French Presidential Elections: the Meaning of the First Round Results

Continuing collapse of the traditional parties, polarization to left and right.


With the results now in for the first round of the presidential elections, initial conclusions can be drawn. The figures used here were those available after 97% of votes had been counted.

There are almost forty nine million adults registered to vote in France (two and a half million others did not bother to register, and residents in France who have not taken French nationality cannot vote).

On Sunday 10th April, twelve million people stayed at home (disproportionately young and working class people). Thirty five and a half million went out to vote.

Nine and a half million voted for Macron; eight million voted for Le Pen; seven and a half million voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon of the France Insoumise.

Two and a half million voted for the second fascist candidate, Zemmour.

One and a half million voted for Pecresse, the candidate of the traditional right, the Républicains – this was a humiliatingly low figure. Even more humiliating was the fact that only 600 000 voted for the Socialist Party candidate, Hidalgo; 800 000 voted for the Communist Party candidate, Roussel; One and a half million voted for the Green candidate Jadot; 450 000 voted for one of the two Trotskyists

What we are seeing is a polarization, with the collapse of traditional centre-left and centre- right parties, and a breakthrough of both the far right and the radical left.

The 22% for the France Insoumise is a tribute both to the quality of Mélenchon’s radical programme and the ability of the movement to mobilize a broad alliance, including grassroots antiracist groups, people from ATTAC, parts of the revolutionary left and of the left of the Socialist Party. Many of these forces have serious disagreements with the FI on various issues, but understood that to keep the fascists out of the second round of the elections would have been a huge step forward. Mélenchon got huge scores in multiethnic working class towns around Paris.

The Mélenchon campaign was magnificent , the most exciting radical left electoral campaign for several decades, based on the most transformative programme since at least 1981. The tremendous combativity and class consciousness of French workers these last twenty years has allowed left reformism to be reborn as a mass movement with an insurgent tone, in a new organization, the France Insoumise, which will be at the centre of left politics now for a number of years.

As the dynamic of Mélenchon’s campaign showed itself in mass meetings and unprecedented levels of door to door canvassing, a number of appeals to vote for Melenchon were published: an appeal of hundreds of university lecturers, another of Yellow Vests, another of Muslim activists. Sections of the Young Communist movement and several influential left Socialist Party people declared for Mélenchon, as did a remarkable number of anarchists.

Those sections of the Left – the Communist Party and the far left – which did not call for a vote for Mélenchon, preferring narrow party interests or not understanding the situation, will no doubt pay an important political price for this, and the France Insoumise will dominate the dynamic Left for several years. The decision of the two biggest revolutionary groups (the NPA and Lutte Ouvrière) to oppose the FI candidate was in my view a huge mistake. An independent Marxist voice is indispensable, but it must be deployed where the mass of radical left political activists are. A policy of critical support for Mélenchon, and fraternal implication in the many crucial debates of strategy and comprehension would have allowed Marxists to have immeasurably more influence, and could easily have made the difference which got Mélenchon through to the second round.

This second round will, then, pit Thatcherite Macron against fascist Le Pen.

Five years ago, the pressure to vote Macron “in order to stop the fascists” was enormous, and the debate on the left between the two rounds was acrimonious. The end result in 2017 was that Macron won against Le Pen by 66% to 34%, that is, twenty one million votes to ten and a half million, while twelve million voters stayed at home and three million voted blank.

Mélenchon, who showed sympathy both for those who voted Macron against Le Pen and for those who boycotted the second round because they did not want to choose between two evils, was ferociously attacked “for being soft on fascism”.

This time round, things will be more complicated. People can see that five years of Macron have actually made the far right much stronger. Under great pressure from the mass strikes and from the Yellow Vest movement, Macron turned more and more to Islamophobia as a useful diversion. Last year’s laws “against separatism” have allowed him to ban a series of organizations which defend Muslims, and, most recently, to ban one of the main pro Palestine campaigns. His vicious neoliberal attacks and these racist policies vastly encouraged the far right. Mélenchon is absolutely right to say “a contest between Macron and Le Pen is not a duel, it is a duet!”

Opinion polls show Le Pen quite close to Macron in the second round, though I am expecting Macron to win out.

It is crucial not to get bogged down in an aggressive row between those who will reluctantly vote Macron and those who will boycott the second round or vote blank.

I myself think voting for Macron is not justified. But the best thing for the next two weeks would be if there were antifascist mobilizations which brought people together to oppose Le Pen whether or not they are intending to vote Macron. A day of antifascist mobilization has been called for Saturday 16th.

The parliamentary elections in June will be a chance to increase the number of France Insoumise Members of Parliament, and build this new movement which is giving hope to so many, despite today’s defeat.