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Mainstream, VOL LV No 22 New Delhi May 20, 2017

French Presidential Elections 2017: Macron’s Victory offers a Much-needed Reprieve against Narrow Nationalism

Saturday 20 May 2017, by Harsh Kapoor


by Harsh Kapoor

In the April 23 first round of the French elections, the established parties were eliminated, leaving two final contenders in the final round of May 7—one was Emmanuel Macron (a former Economy Minister/a cosmopolitan political novice) representing his newly created movement called ‘En Marche’ [On the Move] and the other was Marine Le Pen, the leader of the forty-year-old Front Nationale (FN) [an anti-immigrant and anti-European party of the far Right]. Two opposing conceptions of France were in the race. Macron won in a landslide with 66 per cent of the vote, yet many voted for him simply to keep Le Pen out of power.

Macron’s victory over Le Pen is certainly good news for France and a post-Brexit Europe, but it is naïve to see this electoral defeat of the FN as the beginning of the end for hateful identity politics in France. Let us say a storm has passed for now, but the dark clouds loom large.

Fifteen years ago when in a similar situation Jean Marie Le Pen, the founding leader of the National Front, had reached the presidential run-off, one-and-a-half million people in France had marched on the streets calling for a resounding ‘no’ to the FN. A Republican Front of all parties, Left and Right, was formed and the FN was defeated by a record 82 per cent votes in 2002. That was then; today there is comparably little political mobilisation possible against the FN which has been normalised.

Macron, the Maverick’s Big Gamble

Macron hails emotionally from the Left, is a social liberal democrat who stands for enlightenment ideals, opposing racism and xenophobia, and offers hope in a common European future by attacking economic isolation as a reactionary idea. The alliance he built is made up of free-market elites, Centrists and social democrats.

Macron is bitterly hated by unions for the labour reform law he brought in under the Socialist Party Government he was once part of but has humanist convictions and has had the moral courage to publicly say that: ‘Colonisation is a part of French history. It is a crime, a crime against humanity ... it belongs to a past that we must face up to, while offering an apology to the people who were on the receiving end.’

Macron, the finance man, is a fine example of the educational intellectual rigour of people who constitute French political elites (unlike the RSS chaiwala in India, who farts loud about how there was plastic surgery in ancient times, or that Trumpeteer in the USA, famous as a real estate salesman and television showman, who sees climate change as a conspiracy). His philosophy thesis was on Hegel’s philosophy supervised by Etienne Balibar (a junior of Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher); he was Paul Ricoeur’s editorial assistant when Ricoeur was writing his book, La mémoire, l’histoire et l’oubli. Macron’s ideas are inspired by the works of John Rawls and Amartya Sen on the notions of justice and equality of chances and capabilities.

The Far Right, its Banalisation and National Presence

The two main established political parties in France have been losing steam with the people and facing discredit over their policies and have been ceding ground to anti-establishment and ant-immigrant, anti-European, anti-globalisation sentiment.

French parties failed to draw the lessons from that shock of 2002; instead of trying to combat the FN’s ideas, politicians had focused on shutting them out of power. In 2007 Sarkozy kept Le Pen out of the run-off, but only by peddling identity politics to court the FN voters. The FN’s big achievement was Le Pen-isation of other parties. For its part, the Left resorted only to scaremongering. Instead, the French needed to take identity politics head-on, actively educating and cultivating an open, secular, pro-European society, that was facing terrorist violence and a xenophobic backlash from the far Right.

In France, the Front National (FN) has been the key beneficiary of this trend, becoming the main party of the working class over the past years. Nearly half the working-class votes in the 2017 presidential elections went to Le Pen, over 40 per cent of them belonging to the lower socio-economic categories and less educated.

With the exceptions of two big regions, the FN everywhere scored above 10 per cent of the vote. It scored above its national average in fiftyfive départements of France, and got over 30 per cent in twelve regions.

Eleven million people voted for Marine Le Pen in 2017, twice the number her father got in 2002. The FN has become socially acceptable and big, it’s there to stay. It has to be defeated at the level of ideas—with secular and universal values. Remember, you can’t fight Fascism every five years.

The Left

Till the mid-1980s the Communist Party was a mass party and had a considerable electoral weight. All that is long gone and sunk. The Socialists from the 1980s have been shifting ground to the Right making their economic policies more market-friendly and unable to refashion themselves in the wake of globalisation. A heavily divided and sectarian far Left has been around with its all-purpose explanations based on imperialism, war and globalisation and functions with highly simplified binaries unable to move beyond national frontiers and go international and pan-European. The strategy of opposition between “the people” and “the oligarchy” is dangerously simple and ambiguous and offers little in the form of practicable politics. If we build the “people” around a charismatic leader, the self-organisation and self-education of citizens are necessarily relegated to the last level. The Left and associated trade unions have not paid due attention to the rising xenophobia, rising nationalism and racism, and have been losing a lot of its membership to the far Right National Front. The far Right has been stealing the Left language on critiquing the policies of the European Union (EU). A shared repertoire has come into play.

The Left faction within the Socialist Party managed to propel its candidate, Benoit Hamon, as the official candidate in the 2017 presidential elections. He came to an understanding with the Greens but could not convince the far Left Jean-Luc Melanchon for a tie-up.

In a hugely successful campaign former Trostkyist and MEP Jean-Luc Melenchon got 19.6 per cent votes and the Socialist, Hamon, got six per cent. If they had allied they would have been in the top seat. For the 2017 elections Melenchon had created a new political movement called La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). The name has a disturbing resonance with the sovereignty-obsessed National Front crowd. The red flags slowly replaced the French national flag at his mass rallies and the Internationale got dropped making way for the “Marseillaise” (French national anthem) at the end of meetings (Le Pen’s party, which made it to the final round, actively courted voters of Melanchon and those of the far Left, playing up the anti-European Union/anti-globalisation plank similarities in their programmes.) [Do readers in India recall how the BJP was opposed to opening up of retail trade, insurance to multinational firms etc... a shared language with the Left? How similar the demands of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch were with sections of the Left on questions of national sovereignty!]

The decision of Melanchon and many on the Left [including the London-based Left media star Tariq Ali who argued for Brexit] calling for mass abstention in the final round of the French elections by equating Macron and Le Pen is inexcusable [remember how many of Bernie Sanders’ voters chose not to vote for Hillary Clinton and how the chou-chou of the Left, Julian Assange, used Wikileaks to damage Clinton]. The imperative to oppose racism and hate should have been above opposition to neoliberal policies. [Not a specific trait of the French Left, remember how long our own big Left party in India has kept saying the Congress and the BJP are the same thing!]

The parliamentary elections are due in June in France. This provides a big opportunity to the are progressives to get substantial numbers, but there bad signs... the Communist Party, ‘La France Insoumise’ have no common understanding. The Left is awfully good at sectarianism.

Much is at stake. The challenge from Le Pen did not begin with this election and it will not end with her defeat. The FN has a stable base and has an edge over a divided Left.

The coming weeks will be crucial. As President, Macron needs the backing of the legislature. His party, La République en Marche! (LRM), has a weak chance of winning an overall majority. There is a crying need of a progressive Opposition to act as a countervailing power and to ensure that reform happens via dialogue and consultation. The focus should be on creating jobs. The unemployment rate is close to 10 per cent; for those under 25, it has been above 20 per cent since 2009.

Among Macron’s programme plans are: unifying the country’s 35 public pension systems, cutting public spending and trimming 120,000 civil-service jobs. His big proposal to loosen the labour market could provoke huge social tensions.

Macron’s more ambitious idea is towards a euro-zone fiscal union. This could enable permanent fiscal transfers from the stronger countries to countries that are disadvantaged by the euro-zone’s common monetary policy. A common euro-zone budget is to be financed by contributions from member-states’ tax receipts. This is to counter uneven development of economies in Europe. Macron’s presidency depends on European cooperation and it could also revitalise the European project.

The point for the Left democrats is to recognise that there is greater democratic space under a liberal Centrist regime than one driven by the far Right nationalism.

(The author is an independent commentator who spent several decades in France)

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