How did France get here?

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The second round of the French presidential election will see a fascist run off against a neoliberal centrist. Jad Bouharoun gives context to this bleak battle.

Neoliberal investment banker Emmanuel Macron will face off against fascist Front National’s (FN) Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election on 7 May. Radical veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s insurgent left campaign attracted a huge audience and a significant share of the vote, but this didn’t prove enough to secure him a place in the second round.

Centre-right Les Républicain’s (LR) François Fillon came slightly ahead of Mélenchon and was also eliminated after a chaotic campaign plagued by corruption scandals. Labour-type Parti Socialiste’s (PS) Benoît Hamon came very far behind as his soft-left programme lacked Mélenchon’s radical appeal but provided an opportunity for high-profile defections towards Macron.

Never before have both candidates of the two main parties failed to reach the second round.

Le Pen secured more votes than ever before and the shape of the future parliament, to be elected in June, is uncertain to say the least.

The meteoric rise of euroliberal mascot Emmanuel Macron does little to hide the political crisis of the French ruling class.

Hollande in office

Outgoing PS president François Hollande won the 2012 presidential elections beating LR incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, whose austerity policies in times of soaring unemployment earned him record low levels of popularity (Hollande has since beaten those records). Hollande vowed to reduce the debt and stimulate growth but failed on both accounts and by early 2014 he was announcing a turn to the right with austerity policies and tax breaks for companies in order to stem the rise of unemployment.

He confirmed this shift a few months later by making Manuel Valls the prime minister after the defeat of the PS in local elections. Valls stood on the right wing of the PS and had earned himself a tough-on-crime reputation during his stint as interior minister. He named none other than Macron minister of economy and finance and Hamon minister of education. The latter was sacked in late August 2014 for publicly opposing the government’s austerity policies.

Valls made no secret of his affinities with MEDEF, the employers’ federation; this was coherent with his economic policy of privileging supply over demand. In other words he sought to subsidise companies via tax breaks and pay for it by imposing cuts that reduced the income of ordinary people.

Then came the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, leading Hollande to proclaim national unity and illustrate it by a solemn march for “peace and freedom”. Every state institution and political party except the revolutionary left took part in the republican parade, as did millions of ordinary people.

Hollande sought to exploit the legitimate shock and anger in order to unite the nation behind the state and the ruling class. He used the cover of so called republican values to promote Islamophobia and increase police surveillance and repression. A few weeks after the attacks, the Macron law was introduced. It contained limited free-market reforms and attacks on workers’ rights.

Workers responded with a series of strikes and demonstrations that were met by police violence. After calling a national day of action in April 2015 and mobilising 150,000 demonstrators in Paris, the union bureaucracy, still groggy on patriotic fumes, dampened the movement and brought it to a halt. However, the pressure from below had invigorated a minority of left PS MPs who rejected the law, thus depriving Valls of his majority; he therefore decided to pass the law without a vote.

The rise of Le Pen

In spite of the neoliberal reforms and the tax breaks granted to bosses, the economy remained anaemic and unemployment was on the rise again. Hollande’s approval ratings were at a historic low of 20 percent, despite a temporary surge after the attacks. It was Le Pen who had topped the polls with a 30 percent approval rating in January 2015, feeding on the state-sponsored Islamophobic and nationalist rhetoric as well as the long-term damage created by unemployment and economic decline.

Indeed, over the years the fascist FN saw its racist and reactionary ideas gradually normalised by the mainstream parties of the ruling class. At the same time Marine Le Pen was seeking to distance herself from her father’s crude antisemitism and “biological racism” which repulsed most voters, to turn towards the newly legitimised form of cultural racism: Islamophobia. But the FN remains a citadel of “old-school” antisemitism — most of its members admit to having racist views towards Jews (among others).

Le Pen’s party did not depart from its fascist nature but sought to adapt its discourse and appeal to a political and ideological scene that was shifting to the right. Despite having achieved some measure of success in this, the tension between the fascist core and the glossy cover is permanent.

Up to 400 of the 1,500 councillors recently elected on an FN ticket have quit, citing the Nazi mood that prevailed among the cadres. Not to be outdone by Fillon’s homophobic and nationalist campaign, Le Pen recently declared that France held no responsibility for the infamous “Vel d’Hiv Roundup” during the Second World War, when the French cops rounded up tens of thousands of Jews to send them to Nazi death camps.

Moreover, while the FN does not openly mobilise street fighting squads, it maintains an overly bloated “security service” through which it has real links with neo-Nazi groups throughout the country.

Hollande’s economic woes continued throughout 2015 and 2016. After the terrorist attacks in November that killed over 100 people he passed an emergency law that loosened the police’s leash under the pretence of fighting terror.

As expected, Muslims were the first victims of the new police powers, with thousands of raids and searches arbitrarily targeting their communities. But Hollande also used the emergency law to target green, far-left and trade union activists, most notably in the build up to the COP 21 climate change conference that December.

There were hints that the French ruling class sought to use the shock of the terror attacks to impose a long-term authoritarian turn to quell any dissent.

Resistance from below

This became clear with the mobilisation against the proposed neoliberal labour law in the spring of 2016.

Strikes hit strategic sectors like ports, oil refineries, transports and various public services. Hundreds of thousands of workers, trade unionists and left activists mobilised on the streets and faced off never before seen levels of police repression.

Activists also faced a media barrage in favour of the new law, despite polls repeatedly showing that more than 70 percent of people opposed it. The mobilisation, while significant, did not manage to reach a critical mass to force the government to yield. Once again the apathy of the trade union bureaucracy watered down the movement.

At the same time, the Nuit Debout movement was under way. It emerged as a left-leaning middle class movement that occupied squares during the state of emergency. Its political trigger was the unease with which many youths welcomed the ruling class’s reaction to the terror attacks and its ramping up of Islamophobia, authoritarianism and war.

But Nuit Debout also expressed the deeper worries of a generation that feels it will pay the price for the secular stagnation of French capitalism.

After the workers and the middle class youth came the turn of the banlieues youth who are mostly of immigrant origin. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place: between unemployment and second-grade public services on the one hand, and police repression and racism on the other. They rebelled against police violence in the months leading up to the elections and were joined by many left activists.

The electoral campaign

In the run-up to the 2017 elections, the two mainstream political parties held their open primaries to nominate a candidate.

Fillon beat both former president Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé to secure the nomination of centre-right party LR in November 2016. Also a conservative Catholic, Fillon benefited from the support of the provincial bourgeoisie as well as the voters who coalesced around the large demonstrations against gay marriage in 2013.

Fillon’s programme included radical neoliberal reforms to restore the profitability of French capital by slashing workers’ rights and cutting corporation tax as well as the loss of half a million civil servants’ jobs. He promised MEDEF he would adopt those reforms in a “legislative blitzkrieg” (his words) during the first 100 days of his term.

Fillon led the polls for a short while but his campaign took a heavy blow when newspapers revealed in January 2017 that he had paid hundreds of thousands of euros of public money to his wife for a job she did not do. His ratings took a beating and he was confronted by dozens of Les Républicains MPs and cadres who demanded he stepped down.

Battered on all sides, Fillon fell back on the hard core of his traditionalist homophobic supporters. With them he maintained a certain momentum in his campaign and eventually managed to rally his reluctant party behind him as it had nowhere else to go. He ended up coming third with around 20 percent of the vote, having lost much of his initial support to Macron.

Thus the mainstream right party got knocked out in the first round in a historic first; LR goes into the parliamentary elections with no clear leadership and no clear idea of the challenge that Macron will represent.

The unravelling of Hamon’s candidacy was more predictable but no less significant. Having won the January 2017 Parti Socialiste primary on a soft-left ticket against Valls, whose neoliberal policies and racist rhetoric were rejected en masse, Hamon had an uphill battle ahead of him. He was in the unenviable position of being the candidate of the party of François Hollande, the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic.

Leading PS figures, Valls included, defected towards neoliberal Macron, and so did most of Hollande’s 2012 voters, seeing in the media-hyped centrist the surest way to beat Le Pen.

To his left, Hamon lost out to the more radical Mélenchon. Hamon ended up gathering a little over 6 percent of the vote, against over 19 percent for Mélenchon who came a solid fourth after Fillon.

Veteran leftist Mélenchon founded the “Unsubmissive France” (France Insoumise) network of supporters to spread his message across the country. He gave his campaign discourse a populist tint, openly seeking inspiration from Podemos in Spain. But his programme was unmistakably one of radical left reformism: he promised to tackle inequalities by taxing the rich, to invest in public services and embark the country on a “great ecological transition” that would create a million jobs.

Mélenchon also seized upon the alienation of many from institutionalised politics by proposing radical democratic reforms like reducing the president’s powers and the possible recalling of elected officials.

Mélenchon therefore led an insurgent campaign on a programme of left reforms to the existing system: he seeks to fix capitalism and make it work for most people rather than replace it, and he claims to incarnate the humanist and universalist bourgeois republican tradition. This explains his references to the French Revolution and his ill-fated attempts to revive the long-expired revolutionary credentials of the Marseillaise.

In spite of these contradictions that are inherent in reformism, Mélenchon attracted a large audience in the last few weeks of his campaign. He finished first among the youth and the unemployed (categories that were promised to Le Pen by pollsters) and second only to Le Pen among manual workers and the poor.

These categories also tended to have the lowest turnout, reflecting the desperation and apathy that were created by years of betrayal by the mainstream left. Mélenchon also led Macron by more than 20 points in the Seine-Saint-Denis department in the suburbs of Paris, the poorest French mainland department and the one with the highest proportion of immigrants.

This leaves us with Macron, the 39 year old winner of the first round, and perhaps the most enigmatic of all candidates.

Virtually unknown before he joined Valls’s government in 2014, he had graduated from the prestigious ENA school (like most of France’s mainstream politicians and top civil servants) and worked as an investment banker.

Yet he managed to pose as the anti-system candidate! Immensely inflated by the media, Macron is the perfect product of neoliberalism: he is free from the ideological baggage of the centre-right and centre-left parties and cloaks his policies behind technocratic talk of “good governance”.

He benefited from the mainstream right and left’s disastrous campaigns and emerged as an empty synthesis of the two. His electoral appeal worked on the well to do upper middle class voters but also on more traditional leftists who saw in him the only way to stop Le Pen, as well as on right wing voters who were repulsed by Fillon’s hard right turn.

Thus the Macron bubble has survived the first round of the presidential elections.

The second round and beyond

After the first round, Fillon and Hollande were quick to rally behind Macron and called on their supporters to do the same in order to block Le Pen’s road to office.

Le Pen unfolded her tactic for the second round by temporarily stepping down from the FN’s presidency — leaving it in the safe hands of Holocaust denier Jean-François Jalkh — to “appeal to all the French”.

Instead of preaching to her racist choir, she manoeuvred around Macron’s weak flank and attacked him for his neoliberal policies. This makes sense: Marine Le Pen’s appeal is strongest in the regions that were hit hard by long-term economic decline and abandoned by an apathetic left.

Of course, Le Pen is a liar. She feeds on the desperation of the disenfranchised but her recent record shows that she ultimately seeks to defend French capitalism — even if said capitalists aren’t yet convinced — with a programme of authoritarianism and division.

This is why the left should be careful not to throw itself on the much-hyped Macron bandwagon of republicanism. It is necessary to vehemently oppose Le Pen’s election, but via an insurgent campaign that will expose the FN for what it really is.

The CGT and the far-left have already called for massive anti Le Pen demonstrations for May Day. At the time of writing, Mélenchon was yet to announce his stance, having called a consultation of his Unsubmissive France supporters. Let us hope that his voting recommendations will be subordinated to the radical struggle against Le Pen, rather than a “republican unity” with the ruling class.

The past couple of years have shown that a significant minority of the working class as well as the banlieues youth were up for a fight. The electoral campaign showed that radical left ideas retained a massive appeal and could pull the anti-system rug from below the FN’s feet. If elected, Macron’s neoliberal programme will only reproduce the conditions of the rise of the fascists unless the left and the working class can organise an anti-racist, anti-austerity, fighting alternative.

Jad Bouharoun is a socialist based in Paris