Mayday, mayday, France’s anti-Le Pen front is splintering
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Monday’s separate May Day rallies in Paris mirrored the divisions within France’s labour movement, where traditional hostility to Marine Le Pen’s far right is struggling to translate into support for her opponent, Emmanuel Macron.
It wasn’t so long ago that more than a million people marched on Labour Day, under the joint banners of France’s leading trade unions, to call for a massive vote against Jean-Marie Le Pen. Fifteen years on, another Le Pen is once again in the second round of the presidential election, but the alliance against the far right is fractured.
On Monday, France’s leading trade unions held separate rallies in the French capital, having failed to agree on a common stance ahead of Sunday’s presidential run-off. The division reflected the dilemma that has gripped much of the French left, torn between its ingrained opposition to the National Front and its deep suspicion of Macron.
Veteran unionists Jeanne Bolon and Annette Hazanavicius were both part of the million-strong march in 2002. But this time their CFDT union had to surrender the iconic Place de la République to the rival CGT, and move further north at Jaurès metro station, named after the left-wing hero and pacifist who was murdered by a nationalist on the eve of World War I.
Bolon blamed the rift between unions on “tensions within the CGT”. She suggested the leftist union was too scared to endorse Macron, fearing it would upset members who dislike the former economy minister and are tempted by Le Pen’s overtures to the working class.
“At the CFDT we also criticise [Macron’s] neo-liberal policies, in a constructive way,” said the 74-year-old. “The point is, with Macron we can talk, whereas with Le Pen we won’t ever again.”
‘There is a real danger’
The CFDT’s event was easily the smallest of the two union rallies. It was also the more homogenous one, with a near-consensus on the need to vote for Macron in order to shut out the far right.
Many, like world-famous theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine, said they had little enthusiasm for Macron, but were terrified at the prospect of Le Pen fetching a huge score – or even clinching the presidency.
“The situation is very, very serious, there is a real danger,” said Mnouchkine, 78. “We will vote for Macron, not because we like his programme [...] but because he is much preferable to something that would be a shame and a catastrophe for France, for Europe, and for the world.”
The founder of the Theatre du Soleil warned the French “not to make the same mistake as the British, who didn’t see the danger behind Brexit”, adding: “Le Pen coming to power is even more of a danger.”
Standing nearby, Marie Adeline-Peix, 48, waved a French flag “because it belongs to every one of us, not just Le Pen”, while her son Arthur opened his umbrella to display the twelve yellow stars of the EU flag – a symbol cherished by Macron’s supporters.
“Macron upholds the values of the Republic, and ‘banker’ is not an insult,” she said, referring to frequent derogatory comments on the political novice’s past as an investment banker.
Herself a bank employee, Adeline-Peix would have liked to attend both marches. But, in a dig at unions and politicians that have refrained from explicitly endorsing Macron, she said she felt “unable to march side by side with people who cultivate ambiguity and are behaving irresponsibly.”
Choice between ‘plague and cholera’
To some extent, the rift within the labour movement is a matter of nuance: the CFDT has called for a massive Macron vote in order to defeat Le Pen, whereas the CGT has urged voters to “block the National Front” – without mentioning the M-word.
But the subtlety conceals a more substantive difference. According to the CGT, the “neo-liberal” economic policies associated with Macron – some of which the CFDT has approved – are to blame for bolstering the far right in the first place.
Over at République, where tens of thousands took part in the main May Day rally, CGT member Olivier Garret said he could not fathom voting “for a man whose policies we fought against over the past five years”, during which time Macron served first as President François Hollande’s advisor and then his economy minister.
The 48-year-old Paris city hall employee, who voted for Jacques Chirac in 2002 to keep Le Pen senior out, said he would no longer take part in a “parody” of democracy. “I honestly can’t decide between two evils,” he added, likening the presidential run-off to “a choice between the plague and cholera”. His vote on Sunday will be a blank one.
No landslide for the ‘banker’
Criticism of Macron often borders on personal animosity, reflecting frustration at his successful attempt to cast himself as a critic of the very “system” that produced him. The antagonism is part of the reason why Le Pen, who portrays herself as the unlikely champion of France’s downtrodden, was relishing the prospect of a showdown with the globalisation-loving former banker in bespoke suits.
Emmanuel Chapron, 35, said giving his vote to Macron on Sunday would mean “betraying the poor people, the victims of globalisation that we have campaigned so hard to win back from the far right”. Like many others at the rally, he voted in the first round for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the hard-left leader who has refused to openly endorse Macron in the run-off.
Chapron claimed there was “no chance” Le Pen would win on Sunday, and thus “no good reason to give her opponent a landslide win that will only make him more arrogant and convinced he can do anything he pleases” – including passing labour legislation by decree, as Macron has pledged to do, to the dismay of many left-wing voters.
Instead, “we will take the fight to parliament and, if needs be, the streets”, he said, referring to parliamentary elections that will follow the presidential contest.
Still a threat
With less than a week to go before the May 7 vote, opinion polls continue to give Macron a comfortable 20-point lead over Le Pen. But analysts and politicians are urging caution, mindful of the insurgent mood that has swept across Western democracies, and of the fragility of Macron’s electoral base.
Not everyone at République was willing to take chances. When their preferred candidates lost in the first round, Marie and her friends Juliette and Marion were among those tempted by abstention. But then the “anti-Le Pen reflex” kicked in.
“Marine Le Pen is no less dangerous than her father,” said Marie, a 33-year-old teacher, dismissing the far-right candidate’s attempts to “detoxify” her camp in the eyes of French voters. “In fact she is even more dangerous, because the menace is concealed by a smoothened image.”