TODAY marks the beginning of the French presidential election. Some 12 candidates – ranging from the incumbent Emmanuel Macron (a Gallic Tony Blair), to veteran left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the odious far right racist journalist and TV commentator Éric Zemmour – will appear on the ballot paper for the first round of voting.

If the polls are to be believed, there can be little doubt that the result of today’s ­ballot will be a run-off on April 24 between Macron and the standard-bearer for French fascism, Marine Le Pen. We’ve been here before.

The same two candidates faced off in the 2017 presidential race. Back in 2002 the French electorate had the invidious choice between the Tory candidate, arch-Gaullist Jacques Chirac, and Marine Le Pen’s ­fascist father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man who ­infamously described the Nazi Holocaust as a mere “detail of history”.

In that election one witty voter went into the polling booth wearing a hazmat suit. He had a friend standing outside to ­disinfect him after he had reluctantly cast his vote for Chirac in order to block Le Pen.

The choice that is likely to face French voters on April 24 will hardly be more enticing. Holding the position of head of state (rather than mere head of ­government), Macron is like Blair on steroids – an arrogant neoliberal whose talent for self-aggrandisement is matched only by his authoritarianism at home and his imperialism abroad, particularly in the former colonies of what the latter-day French colonialists call “Françafrique”.

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Macron’s pro-big business agenda has spawned massive protests, not least from the Gilet Jaune (Yellow Vests) movement and millions of enraged trade ­unionists. His response has been to massively ­extend police powers with a “global security law” that makes it an offence to publicly identify a police officer (by posting film of a cop beating up a protestor, for instance).

On foreign policy, the French president is no better. He has repeatedly extended France’s colonial interests in its ­former African colonies, particularly Mali, through military intervention, backed up by the same kind of “humanitarian” rhetoric Blair used to justify his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On France’s historic crimes against the people of Algeria, Macron has conceded the entire issue to the far right. There is no way, he says, that France will ­apologise for its occupation of the North African country between 1830 and 1962, or for the depravity of its war against the ­Algerian National Liberation Front ­between 1954 and the NLF’s final victory in 1962.

Come April 24, millions of French ­citizens are likely to feel virtually ­disenfranchised by an electoral system that has given them a choice between a right-wing, authoritarian neoliberal like Macron and the fascist Marine Le Pen. And, make no mistake about it, Le Pen is a fascist.

MLP, as she is often known, may have done a thorough PR job on the Front ­National, the party she inherited from her father – expelling the old man in 2015 and rebranding the party ­Rassemblement ­National (National Rally) in 2018 – but her organisation remains as fascist as it ever was. Behind the airbrushed ­photos of its smiling leader, National Rally ­remains a mass fascist organisation that retains its classical fascist ­hostility ­towards French democracy, trade ­unions, ­multiculturalism and, in particular, ­Muslims.

The National: French far-right leader Marine Le Pen poses for a selfie with supporters during a campaign rally in PerpignanFrench far-right leader Marine Le Pen poses for a selfie with supporters during a campaign rally in Perpignan

As leader of the FN/RN, Marine Le Pen has called for police raids on mosques ­(following the shootings at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015), an end to the free movement of people ­within the European Union and a ­referendum on the restoration of the death penalty. For sure, Le Pen has toned down some of her rhetoric in order to appeal, Trump-style, to those who feel alienated by the ­traditional political parties.

Not only that, but the more unguarded, fascistic outbursts of Zemmour serve to draw some of the opprobrium ­typically attached to Le Pen away from her and ­towards her far-right rival. ­Beside ­Zemmour, Le Pen looks like a more ­attractive option for some who have ­traditionally voted for the mainstream right.

With two days until the first round of the presidential election, the polls were showing Le Pen on 23% (just 3.5 percentage points behind Macron), with ­Zemmour on 9.3%. By that reckoning, ­almost a third of French voters will go into the polling booths today and cast their ballot for a fascist candidate.

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How could the nation of liberté, égalité and fraternité find itself in such a position? In truth, France – like many other European nations that are considered to be instinctively democratic – has a long history of fascism going back before the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain during the Second World War.

In the post-war period, French fascism has flourished thanks, in very large part, to both the normalisation of Islamophobia by the political establishment and the concessions made to the far right by the political class on the issue of immigration.

The Algerian war of 1954-62 led to bitter social conflict within France itself. In the worst atrocity in France since the Nazi occupation, French police murdered more than 200 unarmed, pro-independence Algerian protesters in Paris on October 17, 1961. That was under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle himself.

In more recent times, under the cover of upholding the “secular values” of the French Republic, governments of the centre-left and the centre-right have fanned the flames of Islamophobic hatred. Muslim women wearing hijab (headscarf) have found themselves barred from many public-facing government jobs.

We have seen the absurdity of French cops on beaches forcing Muslim women who were wearing the body covering known as the “burkini” to actually remove an item of clothing – this after local authorities in 15 towns introduced bans on the garment.

Much of the French left, too, has collapsed into talk of “secular, Republican values”, thereby massively weakening its capacity to build political unity with the 7.5 per cent of the French population who are Muslim. The irony of this failure of many on the French left is that they are overlooking an inspiring anti-racist tradition that belongs to them.

It was the great French writer Émile Zola who, in 1898, wrote the famous open letter, titled “J’accuse”, in which he bravely named the members of the French military establishment who he, rightly, believed were involved in the anti-Semitic conspiracy against the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Zola denounced “that odious anti-Semitism of which great liberal France, France of the rights of man, will die, unless she is cured of her disease.”

Today, the assumed liberalism of the French Republic is under serious threat once again, this time from a fascism that has become embedded in the body politic. That it has done so is thanks, in large measure, to the “secularist” Islamophobia of the political mainstream.

If France is not to be locked in a ­cycle of electoral contests between a ­discredited political class and a ­menacing, ­opportunistic fascism, every French democrat and anti-racist needs to stand up and be counted. If you’re reduced to voting for Macron to stop the fascists, it should be clear that France needs a mass movement to smash its increasingly ­confident far right.