The dilemma facing France: neoliberalism or neofascism?

With just over a week until the second round of the French presidential election, antiracist activist Selim Nadi reflects on how France reached this crossroads, and what the French left needs to do next to resist the rise of neofascism.

Graffiti reads: ‘neither nation nor bosses, neither Le Pen nor Macron’. Photo credit: cpolitic. 

François Hollande’s five-year French presidency has lead us to a historic situation in the fifth Republic: neither Les Républicains nor the Parti ‘Socialiste’ (PS) have managed to advance to the second round of the presidential election. On May 7th, French citizens will have to choose between an ultra-liberal former Rothschild banker, Emmanuel Macron, who is Hollande’s ‘political son’, and Marine Le Pen, a neofascist candidate who is deeply nostalgic towards French colonialism and defends the legacy of the French far right. Marine Le Pen has stepped down as leader of the Front National, but still plans to stand in the election, suggesting that she wishes to be a ruler for ‘all the French citizens’ to hide the fact that the party she comes from is notoriously racist. Hence, the dilemma could be summarized as follows: neoliberalism or neofascism. (This is not to imply that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive: the Front National (FN), for example, regularly supports anti-worker laws at the European Parliament.)

Despite what some people may think and in contrast to 2002 (where Jean-Marie Le Pen was in the second round against Chirac), a victory for Marine Le Pen is not impossible. Those who want to defeat Le Pen are in a difficult situation, since the election of Emmanuel Macron might pave the way to a FN presidency in 2022: Macron’s ultra-liberal program will undoubtedly impoverish the French working class – especially non-white people – and intensify racial tensions in French society. In order to evaluate today’s situation and to propose a strategy for moving past it, it is necessary to reflect on the first round of this election and how France has arrived at this historic moment.

Legacies of the Parti Socialiste

In the first round of the election on 23rd April, Benoît Hamon, leader of the PS, faced severe defeat (6.36%), which was no surprise. In 2012, PS leader François Hollande was elected primarily because he was standing against Nicolas Sarkozy – that is to say, because people did not want to have five more years under Sarkozy. Despite the fact that he presented himself as the ‘enemy of finance’, Hollande pushed through neoliberal reforms such as the El Khomri labour law, increasing the length of the working week, and did nothing to quell rising racism: during his presidency, several non-white people were killed by the French police, the Palestine solidarity movement was criminalised and Islamophobia continued to gain mainstream legitimacy. The Hollande government even tried to pass a law which is part of the Front National’s program: draft legislation for the forfeiture of nationality (projet de loi de déchéance de nationalité). Hence, it is no exaggeration to say that the PS have paved the way for the Front National, both through explicitly racist measures and neoliberal reforms.

To a lot of left-wing and antiracist activists, it was pretty clear that the PS had to be ‘punished’ in this election for its neoliberal, imperialist and racist policies. Nevertheless, the PS is not dead. It will probably reconstitute itself around Emmanuel Macron, who is a clear successor for Hollande. Macron was the Minister of Economy in the Hollande/Valls government for two years and he was responsible for imposing a precursor to the El Khomri law. A large part of the PS has abandoned Hamon and supported Macron now that the first presidential round is over. This is also why it was very easy for Marine Le Pen to present herself as the ‘anti-establishment candidate’, the candidate of the ‘little people’ suffering due to globalisation (even though she is an integral part of the system and never clearly defines what precisely it is that she opposes about it). The racist ideology of the Front National was reinforced by both the PS and the UMP (now Les Républicains) when they were in power. Hence, we must not simply reduce Marine Le Pen’s success to a schematic anti-liberal ‘populism’, but should also point out that her success is due to the UMP and PS years, and also indicates a failure of the left to deal with racial antagonisms as a core issue in their politics.

The best example of this failure is in Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received a respectable 19.58% of the vote in the first round of the election. But if Mélenchon succeeded in attracting a substantial vote, it is partly because of his patriotism and strong social-chauvinism. Indeed, Mélenchon represents a schematic secularism, a defence of French imperialist interests, as well as support for some Islamophobic laws (see, for instance, his opinions on the ‘burkini’). Of course, Mélenchon is not Le Pen! Though we cannot excuse his patriotism and love of the French nation and its symbols, we cannot put him in the same league as the Front National. He was the best candidate of the left, willing and able to propose alternatives to neoliberalism. A lot of leftist and antiracist activists understood that this year and critically supported his movement, France Insoumise, in order to change the balance of forces in French politics. Despite Mélenchon’s strong Islamophobia, a lot of Muslims voted for him (37% according to the polling organization Ifop), and they represent a significant part of the French working class. He also received a large vote from French neo-colonial subjects: in Guyana, Martinique, La Réunion and Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon for example, Mélenchon lead the polls. This in no way means that Mélenchon has strong ideological support from French Muslims or from people living in French colonies. It should rather be evaluated as a rational choice at a very harsh conjuncture. The only candidate in the first round who had an explicitly anti-racist program was Philippe Poutou of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste; he was the only one who wanted to abolish the 2004 law against hijab in schools, for example. However, the relative size and weakness of his party made it very difficult for him to win many votes.

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What next for the French left?

To summarise: François Hollande is the father of this election. He paved the way for the Front National and created a neoliberal monster in the shape of Emmanuel Macron. The question now is: what is to be done? The first thing for the left should be to resist Marine Le Pen. This in no way means to support Macron, who we should continue to oppose, as Mathieu Bonzom argues in Jacobin magazine. We should press ahead and support left candidates in the parliamentary elections which follow the second round. Some leftists are following the rule ‘vote for Macron on May 7th and oppose him on May 8th, even though they are aware of the difficult situation that will follow a Macron victory.

We cannot blame those who will refuse to vote for Macron, and should not be surprised that some people are choosing to demonstrate against the lack of palatable options, taking to the streets with the slogan ‘Neither Macron nor Le Pen‘. Nevertheless, a victory for Le Pen would not only create severe difficulties for the French left – not to speak of the antiracist movement – but would be particularly terrible for non-white people. Either way, the centrality of racism to French politics cannot be ignored anymore. We must work to build a counter-hegemonic bloc unifying the radical left, the anti-liberal left (including the Parti de Gauche and the French Communist Party) and anti-racist organisations. Only in this way can we build the strategic bridges we need to effectively fight against whichever leader rules France over the next five years.

Selim Nadi is an antiracist activist and PhD student in French History. He is a member of the Parti des indigènes de la République (PIR) and on the editorial board of the French Marxist journal Période.


  1. Mélenchon is contradictory about islamophobia. He says very wrong things about different kinds of garments sometimes worn by muslim women, but he also frequently denounces prejudices against muslims.


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