After years of neoliberalism, French politics that venture outside the conformist center’s unshakable loyalty to the Atlantic Alliance are now dangerously “extreme.”
By Diana Johnstone
Special to Consortium News
On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected for a second five-year term as president of the French Republic with 58.54 percent of the vote. Just as in 2017, the candidate he defeated was Marine Le Pen, who got 41.46 percent. Sounds like déjà vu all over again.
From the outside, this can be seen either as showing that Macron is a popular president and/or that France has once against been saved from the fascist threat. Neither of these impressions is correct. Mostly, it signifies that France is stuck in There Is No Alternative (TINA) – the neoliberal replacement of political experimentation by expertise governance.
Macron is not overwhelmingly popular. In the first eliminatory round of elections held on April 10, over 72 percent of voters chose one of the 11 other candidates.
Macron Personifies the Center
About four decades ago, when neoliberalism was just beginning to dictate its economic necessities, French political choices were defined by a traditional “left-right” alternance in government, between the Socialist Party and the nominally (but not really) “Gaullist” conservatives, later renamed The Republicans. But this alternance lost its edge because whichever party was in office, regardless of its campaign promises, it carried out the same neoliberal policies favoring profits over wages and public services.
Five years ago, with the left-right distinction blurred by such conformity, the time was right to create a movement which was neither left nor right, or perhaps both, but was in perfect conformity with the neoliberal policies of the European Union.
The handsome young banker Emmanuel Macron was initiated into government policy-making by highly influential individuals such as Jacques Attali, the economic and social theorist, and won support from international finance for this winning project. The 39-year-old’s personal aura of vigorous youth in a hurry to get things done attracted political amateurs to support his movement “En Marche” (Let’s go). That personification won him the 2017 election.
What Macron was accelerating were in fact the neoliberal reforms promoted by the EU. His policies facilitated privatization and deindustrialization, as well as cutbacks in public services such as hospitals and transport. This has caused most hardships in rural France, leading to the Yellow Vests protests, severely repressed by police.
Politics Marginalized as ‘Extremes’
Last April 10, in the first round of this year’s presidential election, the two erstwhile “government” parties, Republicans and Socialists, were nearly wiped out. The Republican candidate, Valérie Pécresse, who had started out high in the polls, came in short of the crucial 5 percent of the vote, which gives parties public funding.
The fate of the Socialist Party was just as humiliating: Anne Hidalgo, famous as mayor of Paris for her chaotic efforts to eliminate cars in favor of bicycles and scooters, scored a pathetic 1.75 percent, even less than Communist Party candidate Fabien Roussel who got 2.28 percent.
The April 10 election produced three big voting blocs, around three candidates with weak parties, uncertain programs but strong personalities each representing an attitude: Emmanuel Macron 27.83 percent, Marine Le Pen 23.15 percent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (JLM) of La France Insoumise party, 21.95 percent.
If JLM had come in second, facing Macron, there would surely have been a fear campaign stigmatizing him as dangerously “extreme,” even “communist” and “an anti-European friend of Putin.” Instead Marine Le Pen came in second, and the fear campaign stigmatized her as “extreme right,” even “fascist” and “an anti-European friend of Putin.”
Politics outside the conformist center is dangerously “extreme.”
Mélenchon Embodies the Left
Mélenchon’s high score was the triumph of a strong personality over parties. His fiery rhetoric gained wide public recognition when he broke with the Socialist Party during the 2005 referendum on the EU draft Constitution.
The Constitution was rejected by voters, but in defiance of the popular vote, parliamentarians went on to adopt the same measures in the Lisbon Treaty, confirming the neoliberal globalizing policies of the EU and its attachment to NATO.
In 2016 Mélenchon founded his own party La France Insoumise (Insubordinate France) whose main asset is his own vigorous oratory and cantankerous relationship with the media and adversaries. In the 2017 presidential race, he came in fourth with promises of bold policies defying EU constraints.
This time around, Mélenchon adopted a program that lacked coherence but clearly aimed at gaining votes from all sections of France’s divided and weakened left. He stressed lavishly generous measures to improve “purchasing power”: higher minimum wage, lowering retirement age to 60, price controls on basic necessities – measures that seemed unrealistic even to many on the left.
His measures to woo the green vote went all the way from all-bio free school lunches to phasing out nuclear power by 2045 – against the growing trend in France to look to France’s nuclear power industry as essential to survival.
This succeeded in leaving the Green candidate Yannick Jadot, who had dreamed of emulating the success of the bellicose German Greens, with only 4.63 percent of the vote.
For LGBTQI voters, Mélenchon spoke favorably of amending the Constitution to guarantee the right to change gender (a right that exists already). This might be seen as a bit contradictory to his efforts to gain support of the Muslim community.
Nevertheless, Muslim leaders issued a statement:
“We, imams and preachers, call on French citizens of the Muslim faith to vote in the first round for the least worst of the candidates in that presidential election: Jean-Luc Mélenchon.”
According to exit polls, Mélenchon got nearly 70 percent of Muslim votes.
This may have overlapped somewhat with his high score among youth in cities and ethnically mixed suburbs: 38 percent of voters under 25. He called for lowering the voting age to 16.
All in all, Mélenchon’s vote corresponded most clearly to the identity politics vote focused on societal rather than socio-economic issues, although he did well with the working class (27 percent of workers and 22 percent of employees) but Marine Le Pen did better (33 percent and 36 percent).
Asked why they voted for Mélenchon, about 40 percent said it was a “useful” vote — not to support his program, but rather because he was the candidate on the left who might have eliminated Marine Le Pen. He now dreams of sweeping the legislative elections in June to become the leader of the opposition — or even prime minister.
JLM’s last word to his followers on the evening of April 10 was imperative: “Not one vote for Marine Le Pen!”
Marine Le Pen, the Outsider
An enemy is always a unifying factor, and for the fractured French left, Marine Le Pen is the unifier. She inherited this role from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
In the early 1980s, when President François Mitterrand abruptly abandoned the socializing Common Program that got him elected with strong Communist Party support, the Socialist Party switched its ideological focus to “anti-racism.”
Anti-racism gradually mutated into support for immigration and even open borders, on the grounds that any restrictions on immigration must be motivated by “racist hate.”
This was not the traditional attitude of the left. In the early 1930s, and for decades afterwards, opposition to mass immigration was a key policy of the Marxist left and the labor movement, which saw mass immigration as a technique of capital to split worker solidarity and lower wages.
Immigration evolved into a key issue only since the institutionalized left abandoned its economic program in order to go along with neoliberalism imposed by the European Union. As it happens, open borders is a position that is totally compatible with neoliberal economics, and the two can flourish together, tending toward identity politics.
In 1980, the closest the Socialists could find as racist villain was Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was opposed to large scale immigration primarily for reasons of national identity. His diverse party, the National Front, included remnants of moribund ultra-right groups, although JMLP was more facetious than fascist. His enemies blew up his remark that “Gas chambers were a detail of World War II” into proof of complicity in the Holocaust. More proactive enemies blew up his apartment, making an impression on his then 8-year-old daughter Marine.
Marine went on to career as a lawyer, two marriages and three children before turning to politics and virtually inheriting her father’s political party as he retired. Jean-Marie had enjoyed being provocative. Marine wanted to win hearts and minds.
She purged the most extremist elements of the party, successfully ran for parliament in the depressed northern town of Henin-Beaumont, changed the party’s name from Front National to the looser Rassemblement National and increasingly took her distance from the party itself.
She tried to be friendly to Jewish organizations. Her program called for a popular referendum on controlling immigration, which among other things would allow France to expel foreigners convicted of serious crimes. Her most controversial (and probably impossible) proposals concerned “eradicating Islamic extremist ideology” (distinguished from conventional Islam).
Jean-Marie Le Pen was fiercely anti-de Gaulle, not least because President Charles de Gaulle conceded independence to Algeria. That is ancient history to his daughter’s generation.
Marine Le Pen has increasingly identified with Gaullism: patriotism, national independence and a social conservatism that respects the interests of the working class.
She has called for France to leave the joint command of NATO, as did de Gaulle in 1966. (President Nicolas Sarkozy rejoined in 2009.). She has also advocated an independent foreign policy, normalizing relations with Russia – a point she reiterated even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, various wars, especially the 2011 destruction of Libya, have accelerated illegal immigration.
While the brain drain —notably of medical personnel from poor countries — is always welcome, the economy is currently not able to absorb unqualified labor, which inevitably leads to social problems. The refusal of the left to acknowledge the existence of such problems makes it extremely difficult to raise the issue without being labeled “racist.” But the questions raised are there.
Zemmour, the Surprise Candidate
In reality, opposition to mass immigration suddenly dominated this presidential campaign as the political writer and TV commentator Eric Zemmour set out to steal the issue away from Marine Le Pen and run with it all the way to the presidency.
Zemmour is a sort of anti-BHL, the very opposite of the rich “philosopher” Bernard Henri Lévy — both of Algerian Jewish origin.
In the Mitterrand 1980s, BHL won fame as leading anti-communist liberal leftist, castigating France for its latent fascism and anti-Semitism. If the U.S. and NATO can make a war in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Libya or Ukraine, he is all for it.
BHL is tall and means to be glamorous. Zemmour is small and mousy but speaks more reasonably than the flamboyant BHL.
In contrast to Bernard Henri Lévy’s moral lectures to the French, Zemmour has embraced his French homeland with ardent love and wishes to defend it from the perils of mass immigration and Islamist extremism. His initial rallies drew enthusiastic crowds, notably drawing many well-educated young men.
While Marine Le Pen appeals to the working class in small towns and rural areas, Zemmour won his followers among the educated upper class, calling for a “Reconquest” of France from the “great replacement” of the French by immigration.
Zemmour came in fourth with a little over 7 percent in the first round compared to Le Pen’s 23.15 percent. His ambition is to lead formation of a new right-wing party. He scored relatively well in the rich Western sections of Paris and came in first among overseas French living in Israel and other countries of the region.
It seems that Zemmour bit slightly into the upper income vote which finally went fairly solidly to Macron. The class division was clear in the final election — Macron got the votes of the prosperous, Marine was the favorite of the forgotten.
In the final election, Marine Le Pen swept France’s overseas territories in the West Indies, scoring 70 percent in Guadeloupe and 60 percent in Martinique and French Guyana. Since 93 percent of Guadeloupe’s population is of African origin, this vote seems to confirm that, whatever others may say or think, Marine Le Pen’s supporters do not consider her to be “racist.” [One of her most controversial positions, which Macron made much of during their debate, is to ban women covering their heads in public. Macron said it would start a “civil war.”]
Personality matters in politics. Just as Mélenchon’s popularity owes a lot to his irascible nature, Marine Le Pen’s popularity owes a lot to her public personality: a woman who appears warm, good humored and resilient.
After first issuing the order, “Not one vote for Le Pen!” Mélenchon went on to exhort his first-round voters not to abstain, in effect endorsing Macron. The notion was that electing Le Pen would put an end to our freedoms once and for all.
Over 350 NGOs signed a statement by the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship among Peoples (MRAP) warning that her election would “abolish the state of law.”
Small groups of anarchist students temporarily occupied the Sorbonne and a couple of other elite universities in Paris and tore things up to show their discontent, a warning of what might come later.
The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) declared that: “History shows there is a difference of nature between republican parties that gain power and give it up and the extreme right which, once in power, confiscates it.”
And how would she do that? Her party is not very strong and entirely based on electoral politics. There is no militia organized to use force for political purposes (as in the case of real historic fascists). There are plenty of counter-powers in France, including political parties, hostile media, a largely left-leaning magistrature, the armed forces (linked to NATO), big business and finance which have never supported Le Pen, the entertainment industry, etc., etc.
In reality, the real danger of Marine Le Pen being elected was quite the opposite: the difficulty she would have had in governing. In her campaign, she made it clear she would want to share power, but with whom? Certain groups were promising to raise hell in the streets. Much of her proposed legislation would be impossible to enact or would face opposition in the courts.
The Hypothesis of Compromise
Let us just imagine a different context, where “left” is no longer defined by “absolute refusal to have anything to do with anyone on the right.”
Macron’s program for the next five years further speeds up the EU-sponsored neoliberal reforms, notably lengthening the age of retirement from 62, as it is now, to 65.
Mélenchon actually called for lowering retirement age to 60. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen emphasized her support for retaining a lower retirement age, with special concern for all those who have worked in physically demanding jobs since an early age. This position helped her come in first with working-class voters.
In an imaginary different context, a Mélenchon could have proposed a compromise with Le Pen, in order to defeat Macron and carry out a somewhat more social program.
Since the two largely agreed on the crucial issue of foreign policy — in particular, avoiding war with Russia — it might be possible to work out some sort of “Gaullist” policy in common that would break the hold of the extreme center, with its unshakable loyalty to the Atlantic Alliance. This would not have led to “confiscation of power” but would shake things up. It would be reintroducing alternance into political life.
But in reality as it is, Mélenchon gave the election to Macron. And now he aspires to lead the opposition to Macron. But so do Marine Le Pen… and Eric Zemmour.
The Election & the War in Ukraine
When Russian forces moved into Ukraine on Feb. 24, the prediction was that this would solidify Macron’s position as head of state in a military crisis. As media and politicians rushed to express solidarity with Ukraine against Russia, both Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon were denounced for their well-known attitude toward improving relations with Russia. A photo of Marine Le Pen with Vladimir Putin was widely circulated by Green adversaries in the expectation that this would destroy her chances.
It didn’t happen that way. In fact, both those “Putin-understanders” saw their approval ratings rise as the war continued.
Moreover, Fabien Roussel, the rather fresh and young Communist Party candidate was edging toward a mild comeback for his party when the war began, but started to sink after he took the conventional Western anti-Russian pro-Ukrainian position.
The Green candidate Yannick Jadot, who had hoped to emulate the success of the German Greens, and Valérie Pécresse, candidate of the once powerful Republicans, both followed the official Western line on the war. Neither of them reached 5 percent.
In the first round, then, the war was not an issue — at least not at open issue, but it may have been a hidden issue, indicating that French voters are not as Russophobic as they are supposed to be.
However, in their three-hour televised debate on April 20, Macron took a low road to attack Le Pen.
Unlike Macron, whose campaigns can always count on generous donors, Marine Le Pen is chronically hard up for funding. In 2014, when no French bank would lend her money for the upcoming regional elections, she took out a loan of 9.4 million euros with the First Czech Russian Bank (FCRB). The bank has since failed, and she continues to pay its creditors. During their debate, Macron abruptly referred to that loan, which is public knowledge, telling Le Pen that “when you speak to Putin you are talking to your banker.” She reacted indignantly, stressing that she was a free woman.
Alexei Navalny followed up with a statement from his Russian prison in support of Macron. Three European prime ministers, Olaf Scholz of Germany, Pedro Sanchez of Spain and Antonio Costa of Portugal wrote an open letter opposing Marine Le Pen as “an extreme-right candidate who openly sides with those who attack our freedom and democracy, values based on the French ideas of Enlightenment.” European leaders naturally rushed to congratulate Macron for his victory as a commitment to European construction.
Marine Le Pen had insisted that the significant political division was no longer between left and right but between preservation of the nation and globalization. The drastic division of the world resulting from the Ukraine crisis is seen by some as ending the myth of globalization, and concern for the welfare of the nation is inevitably growing. Nevertheless, in this election globalization won over conservation of the nation.
The war was not a major issue in France largely because Macron himself is perhaps the least Russophobic among leaders of major European countries. His efforts to encourage Ukraine to negotiate the settlement of the Donbass problem according to the Minsk accords failed, but at least he made those efforts, or seemed to make those efforts. He appears to wish to salvage what he can of his position as potential negotiator, even as all prospects for negotiations are blocked by U.S. insistence on using the Ukraine crisis to defeat (and even destroy) Russia.
Government by Consultancy Firms
On March 17, the French Senate issued a report that revealed the profoundly technocratic nature of the Macron regime. In the last four years, the Macron government has paid at least 2.43 billion euros to international (largely American) consultancy firms to design policies or procedures in all fields, especially public health. For example, McKinsey consultancy charges the Ministry of Health 2,700 euros per day, a sum equal to the monthly salary for a public hospital employee.
This amounts to a form of very expensive privatization of the government. Even more serious, it means turning over the intellectual capacity of the French government to agencies adept in fashioning the uniform Western narrative in all matters. This is how technocratic “governance” destroys political government.
After his victory, Macron celebrated under the European flag. Marine Le Pen had called for a French foreign policy independent of the “Franco-German couple.” Macron promises to preserve the close partnership with Germany — even as tendencies in the two countries diverge more and more visibly. The prospects of an independent “Gaullist” French foreign policy remain remote.
Diana Johnstone was press secretary of the Green Group in the European Parliament from 1989 to 1996. In her latest book, Circle in the Darkness: Memoirs of a World Watcher (Clarity Press, 2020), she recounts key episodes in the transformation of the German Green Party from a peace to a war party. Her other books include Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto/Monthly Review) and in co-authorship with her father, Paul H. Johnstone, From MAD to Madness: Inside Pentagon Nuclear War Planning (Clarity Press). She can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.