An exchange of views on the French Presidential election

The following is a short exchange of views on Facebook on the French Presidential election which is taking place today:

LMcQ – See if you can guess which candidate’s leaflet has three explicitly racist pledges.  I’m struggling with this “they’re as bad as each other in the final analysis” line of argument.

Sráid Marx:  I don’t think that’s the argument being put. What about – how will Macron defend workers against fascism (or however one wants to characterise the FN) by implementing an austerity offensive against them, pushing them even further into the pursuit of bad alternatives (like FN)? And how will you explain to them that when you said they should vote for this offensive you didn’t actually mean you supported this offensive. I seem to remember we have been here before with a Le Pen and some geezer called Chirac and voting for the less worst alternative has just brought us to here. At what point, or how bad, would the lesser alternative have to be before you said – stop! The workers cannot lend support to those who simply prepare the way for the fascists and who you must at all times regard as your enemy. And if this is a frightening prospect to you that is only because your only defence ultimately is your own strength and this you cannot delegate – and certainly not to shits like Macron!

RM: Macron is an immediate short term defence against fascism simply because he is the only possible non-fascist outcome at this point. Everything starts from the present. The Chirac argument here is interesting. Yes, voting Chirac to defeat le Pen brought us to ‘now’ but that is surely a better option than to be looking back after 15 years of fascism in power!

Sráid Marx:  Everything starts from when it starts, which at any point in time is usually not the present. Today the weakness of the workers’ movement arises from its failure to successfully oppose austerity and build its own alternative political position in the past. This weakness is not addressed one iota by voting for Macron, in fact it is set back and will always be set back as long as the Macron’s of this world win and the likes of a Le Pen can be waived in front of us to get everyone to vote for the lesser evil. We know this because, as I said, it has happened before. An immediate defence against fascism? But the present passes into what we view now as the future and we will be weaker because we believed that Macron is some sort of defence. If he is one at the election then by definition his success is also a continuing defence, or do we only oppose and fight him unless there is an election. At what point do we say that workers must create their own alternative and cannot support the politicians and policies that brought us to this horrible choice? That is the political choice that we must take; that it is not on the ballot paper is more than unfortunate but that is the case nevertheless. Having our political choices determined by electoralism is not the way forward but is often a trap.


SD: In an election which can only have one of two outcomes the alternative to the lesser evil is the greater evil.

Sráid Marx: Of course you are correct, but the question is whether the lesser EVIL is actually too high a price to pay.

F-CL: Well, if you don’t go with the lesser, surely the question is, is the greater evil too high a price to pay?

Sráid Marx:  Yes, a very good answer. But it still leaves you with the option of determining that both evils cannot be endorsed and that the elections leave you with no acceptable choice and to reject the choice given to you. Or do you believe that in all elections one must vote and endeavour to find the lesser evil?

F-CL:  It depends on circumstances … if there is a real, public abstain campaign and a refusal to vote can be seen to have meaning in the election then I think not voting could be the best option. And having “None of the above” on the voting paper – so you can actually show rejection of all – would be good (in fact, I think we should have a policy of including this option in all votes). But in my experience it is very rare for this to be the case, and going for “None of the above” would encourage people to not maximise the opposition to the greater evil, so even if “None” were an option I think I would usually come down in favour of lesser evil

The other alternative justifying not voting is for the candidates to be as close to as awful as each other to make any differentiation pointless. But this awfulness also involves assessment of the perceived consequences of who gets voted in. Even if Macron and Le Pen are close to each other (in fact I don’t think they are), Le Pen getting in would boost the far right far more than Macron would and you have to take that into account as well as the politics of the candidates

SD:  Surely the issue is about which outcome leaves the working class best placed to fight. In almost all circumstances the working class and the oppressed are going to be able to resist a lesser evil better than they could resist a greater evil, otherwise it wouldn’t be a greater evil.

Sráid Marx:  Not if they are disarmed politically by believing their class enemy is in any sense their protector against reaction. Workers must be taught again and again that they share interests as a class and not with liberals or other bourgeois figures.

SD: That’s quite a big if that you have inserted there. You think it is possible to convince people threatened by the rise of the FN to abstain, yet you don’t believe it possible to convince people that voting for a lesser evil still means they need to organise against that lesser evil?

Sráid Marx:  First I think that the threat that they will most likely face is Macron and his reactionary agenda and a vote for him is a statement that ‘it could be worse’! If such a view is justified in the election – why not afterwards? Fighting the FN is not the only issue in this election. In fact the rise of the FN is due to the policies now being pursued by Macron, policies that the FN say they have an alternative and a left that simply wants to fight the FN and votes for Macron and his policies makes their pretence all the stronger. The message for an active abstention is that you cannot rely on a simple vote to stop the FN, that the FN will get stronger if everyone else rows behind Macron and his reactionary policies and only the FN is seen to stand against them all the way. It’s a message that if you hate or fear the FN there is no solution but your own activity and a workers’ alternative to the policies that Macron will pursue, which the FN will feed off and attempt to continue to grow from.

SD: But “active abstentions” don’t actually exist, except in the heads of ultra lefts who try to comfort themselves that doing nothing out of sectarianism is a political act. Voting or not voting won’t make an iota of difference as to whether people fight back after the election. It just might be slightly harder to do so with an FN president.

Sráid Marx:  Let’s assume for one moment you are right – this would still not justify support for Macron, nor would it invalidate the objections to such support. But while living in Belfast I have seen a number of active abstention campaigns where leafleting, postering and canvassing were all carried out to encourage abstention. It is not even a merely ‘ultra-left’ notion – the greatest number of posters I ever saw in an election in West Belfast was when the Provos wanted an abstention when Bernadette McAliskey stood for the European parliament and the republicans still opposed participation in Brit elections. As to whether voting will affect how people will behave after the election, it must be clear that a working class vote for Macron will strengthen him. It would really be a sort of ultra-leftism to believe workers will vote for a bourgeois candidate but mobilise against him the day after, on the understanding that he is the lesser evil. Of course I have seen a similar view that they would immediately mobilise against a Le Pen victory dismissed, although you only claim it might be slightly harder.



Visiting Avignon

DSC_0373This year I went to Southern France for my holidays, including Avignon, famous for its song ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon.’ I was there just at the end of its annual arts festival so it was buzzing with life, hosting some fantastic busking musicians who could keep you entertained for hours while licking ice cream.  At least that’s what I did quite a lot of the time.

It’s also famous as the site of exile from Rome of the Popes, from 1309 to 1376, and has a very impressive Palais des Papes, which was their residence and is now a major tourist attraction.  As the audio guide to a visit explains, the palace demonstrated the secular as well as the spiritual (ideological) power of the papacy but the history untold is not one of the rise in the secular power of the papacy but of its decline from its zenith a century earlier.


Boniface VIII, pope from 1294 to 1303, who liked to wear a crown, declared papal authority over the clergy and threatened France and England with excommunication. In 1300 he also pompously staged a Holy year, selling indulgences to finance his worldly domain. Overreaching himself however he planned the excommunication of the French king, who promptly arrested and imprisoned him in his castle in Anagni.  Even though subsequently freed by the people of the town he was a broken man and died a few months later in Rome.  The second next pope was enthroned in France and eventually establishing his seat of power in Avignon, the start of a series of French popes all largely dependent on the French monarch.

The Catholic theologian Hans Küng remarks that though such events might lead one to assume a tempering of papal claims, this was not the case.  Indeed the guide to the Palais deals a good deal with its vast system of financial management, required to finance building of the Palais and development of the papal bureaucracy:

“In the late Middle Ages, the Roman papacy increasingly lost its religious and moral leadership and instead became the first great financial power of Europe.  The popes claimed a spiritual basis for their worldly demands, of course, but they collected revenues with every means at their disposal, including excommunication and bans” (The Catholic Church)

It was in this period also that saw creation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, originally propagated by an eccentric Franciscan previously accused of heresy.  Apparently this early claim was not taken particularly seriously and was eventually condemned as the work of the devil and the ‘father of all lies’, only to be resurrected later in the nineteenth century.

For political reason the papacy moved back to Rome in 1377 but the next pope showed “such an excess of incompetence, megalomania and outright mental disturbance that there was reason for an automatic dismissal.” (Küng) So another pope, Clement VII was chosen except that the incompetent, megalomaniacal and mentally disturbed pope – Urban VI – didn’t accept this result and so they had a fight over it.  Upon defeat of his troops Clement VII took up residence in Avignon again.

Now we had two popes who excommunicated each other.  You can’t have too much of a good thing; so you had two colleges of cardinals, two Curias and two financial systems.  Clement was supported by France, Aragon, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples and Scotland plus some Germans while Urban was supported by the German Empire, parts of Italy, Flanders, England and some others.

In order to sort this mess out the cardinals met at a general council in Pisa in 1409, deposed the two popes and elected a new one.  Except neither of the existing popes accepted this result either, so the Catholic Church now had three popes! You really can’t have too much of a good thing and we now had a new holy Trinity.

Of course this couldn’t last and eventually the Church managed to get itself just the one pope.

I’d forgotten all this history while doing the tour of the Palais and it would really make for a ripping yarn if it was included in the audio guide to the tour.  But unfortunately some people don’t like the story history tells us.

Another thing I didn’t know was that the area of Avignon continued to be owned and governed by the papacy until the French revolution, only joining the rest of France in 1791.  In the meantime (the Michelin ‘Green’ Guide explains) Jews were confined to a ghetto, locked in at night, compelled to wear a yellow cap, pay dues to their Christian rulers and listen to sermons designed to convert them.

The incorporation of Avignon into a unified French state reminded me of another book I had read some years ago, ‘The Discovery of France’ by Graham Robb.  He noted that at the time of the revolution there were hundreds of small towns, suburbs and villages all more or less independent of any national state.  France was a name often reserved for the small ‘mushroom-shaped’ province centred on Paris.


There was little common French national identity and no common language among ‘the French.’   As late as 1863 a quarter of recruits to the army spoke ‘patois,’ a ‘corrupt language’.  French seemed to be declining in some areas so that children forgot it when they left school.  Even half a century later some recruits to the French army in the First World War couldn’t speak French and there were reports of Breton soldiers being shot by their comrades because they were mistaken for Germans or because they failed to obey incomprehensible orders.

Most people in the 18th century didn’t travel far and their identity was a local one.  Robb quotes records of 679 couples from 1700 to 1759 showing that almost two thirds of the brides came from within shouting distance of their bridegroom: – “In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, all but four of the fifty-seven women had married less than five miles from home. Only two of the six hundred and seventy-nine were described as ‘foreign’. This was not a reference to another land.  It meant simply, ‘not from the region.’”

Some of these towns and villages were “flourishing democracies” when France was an absolutist monarchy.  In one village, Salency, the children were never sent away to become servants, all were considered equal, and everyone worked the land. The village was conspicuously clean and tidy, harvests were abundant and crime was unknown.  Of course horizons were limited and no one was allowed to marry outside the village, which had only three surnames.

In another set of villages covering many square miles a clan called Pignou occupied an area in the northern Auvergne. All men over twenty elected a leader, there was no private property and all children in one village were brought up by a woman who ran the communal dairy.  Again people were forbidden to marry outside the clan and those who did were banished forever, “although they all eventually begged to be readmitted.”

So while the destruction of papal control over the mini-state of Avignon was obviously a progressive outcome of the French revolution the destruction of the much loved independence of many small communities by a remote, centralised state with its demands for standardisation, inevitable destruction of local customs (including language) and imposition of oppressive requirements, such as conscription into massive bloody wars, was not.

But such is capitalist progress.  Marxists understand its positive and negative aspects.  In fact understand that capitalist progress is a function of the contradictions and antagonisms within society that does not allow for real separation of good and bad.

Should it be rejected by seeking to go back to the past?  Obviously we can’t now go back to isolated village communities with no private property in the means of production in France or anywhere else but that is not how the question is posed today.

Today it is posed in terms of rejecting capitalist progress at the international level, also characterised by standardisation, centralisation and lack of democracy in favour of a return to more local, nation-state democratic forms.

Unfortunately much of the Left today is no longer confident about the future so seeks solace in the past.  But as we see, this past in the form of nation states was built upon its own brutality and disregard for peoples’ choices.

But just as the development of the nation state also heralded undoubted progress for humanity so also does the internationalisation of capitalism promise the grounds for a new and better society, a socialist one.  This is the ground upon which we must fight and seek to build an alternative.