In a recent post-inauguration op-ed titled “The case for Biden optimism”, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Just by who he is, Biden sets the stage for a moral revival. His values cut across the left/right, urban/rural culture war we’ve been enduring for a generation. This will begin to heal a broken and ungovernable nation”.
Brooks’ case for Biden optimism is that Biden has the right agenda, one that transcends the toxic, left-versus-right culture wars that have dominated the last four years. Biden will lower the “emotional temperature” of the nation, spreading some much needed “political apathy”. In short, Biden’s agenda is about the “redistribution of dignity”.
Four years ago, another liberal politician’s election to head of state inspired similar gushing on the other side of the Atlantic. Emmanuel Macron was the first French president in the history of the Fifth Republic to come from outside the traditional parties of the left and right when he was elected in 2017. So transcendent was Macron in the eyes of the political mainstream that the Economist magazine’s cover in June that year depicted him as the Messiah, walking on water beneath the headline “Europe’s saviour?”
The magazine cover’s question was rhetorical. For the Economist, Macron was Europe’s saviour and more: “an optimist”, “a different kind of rebel”, “a Renaissance man” whose future legacy would be “a real French revolution”. As with Brooks’ Biden-generated optimism, the Economist’s confidence in Macron hinged on his “new politics that ditches divisions between left and right”.
Without straining the analogy, there are parallels between Biden 2020 and Macron 2017 that are worth remarking upon. Both were viewed as sitting in the “sensible” centre of politics, rising above the passions of the extreme left and the venom of the extreme right. Both built a broad coalition of supporters from different sides of politics, and both won an election against a far-right candidate who the mainstream considered unsupportable. Importantly, both promised a new way of doing politics compared to what had come before: intelligent and decent.
But Macron’s time in office illustrates how quickly the pretence of decency can give way to the familiar tropes of the neoliberal status quo, in Macron’s case repression in the face of a challenge from workers.
Macron won in 2017 against Marine Le Pen, candidate of the far-right Front National (FN). On the campaign trail, Macron insisted that the FN was “the party of hatred” and that he wouldn’t “accept people being insulted just because they believe in Islam”. That year, Le Pen won a record 7.6 million votes in the first round, outstripping the number of votes her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, also of the FN, won in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, the first and only other time a fascist candidate made it to the second round run-off. Macron easily defeated Le Pen junior on a platform that seemed more open and more liberal than the FN’s: where Le Pen was anti-Islam, Macron championed Muslim integration. To Le Pen, France was being submerged by a “flood of immigrants”; to Macron, France had a duty to offer asylum to those seeking it, and he championed the free movement of people.
Yet one of the first pieces of legislation passed under Macron in 2017 was an anti-terrorism bill that codified in law measures that had previously been introduced under a rolling state of emergency enacted by former President François Hollande in 2015. Critics likened Macron’s anti-terror law to the hated US Patriot Act, giving the police the power to conduct random stop-and-frisk searches, greater capacity to raid homes and to place suspects under house arrest with limited judicial oversight. Macron’s law also empowered local authorities to close “places of worship in which are disseminated the writings, ideas or theories that provoke violence, hatred and discrimination”.
While other religious institutions—say, the Catholic Church—would easily qualify for closure under the criteria proposed by Macron’s anti-terror law, to all apart from the wilfully ignorant it was clear that, with the law’s passage, Macron was continuing the French presidential tradition of vilifying Muslims and restricting their freedoms.
“This the first time since the age of de Gaulle that French law will enshrine a provision that will de facto target French minorities”, said Patrick Weil, French constitutional scholar. The Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) pointed out that since the rolling state of emergency was first imposed in late 2015, Muslims have been disproportionately targeted for house arrest.
Nowadays, with the next presidential election scheduled for 2022 and Le Pen’s far-right party again threatening to enter the run-off, Macron has veered sharply towards Islamophobia and nationalist drum-beating. He weaponised the tragic murder of teacher Samuel Paty in September 2020 in order to launch an offensive against France’s Muslim population, appealing to a “nation united” to fight “the Islamist Hydra”. Shockingly, his administration is, by decree, dissolving the CCIF—a non-profit civil liberties watchdog that has been labelled an “enemy of the Republic” that has “consistently carried out Islamist propaganda”. However, as Human Rights Watch points out, CCIF’s main work has recently been to criticise the Macron administration’s counter-terrorism measures as racist, and equating the organisation’s work with terrorist propaganda sets a dangerous precedent.
Perhaps the terrain where Macron’s veil of decency fell away quickest has been in his confrontations with the French working class. Not that Macron’s stance was ever a secret: he had been a minister for the economy under the previous Hollande administration and was the architect of a much hated change to the French labour code. This “reform” stripped historic, hard-won conditions of the French working class such as the 35-hour working week, and it inspired a year-long struggle in 2016 by French workers and students. What was shocking, however, was the repressive lengths Macron would go to as president in order to pass such laws and suppress discontent.
The gilets jaunes, or yellow vest movement, was launched in November 2018 as a protest against Macron’s proposed increase to the diesel tax. When it started, about 300,000 people around France took part in national days of action, blocking roads and highways, congregating on roundabouts, donning the yellow vest that is compulsory for all car drivers to carry in their vehicle. Yet what began as a protest against a fuel tax hike grew to become a movement that would threaten Macron’s political stability.
The gilets jaunes staged weekly protests not only in Paris but in smaller cities and towns around the country, attracting hundreds of thousands to mobilise each week against not only the fuel tax—Macron ditched this as a concession to the movement very early in the piece—but for an increase to the minimum wage, for a more democratic society and, importantly, against police violence. Between 5,000 and 8,000 police were routinely deployed onto the streets of Paris, many more thousands around the country, to crush the gilets jaunes.
In March 2019, Macron toured the country using the national spectacle of a “great debate” to demonstrate that he was listening to the people, all the while deploying not just greater numbers of police but also the military onto the streets to quell the protests. The New Statesman reported that a year after the first protest, 24 people had lost an eye due to police violence, five protesters had lost a hand and there had been at least two deaths due to the actions of the police.
The struggle of the gilets jaunes in late 2019 fed into the movement of workers striking to bring down Macron’s plan to reform the pension system. Like the labour code Macron had attacked under a different administration three years earlier, the French pension system has been the product of working-class struggle and has routinely come under attack by French governments. Despite the widespread strikes and demonstrations proving the unpopularity of Macron’s neoliberal pension reform, his administration attempted to ram the plan through in early 2020.
None of this is to say that Biden will behave exactly like Macron. We don’t examine the tea leaves of Macron’s presidency to divine what path Biden will take. However, the comparison serves as a useful reminder of the enthusiasm that the political mainstream had for Macron the reformer. Social liberalism was put forward as the antidote to the far right and a means to bring legitimacy back to the political establishment; yet Macron’s time in power has seen him denigrate workers and the oppressed in the interests of French capitalism just as those before him have done, and the far right has remained strong.
Biden too has been put forward as someone who can deal with the menace of the far right and clean up the mess left by Trump. But this mess—an economic and health crisis that has left more than 400,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and more than 21 million claiming unemployment compensation—is a different and more acute crisis than the crisis of political legitimacy that Macron inherited in 2017. Unlike Macron, who had a neoliberal rolling back of the French welfare state in mind, the crisis facing the US president today demands the kind of spending—US$1.9 trillion on top of the record spending passed by Congress in 2020—that Biden is promising in order both to combat the virus and to handle its economic fallout. And while Macron’s claims to being an outsider were always cynical—he was a product of the political establishment even if he never held elected office before being president—Biden is a veteran of US politics and the Democratic Party and in that way is more of a continuation of the status quo. Even if Americans become $1400 richer once Biden’s package passes—though this looks unlikely without watering down the bill—the crisis is much more deep seated. Both politically and economically, the US has never been more polarised, the pandemic and the long-term environmental crisis exacerbating social disparities. How can Biden’s timeworn calls for “unity and healing” even begin to address these social problems? They can barely scratch at the itch.
The other important difference between the societies whose governments Biden and Macron took control of is the size and role of the forces of resistance, that is, workers and the left. For example, despite Macron vying for power against the bona fide fascist Le Pen, people and institutions identifying with the left correctly assessed what kind of candidate Macron was: “the pure and simple representative of capital” in the words of philosopher Jacques Rancière. The majority of those in 2017 who voted for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round refused to vote at all in the second round.
“I will definitely not vote for Le Pen, but I’m not sure I will vote for Macron”, Eddy, a local government worker from Dijon, told the Guardian. “His politics will only bring more social injustice, and help the Front National get even bigger.”
A similar set of politics that ties fighting the far right with building a movement outside bourgeois control that can challenge any attacks that come from the bourgeoisie is what the US sorely needs. Yet sadly, throughout 2020, representatives of the US left put forward the opposite framework. The Democratic Socialists of America, for example, gave unconditional support to Biden’s candidacy. In a New York Times column titled “You’ve probably heard socialists won’t vote for Biden”, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara desperately reassured liberals that socialists would indeed be voting for Biden, supporting candidates running on the Democratic ballot line and refusing to “play spoiler” by building an independent left-wing alternative to the bourgeois Democratic Party.
More than just voting, workers’ institutions like trade unions have given Biden their uncritical support in the hope that the new president might offer them a line into the administration and halls of power. In addition, many in the unions and on the left have positioned themselves as advising Biden rather than criticising him. Not only does this fail to improve the declining membership and clout of US trade unions, it disarms workers, putting them in a position of subservience, relying on scraps that might fall from the table rather than fighting to improve their conditions and defending against potential future attacks.
While the US left should be vigilant and prepared to fight any future growth of a Trump-inspired far right, the lure of anti-Trumpism inflated the material threat Trump posed and convinced progressives and the institutions they represent that they had no choice but to get behind a Biden presidency, rather than preparing to battle with whichever bourgeois candidate was elected.
Last year’s Black Lives Matter movement showed it is possible to build a broad, left-wing struggle for racial justice outside the control of bourgeois institutions like the Democratic Party. The prolonged struggle against Macron in France shows why that independence is necessary.