Any French elector who is able to discriminate between a liberal politician and a successor to Vichy-era fascism should vote for Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the French Presidential election.

Of those who cannot bring themselves to do that, I am reminded of Hermann Remmele, a leading communist who sat in the Reichstag in the nineteen-thirties. Together with the Stalinist movement of his day, Remmele called on German communists to direct their fire, not at Hitler's men, but at social democrats, whom they described as ''social fascists''. "Let Hitler take office," said Remmele, "he will soon go bankrupt and then it will be our day."

While the spectre of collaboration is represented today by the National Front's Marine Le Pen, surrender before the swastika finds expression 80 years on in the actions of Jean Luc-Mélenchon, the leftist French presidential candidate who has tumbled out in the first round of voting. Unlike Benoît Hamon and François Hollande, Mélenchon has so far refused to endorse Macron over Marine Le Pen ahead of the second round of presidential voting.

It is early days of course, and Mélenchon may yet throw his weight behind the lesser evil (which does after all mean less evil). But the episode again highlights the incapacity of certain leftists to distinguish between half a loaf and no bread at all – and to draw the appropriate conclusions.

There are certain people – usually political activists – who nearly always transform into mouthpieces for one ''side'' during elections. This was apparent during the recent American presidential election, when in certain liberal quarters criticising Hillary Clinton turned into the secular equivalent of defecating on a church altar. A similar thing will invariably happen with Macron: ''Shut up! Stop being unhelpful,'' they will demand, even of those of us who have no real power to shape events.

This makes a certain sense for a political activist. However, as a writer, I am under no such obligation. Thus I will say it clearly: be under no illusions that Macron is on the side of socialism or social democracy. If elected, he intends to cut public sector jobs, shrink the state, cut taxes on the ultra-rich and pursue a continued policy of austerity in Europe. It is not simply that these policies are antithetical to the left, it is that they are arguably helping to fuel right-wing populism. As an excellent article in Dissent recently phrased it, "These are the same forces driving growing numbers of French people to withdraw from politics altogether – or worse yet, cast ballots for the National Front."

Macron's elite liberalism is hard to swallow for many on the left for good reasons. This after all is a creed that preaches ''equality'' but which adheres religiously to the notion of ''meritocracy'', a virulent form of classism which believes fervently in sorting sheep from goats. It is considered OK for someone to toil away hopelessly in some forgotten town and dead end job – if they have been judged to lack the requisite merit to do anything else. The entire political vocabulary of the so-called liberal centre – social mobility, bright but poor kids etc. – is geared toward pulling a few people out of the soup without changing the basic ingredients.

The nucleus of far-right politics has historically been the lower middle class rather than workers. It shakes its fist at big business and is terrified of organisations like trade unions. But it typically comes to power when it forms a successful alliance with a section of the working class. It isn't that liberalism creates fascism; it is that liberalism can create the conditions in which fascism – or something like it – can hoover up votes. For many people, ''free'' competition can result in a tyranny as oppressive as fear of the big state. Demagogues find a ready audience when they are the last people willing to propose solutions to society's ills, even if the remedies they offer are ugly, violent and built on a pack of lies.

You do not need to travel to France to see this phenomenon in action. Go to Ebbw Vale, Mansfield, Sunderland, Hartlepool or one of the many formerly industrial areas of Britain that voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union last year. You will not necessarily find a resurgent fascism, but I would wager that the ground in many of these places is more favourable to an appeal to fascism than in more prosperous parts of the country. When a managerial elite decides that politics is little more than a way of greasing the levers for the ascension of the few, the ground is fertile for the demagogue who promises to sweep away everything undesirable like a broom brushing away the detritus from a storm.

Understanding the type of politics that Macron represents is very different of course from proclaiming that Macron and Le Pen are the same – and that there is little point in resisting fascism because it has already arrived. We are not yet living in a re-run of the 1930s, but to the French left I would say one thing: your Jewish and Muslims comrades need your vote right now more than your high-flown principles.

James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.