Much as the defenders of the centre may wish and proclaim it, defeat for Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election will not put an end to the crisis of legitimacy of the neoliberal order.
Nor will it signal an end to the frightening rise of the far right across the Western world – a development that threatens the labour movement, the left, immigrant and non-white communities, and all the oppressed and marginalised far more than it ever will the “elites” the populist right rails against.
Marine Le Pen’s campaign gave a terrifying picture of what modern fascism looks like. She is not Donald Trump – the buffoonish billionaire, a reality TV creation, the man whose enormous wealth and brazen indifference to facts are put forward as his weapons against the “elite”.
There have been plenty of such demagogues in history. But the most effective fascist leaders – first amongst them Hitler – have been those who channelled in their own persona the aggrieved and endlessly overlooked everyman.
Marine Le Pen wasn’t born to that role – she grew up in a mansion in a gated community outside of Paris, surrounded by the aristocracy of the French far right. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded the National Front (FN) in 1972 and ran for president on five occasions.
But she’s grown into it. Le Pen has “detoxified” the National Front by dropping the open anti-Semitism and Nazi symbolism championed by her father – an effective strategy in a context where the Western memory of fascism in power has been reduced to cartoon character images of brownshirts chanting “Sieg heil”, and where Jews were the only victims of Nazi death camps.
And Le Pen has become the everyman. Guy Rundle writes in Crikey, “20 years ago Marine was an elegant, shapely fixture of the social pages, Nazi bad girl. Now … restyled and destyled, she is Madame Moyenne. She looks like every woman or man who has been underestimated all their lives”.
Donald Trump has his over-anxious and undersized fingers hovering over the nuclear codes, so it’s reasonable not to displace him too quickly from the position of number one threat to life on the planet. But in terms of the dangers of a revived far right, there is reason to think that Le Pen, though not yet in power, could be at least as significant.
Le Pen’s politics are much more serious and politically developed than Trump’s. Unlike Trump – who, whatever superficial impression he gives, is for now simply a right wing populist – Le Pen is a bona fide fascist. And, far from a go-it-alone maverick, Le Pen is a politician with deep roots in French society and a loyal organisation with a substantial apparatus.
All this has made it possible for her to pursue a much more credible attempt to position herself as an opponent of big capital – and to carry that on into the 2022 presidential elections, and even into office.
Trump, in many ways a rootless figure, is stranded on the island of the presidency and desperately seeking allies among the ruling elite he claims to despise. There is little chance this fate will befall Le Pen any time soon.
In the last few days of the election Le Pen bent her whole campaign to winning over manual workers, dropping much of the rhetoric against immigrants and focusing on a class-based attack on Emmanuel Macron as a servant of the neoliberal elite (which he undoubtedly is). Fortunately, unlike in the US, the left in France has been capable of a response. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leading candidate of the left, refused to submit to the relentless pressure to endorse Macron, which would only have pushed a section of his supporters into voting for Le Pen. Instead he and a substantial section of the radical left raised the slogan, “Not one vote for the FN!”
At time of writing, the results of the French election are unknown. But one thing is clear: nine years on from the onset of the global economic crisis, the far right, not the far left, has gained the most from the legitimate and widespread revolt against the status quo.
Why is this the case? If you believe a certain kind of left mythology, crises in the capitalist system should always help the left. When the harsh reality of the class system is exposed to the light of day, the logic goes, the left will be the beneficiary. If only it were that simple.
A crisis in the system does de-legitimise the ideas of the status quo. That’s why no-one believes a word politicians say any more; it’s why the “grand narratives” used to bind people to the ruling class are in disarray. But it doesn’t mean people are immediately drawn to left wing critiques.
Right wing populism, by contrast, is precisely the kind of thing that can emerge semi-organically, absent other factors. Why? Because, however “anti-system” they sound, far right ideas are based on the “common sense” and inherent prejudices of the existing order. National pride. Fear of the outsider. Flag waving. Tradition. All of these are simultaneously the ethos that justifies the existing order, and the banner under which the right revolts against it.
Of course, these are not the sum-total of the things the far right rallies around. If its operatives are smart, like Le Pen in France, they also raise what are essentially class issues – the hypocrisy of the rich elite with their lavish lifestyles, falling living standards for workers, the decline of the social security system, etc.
But because it wraps these complaints in the national flag, the right gets a certain immunity from criticism. From the point of view of those who control our society, it is one thing to complain about the conditions of “Aussie workers” and moan about how well off Asian immigrants are, it is another entirely to complain about workers’ conditions as part of a critique of global capitalism. That’s why the left has none of the advantages of the far right in building a mass following.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Syriza in Greece may have carried out a horrific betrayal of its supporters, but before it did so it demonstrated that it is possible for a party with a radical left program to win over the mass of working class and young people. In France, Mélenchon won 19 percent of the vote, polling only a few points behind Le Pen. If he had won through to the second round, the terrain of the debate would have been radically transformed.
But for the left to build a serious alternative, it cannot simply ape the right. “Fake news” and conspiracy-driven politics can work for the right precisely because its underlying project is to obfuscate reality – to present plausible but imaginary villains that can be blamed for real ailments. The task of the left is the opposite – to explain the true nature of society, the real systemic cause of the chaos and misery in the world, and offer a strategy through which we can beat a path to a different society.
For that, the left needs facts, truth, logic. Not the “rationality” of the status quo, which sneers at populists for appealing to “the mob” and turns science into a religion with which to justify its rule, but a politics that provides a consistent, rational, thoroughgoing critique of society and its institutions.
Building such an alternative – a left that can channel the anger against the status quo into a political movement that aims its weapons at capitalism rather than its victims – is of urgent importance in every country if we want to prevent Le Pen being the future, not just of France, but of the world.