'Fascist' Le Pen or 'Ineffective' Macron? France's Radical Left Will Decide

Supporters of France's veteran left-wing radical Jean-Luc Melenchon may play kingmakers in the second round of the country's presidential election later in April, though they must choose between two candidates to their right who are both unpalatable for different reasons.

Melenchon, leader of the leftist La France Insoumise party (LFI), did better than expected in the first round of voting held on April 10. He won 22 percent of the national vote—some 7.7 million votes—finishing behind incumbent President Emmanuel Macron of the liberal En Marche party, and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally party.

The far-left leader will not be contesting the Élysée Palace, but Melenchon and his supporters could yet decide who does move in come May. Macron took 27.8 percent of the vote in the first round to Le Pen's 23.1 percent.

Emmanuel Macron Jean-Luc Melenchon Marine Le Pen
Left, French President Emmanuel Macron of En Marche; center, Jean-Luc Melenchon of La France Insoumise; right, Marine Le Pen of National Rally. BENOIT TESSIER/Chesnot/THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty

LFI leaders and activists will convene a national consultation beginning on Thursday to decide what to do, as both remaining candidates vie to peel off key votes from their left.

Melenchon has already urged his supporters not to give a single vote to Le Pen, though stopped short of endorsing Macron.

Even a small portion of the LFI vote could push either candidate over the finish line in a repeat of the 2017 run-off. Mass abstention, or blank votes, from the left might lower the threshold Le Pen needs to overhaul the incumbent.

Left-wing activists who spoke with Newsweek expressed little enthusiasm for either option.

"I am going to make a blank vote, because I am against the liberal policies of Macron and also against the fascism and racism of the far-right, which is represented by Le Pen," Corentin Gerard, a 22-year-old student and LFI activist from Nouzonville in northern France told Newsweek.

"I expect that other Melenchon voters are going to choose between three options: vote for Macron, blank vote like me, or abstention."

Landry Ngang, a 22-year-old left-wing activist and LFI supporter from Paris' Saint-Denis suburb, told Newsweek that a direct vote for Le Pen "is out of the question."

"She is the heir of a racist party founded by former Nazis and her election will worsen the social inequalities in the country," Ngang said. "Macron will continue to worsen the state of the country and make the extreme right rise as it did for five years."

Ngang said he has decided what he will do, but did not wish to say it publicly.

"I think at this moment a major part of Melenchon's voters are likely to abstain or vote blank because they are disgusted by Macron's previous five-year term," Ngang said.

Macron and Le Pen posters in Paris
A man walks past defaced campaign posters of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, and French President Emmanuel Macron of En Marche, next to a polling station in Paris, France on April 13, 2022. Chesnot/Getty Images

Marcon—a former investment banker who also served as economy minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande—soon came to be known as "the president of the wealthy" in France thanks to his pro-business measures.

When he came into power in 2017, Macron ended France's wealth tax, imposed a flat capital gains tax, cut corporation tax, reduced social spending, and curtailed labor laws.

The president's business-first, trickle-down approach enraged the working class on both the left and right. The "gilets jaunes" protests that erupted in 2018 were a manifestation of popular discontent with France's youngest-ever president.

Mounting inequality and the pan-European cost of living crisis gave Macron's challengers more ammunition. Le Pen has been particularly focused on the rising cost of living, with Macron trying to cast himself as the more responsible of the two to handle the problem.

Macron's social and economic track record has made him few friends on the left.

Julian-Nicolas Calfuquir, a 26-year-old left-wing activist from Paris, said even the threat from the far-right may not be enough to convince leftists to back Macron. "We have a lot of people who can't vote for Macron because of his presidency," he told Newsweek.

"He has been the president for five years, and now we see the results. He's an anti-social president, an authoritarian president, he was an inefficient politician for workers during COVID, he made very authoritarian laws.

"He's a president who is against society. We can't defend a president who doesn't know that the French Republic is also a social republic."

Tara Varma, the head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told Newsweek that French leftists are waiting to see what they can get from Macron.

"There is a sense that far-left voters already gave their suffrage to Macron against Le Pen last time around, and Macron didn't implement a social enough agenda," she said. "So they want to see what counter proposal he comes up with this time before pronouncing themselves."

Calfuquir concurred: "He is trying now, but he has to try harder if he wants to take our votes. We can't think that the people are like sheep...Macron has to convince the people."

Jean-Luc Melenchon campaign rally Toulouse France
French leftist party La France Insoumise presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon salutes the crowd after his speech during a campaign rally in Toulouse on April 3, 2022. LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images

The center-right Republicans party—which won less than 5 percent of the vote under Valerie Pecresse—and the Socialist Party—which under Anne Hidalgo won less than 2 percent—have dominated France for generations. But a massive reorientation of national politics has left both in the dirt.

Melenchon and the LFI are now the major force on the left. Macron has emerged to claim the pro-capitalist center, while far-right firebrands like Le Pen and Eric Zemmour have encroached from the extreme end of the spectrum.

Left-wing activists are looking ahead to the legislative elections in June. "We have two main feelings: We are disappointed that Melenchon could not reach the second round but we are proud to obtain 22 percent of the votes," Corentin said.

"It is a historic percentage for a candidate from the radical left," Corentin continued, stressing he was not counting the Socialist Party. "No one has done so well since [Communist Party leader Jacques] Duclos in 1969.

"We see this as a very good sign for the future of our movement and for the left in France. We are going to make a strong campaign for the legislative elections."

Ngang said the result was "magnificent" for Melenchon and LFI: "We ran a beautiful campaign, brought hope to many people, and a lot of people joined us. We will build something bigger and stronger for the legislative elections. This is the beginning of a new period for our political family."

Calfuquir said Melenchon's far-left infrastructure and support base represents "a new power and a new force" in France.

"We will see what we do, how we build it, how we make it a force in society, and how we will resist the next president," Calfuquir said.