Evaluating the French elections

The recent French presidential elections have captured the attention of the world’s media. Aside from last year’s US elections, few elections in recent memory have attracted so much attention, commentary and anticipation.

In France, the stakes were high. Marine Le Pen of the fascist National Front had, until recent months, been polling ahead of all other parties. The mainstream centre left party, the Socialist Party, had been polling abysmally and scored a catastrophic 6 percent in the first round.

The candidate of the traditional right, François Fillon, was embroiled in scandals and, along with his Socialist rival, Benoît Hamon, failed to make it to the second round, leaving the run-off to be contested by Le Pen and the centre right, neoliberal Emmanuel Macron.

The political landscape on which this historic and unprecedented election has taken place is vast, complex and shaped by decades of economic stagnation, high unemployment, a mainstream centre left that has consistently attacked and betrayed its working class base and the rise and mainstreaming of Islamophobia.

The French economy has experienced mass unemployment since the mid-1980s. For the past 30 years, the unemployment rate has averaged 9 percent, youth unemployment hovering around 20 percent. The picture across France is varied. Some regions, such as those in the west and north-west, have fared better, while the industrial, manufacturing regions in the north have experienced unemployment levels chronically higher than the national average.

Since the early 1980s, when the centre left coalition government of François Mitterrand began implementing sweeping austerity measures, France’s social welfare and worker protections have come under sustained attack from government after government.

At times, the resistance put up by French unions has been phenomenal and victorious – such as in 1995 and 2006. But more recently, in 2010 and 2016, governments succeeded in passing pension attacks and anti-worker laws.

Although the capitalist class has not registered a truly comprehensive victory against workers and unions, the chipping away of rights and conditions has had an effect over time. Casualisation has increased, social welfare has been reduced, pension rights have been eroded, public housing has become harder to access – especially in smaller towns – and real wages have stagnated in the face of often obscene rental prices.

Socialist Party betrayal

The outgoing president, François Hollande of the Socialist Party, was elected in 2012 on a wave of resentment against right wing president Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande’s election campaign was full of optimism, left wing rhetoric targeting big financial interests and promises to redistribute wealth and protect social welfare.

Sarkozy, having raised the pension age, and having used racism to distract from his neoliberal agenda, was so unpopular that when he lost his bid for re-election, the streets of France’s major cities became scenes of celebration.

But such optimism quickly turned to anger as Hollande emphatically betrayed his working class base. Not only did he fail to attack big finance or redistribute wealth, but he launched the single biggest attack on workers’ rights since 1995.

The “El Khomri law”, named after his minister of labour Myriam El Khomri, unleashed a wave of mass protests and strikes. Hollande ultimately used the undemocratic measure of presidential decree to bypass parliament and implement the incredibly unpopular measures. The desperation of Hollande to pass the law – and commit political suicide in the process – illustrates just how much pressure the ruling class brought to bear on the government.

The minister for the economy under Hollande, and one of the key architects of the “El Khomri law”, was none other than president-elect Emmanuel Macron.

Establishment backs Macron

Macron, a graduate of one of France’s most elite business schools, is well connected and well known in business circles. It was for this reason that he was hired by Hollande – and why he had the overwhelming support of the French establishment during the final weeks of his campaign.

Macron’s rise in popularity came at a time when more and more sections of the French establishment had been calling for grand coalitions, or unity governments, not dissimilar to those that have governed Germany in recent times, in order to pass the changes demanded by industry. Macron promises to build that style of government.

Labelling himself as “neither right nor left”, Macron has, in fact, made it clear that he intends to rule in the interests of big business. His program is presented, always vaguely, as one of optimism, job creation and cultural harmony. But his most detailed and thought-through policies are centred on tax reduction, attacks on workers and strengthening the European Union.

During his campaign, his only major criticism of the Hollande government’s hated “El Khomri law” was that Hollande left the law “too late in the term”, and that the changes were poorly marketed to the general population.

With the spectacular collapse in popularity of François Fillon, the establishment backed Macron as the safe bet. Even prominent members of the ruling Socialist Party, such as former prime minister Manuel Valls, publicly defected and declared their support for Macron well before the first round of voting.

The French were left with a situation where the two major postwar parties, as well as Macron, supported austerity.

Rise of the National Front

When all this history is considered and put into context, it is not hard to see why the National Front has been able to make significant gains in many working class electorates, and among low-wage workers who identify as “blue collar”. It has connected with the anger and uncertainty felt after years of betrayal.

But although the FN has been able to tap into anti-establishment sentiment, it remains a party rooted in fascist history, ideology and intent. It remains a grave danger to workers, the left, immigrants and Muslims in France and abroad.

Its historic base is concentrated in the south-east of France, where racist and right wing French settlers fled after being expelled from Algeria and the Maghreb following the collapse of French colonial rule.

The party, which has traditionally been pro-neoliberalism and openly anti-worker, has changed its tune under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, and now makes grand but vague promises to tackle “globalisation”, “precarity”, “the bankers” etc. All the while it blames Muslims, immigrants and refugees for ruining French culture and for taking jobs and houses.

The failure of the left in France and elsewhere to fight Islamophobia has meant that it has become part of the establishment furniture. So when the far right uses it as a tool of distraction and division, it doesn’t come across as the bigoted fringe.

The National Front has been able to interweave racism with appeals to people’s sense of economic insecurity. The clearest example of this was during the televised second-round debate between Macron and Le Pen, in which Le Pen consistently attacked Macron for being a part of the establishment and in bed with the bankers and the finance industry. She coupled this with attacks on immigrants, saying that the elite didn’t care about French jobs being lost to foreigners, and that the rich didn’t have to worry about the under-supply of public housing or mass unemployment.

Le Pen’s attacks resonated with those bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. Although she received 21 percent of the first round vote, 40 percent of voters identifying as “blue-collar workers” voted for the National Front in the first round. French historian Roger Martelli summed up the feeling:

“The territories whose inhabitants quite rightly consider themselves doomed to certain marginality and decline, and the popular categories left in an increasingly fragile condition by the retreat of the welfare state, have ended up getting used to the idea that the National Front is their last resort.”

It is exactly this feeling of despair and “last resort” that has brought a surge in popularity for the National Front in the “rust belt” regions of Pas-de-Calais and Aisne, where Le Pen scored more than 50 percent of the vote in the second round.

In a sign that the party is gaining traction, credibility and legitimacy, its vote increased substantially from the first to second round, from 21 percent to 34 percent. When Jean Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of voting in the 2002 presidential elections, his vote did not change, indicating that there was a mass voter mobilisation against him in a way that was nowhere near as stark this time around against the younger Le Pen.

Another feature of this election was number of blank votes registered. When the record 11 percent of blank votes and the very high 25 percent of abstentions are taken into consideration, the vote for the FN falls from 34 percent to 22 percent of the voting population.

An analysis of Macron’s vote does very little to back up the so-called “optimism” that the media has been heralding. Exit polls revealed that 43 percent of his voters voted for him only to block Le Pen. When this figure is considered with the high number of blank votes and abstentions, only about 20 percent of French voters voted positively for Macron’s program. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement or a sign of optimism about the new president.

Polarisation

This election has also opened up a space on the left. The radical left wing reformist Jean-Luc Mélenchon drew massive crowds at rallies across France during his campaign, and ultimately garnered more than 7 million votes. His program of taxing the rich, ending war, shutting down nuclear power plants, protecting workers’ rights and building more public housing connected strongly with urban voters.

Although Mélenchon was fourth overall in the first round, he came first in four out of France’s 10 most populated cities: Marseille, Lille, Toulouse and Montpellier. Mélenchon beat Le Pen in every major city except Nice. He also scored higher than 35 percent in huge areas of Paris, in parts of Lyon and Limoges and in the port city of Le Havre. Add to this the fact that more than 600,000 French people voted for one of the parties of the French revolutionary left, even further to the left of Mélenchon, and the polarisation becomes clearer.

There has been much written on the left about Mélenchon and his new party France Insoumise (Insubordinate France). It is still early days, and with the French legislative elections coming up in June, it is too early to tell if the support for Mélenchon will be sustained, but the very fact that his campaign was so popular in France’s big cities is a ray of optimism in an often bleak landscape.

The fight against Macron

The day after Macron’s election, unions organised mass protests across France in a pre-emptive warning to the new president not to further attack workers’ rights and conditions. This is a great sign that the union movement has not been completely demoralised by the election.

France has experienced mass protests, mass strikes and movements of millions of workers in the last several decades. The French working class has managed to cling to the idea, long gone in many other countries, that workers’ rights are human rights, and that a decent job with decent working conditions is something worth striking for.

All eyes will be on France in the coming months and years to see if the hope and radicalism stirred up by Mélenchon’s campaign, and the mass sentiment that he represents, can be turned into victories.