26 février 2017

Election 2017: France on the edge of the precipice?

Some thoughts on an election which has already seen outgoing Socialist president Hollande throw in the towel six months before the end of his first term in office, former right-wing president Sarkozy beaten into third place in his own party’s primary election, Tory front-runner François Fillon embroiled in a corruption scandal, the withdrawal of the Greens’ candidate and a number of other major surprises.

Colin Falconer, Saint-Denis, 26 February 2017

There has been nothing quite like this in the 60-year history of the Fifth Republic. After years of relative political stability, there is a sense that anything can happen – including a victory for the fascist Front National. True, in 2002 the French political scene was thrown into temporary turmoil when Jean-Marie Le Pen, benefiting from the fragmentation of the Left, surged into second place narrowly beating the outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. But faced with a choice between the affable right-winger Jacques Chirac, posing for the occasion as a ‘one nation Tory’, and the old-style fascist Le Pen, a huge majority of 82 per cent voted for continuity in the second round.

The following years saw first a swing to the right, in the unpleasant shape of the Thatcherite Sarkozy, then to the left, in the unremarkable form of François Hollande. The fact that both turned out to be single-term presidents, however, together with the continuing strength of the Front National and the reduced turnout election after election - to mention only the electoral symptoms of a much more fundamental problem, showed that disaffection with ‘the system’ was growing, and perhaps reaching a critical level. 

This year, the picture is grim. Marine Le Pen is currently in first place, polling up to ten points higher than the 17 per cent obtained by her father in the first round, and more significantly, is credited with over 40 percent in the second, as compared to her father’s 18 percent. Clearly the main factor, along with racism and more specifically Islamophobia, is massive disillusionment with the established parties and leaders, especially amongst those – the majority of the population – who are suffering under the impact of unemployment, cuts in social services, the housing crisis and so on.  

On the right, the humiliation of Sarkozy, followed by the defeat of the more moderate Alain Juppé, at the hands of the ultra-neoliberal hardliner and Catholic reactionary (and supposed “Mr Clean”) François Fillon, came as a major surprise. This was then followed by the ousting of the former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls by a more left-wing contender, Benoît Hamon. Meanwhile, supporters of the Greens had rejected their own longtime leader and former housing minister, Cécile Duflot, in favour of the relatively unknown Yannick Jadot.

Even before the Socialist primaries, the centre left had split, with Emmanuel Macron leading a breakaway and positioning himself as a serious contender for the presidency, describing himself variously as “both left and right” and “on the left but not socialist”. He was able to appeal to a diverse audience by posing as an ‘outsider’ (he is in reality a pure product of France’s educational élite and a former merchant banker), a ‘moderniser’ and a ‘progressive’. He has been described as an economic and social liberal, though most likely he has no principles – and he often appears to have less substance even than Mélenchon’s hologram. At one point, when challenged about his campaign's lack of content, he replied that a presidential campaign was not about policies but about style and "mystique".

As he finally reveals his programme, it is becoming clear that a Macron presidency would involve an intensification of the neoliberal policies he pursued as economics minister under Hollande and Valls. It was not difficult for him to obtain the support of some right-wing Socialists and ecologists who were unhappy with the candidate who emerged from their own primary election, Benoît Hamon. He has also been joined by three-time presidential candidate and centre-party leader François Bayrou (who served as education minister under two Tory prime ministers) as well as the former Greens' leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He even has some appeal on the left, as voters despair of the rivalry between Hamon and Mélenchon and Le Pen continues to improve her ratings in the polls.

As one surprise follows another the aftershocks are continuing. On the right, despite the ongoing criminal investigation, Fillon is determined to carry on regardless, and his electoral base has so far held firm. He has, however, lost ground both to the right (Le Pen) and the ‘left’ (Macron) and has slipped to third place. For the first time ever, it is possible that neither of the 'big two' parties of the centre-right and centre-left will qualify for the second round of the presidential election!

On the left, despite a number of defections to Macron, the majority of Socialists officially but in many cases unenthusiastically committed themselves to supporting Hamon, while criticising him for being too critical of the record of the Hollande presidency and adopting too many left-wing policies. If Hamon were to be elected and go on to win the parliamentary elections, most of the members of his majority would be right-wingers opposed to his more radical proposals. (Shades of Corbyn here - indeed some right-wingers even talk about the "Corbynisation" of the party).

Following Hamon's victory in the Socialist primary election, the Green party candidate, Jadot, agreed to stand down in his favour in exchange for a number of policy concessions and a clear run for 40-odd Greens' parliamentary candidates. But one-fifth of his own supporters voted against this decision, while right-wing Socialists protested that Hamon had made too many concessions on nuclear power and other ‘green’ issues, proportional representation, and so on. Hamon is therefore having to tread a delicate line, caught as he is between the necessity to maintain party unity (i.e. keep the right wing of the Socialist party on board) and satisfy the million plus voters who elected him on a left-wing and ecological platform with the specific goal of eliminating those who had been responsible for the debacle of Hollande’s presidency.

Moreover, it is not possible for Hamon to ‘triangulate’, i.e. court the centre while counting on the unconditional support of his popular base. He is haunted by the formidable spectre of a left-wing competitor, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who before his surprise win was credited with between 13 and 15 per cent in the polls, ahead of any potential Socialist candidate.

Who should socialists support ?

In this situation, left-wing activists are (often bitterly) divided, while others are still undecided. For revolutionaries who consider elections merely as an opportunity to put across their ideas there is no real dilemma: Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) and Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière (or Workers' Fight) are the only genuine left-wing candidates, and the fact that between them they will be lucky to total more than 2 per cent of the votes is of no real importance. (Note: At the time of writing it is not at all sure that either or both of these comrades will obtain the 500 signatures of mayors and others required to be on the ballot paper.)

The days when the two rival far-left groups could together attract up to 10 per cent of the votes are long gone. Even their capacity to lead workers and young people in struggle has declined, and the NPA has gone from having 9000 members at its creation seven years ago to less than 2000 today (the membership and influence of Lutte Ouvrière are comparable to those of the NPA). While both organisations are clearly identified as ‘anticapitalist’ rather than ‘anti-neoliberal’, justified criticisms of their politics can be made from a principled left-wing viewpoint. While the NPA comes from a rich tradition of opposition to oppression (which, however, at certain crucial moments did not extend to opposing Islamophobia), its campaign often takes on a ‘workerist’ air, concentrating as it does on the fact that Poutou, a trade union activist in a Ford car plant, is the only worker-candidate ; Lutte Ouvrière, despite in recent times condemning discrimination against Muslims, continues to hold that ‘anti-Islamophobia’ is a dangerous concession to reactionary Islamic ideologies, just as it has at various times opposed both ‘antiracism’ and ‘antifascism’ as distractions from the class struggle.

Of course, the programmes of the NPA and LO are to the left of the more mainstream left candidates. Thus, while Mélenchon is in favour of a return to a full pension after 40 years' contributions at the age of 60, the two far-left parties NPA want a return to 37.5 years' contributions. In other respects, the programmes are similar, the main difference being that the far left insists on the need for workers to fight for reforms rather than merely vote in a more left-wing president. Lutte Ouvrière goes even further, by stating from the beginning that they don't expect to win or even obtain a substantial number of votes. Indeed, for many years, they have considered that the main purpose of standing in elections is to make general propaganda for 'communism' and exhort workers to struggle. 

Whatever the merits of the far-left candidates, it is clear that their message is unlikely to carry much weight in the present conjuncture - if indeed they manage to obtain the signatures necessary to take part in th official campaign. 

The choice is a difficult one, and left-wing militants are currently engaged in an often acrimonious debate about who is the ‘best’ candidate. While few have any illusions in Hamon, many will be tempted to support him on the grounds that he has a better chance than Mélenchon of qualifying for the second round, thus avoiding the ‘catastrophic’ scenario of a runoff between Le Pen and Fillon or (perhaps slightly less catastrophically) Le Pen and Macron. For some, the way out of the dilemma is for Hamon and Mélenchon to agree on a joint programme and campaign – but this seems to pose insuperable problems, if only because neither candidate is likely to agree to stand down in favour of the other. Moreover, if Hamon moves to the left to accommodate Mélenchon’s electors he will be faced with defections from the right-wing to Macron, while in the unlikely event that Mélenchon agrees to back Hamon, many of his own supporters will refuse to vote for a candidate who served as a minister under François Hollande. 

My own organisation, Ensemble!, conducted a long internal discussion in which three positions emerged - and none obtained an outright majority! One group of comrades decided early on to support Jean-Luc Mélenchon and participate in his organisation, La France Insoumise (FI) ; a second group opposed giving any backing to Mélenchon, on the grounds of his supposed ‘nationalism’ and ‘sectarianism’; a third position, which obtained a relative majority, consists in backing Mélenchon without joining FI, and continuing to work for unity on the left wherever possible (for example in the parliamentary elections in order to avoid competition between rival radical left candidates). My own point of view could be summed up as ‘critical support for Mélenchon’, with an independent presence to ensure that a radical, internationalist, antiracist voice is heard throughout the campaign.

Who is Jean-Luc Mélenchon ?

It would be an understatement to say that 'JLM' is a controversial figure amongst left-wing activists. To coin a phrase, you either love him or loathe him, and he rarely leaves people indifferent. 

The 65-year-old former Socialist Party member (and ex-Trotskyist), longtime follower of François Mitterrand (for whom he continues to declare considerable admiration) was an unremarkable minister in Lionel Jospin’s government from 2000 to 2002. He first made an impact on the independent left while still a Socialist as an orator during the successful campaign to defeat the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, alongside Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and the militant ecologist José Bové. After leaving the Socialist Party he founded the Left Party. He represents La France Insoumise (approximate translation: ‘France in revolt’), which was set up in February 2016 with the aim of promoting his candidacy. Mélenchon and his close advisers claim that FI is a ‘movement of citizens’ rather than a ‘party’ - though some would say its modus operandi is in reality more top-down than that of the traditional parties its proponents denounce as ‘outdated’.

Mélenchon has in the last decade and more been a consistent opponent of austerity and neoliberal economic policies both in France and across Europe, identifying closely with Die Linke in Germany and, at least until their about-turn on austerity, Syriza in Greece. He is also a supporter of radical Latin American movements, and an admirer of the late Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, from whom some claim he has borrowed a somewhat cultish tendency. He has convincingly and genuinely adopted policies designed to face up to the challenge of climate change. In the 2012 presidential election he obtained 11.1 per cent of the votes as the candidate of the Left Front in a campaign that united a broad range of forces and mobilised hundreds of thousands of people, many of them not members of any political organisation. He is a radical opponent of far right-winger Marine Le Pen. On foreign policy issues he is a firm critic of US imperialism and of NATO, a position which has led him, according to some detractors, to be relatively uncritical of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bachar al-Assad.

Mélenchon’s oratory and talent have projected him to the forefront of French politics on the basis of a frank (indeed outspoken) opposition to the compromises and betrayals of Hollande’s Socialist Party. In a recent, typically colourful aside he declared that he had no intention of hitching himself to the Socialist Party “hearse”. For many relatively unpolitical people, Mélenchon is the best-known leader of the Left, and polls show him to be one of the most popular and trusted politicians in the country. He also has his critics for his often aggressive attitudes and ‘over the top’ comments and his tendency to spar unnecessarily with journalists.

Does this mean that revolutionaries should support him ? He is in no way himself a revolutionary or an internationalist, in the sense that Marxists understand these terms. Indeed, he does not claim to be so. The revolution to which he constantly refers is not the workers’ revolution of 1917 but the bourgeois one of 1789 - especially in its most radical phase of 1793, when the French Republic was engaged in a fierce ‘patriotic’ struggle with the forces of reaction across Europe. He calls for a “citizens’ revolution” through the calling of a Constituent Assembly - a term which crops up at certain critical moments in French history, as in 1789 after the fall of the Ancien Régime, 1848 after the fall of the July Monarchy and in 1945 after the fall of the pro-German Vichy regime. The task of the Assembly would be to draw up the democratic Constitution of a 6th Republic. In this sense, he appears to be calling not just for a change of government but a change of régime.

In Mélenchon’s world, the “people” are sovereign, but the term “class” is rarely if ever used; the term “Nation” (and even “patrie” or "fatherland") is synonymous with social progress; the Marseillaise is a revolutionary anthem (which of course is true in the historical sense); "patriotism" is to be distinguished from "nationalism". The ultimate objective is rarely, if ever, portrayed as a “socialist’ or “communist” society but a true Republic in which privileges are abolished and Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are put into practice.

It is important, I think, to penetrate this mental world in order to understand the contradictions of his position. These are not peculiarities of ‘JLM’ and his co-thinkers, but ideas that are widely shared on the French left, from the Labour-type Socialist Party to sections of the far left, even if in Mélenchon’s words they take on a particularly acute form. Indeed they are more than just ideas or even a coherent ideology in the intellectual sense, but a set of cultural and even emotional reflexes which often defy rational, social or historical analysis.

The associated mantra-like use of the terms “Republic” and “laïcité” (or "secularism”) are typical examples. For a Marxist, the term “republic” must be associated with an analysis of the class content of a given state : France is a bourgeois republic, the early soviet regime was a workers’ republic, and so on. And while Marxists fight to defend formal, bourgeois democracy against reactionary forces such as fascism, they do not fetishise constitutional forms. 

In what way, for example, is the United Kingdom, a bourgeois monarchy, fundamentally different from republican France? Are British workers more exploited than their French counterparts? In what way was French colonialism under the 3rd and 4th Republics preferable to British colonialism under a constitutional monarchy? These are questions that are rarely asked, because on much of the French left, the notion of the ‘Republic’ (closely associated with that of the ‘Nation’) rises above such vulgar, materialist considerations. The Republic is incarnated above all in its ‘values’ and ‘symbols’. 

Hence, Mélenchon’s programme includes the idea that women representatives of the State, such as a foreign secretary visiting a Muslim country or the Vatican, should refuse to wear a veil, on the grounds that the latter is (this is not a fake!) an “accoutrement which is incompatible with republican dignity”. Worse, when asked what he thought of Marine Le Pen’s (probably calculated) refusal to cover her hair when visiting the Lebanon he appeared to give his approval. (This is not to give any credence to the absurd idea sometimes found in ultra-left circles that Mélenchon is as bad as Le Pen).

As for “laïcité”, while its historically progressive content in opposition to the Catholic Church as a political institution is unchallengeable, and its relevance to contemporary regimes in some Muslim-majority countries is certain (a notion which might be extended to the role of, say, fundamentalist Christian movements in Brazil or the USA, some Buddhist and Hindu political movements, and so on), its use by Islamophobic politicians in France from Marine Le Pen to the pseudo-Socialist Manuel Valls means that it has become overwhelmingly an ideological cover for crude discrimination of Muslims.

So where does Mélenchon fit into this picture ? In my opinion, the answer must take into account a series of contradictions. Some criticisms made from the left are sectarian and excessive, or at least one-sided. They are frequently based on sound-bites rather than a serious analysis of his positions – though it must be said that he is not entirely innocent in this respect.

Take for example, Mélenchon’s position on immigration and the refugee crisis. Should he be condemned for his statement that “detached workers take the bread out of the mouths of French workers”? Emphatically yes. In his mind the statement was meant as an attack on EU directives and employers who exploit them, not on detached workers as such. But the effect was disastrous. However, this should not be used as an excuse to avoid analysing his policy as a whole.

Is he in favour of welcoming migrants? Yes, he replies somewhat ambiguously - “those who are already here”. What about those who continue to arrive by land or sea or who are intercepted? Non-military resources to save lives at sea should be reinforced; children should no longer be placed in refugee detention centres; refugee camps should be built in accordance with UN standards. Does he defend free movement and “no borders”? No - as a defender of the “Nation” and French sovereignty he understandably believes frontiers are necessary and desirable. In any case, the priority is to tackle the causes of migration. 

Above all, he insists on the negative aspects of ‘enforced migration’, which he links to neoliberal policies, climate change and wars “for oil”. While no sensible person would disagree with this analysis, Mélenchon counterposes it to the idea of free movement, which he associates with the free circulation of goods and capital. Indeed, the section of his programme on immigration is titled “Fight the causes of migration”. The most important task, it is claimed, is to “help people to live in their own countries”. The word “racism” does not appear in this section – and indeed, as far as I can see, it appears only once in the 105-page document, in the context of the need to fight all forms of discrimination. 

More crudely, he is capable – in a typical flight of rhetoric – of saying : “If you don’t want migrants to come to your country, help them to stay in theirs” (I quote from a speech in December 2016 at a meeting in Guadeloupe at which I was present). It somehow does not occur to the likes of Mélenchon (but the problem is much wider than that of a single individual) that the fight against racism is a central aspect of a correct socialist strategy.

Again, is he in favour of immigration controls? Yes – but France should welcome certain migrants, especially those who are beneficial to the French economy and social services. Does he want to regularise the position of undocumented migrants? Yes, but only on certain conditions, such as having a job. Is he in favour of deporting undocumented immigrants who do not satisfy these conditions? Again, yes. Does he agree with the Front National that nationality should be exclusively limited to those with “blood rights” (i.e. inherited from their parents)? Or with their opposition to dual nationality? Emphatically not, in concordance with the French republican tradition that the “Nation” is not a biological entity but a political construct based on the equality of all citizens. Is he in favour of granting voting rights to resident non-European nationals? Yes – but only in local elections.

Revolutionary Marxists and others do not agree with Mélenchon on many of these questions. Does that mean we think he is personally racist or that we should rule out tactically voting for him? I do not believe so, any more than in other countries we rule out voting for left social democrats who have similar positions - minus perhaps the characteristically French emphasis on the “Nation”. Should we downplay our disagreements in the name of “unity”? Most certainly not.

Of course, the problems with Mélenchon are not limited to the question of immigration. His support for Islamophobic and sexist laws banning religious symbols is well-known - and unfortunately common on the French left. At the same time, he vigorously condemns all forms of racism - including anti-Muslim racism. It is necessary to make our disagreement clear. But if we were only to vote for candidates who have a correct position on these questions we would probably not vote at all.

He believes France should defend its “independence” by keeping nuclear weapons until there is international agreement to ban them, by maintaining its capacity to manufacture and sell weapons, and so on. He boasts of France’s “mission” to promote “universal values”, and argues that its overseas territories are an “asset” and should be developed accordingly, making France the world’s leading maritime nation. “France”, he says proudly, “exists on every continent in the world”.

On the question of France’s deprived working-class and multi-ethnic areas and the role of the police in maintaining order his position goes roughly as follows : the problem is essentially a socio-economic one, all citizens should have equal opportunities, whatever their origin and place of residence, it is necessary to crack down on crime and religious extremism, combat what the French call “communautarisme” (a term which is difficult to translate but is often conflated with what in other countries would be considered a recognition of cultural diversity) and restore the presence of the 'Republic' in the form of better social services, schools and more intelligent, community policing.

So he is capable both of calling for firm measures against rioters when urban uprisings take place, of equating resistance to the police with violence and harassment by the police, as well as of condemning aggressive and criminal police methods in extremely strong terms. While Marine Le Pen and François Fillon call for unconditional support for the police, and more moderate politicians deplore the “excesses of a few rotten apples”, Mélenchon is the only major politician to demand the disbanding of the notorious BACs (Anti-criminality brigades) and an end to “cowboy methods”, as well as what amounts to a purge of “anti-republican” police officers, while praising the majority of the police for their devotion to “republican principles”. He also proposes to introduce a compulsory nine-month “citizens’ service” including basic military training (with rights for conscientious objectors), paid at the minimum wage. He would legalise and organise the sale of cannabis and reduce sanctions for other drugs.

One can find much to agree with, and much to be exasperated about, in the details of Mélenchon’s politics. And this ambivalence is exaggerated by a personal trait which accounts both for his general popularity (and his considerable fan-base) and the extreme hostility he arouses from a section of the radical left – the outspoken character of many of his pronouncements mean that when he is bad he is very, very bad, and when he is good he is very, very good !

This necessarily brief discussion of Mélenchon’s politics does not exhaust the subject. Nor does it do justice to the fact that his social and economic programme represents a clear break with the politics of austerity, including if necessary a decision to disobey the European treaties. He is naturally in favour of repealing the infamous Loi Travail which was opposed by millions of workers through strikes and demonstrations. He argues for a 16 per cent increase in the minimum wage and a maximum wage equivalent to 20 times the lowest salary in a company, a return to the system of retirement at the age of 60, full reimbursement of all medical treatment, a more progressive income tax including a 100 per cent rate on the highest incomes, a 6th week of paid holidays, a move towards the 4-day, 32-hour week, etc. On ecological issues, he argues strongly for closure of all France’s nuclear power stations and 100 per cent renewable energy, as well as massive investment in measures against climate change, thus creating hundreds of thousands of ‘climate jobs’.

By any yardstick, and despite the reactionary aspects, his programme is a serious left-reformist one. His macro-economic policy can only be described as Keynesian, with a strong emphasis on raising wages and benefits, public investment, ‘socialisation’ of the banks and a form of ‘protectionism’ “in the general interest and against the multinationals and financial globalisation”. Whether it is in any sense applicable without a major shift in the balance of class forces, involving struggles on the shop-floor and in the street which would  overshadow Mélenchon’s “revolution in the ballot-box” and of necessity involve a major confrontation with the forces of the State, is of course another problem - and we should not shy away from saying so.

On foreign policy issues, Mélenchon is for French withdrawal from NATO (a return to the policy of de Gaulle !) and an independent foreign policy which, he claims, will be based on international cooperation and solidarity – values which, he insists, are France’s unique contribution to the world (“France is the world’s only universal nation”). He condemns the alignment of France on US policy (leading him to underplay the imperialist nature of Putin’s Russia). He calls for an end to French interference in the internal affairs of African states. 

He is in favour of recognising the State of Palestine, a two-state solution and “a just peace” between Israel and Palestine. Unlike Benôit Hamon, he was not invited to the annual dinner of the powerful French Jewish umbrella organisation, the CRIF. When the latter compared him to Le Pen, he described their attitude as “anti-republican”-  the ultimate insult! -, said that he was proud to be an opponent of Netanyahu and that the CRIF did not speak for all French Jews. I cannot think of another leading French politician who would say the same, and in such forceful terms. 

However ‘progressive’ some of these policies may seem, they ignore the fact that, as Marxists see it, the French republic is one of the world’s leading capitalist states and as such, whether in tow to the USA or playing an independent role, is a fully paid-up member of a world imperialist order.  

In short, the question of support for Mélenchon boils down essentially to an age-old dilemma – in what circumstances should revolutionaries support (serious) reformist parties or leaders? It is not sufficient to underline the non-Marxist aspects of his programme – after all, he does not claim to be a Marxist or to want to lead a working-class revolution. His is a “revolution in the ballot box”. 

It is, of course, also possible to dismiss backing him on the grounds of his supposed ‘opportunism’, his past record as a Socialist minister, his personal style of leadership, his methods – or indeed (though this is much less common) on the basis of a detailed critique of his programme. But in this case it is necessary to propose an alternative strategy – and one which has some chance, if not of propelling one’s chosen candidate to the Elysée Palace, at least of gaining a substantial audience and giving confidence to workers to resist the attacks from the forces of neoliberalism and the far right. It is also possible to reject any participation in the election and, as the French saying goes, “go fishing” on election day – though, while this may satisfy individual consciences, it is difficult to see how it collectively advances the socialist cause.

In the absence of another credible candidate, the choice would be a simple one. However, the situation has now changed with the victory of Benoît Hamon in the Socialist primary election.

Benoît Hamon

In what amounted to a major upset, the majority of the nearly 2 million voters in the Socialist primary election voted for the most left-wing of the candidates. Former education minister under François Hollande, 49-year-old Benoît Hamon succeeded, to the immense pleasure even of the most cynical of leftists, in crushing the hated Manuel Valls, the man who had forced through the equally hated Loi Travail and was notorious for his tough rhetoric on ‘law and order’, assimilation of Muslims and Roma people, and immigration. This was sweet revenge for many a trade unionist, many a demonstrator who had suffered beatings and gassing at the hands of the riot police, many a young black or Arab person having to put up with racist identity checks and many an antiracist.

Hamon, however, is no Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. He is a career politician in the tradition of the social-democratic left but adept at the deals and compromises which characterise the competition between tendencies in the Socialist Party. Moreover, his opposition to Hollande and Valls, even after leaving the government in 2014 in disagreement with their dogmatic commitment to deficit reduction in line with EU constraints, was muted and limited mainly to submitting parliamentary amendments. Typically, after stating that he was in favour of an end to the State of Emergency (which he had originally approved) “in the short term”, he did not take part in the subsequent votes on the subject.

It is not necessary to analyse Hamon’s programme in detail. In part this is because it is likely to change as a result of the conflicting pressures he is under, in part because it contains reformist measures similar to, but less precise and less radical than, Mélenchon’s (he would increase the minimum wage by 10 per cent, for example). 

There are also significant differences. Mélenchon is a ‘Eurosceptic’, while Hamon is a fervent supporter of European unity – though not of current economic and budgetary policies - and in favour of a big increase in the EU budget, including on defense. Both, however, are opposed to the free trade treaty between the EU and Canada (CETA). Hamon defends French membership of the NATO military command structure, while Mélenchon favours withdrawal from NATO. Defending 'national sovereignty' is a priority for both. Thus Mélenchon opposes privatisation of the 'defence' industries and favours voluntary military service, while Hamon proposes to increase military and internal security spending to 3 per cent of the national budget.

On the question of 'secularism', Hamon’s position appears to be more progressive than that of Mélenchon. He defends the French secularist tradition, but warns against its use as a means to fan the flames of Islamophobia. In the past he has, for example, defended the rights of mothers to take part in school trips while wearing a headscarf. But as on other questions, such as repeal of the Loi Travail, it is difficult to see how his views are reconcileable with the presence of close collaborators of Manuel Valls in his campaign team and indeed with the majority of Socialist Party leaders and MPs. Moreover, even the much more right-wing, pro-business Emmanuel Macron’s personal views on secularism are in advance of those of Mélenchon. 

In reality, the main argument in favour of Hamon is a tactical one. There are a lot of “ifs” to be taken into consideration. At present, Le Pen is expected to finish the first round ahead of the field. The crucial question is who comes second. With the left vote split between Hamon and Mélenchon (and marginally, if they are on the ballot paper, Poutou and Arthaud), the likely runner-up will be Macron or Fillon - both openly pro-business candidates. However, the combined total of Hamon’s and Mélenchon’s supporters is currently around 25 per cent – theoretically making it possible for one of them to attain the second round if the other steps down. Understandably, many left-wing activists and a lot more ordinary voters are in favour of unity between the two candidates, but there is no mechanism to decide which of the two should give way to the other, especially as recent polls have had them both on around 12 per cent. 

The ratings may change quickly, of course, and either Mélenchon or Hamon may gain a decisive advantage over his rival – though this would not oblige the latter to stand down in his favour. Hamon, it might be argued, is more electable, given that he is a more moderate figure, but as things stand he will find it difficult to galvanise a left-wing electorate sorely disillusioned by five years of Socialist government – and if he moves to the left he risks splitting his party and losing support from centrist voters.

Everything, then, remains uncertain – except a ‘good’ result for Le Pen. In the coming weeks it will be crucial to step up the fight against the Front National (as in Nantes at the end of February when several thousand people demonstrated against the fascist leader) and against racism and police violence (the March for Justice and Dignity on the 19th March). But this does not mean we should turn our backs on electoral politics, despite the current weakness of the revolutionary left.

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