The presidential election in France has become a tight race in the final days before the first round election, with a third of the electorate still undecided. A deep discontent with the existing order is reflected in the dramatic rise in the popularity of left and socialist candidates.

In particular, Jean-Luc Melenchon has soared in recent polls as we go to press. The candidate of the movement called “France Insoumise” (“France Unbowed”), Melenchon has run a strong left campaign against austerity policies attacking social services, working people and youth. He is now polling within a few points of the leading candidates. By comparison, the candidate of the so-called Socialist Party (PS), Benoit Hamon, is fighting a losing battle after years of his party’s unpopular pro-business policies in government.

French capitalism offers no way out of stagnation, joblessness, cuts in welfare and authoritarian government. The “flour bombing” of Francois Fillon, the main candidate for the Republican right, recently is just one sign of frustration and “disrespect” for those who represent the establishment.

Melenchon’s campaign is effectively voicing the rage of the French workers and youth against the pampered, swindling elite who live in luxury while the majority face worsening conditions and joblessness. There are parallels with the Sanders campaign last year. Enthusiasm has been evident at Melenchon’s rallies of tens of thousands of people around the country.

In recent years, Melenchon has attempted to form a “Left Front,” but while popular with workers, he has been slow to get a real alternative organised.

Melenchon’s program includes raising the minimum wage by 15%, shortening the working week to 32 hours, lowering the retirement age to 60, and heavy taxation on the rich. He sees the European Union as a neoliberal block against implementing these policies and advocates leaving NATO. However, although a former Trotskyist, Melenchon does not talk of an alternative socialist Europe. He also stops short of advocating the key measures necessary for dealing with the multinationals and the banks – that is, bringing them into public ownership under democratic socialist planning.

Background

Last Spring, France was engulfed in a wave of strikes and mass demonstrations. Now the country is in turmoil on the political plane, reflecting a tense social situation.

In the final days before the first round of voting, the far right candidate, Marine le Pen of the the National Front (FN), seems certain to go through to the second, run-off round. Most polls predict she will not be able to muster as many second round votes as whoever her rival will be, though this is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Like Trump, Le Pen and the FN are viciously anti-immigrant while falsely claiming to represent French workers left behind by globalization. She is also an admirer of Putin. Le Pen campaigns simply as “Marine!” while claiming to be fighting “In the name of the people.” She has a think-tank called which has drawn up plans for all contingencies, including a discussion of which military commanders can be trusted in the event of a President le Pen declaring martial law!

Establishment Parties in Crisis

The so-called Socialist Party, after being in power for the past five years is also hugely unpopular and in danger of breaking up and disappearing from the political scene. It has presided over a period of sluggish growth, dwindling jobs for young people and enormous social discontent – the direct result of its neoliberal, fiercely pro-business policies.

After last year’s mass movement against the Socialist Party government’s attacks on labor rights, the party’s established figures were roundly rejected in its presidential candidate selection in favour of the most left candidate, Benoit Hamon.

The primary selection process for the major right-wing party also brought about a surprise result. The two major contenders were defeated by an “outsider,” Francois Fillon.

A prime minister for five years, Fillon favors a “shock treatment” of austerity, deregulation, and the slashing of France’s esteemed welfare system. For a while he was considered most likely to face le Pen in the second round, but has fallen in opinion polls because of a corruption scandal.

With both establishment parties so discredited, a former government minister, Emmanuel Macron and his new “En Marche” organization have emerged as the establishment’s preferred choice as the best chance for a continuation of neoliberal policies. While running as “neither left nor right,” in favor of “tolerance” to immigrants and strongly pro-European Union, Macron favors a 25% cut in business taxes, and is pro-corporate through and through.

The Second Round Dilemma

The former ruling parties of the French right and “left” are now so discredited that it is possible neither will appear in the second round. This would be unprecedented since the establishment of the Fifth Republic by President De Gaulle in 1958.

The ruling class is horrified at the prospect of a Melenchon vs. Le Pen second round election, with both candidates posing the potential for an end to the EU, and with the threat of Melenchon’s socialist, anti-corporate program and working class base.

The dilemma for workers and young people, who have been angered by the Socialist Party, is if Melenchon does not reach the second round, would they vote for Macron or a traditional, bosses’ representative like Fillon from the Republicans to stop the far right Le Pen from coming to power?

Left and right populists both seem to represent the people against the elite, but Le Pen has appeared to them more determined to reap radical changes and improve life for the population. This in itself is a condemnation of all the parties of the so-called left who have failed to inspire working people with a socialist program for change.

In 2002, parties to the left of the pro-capitalist Socialist Party scored nearly 4 million votes in the presidential race, and even in 2007 the joint vote was nearly 3 million. While the opportunities to form a new party offering a clear working class and anti-capitalist program have so far been squandered, it is not impossible for the rising tide of support for Melenchon’s program to be channeled into a genuinely socialist movement that can attract many of the workers and youth who have temporarily turned to the far right for a rebellion against the system.

Build a Movement of Socialist Struggle

A Macron victory in the presidential race is still, at present, the most likely outcome and this spells no relief for France’s discontented working class. Macron would find himself without a majority in parliament, but this will not stop him forging cross-party alliances to carry through his program of “neoliberalism lite.”

The most urgent task of the hour in France, as in so many other countries across Europe, is to build a new socialist party of workers and youth.

The next few weeks will witness further political earthquakes in France, but as the world’s social and economic crisis deepens, the legendary combativity of the French working class will light a beacon internationally. If the correct political conclusions are drawn, French workers and youth can point a way forward along the road of socialist transformation.

Adapted from an article on SocialistWorld.net.

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