The run-off round of the French presidential election, on 7 May, looks like being between Marine Le Pen of the Front National, and Emmanuel Macron.
Macron was a right-wing minister in the current government, led by the Socialist Party; was before a top civil servant, then a banker, then an adviser to Socialist Party president Francois Hollande. He was a member of the SP in 2006-9. He is standing as candidate of an improvised party of his own making, En Marche, but will probably seek to cooperate with the SP in the Legislative Assembly to govern. He is being backed against the SP's official candidate, Benoit Hamon, by many leading SP right-wingers.
The Front National was founded by Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1972, as an effort to take the fascist right wing from street-fighting mode into electoral politics. Since J-M Le Pen retired from leadership in 2009, Marine Le Pen has taken the FN through a process, in its corner of politics, somewhat analogous to the one the Labour Party went through under Blair and Brown. Much of the old street-fighting right-wing element has been pushed out or marginalised, or faded through old age. The FN has expelled J-M Le Pen himself.
The FN still contains clearly-fascist ideologues, and it is still a viciously right-wing party, but it lacks the street-fighting dimension of authentic fascism.
Its electorate has shifted to include a sizeable working-class contingent, not only elements from the (substantial) old Gaullist and Algérie Française (and Vichy-ist) right wing constituencies among workers, but people who before would have voted for the Socialist Party or the Communist Party. It now has disproportionate support among young people, and some support among voters of Arab, African, or Muslim background. It still lags in big cities.
Its message has shifted from an explicit anti-immigrant one to a more "coded" line, presented as for "secularism", "French values", and "national sovereignty" against "Islamism", globalisation, and the EU.
Revolutionary socialist candidates are running in the first round on 23 April. Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière and Philippe Poutou of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste both got the needed 500 nominations from mayors.
Promoting their campaigns will and should be the main focus for revolutionary socialists in the next few weeks. Arthaud's slogan is "making the workers' interest heard", and her chief demands are a ban on redundancies, work-sharing without loss of pay, and workers' control. She denounces "the re-establishment of national frontiers" in Europe as a regressive step.
Poutou promotes similar ideas, appealing to workers with the slogan "vote for one of us" (he is a carworker), but adding more demands about democratic change in France's "5th Republic" constitution.
A strong vote for such ideas will be the best way to rally forces and prepare for social battles against a profit-prioritising, worker-bashing government under whichever of the front-runners becomes president.
Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former SP minister now running as candidate of his own little party, are both soft left: Mélenchon has a more combative soft-left tone, but is also more (indeed, noxiously) nationalist and protectionist. If they could combine their voters (as a number on the French left, including Hamon himself, have advocated) round a single non-nationalist candidacy, and the attraction of unity drew a few more, then they could top the poll on the first round and win on the second.
However, it won't happen. And neither Arthaud nor Poutou will reach the second round. What then?
Our aim in politics is to mobilise the working class as an independent force - to convince workers that their own independent organisation and mobilisation, their own demands coming out of their own solidarity and struggles, can better win better advances, and better fend off evils, than any bourgeois politician.
The straightforward plain-vanilla way to do that is to run revolutionary socialist candidates in every electoral contest. As Karl Marx put it in 1850:
"The proletariat must take care... that workers’ candidates are nominated everywhere in opposition to bourgeois-democratic candidates. As far as possible they should be League members [i.e. of the Communist League, the group of which Marx was then a member, and for which he had written the Communist Manifesto] and their election should be pursued by all possible means.
"Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory.
"All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body..."
That was written when Marx thought the revolutionary impulse of 1848 was still in flood. Within five months, the Communist League had split, and effectively collapsed, with Marx remonstrating that a section of its committee was basing its perspective "not [on] the real conditions but a mere effort of will".
"We say to the workers: 'You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of... struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power'."
Marx and Engels shifted gear to a longer-term educational perspective but continued to advocate independent working-class political action. Only four years before Marx's death, they wrote a blast against opportunists in the German socialist movement who complained that the movement "chose to conduct itself in the most one-sided way as a workers' party". That, they wrote, was exactly how it should conduct itself.
Trotsky expressed the same idea. "The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflicts to oblige all humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas.... The fetishism of two camps [must] give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends".
In periods when the revolutionary socialists are a small minority, tactics geared to gaining leverage for the revolutionary socialists within a not-very-radical labour movement may be the best expedients for elections. Thus in 1891 Eleanor Marx reported to an international socialist congress, approvingly, that socialists in Britain were backing "labour candidates... whose programs range from the Revolutionary-Social-Democratic one, to the Fabian-Socialist-Radical [i.e., essentially, liberal-reformist]", though the socialists themselves, of course, continued to advocate their own program.
The second round of the French presidential election is a run-off between the two candidates with the highest votes on the first round, and probably the run-off will be between Macron and Le Pen, with even Hamon and Mélenchon excluded. The usual fallback of revolutionary socialists in elections where it is impossible or unfeasible for us to participate directly is to join with those voting for whatever "labour movement" candidate is present, while making criticisms. In the run-off that is excluded.
What then? There are limited options in such run-offs.
In 2002, the French presidential run-off was between Jean-Marie Le Pen and mainstream right-wing politician Jacques Chirac. Many on the French left voted for Chirac in the run-off, with slogans like "vote for a crook, not a fascist".
Lutte Ouvrière advocated a blank vote in the run-off, and in fact the run-off showed 4.8% of blank votes, alongside a huge 82%-18% majority for Chirac. We concurred.
Chirac was sure to win, and giving him extra votes would just help him politically. A blank vote was a clumsy instrument, but still the best way to register and rally a political constituency which opposed Le Pen but would also fight Chirac's policies.
To the argument: "Ah, but what if the revolutionaries abstaining meant Le Pen winning?", we replied: "there should be a limit to the 'what if's'..." If the revolutionaries were so strong, then the run-off would be a different contest.
"The shortest answer, however, is that if the situation in France were different, and a fascist seizure of power really were an immediate risk" - the FN was closer to its street-fighting roots then, and a sudden surge of its vote from 18% to 50%+ could come only through a violent popular shift to the right - "then the revolutionaries should be working for a general strike and the creation of workers' militias - not for a Chirac vote!..."
Sometimes, in elections where revolutionary socialists have neither their own candidates nor even "broad" Labour-type candidates to vote for, they also lack the means for a blank-vote campaign which could be more than a risible token unable to distinguish its efforts from those of voters who leave ballots blank by mistake, incompetence, or a-political despair.
So, in the US presidential elections of 1940 and 1944, the Trotskyists (both the "Orthodox" group of Cannon and the "Heterodox" group of Shachtman) limited themselves to condemnation of union leaders who had backed bourgeois candidates and explanations that the unions should launch a labour party to give workers a better choice.
They supported neither of the main candidates, but did not campaign for blank votes or a boycott. They also declined to support leftish candidates who had got on the ballot - the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labor Party, in 1940 the Communist Party. These were only marginal "propaganda candidates", and with far-too-poor propaganda.
That was a shrug. The shrug, the minimalist and passive policy, was the best that could be done, I think. It was dictated not by a minimalist or passive mindset, but by sober and realistic assessment that anything more "dynamic" would be just a self-discrediting token gambit. Trotsky, in discussions with the Cannon group in June 1940, suggested a "manoeuvre" to back the Communist Party candidate Earl Browder, but retreated from the suggestion in face of his American comrades' unanimous objection.
For 7 May, an incisive blank vote campaign is made unviable by the meagre poll scores of Arthaud and Poutou (0.5% or 1% each: their equivalents in 2002 did much better, with 10% between them).
A shrug is difficult to justify in this case for three reasons. Firstly, there is a real difference between Macron's neoliberal globalism and Le Pen's anti-immigrant, pro-frontiers chauvinism.
In 1940 and 1944 the US Trotskyists said, and with justice, that there was little difference between the leading bourgeois candidates. In these times of Trump and Brexit, that is not true. Globalised neoliberalism is bad. A surge of chauvinism, protectionism, and re-raising of borders is worse.
Second, even a small contingent of votes may sway the outcome. At present Macron has a 20% lead when pollsters ask about the run-off, but his vote is notoriously "soft". There is a small but real possibility that a shift or scandal will make the run-off close.
Third, the alternative to a shrug - a vote for Macron as the lesser evil - will create real political friction. It will not just be going with the flow of what left-minded voters will do anyway, recommendation or no.
The French Communist Party has a long tradition of chauvinist agitation. In 1978 it had a big poster campaign on the theme "No to a German Europe". Although Mélenchon himself is very anti-Le-Pen, the nationalist tone of his campaign suggests that a significant number of his voters may want to go to Le Pen in the run off, rather as a significant section of the left in Britain backed Brexit.
Some left-wingers favour the re-raising of national frontiers on the grounds that it messes up global capitalism, and they will obviously not want to vote Macron against Le Pen on the second round. With them, the argument is a substantive one, like the argument with left Brexiters in Britain.
Other left-wingers will say that, whatever you think about nationalism, this vote for a lesser evil is ruled out by a principle that socialists never vote for bourgeois candidates.
In the history of our movement, the principle has not been a negative rule to stand aloof, but a positive one to seek the maximum independent working-class political intervention. So far as we can find, the first statement of the principle in negative terms - "never vote for a bourgeois candidate", though even then not quite in those terms - was as late as 1954, by Cannon in polemic against the Independent Socialist League (Speech to the 16th Convention). Before that, it was put in positive terms: fight for the political independence of the working class.
In the big majority of elections, the difference between the positive principle, and its restatement as a negative one, is negligible: both say that if you can do anything at all about an election, then you propose or support labour-movement candidates. But there are occasional cases where the negative statement is not the same as the positive one.
When the German Social Democracy was a Marxist party, before World War One, it routinely advised a vote for liberals against loyalists of Germany's bureaucratic monarchy in run-offs when the socialists themselves had been eliminated. The left of the Social Democracy - Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Zetkin, Mehring - did not object.
"The Social Democratic voters have not let themselves be so led astray by the traitorous cowardice of the liberals, as to leave the liberal candidates in the lurch against the reaction, but they should not trust this political breed to deliver any more than it can...", wrote Mehring ("The run-off elections", 28 June 1898, Neue Zeit 16.1897-98, 2. Bd. H. 41).
Lenin, in polemics inside Russia, referred to the German policy, but not to condemn it; rather, to argue that Russia's different electoral system mandated different detailed tactics. In Germany, as in France's presidential election, only the two candidates leading on the first ballot entered the second round. In Russia, there was a second round whenever no candidate got an absolute majority on the first round; no candidates were obliged to withdraw, but only on the second round could a candidate win with only a relative majority.
"Only subsequently", wrote Lenin, after a bloc with petty-bourgeois democrats has been eliminated from consideration, "it may be necessary at the second ballot to join the general opposition bloc [i.e. including the Cadets] against the reactionaries".
"In Germany", by contrast, "it can be only a question of choosing the lesser evil: those defeated at the first elections (and they are all those excluded from the second ballot) can have no other aim". ("The Second Ballot in Russia", April 1912).
Another illustration of the idea that the Marxist principle is to seek positive intervention, not compulsorily to shrug, comes from the activity and ideas of the Italian revolutionary socialist Antonio Gramsci. He wrote in 1926, when he was the main leader of the then-revolutionary Italian Communist Party, of "an episode... in Turin [in 1914] which potentially contained all the action and propaganda carried out by the communists [in relation to the peasants of Italy's south] in the post-war period".
A constituency held by the Socialist Party fell vacant. "A group in the Socialist Party section which included the future editors of L'Ordine Nuovo [Gramsci and his close comrades] floated the idea of putting up Gaetano Salvemini".
Salvemini was a left liberal. "He was outside the Socialist Party, indeed was waging a vigorous campaign against the Socialist Party". Why then back him? Because, although a professor at a north Italian university, he "was at the time the most radical spokesman for the peasant masses in the South". The pitch of Gramsci and his comrades was: "The Turin workers want to elect a deputy for the peasants of Apulia".
Salvemini refused, but twelve years later the communist leader Gramsci saw the gesture to this bourgeois liberal as a model, not a youthful folly.
At the moment when someone is in the voting booth on 7 May, or deciding whether to go to the voting booth or stay home, the best thing they can do is to vote for Macron. Before you go to the booth, and after you come out of it, you do a whole lot of other things to defeat the right and build the workers' movement. You make this unusual choice in the voting booth because in the run-off there is no possibility of a workers' candidate, but there is (unusually for a run-off between leading bourgeois candidates) a big difference between the candidates, and the outcome is in doubt. You explain your vote with some slogan like the 2002 one, "vote for a crook rather than a fascist".
The gesture of voting for Macron against Le Pen in a run-off - casting, as it were, a vote for open borders, for France's Muslims, for immigrants - cannot be a policy in itself. But it can extend Marxists' interventionist bite, if combined with independent activity in the first round and all through the process.
Exposure of the wretched record of the Hollande administration, which has helped boost Le Pen. Warning that a Macron administration promises no better. Warning that it may prepare the way for Le Pen, or worse, in a few years' time, unless the left uses the interim to rebuild and reassert itself.