The French Presidential Poll in Perspective: Part One

Susan Ram

THE election of Emmanuel Macron as president of France has received a rapturous welcome across much of the mainstream media as well as in the boardrooms and financial markets of international capital.

In the second round of the presidential poll, held on Sunday May 7, Macron trounced his opponent, Marine Le Pen of the fascist Front National, gaining 66.1 percent of the valid votes against 33.9 percent for Le Pen.  The scale of his victory has been greeted with relief, and in many quarters it is being presented as some sort of revalidation of France’s credentials as a liberal democracy committed to core republican values (among them liberty, equality and fraternity).

The reality is in fact remote from this comfort zone. Over the past few weeks, the election process has lifted the lid on deep divisions within French society, ruptures resulting from a thorough-going economic and political crisis.

At the most visible level, the political and constitutional arrangements that have been in place since 1958 (the founding of the Fifth Republic) are under pressure as never before; a two-party system dominated by mainstream parties of the centre left and centre right is disintegrating before our eyes; and the extreme Right is exerting formidable muscle power in its bid to present itself as a ‘legitimate’ political alternative.

Beneath this lies a profound structural problem,attributable in part to the operation of French capitalism but accentuated and rendered intractable by the economic straitjacket imposed by the European Union (EU). In France as across much of Europe, national governments must answer to the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when making economic decisions. They face demands to reduce budgetary deficits by cutting government spending (including on health care and pensions) and reducing public-sector employment, and to ‘liberate’ the labour market by undermining job security and slashing away at workers’ hard-won protections and gains.

This no-option-but-austerity imperative is evident in the IMF’s 2016 Article IV consultation for France, as well as the Stability Programme that France has signed up to with the EU. These documents insist that France freeze real spending and commit to reducing its budgetary deficit to zero by 2021. This rules out any effort by a French government to reduce mass unemployment, which is around 10 percent but rises significantly among young workers. Also debarred is any significant programme of public investment, hence any realistic prospect of economic stimulus.

A look back over the past few decades reveals a succession of French political leaders falling victim to the iron dictates of neoliberalism and tumbling at the wayside. The most recent example is François Hollande of the centre-left Socialist Party (PS), who was swept to power on a surge of optimistic expectations in the last presidential poll in 2012. While confident predictions were made about his ability to utilise his overwhelming mandate to propel France to better things, it did not take long for Hollande’s approval ratings to plumb previously unreached depths. His government became indissolubly linked in people’s minds with intractable high unemployment, repeated assaults on working people’s rights, ill-conceived foreign adventures (Libya among them) and (since 2015) a permanent state of emergency. French presidents routinely stand for a second term in office, but in Hollande’s case this option was blocked by the party establishment, making him the first president of the Fifth Republic to ‘relinquish’ this right.

The sway of neoliberalism has also impacted the relationship between traditional parties and their mass base. In the case of the SP, a hollowing-out process is evident, with a socialist-leaning base (including many trade unionists) finding itself increasingly at odds with the party leadership. This discontent boiled over at the primary the party held in January to select its presidential candidate. Instead of backing the ‘official’ choice – Manuel Valls, prime minister under Hollande and the architect of core elements of his anti-worker programme -- party members and supporters opted for a candidate from the party’s left wing, Benoît Hamon. This was the cue for key operators on the party’s right, Valls among them, to jump ship and join forces with Macron.

A parallel process of division and disintegration is evident over on the centre-right, within the party now renamed as Les Républicains (formerly the UMP). Here, too, political impotency in the context of EU-enforced neoliberal policies is wreaking havoc, with the addition of jaw-dropping levels of corruption to spice things up. Once again, the choice of a US-style primary to select a presidential candidate was akin to opening a Pandora’s Box: the ‘moderate’ favoured by the party big-wigs was passed over in favour of Francois Fillon, champion of the party’s right-wing base. Supposedly a man of rectitude and high principle, Fillon was soon revealed to be anything but; within weeks he was under formal investigation for the wholesale misuse of public funds (specifically payments of roughly one million euros to his British wife for purely notional work). Undaunted, he battled on – triggering many of his campaign supporters to abandon him and fatally weakening his party’s effort to get through to the second round of the presidential poll.

The turmoil and hollowing-out evident within both of France’s mainstream parties has thus created a vacuum, an opening which has enabled other forces to seize the initiative and join battle. Perhaps at the risk of oversimplification, I would identify three such forces.

The first, represented by the victorious Macron, is what the British Marxist Tariq Ali has described as the “extreme centre”: a “dictatorship of capital that has reduced political parties to the status of the living dead” with centre-left and centre-right colluding to preserve the status quo. Young, telegenic and charming, Macron is the embodiment of neoliberalism as defined and enforced by European and global finance. Backed by an army of tech-savvy enthusiasts organised into what is characterised as a ‘movement’ rather than a party, the president-elect is casting himself as the new broom required to sweep away the detritus of the past and get France ‘enmarche’ (on the move). Adept at coining pleasing but empty phrases (“What France needs is more young people who want to become billionaires”; “Who cares about programmes? What counts is vision!”), he pursues a strategy whose content and overtones are eerily reminiscent of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK. As an ardent free marketer and champion of the EU, Macron upholds the free movement of labour as well as capital and is a devotee of social liberalism. A former banker at Rothschild’s, he served as a minister under Hollande, in which role he spearheaded (and lent his name to) a raft of legislation targeting key protections for workers.

While seeking to style himself as ‘above’ or ‘outside’ traditional politics, Macron in fact constitutes its newest incarnation.

The second force, vicious and deadly dangerous, is the Front National (FN), unbowed after its electoral defeat and spoiling for action. Since wresting control of the party away from her father (the unabashed racist and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen), Marine Le Pen has focused on detoxifying the FN, whose roots reach back to the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazi occupiers of France during the Second World War. This masquerading effort has involved a rebranding of the party and a carefully calculated courtship of those taking the brunt of austerity, in particular working-class communities in the northeast, France’s old industrial heartland, and young people confronting years of unemployment. In tandem with this “I feel your pain” theme, with its contrived but sharply pitched anti-EU message, Le Pen emits copious quantities of ultra-nationalism, racism, Islamophobia, militarism and allusions to what she calls “French values”. It was on this basis that she made it through to the run-off of the presidential poll, albeit with a lower percentage of support (21. percent of first round votes) than had been projected.

That Le Pen performed significantly below expectations (both her own and those of media pundits) has everything to do with the third force that has thrust itself forward so thrillingly   over the past few weeks: the anti-capitalist Left. The cannon ball at the centre of this magnificent charge has been Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his movement La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). On the basis of an incendiary campaign which mobilised tens of thousands of Left activists and many new to politics, Mélenchon has succeeded in three essential tasks: holding the fascist offensive at bay, projecting a Red-Green alternative, and demonstrating a readiness and capacity on the part of the Left to take power.

How this has been achieved will be explored in the second part of this article, which will also take a more detailed look at the French Left.

 

*Susan Ram is a journalist and Left activist based in south-west France

 


Declaration of the French Communist Party

On French Presidential Elections

 

THIS evening, the candidate from the National Front was roundly defeated. What a relief! 65 percent of French voters refused to elect a head of state who promotes ideas of hatred and division, a project that is racist and xenophobic, and public policy that is violently discriminatory, economically liberal, and belligerent.

As Communists, we are proud to have worked with resolve to defeat the far right, for we know that the National Front project continues to threaten the Republic and our unity.

But tonight, we are not in the mood to celebrate. Our country is living through dark days. This second round, once again, sounds a serious alarm for all citizens who feel strongly about protecting our democracy and preserving equality. Marine Le Pen obtained a score of 35 percent, which is 14 percent more than her first-round score.  

This is the result of the “normalisation” of extreme right ideas; we are more determined than ever to fight them. This is also the result of decades of complacent political alternation to the detriment of the public interest, and of successive administrations’ betrayal and abandonment of the people.

Tonight, we share the deep-seated anger of the millions of people who felt ambushed by this second round. An ambush organised by the worn-out, perverse workings of the 5th Republic. In the future, we do not want to have to be obliged to vote by default to defeat the far right. We never want to see the far right in such a position again.

For this reason, we must build up to the victory of a genuine political change that will free France from the clutches of financial markets, that will put “humans first”, that will attack the domination of finance by granting new powers on all levels, opening the path to a new society of happiness, solidarity, justice, environmental preservation, peace and equality.

It is not Emmanuel Macron, the candidate chosen by the world of finance and elected president this night, who will follow this path of progressive policies. He wants to commodify everything in society. His election is a feeble one. Millions of voters who cast ballots for Macron were above all seeking to block Marine Le Pen.

In the first round, many voted for Macron in the hope of avoiding a run-off between Fillon and Le Pen. Only a minority of citizens actually support his programme, which promises serious social and democratic regression.

What remains to be done is the construction of an alternative for the social, environmental and democratic transformation of public policy and the formation of a new majority to carry it forward. As of tomorrow, and throughout the five-year presidential mandate, Communists will be mobilised to push ahead, along with all forces of the Left that are willing.

The announced destruction of the French Labour Code will diminish workers’ rights; we will fight for job security and training to eliminate unemployment and social precarity, by giving employees new powers in businesses and giving banks more power over financial markets.

The attack on pensions and the privatisation of Social Security have been proposed in Macon’s programme through the elimination of social contributions; we will set up a plan to defend and develop Social Security.

Macron has called for a 60-billion euro cut in public spending and the elimination of 120,000 civil service positions; we offer a plan for revitalising local public services in all fields.

Executive orders are used by authoritarians; we will fight for democratic rule.

We will be present in all battles against the anti-social programme Macron is promoting, against the ultra-reactionary projects of the right and the far right.

* * *

It is in this spirit that we approach the legislative elections to be held on June 11 and 18. The French Communist Party is fully engaged. No parliamentary majority has yet been formed by any party. In five weeks, our people will have a new opportunity to decide on our present and our future.

On the strength of the votes of millions of citizens for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the presidential elections on April 23, and with all the forces that supported his candidacy and those that may join us, we can go far towards electing a National Assembly that will truly represent us and constitute a new majority for action.

United, we can win in many districts. Without unity, our electoral gains will be limited and leave room for more MPs from Macron’s “En Marche!” movement, the right and the far right. We have a major shared responsibility to voters of the left and from the environmental movement. These voters are eager for a united front.

To achieve this, we need a broad national agreement, fair and representative, under a single banner that unites all: France Insoumise, Communist Party, Ensemble!, and the Left Front.

This corresponds to the hopes and aspirations of the majority of voters who cast their ballots for Jean-Luc Mélenchon on April 23. The Communist Party is ready to enter into such an agreement.

In all cases, united we can act to block the National Front’s path in many districts where there is a danger that the party might take firm root.

We can choose the candidate who will maximise our chances of winning in each voting district. This evening, we are once again sending a solemn appeal to the political leaders of La France Insoumise: it is not too late to reach such a national agreement. We are prepared, if our ambition is not shared, to reach more limited agreements. We call for dialogue across the nation in the coming hours.

Our party has a goal for these legislative elections: Bring the people into the Assembly. The Communist – Left Front candidates whom we support are from the France of working people, from the public and private sectors, from all trades and professions, union leaders, involved citizens from all walks of life and origins, young candidates bringing a breath of fresh air to politics as well as women and men of experience who have served in elected office locally.

 Alongside these supporters, on May 11 at 7 pm, Pierre Laurent will launch our national campaign during a major rally at the Japy gymnasium in Paris. Let us remain strong and united as of today, to continue the combat against the far right and push back isolationist ideas.

 Let us remain strong and united as of now, to engage in resistance and advance projects that offer an alternative to the dismantling of social protection and the exacerbation of inequalities that the new president plans to implement.

Let us realise the promise of a new left in France, a promise born in the ballot box on April 23.

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