How to interpret the outcome of the 2017 French presidential elections? At one level, a sense of relief prevails: the commanding victory of Emmanuel Macron, the ‘centrist’ candidate, over Marine Le Pen of the fascist Front National appears a revalidation of France’s status as a liberal democracy committed to certain core values, among them liberty of association and expression, the rule of law, and social solidarity, including the repudiation of racism, ultra-nationalism, homophobia and other forms of division. And, indeed, the scale of Macron’s triumph impresses: he gained 66.1% of the valid votes, against 33.9% for Le Pen.
But a closer look at the figures, in the context of the events that have framed the campaign, encourages more cautious conclusions. To start with, Sunday’s vote stood out for the very high level of abstention: 25.44% of eligible voters did not turn out at all, the highest percentage for a second round presidential poll since 1969. Of those who voted, historically unprecedented numbers spoiled their ballots or left them blank; by some estimates, 8.8% of the electorate registered their protest in this way. And it would be dangerous to minimise the scale of Le Pen’s second round electoral achievement: gaining more than 11 million votes for a party intimately and indissolubly connected with the jackboot that was the Nazi occupation of France just a few decades ago.
Above all, this election both highlights and exemplifies the political turmoil in which France is currently engulfed. The two big parties which have dominated the show for the past 40 or so years are both in meltdown and the political-constitutional system itself, as enshrined by the Fifth Republic inaugurated in 1958, appears in the grip of terminal decline.
Changing the guard
On the centre left, the Parti Socialist (PS) is struggling to survive the hollowing-out process it has suffered over recent decades, most brutally under Francois Hollande. Elected to the presidency by an overwhelming mandate in 2012, Hollande squandered this advantage, throwing the country to the wolves of intractable unemployment, determined assaults on working people’s rights, ill-conceived foreign adventures, and (since 2015) a permanent state of emergency. His dismal approval ratings made it impossible for him to stand for a second term, making him the first president of the Fifth Republic to relinquish this right. Dissatisfaction within the PS erupted in the party primary at the start of this year, when party members and supporters rejected Manuel Valls, prime minister under Hollande and the architect of core elements of his agenda, in favour of a candidate from the party’s left wing, Benoît Hamon. This was the cue for key party operators on the party’s right, Valls among them, to jump ship and join forces with Macron.
Over on the centre right, the decision by Les Républicains to hold a US-style primary to select a presidential candidate likewise revealed, and speeded up, a process of inner decay. Again, the candidate favoured by the party establishment – in this case, the ‘moderate’ Alain Juppé, whose experience and nous were judged to make him the strongest choice against Le Pen – was passed over. The surprise victor was Francois Fillon, a champion of austerity burnished by what was thought to be a “squeaky-clean” reputation for rectitude. In January, this notion was blown apart by some exemplary investigative journalism by a French satirical weekly, which published a sequence of revelations about Fillon family nest-feathering, specifically payments of roughly one million euros of public funds to Fillon’s British wife for purely notional work. By mid-March, Candidate Fillon was under formal investigation for misuse of public funds, fraud, forgery and falsification of records. Undaunted and defiant, he battled on, triggering a haemorrhage of support from within the party and sealing the fate of his party’s bid to get through to the second round of the presidential poll.
But the vacuum created by the coterminous collapse of France’s two dominant mainstream parties provides only part of the picture. Underlying the current crisis is the neoliberal economic path imposed by a politico-economic oligarchy determined to destroy what remains of the social and economic gains made by French working people during the immediate post-war decades.
Business as usual
Three forces are now in contention and will dominate French politics over the coming period.
The first, represented by the victorious Macron, is what has been described as the ‘extreme centre’: the bid to keep France firmly on neoliberal course. While throughout his campaign Macron sought to present himself as a new broom and as an ‘outsider’ untainted by the ordure of politics, the former banker is in fact deeply implicated in the politics of austerity: while serving as economy minister under Hollande he lent his name to a package of legislation (Macron’s law) which savaged key protections for workers, including lay-off procedures and labour tribunals. Macron’s aim is to carry this project forward, all in the name of ‘modernisation’.
The second force, vicious and deadly dangerous, is the Front National, unbowed after its electoral defeat and spoiling for further battles. Since wresting control of the FN away from her father (the unabashed racist and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen), Marine Le Pen has skilfully focused on detoxifying the party and rebranding it as anti-establishment, anti-globalisation and the incarnation of French ‘values’. On this basis, the FN has been able to make inroads into sections of French society that feel abandoned: for example, old working-class communities in the northeast, once France’s industrial heartland, and young people confronting years of unemployment. The party also makes deft use of racist divide and rule, particularly in relation to people of north African origin, many of them Muslim by faith or culture.
This is where the significance of the third force comes in: the anti-capitalist Left, in particular the mobilisation around Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his movement La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). The real surprise of the presidential campaign (at least for media pundits and the political establishment) was Mélenchon’s supercharged rise over its closing weeks. Feisty, impassioned and eloquent, he took the campaign by storm, wresting it away from the realm of platitudes and soundbites to bring it face to face with real issues and the alienation and anger of voters across the land. Although unable to achieve a break-through to the second round, he won the support of more than seven million voters in round one, in the process pulling some working-class and young voters away from Le Pen’s siren calls.
Post-election France can best be understood in terms of these three fiercely contending forces: a new president strengthening his sinews and summoning up his blood to carry the neoliberal project forward; a fascist attuned to every trick in the book to pursue her own anti-democratic agenda; and an anti-capitalist left that, through energetic, inventive campaigning, has helped keep the fascist beast thus far at bay.
Next month’s elections to the National Assembly (national parliament) will provide another arena in which to watch these forces at play.
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