John Pickard comments on the issues and the mood that lay behind the French elections. He sees it as part of a general, world process.
French presidential election – first round.
The first round of the French presidential elections has confirmed the enormous unpopularity of the traditional parties and the ‘old’ politics. In a political phenomenon which is sweeping the globe, hundreds of millions in elections in different parts of the world are registering their discontent and anger at the political and economic elite who have supervised universal cuts in living standards and increased insecurity for working people. While the rich have got richer and the mass of people have got poorer, the facts about this obscene disparity are harder and harder to hide. The facts have been noted and huge swings in votes have followed accordingly.
Since the foundation of the Third French Republic in 1958, every single one of the final round of voting for the French president has included a representative of one or both of the two main parties: The Republicans and the Socialist Party, the French equivalent of the British Tory and Labour Parties. For the first time in sixty years, neither of these parties will be represented in the upcoming election. The two parties that have dominated French politics for two generations only managed to get around a quarter of the votes between them.
The 22 per cent vote for the Front Nationale, an openly racist and xenophobic party, is a warning to the left and the labour movement for the future. If social crisis persists and living standards are crushed for the indefinite future and if the labour movement offers no solution to these issues, then the FN will be there to pick up the pieces and to move in the direction of becoming a fully-fledged fascist movement in the style of their 1930s forerunners. Economic insecurity, job losses, austerity and last, but not least, the apparently never-ending round of terrorist attacks has shaken French politics. More than 230 people have been killed in attacks in France in little over two years, the most recent only days before the election. The FN cynically latches onto these appalling crimes and uses them to attempt to drive a wedge between those of a north-African and Moslem tradition and the rest of the French population. But at this stage, some of the votes for the FN, reflected a politically crude and confused way – as did the vote of Trump in the USA – a yearning among white French workers for some measure of security and stability in their lives and with a socialist programme and policy, many of these voters could be won away from the FN.
Taken in by the demagogy of the Marine Le Pen – herself even more of an ‘outsider’ than Macron – many politically-backward workers would have seen the FN as a means of shaking up the establishment and the old politics. Taking the first round votes as a whole, and if the vote of the Front Nationale are added to the mix, at least two thirds of the electorate voted to change the political set-up and to abandon the ‘old’ politics.
Emmanuel Macron got the biggest single share of the vote, at over 23 per cent and his vote represents a genuine groping among millions of French people for something ‘different’. Macron had been a minister under the current President Hollande and is closely tied to business, but he conducted a glossy and slick campaign which hinted at – without too much attention to the detail – an assault on the old established political class. On all the social issues Macron is ‘modern’ and ‘radical’ and presents himself as a breath of fresh air. He is, at 39, by far the youngest candidate to have ever reached the final round of a presidential election and one of the very few never to have been involved in an election before. In an echo of Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution”, Macron has called for a “democratic revolution” in French politics. He is seen as ‘modern’, digitally savvy and an internationally-minded ‘progressive’ and it was entirely on the basis this cultivated image of being a ‘different’ and ‘controversial’ outsider that the won almost a quarter of the votes.
But although he made great play about being an ‘outsider’ and he started without even a political party to call his own, in fact, he is very much a part of the Establishment. How his “democratic revolution” squares with the fact that he is on excellent personal terms with the tops of the civil service and business leaders, it is not possible to say. French stock markets soared when he won the first round and this was no fluke. It was partly in relief to see that his opponent on the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was out of the final ballot and partly because big business see Macron as a pro-business candidate. Behind the rhetoric of being radical on social issues, Macron is the French equivalent of Tony Blair on economic issues and, as President, is expected to move quickly to limit trade union rights – reducing what is deemed by big business as “red tape”.
Macron will now need to build up his party – only a year old – so that he has sufficient candidates standing and then elected to support him in the parliamentary elections that will take place in June. Without the support of the National Assembly his presidency will be hobbled. Although he has opened his party to all comers – at no cost – what is certain is that he will dictate from the top who is selected as candidates. His party, En Marche! (Forward!) will be his own personal dictatorship, whatever is said about ‘democracy’.
“…what stood out was how much Macron’s campaign was centred on himself. He gave the movement his initials and the spotlight and decision-making fell firmly on him. At rock-star style stadium gigs, he smiled and raised his outstretched arms to the sky. He believes that ever since Louis XVI’s head was chopped off in the Revolution, the country has been searching for a figure who could personify France.” (Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, April 24th)
Assuming he wins the second round of the presidential poll, Macron’s party will probably now move to select enough ‘safe’ candidates to get him a working majority in Parliament. It will be a right-wing Assembly, whatever Macros may have said on the stump and it will administer cuts in living standards and restrictions on trade union rights every bit as bad as Hollande has done. A Macron presidency will not usher in a period of social peace, but on the contrary, when voters realise they have been ‘conned’ it will usher in even more social, political and industrial unrest than we have seen in the past ten years.
As an aside, En Marche! is the latest in a new breed of political movements, like Podemos in Spain and more recently on a smaller scale like Momentum in the British Labour Party, where a genuine movement of radicalism is contained by a structure that on the one hand espouses ‘democracy’ but on the other hand is carefully stage-managed – often through a system of ‘e-voting’ – by a single individual at the top.
Apart from Macron and the FN, the most significant vote was that for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the independent left candidate who was formerly a Socialist Party minister and who was backed by the French Communist Party. He conducted the most radical, vigorous and energetic campaign of any of the candidates. His campaign was far bigger and more dramatic even that Corbyn’s leadership campaigns in Britain. Mélenchon addressed massive rallies up and down the country, including a mass rally in Paris of over 100,000. Some of his rallies were projected electronically to other locations so that while he spoke in real time to a rally in one place, his hologram addressed crowds at four or five other places.
It was not the man, of course, but his programme that electrified the crowds – railing against tax-dodging and the rich and promising to raise income tax on incomes over £30,000 to 100 per cent (later reduced to 90 per cent). He was not the slick and polished politician that Emmanuel Macron is, and as a result, he came across to millions of voters as a genuine break from the old and failed politics of the past. His programme was on the face of it far more radical than Jeremy Corbyn’s has ever been and as a result his rating in the polls shot up from around 11-12 per cent weeks before the election to 19 per cent on the day. More significantly, among 18-24 year olds, he got the largest vote of any candidate, at 30 per cent, half as many again as Macron and three times the figure achieved by the Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon.
In contrast to the independent left, the candidate of the Socialist Party failed miserably, getting less than 7 per cent of the vote. This is all the more remarkable, when one considers that at the time of his selection as SP candidate, by means of a ‘primary’ election, around two million people participated in the election. Having 1.2 million voting for Hamon as the candidate of the Socialist Party shows a level of participation in the party selection processes far exceeding even the huge vote for Jeremy Corbyn in Britain in 2015 and 2016. Moreover, Hamon was selected precisely because he was then the most radical Socialist Party candidate on offer and after his election, the other failed candidate from the right of the Socialist Party promptly announced his support for Macron. This would have been equivalent to Owen Smith in the British Labour Party abandoning the Party of Corbyn (because he lost the leadership race) and announcing support for a Blairite party in opposition to Labour.
Yet despite this huge advantage and an early surge of support – Hamon being at that time at 15 per cent in the polls and ahead of Mélenchon – he utterly failed to get any momentum in his campaign and to motivate and inspire his potential supporters. Whatever, Hamon was doing, of course, he was also working against the appalling legacy of the so-called ‘Socialist’ President Francois Hollande, whose personal poll ratings are at an historic low for any president, at about 4 per cent. Hollande was elected originally with some enthusiasm but has followed a rigorously pro-business economic policy that has led to 10 per cent unemployment and a squeeze on living standards for French workers the likes of which has not been seen in a generation. Little wonder that his support was so low, little wonder that he made no attempt to stand for a second term as president (another unprecedented development in the history of the Republic) and little wonder that Hamon, a member of the same party, was tarnished with the same brush.
One of the key discussions that will take place in the Socialist Party now, of course, is why Hamon refused to stand down in favour of Mélenchon in the two weeks leading up to the vote. By that time, it was clear from the polls that Hamon was not going to get into the next round and that he would be outflanked on the left by Mélenchon. What the election figures show clearly is that if Hamon’s 6.2 per cent had been added to Mélenchon’s 19.2 per cent, then Mélenchon would have gone into the final round ahead of Macron and would, in all likelihood, be in a position to win the presidency.
Hamon’s action in not standing down has demonstrated something that has been shown over and over again in politics, in Britain and internationally, that ‘soft lefts’ will always prefer the victory of the right wing in preference to a ‘hard left’ candidate and that is a measure of the shallowness of their commitment to ‘socialism’.
Despite Hamon’s very low vote, it does not necessarily mean the complete demise of the French Socialist Party. After all, the Party was reduced to only 3 per cent in the polls in the late 1960s, before making a dramatic come-back. But it does mean that there needs to be an autopsy and a serious discussion among worker-members and supporters of the Party. Unless and until the Socialist Party moves in the direction of genuine socialist policies – with an economic programme in the interests of working class people – it will not recover any of the ground lost to the awful legacy of Francois Hollande.
The likely election of Macron as President of France – he is clearly bookies’ favourite, as three quarters of voters will vote for him to keep Le Pen out – might have serious implications for Theresa May and her negotiations on Brexit, assuming she is still Prime Minister after June 8th. Macron has gone on record as being in favour of Britain being offered a very tough Brexit deal, as he made clear in a recent visit to London. “Standing outside No 10” The Guardian noted, “he said he wanted ‘banks, talents, researchers, academics’ to move across the Channel after Britain left the EU.” Even in his manifesto, he described Brexit as a ‘crime’ that would leave Britain in “servitude.”
The presidential election process in France is another indicator of the shift in the tectonic plates of politics.
Moreover, each new development has effects that resonate and reverberate from one country to another. There are no political ‘islands’ separated off from world political developments. Like their fellow workers in Britain and elsewhere, the working class of France are beginning to change their outlook on politics, beginning to change and develop their political consciousness. It is the task of socialists not just to participate in these great political movements and struggles but to examine them carefully, understand them better and to prepare ourselves better for even bigger movements in the future.
April 24 2017