NEW DELHI: With elections round the corner, the French progressive Left is bitterly divided in the face of two unappealing options- the neoliberal, establishment candidate Emmanuel Macron and the far-right, xenophobic candidate Le Pen.

Many on the French left feel the need to unite behind Macron to counter the ‘neofascist’ threat of Le Pen, in what is often described as the ‘lesser of the two evils’ option. Others, however, are more disillusioned and feel that both choices are equally bad, and the only reasonable option is abstention. Many in this latter camp argue that since neoliberalism fuels the support of the far-right, a Macron Presidency now will ultimately lead to Le Pen five years later.

The most prominent proponents of the ‘neither Macron nor Le Pen’ banner are the disappointed supporters of the populist left candidate Jean Luc Melenchon. Melenchon fought the campaign on an anti EU, anti globalisation socialist platform, and attracted the support of left wing voters fed up with the corruption and neoliberal policies of the ruling Socialists.

Much like Bernie Sanders in America, he especially energised young people, struggling with high unemployment rates. He ended up winning the highest percentage of young voters (30%), in contrast to Macron who could just garner 18% of this demographic, even less than Le Pen’ share.

A survey by Melenchon’s party found that two-thirds of his supporters plan either to abstain or to cast a “Vote Blanc”, which allows French voters to cast a blank ballot in protest against their options. While Macron still leads Le Pen by a healthy 18 points according to the latest polls, widespread abstention by Melenchon supporters might lower the threshold of votes needed for a Le Pen Presidency.

We have been here before. The choice between Macron and Le Pen has divided the French left, much as the choice between Clinton and Trump had divided the American left. On both sides of the Atlantic, the progressive left has found it hard to rally behind the liberal establishment candidate that, according to them, represents everything they loathe – pro business policies that have led to unemployment and stagnant wages of the working class, corruption and nepotism, a degraded environment, and support of wars in foreign lands.

A month before the November vote, a YouGov/Economist poll found that only 60 percent of Sanders supporters said they would back Clinton. In the end many Sanders supporters ended up either abstaining, or voting for the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, with some even flipping to Trump.

A recent poll revealed the dismal choice facing most Frenchmen. 64% of voters who intended to vote for Macron, claimed they would only do so to block Le Pen, while 47% of Le Pen voters saying their ballot was to block Macron.

A ‘least-worst’ option dynamic is strongly at play here. Slavoj Zizek touched on this aspect in his recent article for The Independent, when he remarked that both candidates draw their support from fear, and not just Le Pen, as it is often claimed. “He (Macron) finished first because voters were afraid of Le Pen, and the circle is thus closed; there is no positive vision with either of the candidates, they are both candidates of fear.”

In a scathing article, Zizek wrote that the choice between Macron and Le Pen was a false one, and progressives must reject them both. While the media lauds Macron as pro-European, Zizek argued, he actually represents a Europe “whose failure feeds Le Pen’s populism, the anonymous Europe in the service of neoliberalism”. He branded the call for backing Macron to block Le Pen as “liberal blackmail”.

The detestation of Macron by many in the progressive left is understandable. A former banker, who has never been elected to office, Macron is running on a ‘centrist’ pro business platform that will deepen the austerity policies that have alienated the working classes from mainstream politics. He has promised to slash public spending by 60 billion euros over five years, and vowed to cut 120,000 civil service jobs. His plans to revive the French economy include cutting taxes by 20 billion euros a year, reforming France’s wealth tax, and allowing firms flexibility on the 35 hour working week.

As economy minister in the Hollande government, Macron had stripped French workers of hard won rights, and has vowed to implement major cuts in social security once in office, in a bid to bolster France’s competitiveness.

But Zizek remains an exception to most left intellectuals, who are firmly behind Macron, recalling approvingly the election in 2002, when the whole left united behind the right wing Jacques Chirac in order to beat the xenophobic Jean Marie Le Pen, Le Pen’s Holocaust denying father. This includes Yanis Varoufakis, who implored the French left to back Macron.

“The decision of many leftists to maintain an equal distance between Macron and Le Pen is inexcusable. The imperative to oppose racism Trump’s opposition to neoliberalism policies”, wrote Varoufakis writing in the Guardian.”Is being an investment banker analogous with being a Holocaust revisionist? Is neoliberalism on par with neofacsim”, wrote Hadley Freeman, columnist for the Guardian, starkly defining the choices before the French electorate.

France has long been dominated by political competition between right and left wing. In fact, this election is the first time in modern France where neither of the two main mainstream parties of their respective wings has failed to qualify for the final round. In this moment of unprecedented political churning, this election would perhaps set the long term tone of French politics.

The xenophobic far right is at its strongest ever in postwar Europe. In the likely event of a Macron Presidency, many fear that the oppositional space of anti-neoliberal, anti-globalisation platform will be entirely taken over by Le Pen, who would emerge even stronger in 2022, and the left would increasingly be staring at irrelevance.

The bitter divisions in the left wing today have been caused by the implosion of the mainstream left, which, like in much of Europe, had long lost its touch with the ideals of social democracy, having bound its fate to neoliberalism and unfettered globalisation. The catastrophic returns for the mainstream left in this election, with the Socialist candidate receiving just 6% of the vote( its lowest ever), has underlined again the deep malaise gripping the mainstream left, which has failed to provide any genuine alternative to the neoliberal establishment.

With the people now stuck between the twin assaults of neoliberalism and neofacsim, the need for a strong, revitalized left wing, could not be more urgent; a left wing that genuinely provides an alternative. What is at stake is not just the idea of social democracy, not just the idea of Europe, but the very idea of democracy itself.