were fluid. When it looked like the mainstream right would withdraw Fillon as a candidate, many of his supporters said they would then vote Le Pen on the first round. The new leader of Fillon's party, Laurent Wauquiez, pointedly refused to take sides against Le Pen on the second round.

Melenchon refused to make a call on the second round. His supporters, in a poll, backed a blank vote, though in fact 53% of them ended up voting Macron. Opinion surveys showed up to 19% of them between rounds saying they'd vote Le Pen.

A scandal between rounds, a gaffe by Macron, could have tipped the majority of Fillon voters and a sizeable minority of Melenchon voters to go for Le Pen. The left vote, in the broad sense of the M'e9lenchon voters and the abstention-minded left, could well have been big enough to determine the result. Most class-conscious workers held their noses and cast a Macron ballot on 7 May. How could we have told them not to? Say that voting Macron would develop illusions? They would tell us that they had nothing to say in favour of Macron other than that he wasn't Le Pen. Didn't we agree? If we did agree, why not say it? Or do we have so little fortitude that we can't say what we think for fear of collapse?

Tell them that if they voted Macron they'd end up voting for all sorts of dubiously lesser-evil candidates everywhere else?

They would reply that if you feared that voting Macron would wreck your whole balance, you should develop more backbone.

The French leftists who did advocate not voting felt obliged to write their explanations as if there was no real difference between Le Pen and Macron.

From reading and listening to them in other contexts, I'm sure that's not what they really thought. I'm sure that if Le Pen had won, their response the next day would not have been bland indifference.

It shows the falsity of their line, I think, that in order to promote their prefabricated conclusion they felt obliged to blur and obscure what they really thought that they had to back-write their analysis and assessments to fit the prefabrication.

And the prefabricated line, in the context, was one of passive adaptation to moods of demoralisation and indifference. Better an active intervention! And an intervention that allows consistency of ongoing political line and analysis.

Independent working-class intervention is not indifference

By Daniel Randall

The view of my side of the debate is that any intervention into the political situation around the election should have first emphasised the need for independent working-class political organisation, for the labour movement to have its own social programme, to organise against the neo-liberal attacks on workers' rights that Macron said in advance he would carry out, and, crucially, to organise independently against the Front National as a political force.

To cap that intervention by calling for a vote for the person certain to carry out those attacks, attacks that will inevitably fuel the further rise of far-right politics, would have been miseducating and disempowering.

To mobilise for a vote for a candidate in an election and serious consideration of our position must mean that we, or an AWL-equivalent group in France, should have actively mobilised in support of a Macron vote, not merely declare him the objective lesser evil necessarily implies some species of political confidence, however minimal.

You might vote for a bourgeois candidate whose candidacy or party is the political expression of, or in some looser way linked to, a national liberation movement or a mass social movement against a particular oppression. In doing so, you would be expressing political confidence in that element of their programme, or at least in the idea that electing them would advance that particular cause. Any such confidence in Macron would have been misplaced.

Macron was undoubtedly the lesser evil in this election, by light years. I want to emphasise this now to pre-empt and head off any claims from the other side that we think there was no essential difference between the candidates, or that our position represents an abstentionist shrug.

What made him the lesser evil? Simply that he was not a fascist?

In part, yes although that's something which needs unpacking, and to which I'll return. But it was a bit more than that: one can quibble over whether the FN is exactly a fascist party, but what the election undoubtedly represented was a clash between reactionary, racist, economically and politically nationalist populism and globalising, broadly- metropolitan free-market capitalism.

We're not neutral in that clash; the latter provides a higher platform for international workers' unity and class struggle, as well as a generally greater degree of social freedom. But we do not give political confidence to the free-market bourgeoisie. We do not even trust them to consistently fight for those elements of their programme, to the extent it's possible to talk about such a thing, that we agree with a more liberal attitude on social questions, for example.

History tells us that the opposite is likely: faced with a rising tide of racism and nationalism, the instinct of the metropolitan bourgeoisie is to triangulate with it, rather than confront it. Look at the record of New Labour on immigration. I have no doubt that Tony Blair's personal politics on immigration are sincerely more liberal and progressive than Nick Griffin's, but would we have advocated giving the political confidence of a vote to Blair, had he been running as an independent, in an election against the BNP? I don't think we would have done.

No-one in the AWL, I hope, is naive about what an FN presidency would mean for working-class politics in France and indeed globally.

We have argued, including in the French run-off in 2002, that in a situation in which the votes the revolutionary left might mobilise for a right-wing bourgeois candidate were all that stood between that candidate's victory and a fascist presidency, the entire situation would look different. That's certainly true now, when the number of votes in question is much lower than it was in 2002.

If the situation in France were different, Martin wrote, on a better day in 2002, and a fascist seizure of power really were an immediate risk, then the revolutionaries should be working for a general strike and the creation of workers' militias not for a Chirac vote!

In that situation, president Chirac would be likely to bring Le Pen to power as president Hindenburg, the Social Democrats 'lesser evil' against Hitler in the presidential poll in Germany in 1932, installed Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933.

That context that is, our working-class anti-fascism, and its distinction from the lesser-evilist, defend-the-status-quo, cross-class anti-fascism of Hope Not Hate and UAF is an important one for this debate, which has been somewhat obscured by a more abstract focus on whether it is ever admissible to vote for bourgeois candidates.

Martin and others overstate the likelihood of a Le Pen victory. It was certainly more likely than an FN victory in 2002, but manifestly less likely than a Trump victory.

But it seems that the essential assessment we were arguing against that if the surest way to prevent the election of a fascist is to vote for a bourgeois candidate, the left should call for that is now being applied here too.

There is no sense in which any of us on this side of the debate are attempting to retrospectively claim that the eventual level of abstention was somehow an expression of working-class political self-assertion. No-one, to my knowledge, claimed in advance that a high level of abstention would represent this, and no-one has claimed it since.

I have little doubt that almost all class-conscious workers will have voted for Macron. The point is that for this to have been their only choice is basically a political tragedy; the efforts of any revolutionary element intervening in that scenario should be directed towards ensuring that tragedy is not repeated. That requires an emphasis on working-class independence. Building towards increased independence in the future is not served by compromising independence in the present.

Much has been made of the nature of this election as a run-off as the source of its special characteristics. But the 2002 election was also a run-off. The US presidential election was, if not technically a run-off, a de facto two-candidate election. In all cases, the labour movement and the left was able to intervene independently, or semi-independently, in the election at an earlier stage, but when that independent intervention is knocked out, is it good sense to then suspend the notion of independent intervention altogether?

The idea of intervention is key. I would not particularly characterise our position as abstentionist. There is no, well, what can you do-type shrug on our side. We're for an approach to class-conscious workers that emphasises the necessity of relying on our own forces, building them up, catalysing working-class direct action, having our movement develop its own social programme, rather than preaching faith in a wildly unreliable individual who has his own plans for our class, which are likely to reproduce the current situation in worse conditions to act as a bulwark against fascism.

If anything, the shrug is on the other side. Well, we tried our independent intervention in the election, we didn't do too well, there's nothing for it now but to vote Macron. Undoubtedly this would be presented as part of a package that also counselled independent action, including against Macron. But those elements are compromised if they are sitting underneath a call to vote for him.

There should surely be a limit to argument by analogy, but the comparison with America is apposite. Clinton's candidacy represented something one might call progressive in a far more substantial sense than Macron's; within the spectrum of neoliberal bougeois politics, she was to Macron's left, and the Democrats have some historic and contemporary links to organised labour. These are, of course, not links of the type that would, for us, alter their fundamental character as a bourgeois party, but they are links nonetheless. Macron and En Marche have none; indeed, organised labour and workers' rights are his explicit targets. Trump was far more likely to win than Le Pen. In a global sense, Trump's victory represents a huge setback for working-class interests. Why, then, be for a vote for the bourgeois lesser evil in a situation where the bourgeois lesser evil is politically worse; the threat of fascist, or quasi- or proto-fascist, victory is less; and the raw material, so to speak, for an independent labour movement stance was politically better developed?

We are in a new situation globally. It is true that the free-market capitalist order and metropolitan bourgeois politics face a new and stern threat from a distinct form of reactionary nationalism. As previously stated, we do acknowledge that the former is a genuine lesser evil from a working-class point of view. Situations like this may arise again and we should judge them soberly on their merits. Our historic positions aren't a dogma from which we can mechanically read off conclusions about current events taking place in different contexts.

But our former analyses should inform our current ones; to vote for the opposing resolution would mean a sharp pivot of policy without any adequate argument having been presented for why this situation merits that break from our traditional stances on anti-fascism in the electoral sphere.

To vote for this position means concluding that, despite having some new and distinct features, this particular situation did not justify that pivot.

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