France: a new era of instability
An electoral earthquake
The ‘centrist’ Emmanuel Macron (23.9%) and far-right Marine Le Pen (21.4%) will face each other off in the second round of the presidential election on May 7. Neither of France’s hitherto dominant parties made it: traditional right-wing François Fillon comes third with 20%, when Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon scores a humiliating 6.4%. Radical left Jean-Luc Mélenchon comes fourth with 19.6% after a meteoric rise.
It seems that we are witnessing in France what happened in other European countries following the global crisis: the collapse of a decades-old political system, with the emergence of new neoliberal forces, the far-right at alarming levels, and a spirit of resistance.
All this comes after five years of Socialist Party (PS) rule. Even dim hopes of change were dashed very quickly, as François Hollande and his governments implemented austerity at home and supported the same in Europe, treated big business with tens of billions in tax credits, carried on with and expanded the right’s racist policies, forced through laws weakening workers’ rights…
Neoliberalism and the far-right threat
Marine Le Pen’s result is lower than was expected a few months ago; but it is still the highest the National Front (FN) ever scored in a presidential election. Her party has put aside its most openly fascist aspects to focus on the opposition to migrants and on islamophobia, but also on a populist anti-elite, anti-EU rhetoric. Combined with the widespread anger and political confusion that exists in French society, this allows the FN to be the first party among working class voters, with many migrants current or previous not voting. Le Pen is now able to assume the position of the only opponent to neoliberal Macron. A victory for her would turn an already bleak situation into a nightmare.
Emmanuel Macron, a former banker, is ‘neoliberalism with a smiling face’. Minister under Hollande and responsible for some deeply anti-workers measures, he jumped off the sinking SP ship to start his own movement and run as an independent, ‘neither right nor left’ candidate. A liberal on social issues, he seems in stark contrast with Le Pen’s brutal approach. But violence is everywhere in Macron’s project too, from poverty and precarity, to making easier for bosses to impose worse working conditions, to increased isolation through cuts to public services and support of all kind. His smiling neoliberalism would go along with the continuation of deportations, of police violence and of the rise in evictions. This casual violence would pave the way for future far-right victories.
On the Left, uncertainty and resistance
The combined score of the left is extremely low, around 28%. However many left-wing sympathisers tactically voted for Macron against the far-right and the traditional right. What’s more, and this is a reason for hope, the Left did better than initially expected, making progress over the course of the electoral campaign.
TV debates allowed Jean-Luc Mélenchon from ‘France insoumise’ (Insubordinate France) and Philippe Poutou from the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA; Poutou got 1.1%) to shift the discussion towards jobs, social justice, inequality and democracy, in a context of corruption scandals affecting Fillon and Le Pen.
Mélenchon’s score is the highest for any single candidate to the left of social democracy since 1969. He came first among voters aged 18-24, and in many working class and multicultural areas such as the cities of Marseilles and Montpellier, the ‘red’ department of Seine-Saint-Denis, and French Guiana. His campaign was met with huge enthusiasm, and not only attracted most of the PS’s and the radical left’s potential voters, but also people who usually abstained. Dave Kellaway discussed Mélenchon’s campaign, the reasons for his success and some of its problematic aspects here.
With such a miserable score, the Socialist Party might not last long. If social-democratic currents will probably not disappear, the PS under its current form is probably finished. Former PS Prime Minister and Macron supporter Manuel Valls openly declared that a long overdue ‘clarification’ on the left must take place: in other words, that those who embrace neoliberalism must join with the Macron and the centre-right. It is not clear what the various groups in the PS, including Benoït Hamon, will do.
Polls expect Macron to win over Le Pen in the second round, with 60%-65% of the votes. But we’ve seen 2016, right; anything could happen.
Macron has already the support of the PS and of François Fillon’s The Republicans. On the radical left, the French Communist Party and Ensemble! have called for a vote against Le Pen but without any political support for Macron; the NPA and Lutte ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle) have chosen not to; ‘France insoumise’ is still to decide. On the hard right, some might call for support to Le Pen.
No-one knows what will come out of the legislative elections, on June 11 and 18. The electoral system favours big parties; but the President will not be from one of them. Then what? Electoral coalitions have been extremely rare, but it is likely that the legislative elections will not deliver a clear majority; or that major re-alignments will take place before or after the elections. Either way, this will be dramatic change.
Many on the Left are disappointed by these results; the political landscape is ruins; Jean-Luc Mélenchon did not make it to the second round, as many hoped for among his supporters but also in the NPA; the left is at a low. But resistance is still on the agenda.
There are already calls for strong demonstrations on May 1st, Labour Day against the far-right and for social justice. Since 2015, struggles have started to rise anew. The 2016 movement against the ‘loi travail’ (Labour Bill) ended in a defeat, but had a re-politicising effect and did not result in demoralisation. Strikes for wages or to defend hospital departments, sectoral disputes, and protests against racist police violence, involve thousands of people, although without coordination. Such an unstable political situation, and as the next Government could quickly become very unpopular, could help a fightback from below.
But the situation also cries for a new force on the left, one that can give hope to the millions of people looking for an alternative, one that opposes both austerity and racism. With his seven million votes, his successful campaign and the centralised nature of ‘France insoumise’, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has the initiative. He will probably decide to turn his movement into a lasting political structure; but will it meet basic democratic requirements? will it be based on left-wing populism and patriotism? The legislative elections could already see divisions between the forces that supported Mélenchon’s campaign. And the Left has learnt the hard way that enthusiasm and success in an electoral campaign, is difficult to maintain in the subsequent period…
Although the first round of the presidential election has just ended, it already seems clear that we are witnessing a new era. Collapse of the political system, rise of new movements, all this in a context of European and global economic instability… The last months have shown the dangers we face, they also show the possibilities for resistance.
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