In 2017 the sense of political crisis has deepened across much of the developed world. From the Trump presidency to Corbyn’s stunning march on the Tories, the centre ground is crumbling under forces to the left and right.
In this piece Roderick Cobley assesses the French presidential election in the light of this trend and Macron’s chances of reconsolidating the neoliberal order.
The recent Presidential election in France has been unique in the history of the French Fifth Republic. Both main parties – the centre-right Les Republicains and the centre-left Parti Socialist were forced out of contention in the first round, and forces from the political fringes – the far right Front National and the radical left France Insoumise – were able to make a serious bid for office. The eventual winner, Emmanual Macron, is establishment through and through, being a former Goldman Sachs banker and Socialist minister of government. Yet even he won by breaking from the established parties and portraying himself as an outsider standing outside left and right.
It’s worth recapping the results themselves. The first round was very fragmented – Macron got 24 percent, the Front National’s Le Pen 21 percent, centre-right Gaullist Fillon 20 percent, and the radical left candidate Melenchon 19.5 pecent. The candidate of the Parti Socialist, Benoit Hamon, got a mere 6.5 percent. In the second round, Macron won with over 66 percent of the vote, on a turnout of around 76 percent – rather lower than usual for France.
The election throws up a range of issues of concern to the radical left. The rise of both a far-right party at least influenced by fascism, and a far left alternative whose leader is, according to reports, the most popular politician in France, indicate a picture of polarisation that is familiar to us from history. The election of a President who campaigned and won on an explicitly neoliberal platform makes an intensification of that agenda in France a certainty. Within that context, how to build a left capable of both halting the march of the far-right and of challenging the logic of capital is a vital question.
The most obviously noticeable aspect of the election was the collapse of the two mainstream parties. Undoubtedly, contingent factors played a role in this outcome. The outgoing president, the Socialist Francois Hollande, was elected on a promise to implement a range of centre-left reforms, which he then abandoned in favour of a programme of austerity, disillusioning many of his party’s electorate. Fillon suffered because of a scandal over claims he had ’employed’ his wife and adult children and paid them out of the public purse for doing next to no work.
However, these developments are just as much if not more so to do with a specific pattern that has been developing internationally over the past few decades. This is one of a secular decline of the main parties and the rise of a range of new forces, including ones both on the radical left and radical right.
One can compare recent events in France with developments in Spain, Greece, Italy, and even to a lesser extent Germany and the UK. The collapse of PASOK, the main centre-left party in Greece, the falling votes for both the CDU and the SPD in Germany, the fragmention of party support at the Dutch elections earlier this year, the emergence of new parties such as SYRIZA, Podemos, UKIP and the Five Star Movement, show the same pattern.
A number of reasons can be given for this trend. However, the proximate reason is clear – parties on both sides of the left-right divide have steered towards the centre since at the least the end of the 1980s. In practice, this has involved the centre-left accepting neoliberal economics by and large uncritically, and the centre-right accepting the social liberal agenda, even to the extent that the Tories in Britain could countenance the legalising of gay marriage. This consensus continues to dominate mainstream political thought, and can be traced back to the idea that gripped parts of academia and the commentariat in response to the collapse of the Soviet bloc – that ‘history had ended’, or at least ideological history, with the triumph of free-market capitalism.
As a result, parties have become hollowed out, detached from their base and turned into machines representing the state to the electorate rather than the other way around. This in turn has caused party identification to decline among voters. These trends have been exacerbated by the rise of social media which has made information much more easily obtainable, and a society which under neoliberalism has become more atomised and individualistic. Increasingly, political parties, or at least mainstream ones, appear like rival ‘brands’, none of whom are likely to change people’s lives that much if elected. Yet neoliberal society is increasingly alienating to the average citizen, and if as voters they feel equally alienated from the political process and its domination by centrist technocrats, it’s no surprise if many then seek out alternative parties with anti-system messages.
These trends have been accelerated by the Great Recession of 2008, but contrary to what many on the left expected at the time, it is the right that have been able to weather the storm better. This is because they were able to rapidly forge a simple narrative explaining their ‘take’ on the crisis to electorates – that public overspending, leading to ballooning debt levels, were the real problem. This, plus paying lip service to widespread outrage over the banks, accompanied by a legislative slap on the wrist, allowed the mainstream right to return to power across much of Europe on platforms of austerity. The centre-left parties had no answer to this because they had to a greater or lesser extent capitulated to neoliberalism. Indeed, those centre-left parties that retained power did little in practice that was different from the mainstream right. As a result, radical parties in Europe and elsewhere, including those from right and left as well as anomalous forces like the Pirate Parties, have gained votes, seats in parliament and various forms of public office.
The particularly dramatic collapse in France is in large part due to a long-term characteristic in French politics of party fragmentation which goes back, in one form or another, at least to the early days of the Third Republic in the 1870s. In fact, it is only since the 1970s that the stable alternation of left/right parties seen in most other Western European countries has become the norm in France. Much of the century before saw competition on the left between social democrats, a strong Communist Party and the Radicals, which occupy a position analogous to the Liberals in Britain, and on the right between Gaullists, Christian Democrats and various far-right forces. The resulting instability was only ended after the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958, a presidential system which replaced the previous parliamentary one, and which France has retained to this day.
The recent elections appear to mark the end of the current two-party system in France, but it is unclear what new party system will emerge. However, on the face of it, the Front National would appear to have a near cast-iron guarantee of being a major player, at least in the immediate future. It is worth examining where the Front came from, therefore, and what its prospects really are.
The Front National
Politically, the Front National is racist to the core and has had fascists at its heart since its inception. Its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen once dismissed the holocaust as a mere ‘detail of history’, argued that the Nazi occupation in France was ‘not particularly inhuman’ and claimed that ‘Jews have conspired to rule the world’. In more recent years they have targeted France’s Muslim population, linking immigration by Muslims to France with the threat of terror and suggesting their presence threatens French culture. They are also deeply authoritarian, supporting a referendum on restoring the death penalty and proposing a series of constitutional amendments that would centralise power in the hands of the Presidency Furthermore, they maintain an ‘at-length’ paramilitary wing in the shape of the security firm Colisee. Ostensibly a private contractor, Colisee was set up by members and former members of the openly neofascist student group Groupe Union Defense, with whom they maintain a relationship. On the other hand, their economic policies have changed markedly since their inception. Originally, they espoused policies supporting the free-market, calling for the phasing out of the welfare state. However, as their support base among workers and lower income voters has grown it has shifted tack, since the 1990s embracing protectionism. Under Marine Le Pen this process has been intensified, with a range of policies and statements that might otherwise be regarded as firmly on the left.
The Front National was first established in the 1970s. Their roots lie in part in the anger of right-wingers who felt betrayed by their erstwhile hero De Gaulle when he granted Algeria independence, and in the legacy of the shortlived Poujadist movement in the 1950s. This movement’s founder, Pierre Poujade, was an overt fascist who had previously been a member of the Parti Populaire Francaise, which had supported the Vichy regime. Jean-Marie Le Pen cut his political teeth as a member of Poujade’s party, acting as one of their parliamentarians for some years. The other key element in the formation of the Front National were the existing fascist groups at the time. The most significant organisation of this type had been Action Francaise, which had originally been a monarchist organisation with strongly anti-semitic views. With a history going back to the 1890s, it had emerged out of the controversies surrounding Henry Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer convicted of treason on trumped-up charges. During the early days of the Front National, many key former figures in Action Francoise joined, such as one Georges-Paul Wagner, who later led a split to form the shortlived Party of New Forces. The other key far right organisation to join was Ordre Nouveau (‘New Order’) which came out of the legacy of the National Popular Rally, another overtly fascist organisation that had supported the Vichy regime.
The Front National were a marginal force in French politics until the mid-1980s when several things helped to boost their chances. One was the adoption of proportional representation in parliamentary elections in 1986, which made it easier for smaller parties to gain seats. However, much more significant was the conscious decision by Mitterand to direct the state TV channels to give the Front airtime after Le Pen wrote to him complaining about being unfairly excluded. Mitterand’s reasons may well have been to try and split the right-wing vote, but the effect was that soon after Le Pen’s first appearance on national television in 1984, the Front’s poll ratings began to grow. In the National Assembly elections in 1986 they scored 9.65%, and two years later, in the Presidential election, Le Pen scored over 14%. This is as clear a demonstration that one can get of the importance of ensuring that the far-right are prevented from gaining a platform in the national media.
The appeal of the Front was undoubtedly boosted at that time by the fact that both the main parties had moved closer to the centre. The Socialists had been elected in 1981 on a leftist programme involved huge public works programmes and wealth taxes, but had since abandoned this in favour of a policy of cuts and privatisation, while the centre-right Gaullists had moved away from the emphasis on state stewardship of the economy, or dirigisme, that de Gaulle favoured and towards similar policies to centre-right parties elsewhere in Europe. This meant that new political spaces had opened up for parties looking to harvest discontented voters, and it was the Front National that was able to fill that gap.
That the Front was so successful might be surprising considering that the left in France has generally been quite strong. The Communists were for many years the main party on the left, rather than the centre-left Socialists or their predecessor, the SFIO (Section Francaise de l’Internationale Ouvriere), and France was also where the ‘night of the barricades’ in May 1968 kickstarted a student-led radical left upsurge that affected much of Europe. However, there are concrete reasons for the failure of the radical left to stem the Front’s advance or pose as an alternative channel for discontent to the far right. Two reasons particularly should be emphasised.
The first was the role of the Communist Party since the Second World War. In common with most other Stalinist parties in Western Europe, it moved towards the centre-left from the 1960s onwards. During the revolt of May ’68, they and their affiliated unions in the CGT (Confederation generale du travail) had played a contradictory role, leading a general strike while working to marginalise student radicals and working to shut down the movement after de Gaulle called a referendum.
In 1973 the Communists made a deal with the Parti Socialist around what was called a ‘Common Programme’ promising nationalisations, new workers’ rights and Keynesian works programmes. In 1981, it became part of the government under Mitterand, exiting three years later when the ‘Common Programme’ was abandoned and the Socialists shifted right. Later, in the 1990s they were part of the Plural Left government under Socialist Prime Minster Lionel Jospin, which carried out a series of moderate reforms but also a number of privatisations.
Since the 1970s the Communists’ share of the vote during elections steadily shrank, falling to under 5 percent by the end of the Plural Left coalition in 2002. This should not be surprising. For much of the post-war period, the average French worker could choose between two ostensible workers’ parties, with the Communists the further left. Angry working class voters who felt the centre-left had sold out could turn to the Communists as an alternative. However, from the 1970s onwards, the idea that the Communists represented a real alternative to the social democratic parties became increasingly untenable. By the end of the 20th century, its anti-system credibility had all but gone.
The Front National were able to seize the initiative and become the main anti-system voice in part because of the platform granted to them by the media from the 1980s onwards. Other radical left parties, such as the Trotskyist parties, remained marginal. The wider global ideological context of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the supposed ‘death of socialism’ helped ensure that the radical left was in no position to make substantive gains. Instead, large sections of the working class vote that could have been the far left’s for the taking has instead been captured by the fascist far right.
The other reason for the growth of the far right has been the left’s failure to properly challenge racist and Islamophobic ideas. This is not a problem that has only emerged in recent years. In the 1981 presidential election, the Communists ran on a controversial platform calling for limits on migration. The previous year, the party’s then leader Georges Marchais gave his support to a Communist mayor in Vitry-sur-Seine who had destroyed a home for Malian migrant workers, claiming the government was trying to push migrants into ghettos in working class communities.
Today, the problematic attitude of much of the French left towards Islamophobia can be partly traced back to the idea of ‘laïcité’, an important concept in French politics that arose out of the anti-clerical movements during the revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods. The principle of ‘laïcité’ defines France as a strictly secular republic, where neither the state nor individual governments can legitimate themselves through religion. This was specifically in response to the role of the Catholic Church in bolstering the absolutist regime in pre-revolutionary times, rather than a general attempt to marginalise religion. However, in recent years it has been frequently interpreted to mean that religion should be relegated to the private sphere, and this has been used to justify bans on religious apparel in public places, such as the 2004 law banning the wearing of religious items in schools.
The appeal to the principle of ‘laïcité’ to justify such bans must be taken with a gallon of salt – during his time as president, Sarkozy, a strong backer of a nationwide ban on the burqa, was on record as arguing for a relaxation in the principles of laïcité and emphasised France’s Christian heritage. It is clear that targeting Muslim communities is in fact the real reason for such actions. Nonetheless, it is on the basis of defending securalism that many on the French left have ended up weighing in on the side of the French establishment on these questions. For instance, much of the left, including the hard left, were broadly in support of the 2004 law. With the Front National building its support base in part through whipping up fear over migration from Muslim countries, and mainstream parties seeking to accommodate to such fears, acquiescence by the left to an anti-migrant and anti-Muslim agenda undermines its ability to challenge the right and the French ruling class more generally.
Results and prospects today
Clearly, the most important question for French politics is whether the Front National will be able to capitalise on the gains it has made. It is important to recognise that the result represented both a major advance for the Front, but also a setback. It is a major advance because it compares to favourably to how her father, the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, did in the Presidential race in 2002. Then, he got 17 percent of the vote in the first round, and barely rose above that in the second as almost all the supporters of other parties voted en bloc for Chirac. This time, Marine Le Pen achieved 21 percent in the first round, and 34 percent in the run-off. This suggests that the Front National and their politics is becoming alarmingly mainstream in France.
However, at the same time it is also a setback – momentum matters as much as the result, and many expected that the Front would do considerably better. Earlier opinion polls suggested they might get over 40% of second round votes, and the idea of a Front National victory was actively discussed. In reality, she got barely a third of the total vote, as the supporters of other parties, including many who had voted for Françoise Fillon, flocked to Macron. To this we must add that around 12 percent of ballots cast were spoiled, which when taken with the non-voters, means fewer voted for Le Pen than voted for neither candidate.
Furthermore, in the first round the gap between Le Pen and the fourth placed Mélenchon was less than 2 percent. It is noticeable that the Socialist candidate Hamon’s final tally was less than the 8 percent or so that pre-election polls were on average showing, suggesting some of his support may have swung Mélenchon’s way at the last minute. If less than 2 percent more of Hamon’s vote had gone the same way, Mélenchon would have come second not Le Pen. Overall this result suggests that the Front National’s momentum may have stalled.
Overall this result suggests that the Front National’s momentum may have stalled. Further evidence can be seen in the French Assembly elections, where the Front got 14% of the vote, a distant third place behind Les Republicains. This does not mean that the Front National should not be taken seriously as a threat, but it clearly shows that the Front has very real challenges in seeking to become the main force on the right. It’s also important to note that the presence of France Insoumise (FI)has the potential to change the situation by providing a genuine alternative from the radical left.
In that context, it is worth looking briefly at a debate that flared on the left during the run-up to the second round. Concern over the possibility of a Le Pen advance made many on the left take the view that the right thing to do was to tactically support Macron. This debate was very similar to that which broke out in 2002, when Chirac faced Le Pen in the second round of that election.
By itself, the question of whether the left should have supported Macron was a somewhat abstract question. Firstly, because how or whether to vote was not the sole question. The other, equally if not more important, was whether – and how – popular mobilisations against Le Pen could be generated of sufficient size that the political terrain could be shifted. Secondly, because for the question of whether to vote Macron or abstain only becomes a concrete one when we ask what this means in practice. It is one thing for leftist activists to vote Macron and to argue for others to do so, whether that among family and friends, or in their workplaces and communities – that would obviously be a very proper thing to do from an individual perspective.
It would have been another thing, however, for left organisations formally and publicly to call for a left vote for Macron. To be clear, the argument being made here is not that this should never be considered when faced with the onset of fascist rule, but the risks that are run in so doing should be properly taken into account. For instance, how would the effort to build popular mobilisations be affected by taking this stance? Would there be pressure for Macron or his spokespeople to be included on platforms at anti-Le Pen rallies? Could such pressure be resisted? Would left organisations taking this position been able to relate to the several thousands of French young people who came out to rally against both Le Pen and Macron? Similarly, making a call for abstention in the second round would also have carried risks of alienating people and splitting the movement.
France Insoumise was much criticised at the time for running a poll of its supporters to ask them how they were going to vote in the second round. A plurality of those who took part in the poll went for abstention, but Mélenchon made no formal call either in support of that position or for a Macron vote. This decision would appear to be vindicated by events. Even with sizeable chunks of Mélenchon’s voting base abstaining, Macron still won by more than expected – a near two to one victory. Meanwhile, France Insoumise, by not taking Macron’s side, were able to maintain their anti-establishment credentials.
As stated above, despite their dramatic advances the Front National achieved less than they were hoping. They now face the prospect of serious divisions within their ranks over the organisation’s future direction. On the night of the elections, Le Pen announced that the party would take ‘a new direction’ and that the name would be changed. This will no doubt meet fierce opposition from the old guard. Jean-Marie Le Pen insisted that he would not allow the Front National’s name to disappear just like that’ and another hardliner Bruno Gollnisch warned that the party must ‘preserve its traditional convictions’. Le Pen has also indicated she will abandon her opposition to the Euro, another potential source of division within the party.
The extent to which the Front faces a crisis is likely to be deepened by the results of the Assembly elections. During the second round of the Presidential vote, senior figures in the party had set a bar of 40 percent of the vote as a measure of success. Similarly, they are arguing that the party should win a minimum of 50 seats to count the Assembly elections as a success – in fact they got only a handful of seats. Although it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen would be deposed in the event of a poor result, divisions would no doubt intensify and a split cannot be ruled out.
However, if the Front National face huge challenges, there are equal if not greater challenges for the radical left. The result of the elections were, for the left as much as the far right, both a defeat and an advance. Mélenchon’s dramatic rise in polls in the last few weeks of the contest was in large part due to his appearances in two TV debates during the first round – echoing the way Jean-Marie Le Pen’s TV appearances put the far right on the map in the 1980s. It turned Mélenchon from an also-ran to a serious contender for the second round.
However, on the day hopes were dashed and Mélenchon came fourth. Similarly, the FI came fourth in the Assembly elections, getting only 11 percent of the vote and around 20 seats. As with the Front, France Insoumise has not succeeded in dramatically expanding its support base.
There is a real question over whether France Insoumise can become a force able to challenge the austerity agenda that Macron will inevitably pursue. To do so requires a mass movement on the streets, not just a presence in parliament and the political system, but there is a serious question mark over whether France Insoumise will be able to take a leading role in constructing this.
FI was launched in early 2016 after Mélenchon broke with the Left Front, an alliance of parties left of the Socialists, including the Communists, his own Left Party, and a number of smaller socialist groups. The crux of this was a dispute between Mélenchon and the Communists over whether to form alliances with the Socialists at local level – something the Communists were keen on but which Mélenchon was firmly against. Wanting to create a left organisation that would seek to replace the Socialists as the main party of the left rather than work with them, Mélenchon launched FI as a loose activist organisation rather than a conventional party. This model was in some ways influenced by the ‘post-Marxist’ ideas of Laclau and Mouffe, who argued against the idea of orthodox class politics in favour of a ‘populist’ strategy that would unite a range of different subaltern groups in society under the banner of ‘the people’ in opposition to ‘the elite’.
Such a broad, loose organisation might on paper to be an excellent way of drawing wide numbers of people into activity, creating an opportunity to found a new social movement. However, it is worth looking in more detail as to how France Insoumise has operated since its creation.
If one takes the process used to decide on the manifesto for the Presidential elections, this entailed an open process whereby FI supporters could submit policy proposals, which were then synthesised – alongside elements of the Left Front’s 2012 manifesto – by a team of ‘rapporteurs’. Although superficially a bottom-up seeming way of deciding on policy, the whole process in practice was controlled by a cadre of key Mélenchon supporters, mostly members of the Left Party.
This reflects deeper criticisms of FI by activists who regard it as overly focused on the personality of Mélenchon, and with few democratic structures. Decision-making at local level was taken by automonous groups of supporters, who were free on paper to do whatever they wished. Centrally, Mélenchon’s inner circle were firmly in control. An organisation of this type is undoubtedly well suited to fighting a campaign around a particular Presidential candidate, but is not the sort of organisation that would work well at all to create the dynamic social movement, focused on genuine mass participation, that is needed to transform the situation in France politically.
To the left of FI stand the revolutionary left organisations. There are two groups of significance here. The first is the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, which was set up in 2009 after the dissolution of the Revolutionary Communist League, the other is Ensemble!, an alliance of revolutionary organisations who had previously been part of the Left Front. The latter supported Mélenchon during the elections, whereas the NPA stood its own candidate, Philippe Poutou.
Both of these organisations are small. The NPA had around 9,000 members at the start of its formation, but has now declined to little more than 2,000. Ensemble! has around 1,500 members. Neither would seem to be in a position to exert more than a relatively marginal effect on the situation.
Finally, we come to the unions. In France, there are a number of union confederations, of which the biggest are the CFDT and the CGT. The latter is the more militant one, with strong historic links to the Communist Party. However, the more moderate CFDT has eclipsed it in size, winning more seats in the last elections to France’s professional bodies. The formerly powerful trade union movement in France has become much weaker in recent years. According to Olivier Besançenot, a former leader of the NPA and a union activist in the postal service, the turning point came after the defeat of mobilisations against Sarkozy’s pension reforms in 2010. Relative quiescence has since been the norm, despite frequent set-piece one day strikes and protests, the mobilisations against the Loi du Travail last year, which also produced the short-lived Nuit Debout movement, being the exception.
All this means that Macron is currently in quite a strong position, a position that is likely to be reinforced if current opinion polls – which suggest his En Marche coalition may get a majority in the Assembly – are borne out. His initial moves have been to construct a relatively broad cabinet, composed of both centre-right and centre-left figures, and to open discussions with the CFDT on proposed labour laws. In terms of the former, his credibility may have been helped by the acceptance of the environment portfolio in Macron’s cabinet by leading environmentalist Nicolas Hulot. A popular figure, Hulot has previously refused to serve in government, despite repeated requests by incoming presidents, and his acceptance of a post under Macron will be regarded as a coup by the new President’s supporters.
Macron nonetheless faces real challenges to implementing his programme, which despite claims of echoing Scandinavian social democracy is an avowedly neoliberal one. His proposed labour reforms, for instance, would represent a sharp curtailment of workers’ rights, and include abolishing the 35 hour week. He also proposes to reduce the French civil service by 100,000 and gut social security.
Opinion polls give Macron only a 45 percent approval rating, the lowest of any new President since 1958. At this stage, Macron appears to be trying hard to avoid an open confrontation. He has opened talks with the CFDT, representing moderate unions, and has declared that he is open to amendments and suggestions, albeit within limits. His strategy would appear to be to divide the workforce and isolate those who would want to mount firm opposition to his proposals. It is important to recognise that, although the difficulties he faces are real, that in using these sorts of tactics, he may very well win out.
The relative weakness of the labour and social movements in France in recent years can only help him. The last two major waves of opposition to neoliberal reform, in 2010 and 2016, were defeated, and although there have been protests since Macron’s election, these appear to have been fairly small. The economy may also help Macron. Consumer confidence is now at the highest in a decade and business confidence at a 6-year peak. Furthermore, unemployment is now at its lowest level for five years.
There is an assumption among much of the left that a Macron presidency, with such a determined neoliberal agenda, will face a major social explosion that can only rebound to the benefit of either the radical left or the right. The slogan ‘Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022’ emerged in the immediate aftermath of the second round, suggesting that Macron, far from being a barrier to fascism, would be its enabler by stoking precisely the resentment that the Front National feeds on. Similarly, one will find commentaries describing Mélenchon’s vote as signifying a huge opportunity for the left. To be sure, these are both very real possibilities, but neither are inevitable. Macron is the neoliberal centre’s best hope yet of stemming the tide of what they would call ‘populism’, not only in France but elsewhere. Macron faces real challenges, but they are not necessarily insuperable ones. It may well be that in May 2022 we face not a Le Pen victory, or a resurgent radical left, but a confident Macron heading towards a second term.
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[JR1]I’ve changed the wording a little, given UKIP’s performance on June 8th