Decide: The French Election and the Untenable Position of Abstention

Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.

Slavoj Žižek bemoans in The Independent that the upcoming French run-off election means no choice at all because between Le Pen and Macron, the French people face a choice between right wing nationalism now and its return to the political forefront five years from now.

He recommends abstaining.

No.

Predictions Are Not Certainties

Didier Eribon has a similar argument. They both forget that voting in Le Pen now means Le Pen now. It means an anti-European nationalist French president from a party still suffused by unrepentant fascists wants to have a vote about exciting the EU before the effects of Brexit have truly begun or even been begun to be understood. Eribon and Žižek make no distinction between Le Pen’s openly race-baiting statements that would, even without any legislative changes, directly and direly affect people of color, and Macron’s uncomfortable capitalist centrism.

We have seen the emboldenment of the far right after the British Brexit vote and after America’s election of Donald Trump. When feelings of hatred against the other become normalized by a country’s leaders, there are always consequences. If you try to stay pure above the fray, you’re unlikely to be thanked by the people on whose side you’re ostensibly on, but for whom you won’t incur the inconvenience of a vote for the less reprehensible candidate.

Slavoj Žižek in 2015. Image by Amrei-Marie
Slavoj Žižek in 2015. Image by Amrei-Marie / Wikimedia Commons.
The argument Žižek and Eribon make is that voting for Macron now would mean only prolonging the status quo, and would then most likely mean a president Le Pen in five years. That may be, especially if people really do sigh in relief and stand back from politics after Macron’s election, as Žižek contends will happen. It may be, that’s the point. It also may not. It’s speculation about a future that might happen, adduced as an argument in the here and now.

A Thought Experiment

Here’s a thought experiment: If people really think there’s no choice between Le Pen and Macron, why not be honest about it and flip a coin for the vote? Is anyone seriously considering that? Say you are a left-of-center French voter. Say you flip a coin and it comes out Le Pen. Would you vote for her, as after all it makes no difference because there is no choice? If you wouldn’t, you have your answer what to do.

Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.
Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.
If history teaches us anything, it is that contingencies and circumstances matter. Often, outcomes that define the lives of millions for decades or even centuries rested on flukes of weather, communication, or personality. The European idea and its corollary of continental peace are facing opposition now, and whatever you think five years may bring, they may be decisive years. Years in which cooperation between European nations will either falter or be resuscitated. Years in which a hard Brexit could serve as a warning to those who elsewhere would risk the fate of their countries, and of all others in the EU, by attempting to go it alone.

It is beyond hubris to pontificate inaction on the basis of predictions you base in naive forecasting of the past and present. It is also a position drenched in unrecognized privilege. As Eleanor Penny astutely observes in Huck:

Once again, Žižek happily coronates himself as latest champion in an illustrious line of white male accelerationists who glibly gamble on the lives of people of colour for the possibility of their pure revolution, while they kick back in comfort and wait for utopia.

Voters should not abdicate their responsibility as citizens because they do not want to lower themselves to the down-and-dirty depths of realpolitik. Voting blank or not voting means letting others decide. Voting blank is obviously a popular position among the left who have long railed against the neoliberal capitalism that Macron makes a pretty good poster boy for. They understandably do not want to support it. In their view, a blank vote means a vote of protest against both untenable candidates. It is not. It is a vote to absolve oneself while letting someone else make hard decisions about the future of the country.

Decide

If you wash your hands of the election, you may find it easy to pretend you are blame free if something does not go your way later. But that is the petulant child’s way out. There’s a naive idealism about the stance. The belief that you can have all, or most of the things you want from politics with a vote, when in reality it’s almost always a choice of the lesser of two evils.

Thankfully, there are some influential voices on the European left who understand the stakes. Yannis Varoufakis makes the case for the left to vote for Macron with the same passion and conviction with which they should then oppose his policies once he is in office.

If you are a French voter, you should heed his call. Otherwise, be honest and flip a coin.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is due out in July from Transcript publishers. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Mainz and an adjunct lecturer in History at the University of Cologne.

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