“A portion of the left is about to make a historic mistake,” the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy told the New Statesman.
The first round hard left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received 19.58 per cent of the vote, chose not to call his supporters to vote for Macron right away, declaring on 23 April he would consult his party. The results of this consultation, published today, shows that two-thirds of his party’s supporters would rather back a null vote than endorsing Macron.
The French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy has been vocal against France’s hard left and Mélenchon. Ahead of the second round, I met Lévy in London to discuss the stakes of the race, the rise of Le Pen and the impact of a high voting abstention from left-wing voters.
Why did you choose to support Emmanuel Macron?
Today, it’s either Emmanuel Macron or the far right. He has to be elected, but it’s important that he is with the maximum amount of votes, because he is facing a candidate who is the worst for France, the candidate of disgrace, chaos and decline. Macron – it’s not even a question. It’s an absolute necessity for France today. I think he will be a very good president for France – young, modern, able to give body to the French national novel, this idea of France that can make each French person happy to be French.
What do you say to Marine Le Pen’s supporters?
To these voters, until the second round, I say nothing. They must be the minority. After that, I will tell them what I’ve been telling them for a long time: they believe the Le Pen family is honest, but they’re a corrupt gang. They believe this woman can restore the French grandeur, but it’s the inverse: she loves France when it’s small, shrunk, stunted, hunched up on itself. They believe she will give Franche back its independence, yet she’ll be at the order of [Russian President] Putin. Le Pen’s manifesto is a fraud.
Macron may not give their jobs back to the people who vote Le Pen because they lost them.
It will be worse with Le Pen – if they have any savings, they will lose them. The programme to leave the euro will have for immediate effect the erosion of their savings. They will have less jobs than with Macron, because France’s economic activity will slow with Le Pen. So they will be less likely to get a job, and the little money they’ve saved in their life will disappear.
What do you like in Macron’s programme?
He will unblock France’s economic engine, without giving up the worker’s social rights. It’s a good combination for the necessity to modernise the French economy.
What’s the mood in France?
Marine Le Pen can be elected. That would be because of a fringe of the left that seems to be tempted not to vote for Macron. If people who voted for [leftist candidate] Mélenchon don’t vote for Macron, Le Pen has a chance to win. Mélenchon has made the very strange and completely irresponsible choice not to give any voting instructions, not even to give his own point of view. Not to give one’s point of view in such circumstances means inciting one’s voters towards abstention, which means a rising vote for Le Pen.
You have been attacked online by Mélenchon’s supporters for criticising him.
It’s not a very interesting story, but it is symptomatic. A French satirical website published a false news story that said that if Mélenchon was elected, I would leave France. [BHL never said such a thing]. Hundreds, maybe thousands, took this information seriously and launched attacks, often anti-Semitic ones, against me. It seemed very strange to me. The rhetoric they used was quite similar to the FN’s.
What will you do if Marine Le Pen is elected?
If she is, we can hope she won’t be able to govern. But she must lose. Symbolically, her election would be another 1940, minus the war. Like in the rest of Europe, “the depths of the air are brown”. That’s what I say these days, it’s a reference to a 1977 film by Chris Marker, Le fond de l’air est rouge (“The depths of the air are red”). Brown, because of the hard right and fascism. France is traversed by a wind that is blowing in other European countries. Marine Le Pen isn’t very different from Nigel Farage.
What do you think of Brexit?
Like Le Pen, it’s a gigantic fraud, a pack of lies that led to a vote, which some Brits are now bitterly regretting. On the very next day after the vote, Farage recognised that he had told lies about the £350m for the NHS. It’s very rare to see a demagogue admitting the day after the victory that his campaign was based on fraud. In general, we know that years later – after Brexit, we learnt it live.
Brits can’t go back, Mrs May has started the machine. She is the honest subordinate of the decision of the people. What I struggle to understand, is how one can lead such a heavy historic action without believing in it. That’s beyond me.
Does a Le Pen victory mean Frexit?
There won’t be any more Europe. Europe without the UK already isn’t Europe anymore. Europe worked on three pillars: France, Germany, UK. It lost one. If it loses another one, it’s over. Marine Le Pen won’t win – but the risk is there.
She can win if the hard left doesn’t make a choice. Nowadays, there is an implicit pact between hard left and hard right, between Le Pen and Mélenchon. Last week, Jean-Marie Le Pen congratulated Mélenchon on his attitude from right after the first round [when Mélenchon did not call to vote for Macron]. The voters are often the same. One can vote Mélenchon in the first round and be tempted by voting Le Pen in the second round, we can see it on social media. People who say they refuse to choose between Le Pen and Macron, who say “I would rather have Le Pen than Macron, at least Le Pen is the revolution”… But the real risk, it’s those who say “there is no reason to choose between Le Pen and Macron”. These ones take the risk that the compact block of the Le Pen vote ends up weighing more than the Macron block.
How do we prevent this from happening?
Macron must have a strong campaign… I don’t know. It scares me, because we thought the 21 April 2002 wouldn’t happen again, that was the 21 April of the left [the left-wing candidate was eliminated before the second round], and now it’s the right. My memories of the 21 April was a huge mobilisation of French society against Le Pen. It’s something I don’t see today. Maybe it’s a sign that French society is more ready to have Le Pen in power than it was 15 years ago, that de-demonisation is starting to work. In 2002, Le Pen in the second tour was an earthquake. Today, it’s a non-event.
I’m not asking for people to like Macron. In 2002, the reasoning of 82 per cent of France [who voted for Chirac] was: we vote Chirac and as soon as he’s elected; we oppose him and his bad decisions. Today I’m very surprised not to see French people say, “I don’t like Macron and I will fight him, but I don’t want the country to be ruled by the FN.” Now that’s republican reasoning.
The hard right and the hard left share certain values, and by dint of saying “we’re anti-liberal,” one ends up with the hard right, because that’s the hard right’s narrative. Breaking from liberalism? I hope we won’t, but that we can improve and reform its rules, to give more freedom and fraternity, to inject doses of egality and fraternity in the liberal vision of the world. I hope that’s what Macron will do. But destroying liberalism, for no real reason? It’s a historic mistake. A portion of the left is about to make a historic mistake.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, if he doesn’t set things right by Sunday [May 7], he will disgrace himself. French history will judge him. His name will be associated with something absolutely shameful. I’m calling him to think again, to take responsibility, overtake his bitterness and say: “Macron is not my candidate, I will oppose him the minute that follows his election, but I wish he wins to stop Le Pen.” He has to say at least that. At least, he should say: “I’m not calling my voters to vote for someone, they are free, but personally, that is what I think.” What he has done until now leaves people to think he sees Macron and Le Pen equally. That’s a tragic attitude.
There has been, in the history of the French left, a moment when people thought that way. In 1935-1936, a fringe of the Communist party, the most left-wing one, said: I refuse to choose between fascism and social democracy, these are two faces of capitalism. It was led by Jacques Doriot, who then went on to found the PPF, Parti Populaire Francais, the French version of Nazism.
If Mélenchon doesn’t pull himself together, if he doesn’t change his speech, if he doesn’t overtake his bitterness, he will become a new Doriot. It’s the same reasoning, saying one refuses to choose. The Trotskyists, a portion of the movement, said their only mot d’ordre was to unite French and German workers – the result was that they allowed the ranks of collaborators to grow. Today, Mélenchon is setting himself in this tradition. I hope he will hear voices like mine, who urge him to leave this suicidal position. For himself, for his school of thought, and for France.