LONDON – In 2002, Jacques Chirac, the French right's leader, faced Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the racist National Front, in the second round of France's presidential election. The French left rallied behind the Gaullist, conservative Chirac to oppose the xenophobic heir of Vichy collaborationism. Fifteen years later, however, large sections of the French left are refusing to back Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter.
Progressives have good reason to be angry with a liberal establishment that feels comfortable with Macron, a former banker with no previous experience in democratic politics prior to his brief appointment as Minister of Economy, Industry, and Digital Affairs by President François Hollande. They see him, correctly, as the minister who stripped full-time French workers of hard-won labor rights and who today is the establishment's last resort against Le Pen.
Moreover, it is not hard to identify with the French left's feeling that the liberal establishment is getting its comeuppance with Le Pen's rise. In 2015, the same establishment that now supports Macron and rails against the "alternative facts," loony economics, and authoritarianism of Le Pen, Donald Trump, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and others, launched a ferociously effective campaign of falsehood and character assassination to undermine the democratically elected Greek government in which I served.
The French left cannot, and should not, forget that sorry episode. But the decision of many leftists to maintain an equal distance between Macron and Le Pen is inexcusable. There are two reasons for this.
First, the imperative to oppose racism trumps opposition to neoliberal policies. A more confident left used to understand that our humanism compelled us to stop the xenophobes from getting their hands on the levers of state power, particularly the police and security forces. Just like in the 1940s, we have a duty to ensure that the state's monopoly over the legitimate use of violence is not controlled by those who harbor violent sentiments toward the foreigner, the cultural or sexual minority member, the "other."
The touching belief in the liberal-democratic state's checks and balances, and in the idea that the rule of law would prevent Le Pen from turning state power against the vulnerable, is not one that the left can risk entertaining. Trump's first 100 days, with its concerted crackdown on undocumented aliens, confirm this.
But there is a second reason for backing Macron: During the stifling of the Greek Spring in 2015, the social democrats in power in France (under Hollande) and in Germany (in the coalition government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats) embraced the same brutish standards as the conservative right.
I recall what an eye-opener my first meeting with France's socialist finance minister, Michel Sapin, was. When we spoke in private, he was brimming with jovial comradeship. During our press conference, however, he spoke like the hardline "austerian" Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's Christian Democrat finance minister. As we left the pressroom, Sapin instantly switched back to bonhomie. Determined to maintain my poise, I turned to him and asked, only half-jokingly: "Who are you, and what have you done to my Michel?" His response was: "Yanis, you need to understand that France is not what it used to be."
Sapin's subservience to Europe's authoritarian establishment was mirrored in Berlin by Sigmar Gabriel, the German Social Democrats' leader and Vice Chancellor. He, too, spoke to me in private like a comrade-in-arms while striving in public to emulate Schäuble. When the tussle between our government and the "Troika" (the European Commission, the European, Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) came to a head, both Sapin and Gabriel adopted the worst and most aggressive elements of the creditors' propaganda against our government.
Perhaps because Macron did not emerge from the test tube of social-democratic party politics, he was the only minister of the Franco-German axis to risk his own political capital by coming to Greece's aid in 2015. As I recount in my new book (and a recent commentary in Le Monde), Macron understood that what the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers and the Troika were doing to our government and, more importantly, to our people was detrimental to the interests of France and the European Union.
In a text message, with which he announced his willingness to intervene and try to end our asphyxiation, he told me that he struggled to convince Hollande and Gabriel to find a solution. His message ended thus: "I do not want my generation to be the one responsible for Greece exiting Europe."
Of course, Macron's efforts came to no avail, because Europe's social democratic leadership, Hollande and Gabriel in particular, sided fully with the conservative establishment's determination to snuff out our resistance to more predatory loans and recession-deepening austerity. The result is that both politicians have since lost all credibility with an impatient public. Obviously, Macron has not. My great fear is that, even if he wins, Le Pen will still succeed in controlling the dynamics of French politics – especially if Macron fails to support and promote the Progressive International that Europe needs.
My disagreements with Macron are legion; but our points of agreement are also important. We agree that the eurozone is unsustainable, but disagree about what should be done before the EU can put political union on the table. We agree that the single-minded pursuit of competitiveness is turning Europe into a zero-sum, beggar-thy-neighbor game, but disagree about how to bring about the large-scale investment needed to support productivity improvements.
We agree that precarious, gig-economy labor is gangrene for social welfare, but we (strongly) disagree about how to extend protection to casual workers without casualizing protected workers. We agree on the need to forge a proper European banking union, but disagree on the need to put the financial genie back in its bottle. Above all, I lack evidence to convince my comrades at DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement, to trust Macron's capacity and willingness to clash with an establishment that is pursuing the failed policies that have fed support for Le Pen.
Despite these caveats, I support Macron. Just as he texted me that he did not want his generation to be responsible for strangling Greece, I, too, refuse to be part of a generation of leftists responsible for allowing a fascist and racist to win the French presidency. Naturally, if Macron wins and becomes merely another functionary of Europe's deep establishment, my comrades and I will oppose him no less energetically than we are – or should be – opposing Le Pen now.
Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece, is Professor of Economics at the University of Athens.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017