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Mélenchon’s Irresponsible Silence

Ex French Presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s failure to endorse Marcon is irresponsible and disempowers the very supporter base he seeks to represent.

As official campaigning for the second round of the French Presidential elections draws to a close, let’s take a moment to reflect upon one of the hottest topics to arise between both rounds: the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s refusal to back Emmanuel Macron for the presidency.
Macron, a former banker and Minister for the Economy under Hollande who fought his campaign on a centrist platform and without a party to support him, came in on top in the first round of what has been one of the least predictable elections of modern French history.

The news that Mélenchon, a Trotskyist who’s long spearheaded the French far-left, refuses to back a neoliberal candidate may seem at first rather unsurprising. Unsurprising until we look at Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, the far-right, neo-fascist candidate whose party includes Holocaust deniers and whose platform is extreme nationalism, total shutting down of France’s borders, and violent Islamophobia.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon came fourth in the incredibly tight first round with 19.58% of expressed votes – less than two points away from Le Pen. There is no denying that he led an incredibly strong campaign at the helm of his ‘Untamed France’ movement, and until the very last minute it seemed plausible that Mélenchon – a candidate who had never before exceeded 12% of expressed votes – may make it to the second round.

The core Front National mantras are Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and ultra-nationalism

Yet, unlike all of his fellow candidates, the MEP has so far refused to make any public endorsement or give any voting instructions for the second round – an irresponsible move that may well put France’s long-standing democracy at risk. Indeed, surveys suggest that 20% of Mélenchon voters could vote for Le Pen on Sunday, and the results from an ‘online consultation’ held among his most fervent supporters indicate that two thirds of them would reject Macron (by abstaining, voting for Le Pen or casting an empty ballot).

Let us be very clear on the nature of Marine Le Pen’s programme: despite a successful rebranding and normalisation of her party in recent years, the core Front National mantras of Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and ultra-nationalism are a serious threat to French democracy.
By refusing to clearly support Macron, Mélenchon is sending out a confusing message that not only trivialises the possibility of a Front National presidency, but also contributes to the very normalisation that Ms. Le Pen has so skilfully orchestrated.

The ‘Untamed France’ candidate’s position is all the more surprising – and ironic – that, when Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round against conservative Jacques Chirac in 2002, Mélenchon called for a ‘republic front’ against the FN without flinching. Moreover, Mélenchon was one of the first to demand that Le Pen’s party be outlawed in 1997.

Beyond the fact that most of Mélenchon’s campaign was based on an outspoken effort to place himself in opposition to Macron, one of Mélenchon supporters’ – or the ‘Untamed’ – key arguments against a Macron vote is that his presidency would only propel Le Pen to power in 2022.

The against Macron is the claim that ultraliberalism and neofascism are two sides of the same coin

However, the movement seems to be conveniently forgetting that Le Pen was not the only extreme to come out well in this election; on top of its unprecedented score, the Untamed France movement achieved the feat of becoming the first political force among young voters, overtaking the Front National on the podium. Mélenchon’s movement could therefore impose itself as a credible opposition to a Macron presidency and a serious challenger to the highest state function in 2022, not least by its potentially strong presence in the outcome of the parliamentary elections that are due to take place in June. Indeed, without a parliamentary majority, the President will struggle to wield power, something that Untamed France could take advantage of.

Obviously underlying the aforementioned argument against Macron is the claim that ultraliberalism and neofascism are two sides of the same coin, the former encouraging the deepening of structural inequalities and ensuing disempowerment and disenfranchisement, thus constituting fertile ground for growing fascist movements, such as the Front National.

This argument is certainly convincing. The intention in this piece is not to defend Macron’s neoliberalism, capitalism is a destructive force that we should fight against with all our might. However, by putting Macron and Le Pen on the same level, the Untamed fail to acknowledge that there is still a simple, fundamental difference between the two, namely that one is a democrat, and one isn’t.

Indeed, for all they claim to be a grassroots peoples’ movement, the Untamed do not seem to realise that their key to opposing the government’s policies is to get out on the streets and to voice their opinions loud and clear. That is, to make use of the opportunities provided by democracy that are so central to French values and the country’s long-standing tradition of popular opposition, strikes, and street demonstrations. If Le Pen’s programme is anything to go by, including legalisation of so-called preventative imprisonment, defunding of civil society organisations, and forced forfeiture of French nationality for dual citizens convicted of terrorist offences, France will not remain a democracy for long with the Front National in power.

Ballot cards from the first round of voting – Credit: Xavier Buaillon

This brings me to left-wing populism, a strategy that I have become increasingly wary of as this election has unfolded. Mélenchon’s rhetoric has led a large portion of his supporters to become seemingly incapable of differentiating between the consequences of having a neofascist or a neoliberal in power; this is symptomatic of the problem of politics based on affect, i.e. of political discourses that tap into and exploit people’s resentment and rage.

We should develop a ‘carefully calculated fuck you’

Although the French people’s anger is legitimate, ought to be listened to and must be addressed, rage shouldn’t be met by politicians with more rage, creating circuits of political discourse where even the slightest reason no longer comes into play. In a system where politicians are elected to do their best job to represent their citizens, this is an inexcusable betrayal.

Indeed, rather than responding to emotion with pure emotion, we should develop a politics of measured rage – or as the philosopher Judith Butler calls it, a ‘carefully calculated fuck you’. Without falling into the elitist trap of dismissing emotion as stupidity and instead demanding a politics of pure reason, we need to recognise that it is possible to be angry and rational, and that it is possible to galvanise a movement by the people and for the people, without addressing us so simplistically that we become blind to the real danger to society, and most importantly, blind to our power to do something about it.

Mélenchon’s recent silence – ignoring the movement’s successful campaign, incredible momentum, and the stakes of the parliamentary elections – has been more disempowering that anything else for a large part of his supporter base, effectively signalling that the only thing that they can do is to not turn up at the polling station on Sunday.

As a certain French politician said so accurately in 2002, ‘the far-right vote must be constrained as much as possible by our own forces. Which left-wing conscience can accept to count on their neighbour to safeguard the essential, simply because the effort seems beneath them? Not to accomplish our republican duty because of the nausea that it may cause us is to take a collective risk that is incomparable with personal inconvenience.’ Back then at least, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was right.

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