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Will left-wing voter apathy in France hand Marine Le Pen electoral victory?

Voters on the left have been ground down enough to think that a Le Pen presidency would “shake things up”.

By Ben Walker

“Foreigners who work hard are OK to me, but for Le Pen… she takes it too far. She hates foreigners too much.”

Jack, 59, is a married father of two. He and his family have lived in the eastern suburbs of Paris for more than 30 years. In 2017, he voted for the left-wing activist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In 2022, he plans to vote for the far-right Marine Le Pen.

“I’m not on the left because the left is not for me,” he told me before the first round of voting. “The left are for people who want everything. They want to give everything to immigrants. We teach our kids to be intellectuals now, not builders. It’s gone too far.”

Today’s left, for Jack, is not what it used to be. To him, it’s become all about giving away money instead of teaching skills.

Jack is one of many Mélenchon voters who now plan to either vote elsewhere, abstain or move to Le Pen. His attitudes aren’t socially left – far from it, but economically he’s redistributive.

So why Mélenchon in the first place?

“We need to change the system. We can’t go on like normal. We need to shake things up.”

I was sat in the living room of Jack and his wife, Danijela, listening intently while his daughter does the translation work. Jack’s son, L*, 36, who speaks English well, chimed in at this point.

“I also voted Mélenchon in 2017 too, but not now. He’s become too egocentric.”

Jack nodded in agreement.

“But I wouldn’t vote for Le Pen,” L added. “She’s too extreme, and I’m not right wing. I am not worried about Islam. Nuns shock me just as much as Muslims.

“I like balance. I think I would vote Ecology [for the green candidate Yannick Jadot].”

Mélenchon’s seemingly broad coalition of backers in 2017 may surprise some. For years he has spoken out against the far right. On television he regularly clashes with Le Pen and her ilk on all things immigration and Islam, but it was his rebelliousness and focus on the economy that garnered him widespread support in the 2017 election, including from those who might even sympathise with Le Pen on borders. The divide in 2017 seemed less left vs right, but rather stability vs shaking things up.

The priority for those who have plumped for Le Pen or Mélenchon is shaking things up. In 2022, it is no different.

Mélenchon’s base helped Emmanuel Macron deliver the killer blow to Le Pen’s presidential ambitions in 2017. Some 52 per cent of those who voted for him in the first round went for Macron in the second. But polls suggest that is unlikely to play out in the same way again. A survey last week from Ipsos found that 36 per cent of Mélenchon’s base would vote Macron in the second round, 37 per cent would stay at home in a contest between Macron and Le Pen, and – most interestingly – 27 per cent would go Mélenchon first, Le Pen second.

Clear as day, we see an ever-present apathy, and an increased willingness from Mélenchon’s own base to seriously consider voting for Le Pen. It shows in the headline numbers too. Our poll tracker has Macron on 53 per cent, Le Pen 47 on per cent. These are the figures of all polls put together, not outlier surveys.

Leftists are fiercely anti-fascist. It’s in their DNA. But the unwillingness for so many to go out and back Macron in the face of the growing far-right threat is notable.

For the past five years, apathy has been ground into the French left’s psyche. While Macron’s approval nationally has been pretty static, among the left he has grown increasingly toxic. Jack and L don’t identify as leftists, but last year I travelled to Orléans to meet with people who do. Mutual friends brought us to a music festival, and over tea and toast we talked politics.

[See also: Marine Le Pen on 49 per cent of the vote for French president]

Sophie, 49, is an activist involved with the artisan scene in her city. Her family brought her up on politics. Each election she collects leaflets and arrays them in her bathroom. To her, paying attention is a civic duty.

“I hope for nothing nowadays,” she said. “But I have to be involved. How can’t I? If we on the left aren’t there fighting for our rights and the rights of others, then it is the right who will fight, and it is the right who will change our politics.”

Left-leaning though she might be, her sense of duty compelled her to vote Macron in 2017. “On the day of the vote, I voted Macron. But the day after? I went straight to the streets to protest.”

Will she do it again?

Macron isn’t Sophie’s first choice, or second, or third. But the real possibility of a Le Pen presidency urges her otherwise.

At that breakfast table, however, she was a lone voice: Marine, 31, from the south of France, has little time for politics. “How can I be interested? Nothing changes. The French left is too intellectual. It doesn’t talk to me anymore.

“If you talk about health spending and prisons, I’m not interested. But if you talk about love and women’s rights, I am.” 

In 2017, Marine voted for the far-left firebrand Philippe Poutou, the candidate who refuses to be seen in public wearing a tie, and she plans on doing so again. Compromising her views to vote for the least worst option in the second round doesn’t appeal to her, and nor, it seems, does it appeal to a great many other voters. 

But a Le Pen win is a genuine possibility, isn’t it?

She scoffed. “It won’t happen. There’s enough people who will vote tactically. But if it does, I would understand why. My dad thinks she deserves a chance. She’s an outsider. It… would change things up.”

“Change things up”. “Shake things up”. These are the same thoughts proffered by Jack, but from an entirely different background, with an entirely different set of values.

Le Pen’s focus this election on the cost of living bears a striking similarity to Mélenchon’s in 2017. They both know their voters. They know they are on lower incomes, pay less attention to the news than most, and are the types who would regard themselves as “just getting by”. There’s a lot of them in France, and whatever Le Pen represents on the foreign policy or migration front, to many she is no doubt the change candidate.

But would Madame Le Pen be a change candidate too far?

To Sophie, almost certainly. L, also. And Jack’s own wife, Danijela, of Yugoslavian ancestry, joined the chorus.

“Voting Le Pen would be an insult to my family and my history. But I don’t really vote. The politicians are for the power. They’re not for us.

“I wish it wasn’t like that.”

Polling day in France for the second round will be Sunday 24 April. For Danijela, to vote is something she is unwilling to do.

But with the polls tightening, and one survey now putting Le Pen ahead of Macron for the very first time, one wonders whether that apathy, for Danijela and others, will persist in the face of the fascist threat.

To employ an overused ending: it seems only time will tell.

*L’s name was removed on request.

A special thanks to Thérèse for being my unprotesting translator.

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