French voters must choose between the lesser of two evils: Macron or Le Pen Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

The presidential run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen poses a dilemma for many French progressive voters: The former is seen as one of the main architects of French President Francois Hollande’s most unpopular pro-market and antisocial policies, such as the labour law reforms, which dismantled vital workers’ rights. If elected, Macron promises a hardened version of those reforms that have destroyed the Socialist party. Le Pen, no less neoliberal than her opponent (she has a similar socio-economic platform to United States President Donald Trump’s), proposes an authoritarian regime in which the old obsessions of French fascism could thrive: Bashing Muslims, anti-immigration, as well as curbing civil liberties.

Between two evils, which one should the Left choose? The answer seems deceivingly straightforward: How could a left-winger choose the Front National? But Macron’s arrogance and incompetence are not helpful. On Tuesday, he went on television to request no less than a “vote of adhesion” against Le Pen.

Despite being the candidate of the political and economic establishment, the former banker is not surfing a wave of popular support. An Opinionway poll carried out after last Sunday’s vote shows that 54 per cent of people who cast their vote for Macron voted tactically. The truth is that the former economy minister has no solid constituency backing him, and no real popularity.

Le Pen has exploited Macron’s awkwardness by pointing out that her opponent is out of touch with ordinary people and lives in a bubble. Her strategy is clear: She will portray him as the puppet of financial markets, the European Commission and “globalised and cosmopolitan elites”. By contrast, she will present herself as the defender of workers, of the national interest, and the true patriot.

The far-right entry to the second round of the presidential election is not a mere rerun of April 2002 when, against all expectations, Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jacques Chirac. Then, the incumbent president trounced the old far-right leader. But today, Marine Le Pen has a small but potential chance to win the vote and to succeed Hollande.

Most commentators say this is highly unlikely. They may be right. However, one may reflect on this issue from a different angle: Can Macron lose? The untested candidate could yet make terrible blunders and repel a swath of left-leaning voters.

Last Sunday night, Macron and his supporters went to a plush Paris restaurant — giving the impression of a celebration, that the outcome of the second round was not in doubt. Le Pen last week paid a surprise visit to the Whirlpool factory near Amiens, in northern France, which is set to close in 2018, making several hundred workers redundant. She called for “economic patriotism” and in the coming days, she will also be stressing the similarities between her social programme and the former candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s, to appeal to disenchanted left-wing voters.

The reactions to last Sunday’s results were incredibly muted, despite the presence of the far-right in the second ballot. Trade unions are more divided than ever and might not march together against the Front National at the traditional rallies on May 1.

Left-wing abstention is the greatest threat of all. In social media, the slogan “Neither Macron nor Le Pen” is gaining momentum; hashtags such as “#SansMoiLe7Mai” (Without me on 7 May) are popular. These are signs of extreme political confusion and evidence of the Front National’s “de-demonisation” in voters’ minds. Some left-wingers claim that “neoliberalism is as bad if not worse than fascism” or that “neoliberalism feeds in fascism”. Others argue that a Macron presidency will guarantee a Le Pen victory in 2022. They forget that abstention might make a Le Pen victory possible as early as 2017.

A poll last week showed that though 50 per cent of Melenchon’s voters would transfer their vote to Macron, 20 per cent would prefer Le Pen. This is worrying, and a warning to complacent politicians and media. To beat the drum of 1930s-style anti-fascism will not work this time round with young people who do not understand this type of discourse. It further underlines the ideological weakness of the French left.

Most prominent politicians, parties of the Left and trade unions have said that “not a single vote should go to Le Pen”. This is fine, but it could still encourage abstention. Of all the left-wing candidates, only Benoit Hamon clearly endorsed Macron last Sunday evening. But Melenchon has kept quiet until now and might not say what he will do in the second round.

In 2002, when he was a Socialist official, Melenchon emphatically called for a vote against Jean-Marie Le Pen. This time he has brushed aside the issue, saying his supporters will be consulted on the issue and will give their “non-binding opinion” next Tuesday. If Melenchon were to keep silent, it would be politically irresponsible; the most serious act of detoxification of the far-right in French politics.

This is indeed a dilemma, but it is a choice between two evils, and the Left should not hesitate to choose the lesser. First, defeat emphatically the fascist candidate by using the only means at its disposal — a Macron vote. Then start opposing President Macron by giving the Left a majority in the National Assembly. The Left would have a chance to make a political comeback with a neoliberal president in office, but it would be trashed for good if it let the far-right come to power.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Philippe Marliere is professor of French and European politics at University College, London.