By NICHOLAS VINOCUR
Date: 28/4/2017

PARIS — A few months ago, they stayed up late on Paris’ Place de la République to dream up a different world as part of the “Nuit Debout” (“Up All Night”) movement, at least until the weather turned rainy. Now, they are back out on the same square — this time to voice outrage and indignation over the result of France’s presidential election and the candidates it produced.

Meet generation “no compromise” — or “ni ni” (“neither nor”) as they are known here.

Made up largely of young or first-time voters, France’s refusenik generation participated massively in the election’s first round, mainly to back far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

But when Mélenchon failed to break through to the second round, pulling in fewer votes than scandal-tainted former Prime Minister François Fillon, a big portion of his supporters decided they had had enough of democracy and would vote no more.

Now polls suggest that more than 35 percent of Mélenchon’s supporters plan to abstain or cast invalid votes in the election’s final round on May 7 — a position of supposed neutrality that in fact penalizes centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and helps far-right leader Marine Le Pen, because most left-wing votes were expected to go to the ex-banker and former economy minister.

On Friday, Le Pen appealed directly to Mélenchon voters in a video posted on Twitter. Even if they do not vote for her, sowing doubt in their minds about Macron can only help her campaign.

Mélenchon, aged 65, has declined to offer his mostly young supporters any guidance on what to do in the second round. Breaking with a decades-old tradition by which left- and right-wing candidates work together to keep the far-right out of power, Mélenchon also failed to clarify his personal choice or come out with a critical word against Le Pen, whom he has nonetheless denounced in the past. (Mélenchon said he would consult members of his France Unbowed movement through a vote before clarifying his own stance in a YouTube video, which has yet to be published.)

It’s easy to understand why Mélenchon would suddenly become so cautious. In June’s parliamentary election, he hopes to remain relevant by becoming the natural leader of a far-left opposition bloc that would seek to wield considerable influence over whoever is elected president on May 7.

But Mélenchon never explained this calculus to his backers. And what many have taken from his rhetoric is that both candidates now competing for the presidency are so reprehensible, so poisonous to their aspirations, that the only respectable option is to sit out the election’s final round.

Their blanket rejection brooks little subtlety, except for a slightly more sympathetic attitude toward Le Pen. Macron, they argue, is an undercover agent of international finance who will waste no time turning France into a gigantic casino for the ultra-rich. Le Pen runs a racist party, “but at least she has the merit of criticizing the banks,” wrote one Facebook poster.

Le Pen scandals count for little

To partisans of the “ni ni” vote, it does not matter that one of the candidates, namely Le Pen, is under investigation for having allegedly misused funds from the European Parliament. Nor does it appear to make any difference that Jean-François Jalkh, the man nominated to take over the leadership of her National Front party while she focuses on the presidential runoff, was shown to have disputed the use of Zyklon B in the Nazi gas chambers. (Jalkh stepped down to “defend himself” against accusations of Holocaust revisionism.)

According to this school of thought, Macron’s links to high finance are at least as bad, if not worse, than the National Front’s long legacy of Holocaust revisionism, racism, and xenophobia. “I should not have to choose between two forms of fascism,” wrote another Mélenchon supporter in a Facebook post two days after the election’s first round. “Democracy is about choosing a candidate whose beliefs you share.”

On Thursday, partisans of the “ni ni” generation made a show of force in Paris — on the same square where many of them participated, 10 months ago, in the “Nuit Debout” movement — and in the western city of Nantes. A few thousand refuseniks marched holding up banners saying “Neither nor,” “without me,” or “blank vote.” They chanted slogans proclaiming their rejection of “the banker” and “the fascist,” while warning that they would oppose anyone who came to power with all their might.

The presidential finalists are paying attention. Macron urged potential abstainers, whom pollsters say may be more numerous than in any postwar presidential election, to show up on May 7, arguing that voting was a duty.

In addition to the video she posted on Friday, Le Pen’s campaign published a leaflet this week showing many points of convergence between Mélenchon and Le Pen’s election platforms. Its conclusion was not a call to action, but to do nothing that might go against their convictions: “Don’t vote for Macron.”