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The Uncivil Servant: Meanwhile, in France . . .

Mitchell Abidor
April 28, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

AFTER THE FIRST round of the French elections, in which the centrist banker, Emmanuel Macron, leading his party of one, emerged in first place, followed closely by the anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN), and as the battle continues in preparation for the second round on May 7, a few observations:

• The FN in truth laid something of an egg. They got more votes than ever, but with just over 20 percent of the vote, their chances of winning are nil, and given the ridiculously high expectations, their gain wasn’t all that tremendous, increasing from 17.9 percent in 2012. That’s hardly a frightening increase. For all the carrying on that Le Pen stood a chance of garnering more than 50 percent of the vote, thus avoiding a runoff -- given the general mood, and especially after the attack on the Champs Elysées on the eve of the election -- it didn’t happen, and wasn’t even close to happening. Had she obtained 40 percent of the vote on the first round, or even 35 percent, she might have been able to steal some votes for the failed conservative candidate François Fillon and win the second round. Even with the self-righteous attitude of the supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (see below), it simply won’t happen.

Yes, Le Pen has succeeded in making the party a permanent and unavoidable presence on the French political scene, not just a lunatic fringe pest, which is bad enough. But the FN is not much worse than our Republican Party, and Trump is worse than Le Pen in almost all regards. Before we get on our high horses condemning France for Le Pen making it to the second round, let us remember that she received a percentage far less than half of Donald Trump’s.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon ran a seriously leftwing campaign, and with 19.58 percent, he received the highest percentage of any real leftwing candidate since Communist Jacques Duclos’ 21 percent in 1969. Mélenchon was unabashed about his socialism, which was not of the wishy-washy kind. An impressive campaigner, he didn’t ignore the importance of imagery, wearing a red triangle –- the red triangle of the Nazi’s political prisoners –- on his jacket, a jacket constantly incorrectly described in the American press as a Mao jacket or a Stalin jacket or a Nehru jacket. It was, in fact, a version of the famous workman’s Lafont jacket. He came in a respectable fourth, so after the beating the left has taken for decades, there was finally reason for optimism, especially since he won major cities like Lille and Marseille.

In many respects his campaign resembled the Bernie Sanders campaign, and not always in a good way. Despite the voting being free and legitimate, there was grumbling by the candidate and his supporters about the results. Even worse, the Bernie-or-Bust syndrome has reappeared in France. Macron, the leader in the first round –- and the almost certain winner in the second -– is a typical neo-liberal, and for argument’s sake, let’s say he’s a stand-in for Hillary Clinton, which is not far off the reality (Obama called him on the eve of the election, a fact widely spread in support of Macron).

THERE IS MUCH carrying on among Mélenchon’s supporters that enough is enough, they’re not going to vote for Macron as part of the Front Républicain that serves merely to prevent the FN from winning the presidency (as happened in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen ran in the second round against Jacques Chirac, who was much more openly rightwing than Macron). It almost goes without saying that these holier-than-thou prigs are not the immigrants and Muslims who will pay dearly for a Le Pen victory. They can tweet “sans moi le 7 mai” -– without me on May 7 -– all they want, since the personal risks they run are minimal (just as the Bernie-or-Bust crowd are not going to be deported).

In a sense, Mélenchon and Le Pen cancel each other out, as both are anti-Europe and economic nationalists (the EU took something of a beating in election rhetoric, but emerges safe). Le Pen’s people are talking about appealing to Mélenchon’s supporters, and Le Pen has praised Mélenchon for not joining in ganging up on her. That would hardly seem something to be proud of and should have convinced Mélenchon he was following the wrong path. In fact, in 2002 he immediately called for voting for Chirac to block Le Pen père in the second round. The idea that anyone who supported a candidate Mélenchon would then go over to Le Pen is (hopefully) nuts, like those who thought Bernie people would go for Trump. But the dithering of Mélenchon and a section of his followers is again cause to worry about the sanity of the left.

THE SOCIALIST PARTY (PS) committing suicide after having murdered the French Communist Party (PCF), receiving just over 6 percent of the vote. When Mitterand took over the PS his dream was to make it the party of the left and to do away with the Communists. The latter occurred, but ruling from the center after eliminating the PCF threat from their left in the end destroyed the PS as a force, and they barely got a large enough percentage to have their campaign expenses reimbursed. Mitterand revived their fortunes after the disaster of 1969. Who’ll do that now? And does the party, the party of the great Jean Jaurès and the almost great Léon Blum, deserve to survive?

As for Macron, he is a U.S.-Style centrist Democrat, and he bodes no good, Mélenchon supporters are right about that. Macron has all the concerns and ideas of an Obama of his first term -- or worse, Bill Clinton -- and would love to cut many of the benefits earned by the French people over the decades. That the French were foolish enough to think that only someone never elected could have fresh ideas is just another sign of French decline. But a Macron can be fought against, as he remains somewhere on the normal spectrum.

As in the U.S., the working class largely supported the worst candidate, with Le Pen getting 40 percent of the working-class vote according to Le Monde, while Mélenchon got 22 percent. The dream of the working class as the revolutionary force, as the motor for change, has hopefully now been buried as the anachronism that it is. On April 26, both Macron and Le Pen visited a Whirlpool factory in Amiens in the north of France, a factory being shuttered so it can be moved to Poland. The workers are blocking access to it and are on strike in a last-ditch effort to save it. Le Pen went there to show her support for the working class on strike, and was warmly received; Macron was shouted down. Read into this what you will.

YOUNG PEOPLE were hardly more admirable. They voted 26 percen t for Le Pen, 25 percent for Mélenchon, and 22 percent for Macron. Though there remains a vocal section within that generation, one that, as I write, is demonstrating against Le Pen, on the whole they are hardly the bearers of France’s hope for the future, no more than are the workers.

In the end, the French election of 2017, whatever the final result, demonstrated that the far-right wave, which looked to be on the rise after Brexit and Trump, has perhaps crested, after the defeats of Le Pen and Wilders in Holland and Hofer in Austria. But to go from that to the notion that the left has reason to hope is a leap that cannot yet be taken. There exists a space for the left, which, after all, fell just short of Le Pen and virtually equaled her if you add the far left parties that didn’t support Mélenchon. But whether the left can move from gadflies to central players remains to be seen. Whether they are capable of the long-term task of winning over those who voted for other non-traditional parties but remain discontented is the central question. A sanctimonious, purity-obsessed left will not succeed in this -- that much is certain.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul. His last website piece for us was on “Title IX and Sexual Harassment.”

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.