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French Presidential Election of 2017

France Has Dodged a Bullet in its Head: Macron’s Victory Offers a Much Needed Reprieve Against Narrow Nationalism

by Harsh Kapoor, 20 May 2017

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commentary addressed to progressives and democrats in India

[updated on 31 May 2017]

[a shorter version of this article has appeared in Mainstream Weekly, 20 May 2017]

On April 23, the first round of the French elections eliminated the established parties, leaving two final contenders for the final round of May 7; Emmanuel Macron, a former economy minister and cosmopolitan political novice representing his newly created movement called ‘en marche’ [on the move] and Marine Le Pen leader of the forty year old Front National (FN) [an anti immigrant and anti European party of the far Right]. Two opposing conceptions of France were in the race. Macron won in a landslide with 66% of the vote, yet many voted for him simply to keep Le Pen out of power.

Macron’s victory over Le Pen is certainly good news for France and a post-Brexit Europe, but it is naïve to see this electoral defeat of FN as the beginning of the end for hateful identity politics in France. Let us say a storm has passed for now, but the dark clouds loom large.

Manifestation anti-FN, place de la République, le 1er mai 2002. Photo Joël Robine. AFP

Fifteen years ago there was a similar situation: Jean Marie Le Pen the founding leader of the National Front, had reached the Presidential run-off. At that time one and a half million people had marched on the streets in a resounding no to the FN. A republican front of all parties, left and right was formed and the FN defeated by a record 82% votes in 2002. Today there is comparably little political mobilisation against the FN - which has been normalised.

Macron the Maverick’s Big Gamble

Macron hails emotionally from the Left. He is a liberal democrat who stands for enlightenment ideals, opposes racism and xenophobia, and offers hope in a common European future by attacking economic isolation as a reactionary idea. His alliance is made up of free-market elites, centrists and social democrats.

Macron is bitterly hated by unions for the labour reform law he brought in under the socialist party govt he was once part of but has humanist convictions and has had the moral courage to publically say that: ‘Colonisation is a part of French history. It is a crime, a crime against humanity … it belongs to a past that we must face up to, while offering an apology to the people who were on the receiving end.’

Macron, the finance man is a fine example of the intellectual rigour of people who constitute French political elites. Unlike the RSS sanchaalak in India who proclaims there was plastic surgery in ancient times, or the real estate salesman and TV showman in the US who sees climate change as a conspiracy, Macron wrote a philosophy thesis on Hegel (supervised by Etienne Balibar); was Paul Ricoeur’s editorial assistant when Ricoeur was writing his book La mémoire, l’histoire et l’oubli. Macron’s ideas are influenced by the work of John Rawls and Amartya Sen on justice and equality of opportunity.

The Far Right, its banalisation and national presence:

France’s two main established political parties have been losing credibility with the people and facing opposition to their policies. In consequence they have ceded ground to anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, anti-European, and anti-globalisation sentiment. French parties failed to draw the lessons from the shock of 2002. Instead of trying to combat the FN’s ideas, politicians focused on shutting them out of power. In 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy kept Le Pen out of the run-off, but only by peddling identity politics to court FN voters. The FN’s achievement was the ‘Le Pen-isation’ of other parties.

For its part, the Left resorted to scare-mongering. But what France needed was to confront identity politics, actively educate and cultivate a secular, pro-European society that faced terrorist violence and a xenophobic backlash. The Front National (FN) has been the key beneficiary of this backlash, becoming the main party of the working class over the past years. More than half (56%) the working-class votes in the 2017 presidential election went to Le Pen, and over 40 percent of them belonged to lower socio-economic categories and less educated.

With the exceptions of two big regions, the FN everywhere scored above 10 percent of the vote. It scored above its national average in fifty-five départements of France, and got over 30 percent in twelve regions. 10.5 million people voted for Marine Le Pen in 2017, twice the number her father got in 2002.

The most alarming phenomena has been that a section of the Far left voters and sympathisers have voted for FN in the last 15 years. 4% voted Front national en 2002. In 2017 41% chose Marine Le Pen. In 2002 10% sympathisers of the French Communist Party voted FN. [1] Similarly small but growing members of trade unionists have been voting for FN [2]

Its been a meteoric rise for a small party created in 1972. At the end of the second world war there were a few of small political groups of the extreme-right that had a low key presence in France, but they got invigorated in 1954 with outbreak of war for independence of Algeria; This brutal war ended in 1962 with fascist formations nourishing on memories of unrepentant colonial pride. At the end of the massive student revolt of May 1968 in France, a violent extreme right organisation by the name of ’ordre nouveau’ was formed with former militants of ’Algérie française’ and OAS in tow. In 1972 they created a political party called ’National Front’ and Jean Marie Le Pen was designated as its leader.

In 1973 FN fought its first legislative elections with no success and in 1974 & 1981 Le Pen is a failed candidate in the presidential elections. In 1981 FN had only 300 members. In 1986 Le Pen gets elected to the parliament. All these years the FN was shunned by the entire political class and remained on the margins. It fought elections but had a little imprint.

A divided political class gave it a stunning break in 2002 with Le Pen making to the final round of presidential election with over 16% vote.

In 2003 Marine Le Pen was inducted into FN and who made way in FN to mimic a left type discourse [3] against the European Union and against globalisation and was guided to the top leadership position in 2011.

In may 2015 European elections FN got 24,86% of vote putting it ahead of the socialist party and the right wing republicans.

Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen the Front National put new energy in ’dédiabiolisation’ of its image and give the party a new softened make over.

Photo of Marine Le Pen in February 2012 in Montbelliard with workers & trade unionists with Left Party flag outside a factory of PSA - the french multinational maker of cars and motorbikes
Credits : Simon Daval - Maxppp

Marine Le Pen’s refurbishment of the FN appropriated the ideals of De Gaule’s republicanism, which had been used to stigmatize the FN due its affinities with fascism. Frontists were no longer the loudmouth political untouchables but guardians of secularism, defenders of ’the nation’ under the threat of migrants taking jobs and from the financial elites and "ultra-liberal" European Union, in the defence of workers. And it has worked a great deal in 2017 presidential elections

The FN has become socially acceptable and it is here to stay. It has to be fought back everyday at the level of ideas – with secular and universal values. But, you cannot fight Fascism every five years.

We have seen this film before in India.

The Left:

Created in 1920 the French Communist Party (PCF) was a mass party with considerable electoral weight till the mid 1980s . At its height in 1946 the PCF claimed eight hundred thousand members. In the 1969 presidential elections it got 21% of the vote. 1977 was perhaps the finest moment of influence French communists at the municipal level, when roughly 1,500 communist mayors governed over 8.6 million inhabitants across small and medium sized towns - known as worker municipalities.

The PCF was not only implanted in the factories but in the towns and neighbourhoods. It ran sportive activity, vacations, educational spaces, cinemas, and organised cultural festivals.

It had a big cultural capital with intellectuals, prominent musicians, actors etc. A thing of the past all that, the party lives on on its past gains.

There has been a steady decline in membership which stood at over 50,000 in 2015. The decline of the PCF has also been social and cultural vaccum in many working class towns and neighbourhoods where groups organising on basis of identity politics have come in fill the space.

In the 1970s the Socialist party overtook the PCF in terms of political influence. The big high point was the socialist leader Mitterand coming to power in 1981. The socialists from the mid 1980’s have been shifting ground to the right making their economic policies more market-friendly [4] and unable to refashion themselves in the wake of de-industrialisation and globalisation. A heavily divided and sectarian far Left has been functioning with highly simplified binaries and all-purpose explanations based on imperialism, war and globalisation. It has discarded Marxist internationalism and is unable to move beyond national frontiers and go pan-European. [5]

Nationalism on the Left

In 1990s anxieties about social consequences of globalisation, european integration and loss of national autonomy lead to emergence of a nationalistic discourse on the left. A former minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement prominent in the Socialist Party till 1993 led this way of thinking, it had a wider than acknowledged impact. (Today one of Marine Le Pen’s intellectual gurus Florian Philippot comes from Chevenement’s citizen’s movement team)

An influential section of the far left has also been fishing in strange waters. In 2009 Jean Luc Melanchon, the former socialist Parliamentarian created Le Parti de Gauche [The Left Party] and began to argue not in terms of class but "the people", and of the "defense of national sovereignty." This is quite disturbing because in the French context, a "sovereignist" stance is usually associated with the Right: with a militarily strong nation, national culture etc. [6]

The strategy of opposition between "the people" versus "the oligarchy" is dangerously simple and ambiguous and offers little in the form of practical politics. If the "people" emerge around a charismatic leader, the self-organization and self-education of citizens get relegated to the last level. The Left and associated trade unions have ignored rising xenophobia, nationalism and racism and have lost membership to the National Front. The far Right has been stealing the Left’s language on the policies of the European Union (EU). A shared repertoire has come into play.

The Left faction within the Socialist Party managed to propel its candidate Benoit Hamon as the official candidate in the 2017 presidential elections. He came to an understanding with the Greens but could not convince the far Left Jean-Luc Melanchon for a tie up. In a hugely successful campaign former Trostkyist and MEP Melenchon got 19.6 percent vote and the socialist Hamon got 6 percent. If they had allied they would have been in the top seat.

For the 2017 elections Melenchon had created a new political movement called La France insoumise (France unbowed).This name has a disturbing resonance with the sovereignty-obsessed National Front. The French national flag slowly replaced the red flags at his mass rallies and the Internationale got dropped making way for the “Marseillaise” (French national anthem) at the end of meetings. Le Pen’s party actively courted voters of Melanchon and those of the far Left, playing up the anti-European union / anti-globalisation similarities in their programmes and common opposition to Macron. Readers in India might recall how the BJP was once opposed to opening up of retail trade, insurance to multinational firms, in a shared language with the Left; and the similarity between the demands of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and the approach of sections of the Left on questions of national sovereignty. [7]

The decision of Melanchon and many on the Left (including London-based Left media star Tariq Ali who argued for Brexit) calling for mass abstention in the final round of the French elections by equating Macron and Le Pen is inexcusable. We are reminded of the many Bernie Sanders’ voters who chose not to vote for Hilary Clinton and how the chouchou of the leftists Julian Assange used Wikileaks to damage Clinton. The imperative to oppose racism and hate should have been above opposition to neoliberal policies. This is not a trait peculiar to the French Left – many of India’s Left parties have kept equating the Congress Party and the BJP.

The French parliamentary elections due in June provide an opportunity to the progressives to get substantial numbers, but there bad signs - the French Communist party and La France insoumise have no common understanding. The Left is good at sectarianism. Much is at stake. The challenge from Le Pen did not begin with this election and it will not end with her defeat. The FN has a stable base and has an edge over a divided left.

The coming weeks will be crucial. As president, Macron needs the backing of the legislature. His party La République en Marche! has a weak chance of winning an overall majority. There is a crying need for a progressive opposition to act as a countervailing power and to ensure reform happens via dialogue and consultation. The focus should be on creating jobs – the unemployment rate is close to 10%; and for those under 25, it has been above 20% since 2009.

Among Macron’s plans are: unifying France’s 35 public pension systems; cutting public spending and trimming 120,000 civil-service jobs. His big proposal to loosen the labour market, could provoke huge social tensions. Macron’s ambitious idea is the creation of a euro-zone fiscal union to enable permanent fiscal transfers from the stronger countries to countries that are disadvantaged by the euro zone’s common monetary policy – a common euro-zone budget to be financed by contributions from member states’ tax receipts. This is to counter uneven development of economies in Europe. Macron’s presidency depends on European cooperation and it could also revitalise the European project.

The point for Left democrats is to recognise is that there is greater democratic space under a liberal centrist regime than one driven by far Right nationalism. We are paying a very heavy price in India for the failure of the Left to realise this.

Relevant Reading Material:

  • Le Front national de 1972 à nos jours. Le parti, les hommes, les idées Seuil, 2014
  • Dictionnaire de la lepénisation des esprits par Pierre Tevanian et Sylvie Tissot, Paris, Esprit frappeur, 2002
  • « Structuration et désagrégation du communisme français (1920-2002). Usages sociaux du parti et travail partisan en milieu populaire ». par Julian Mischi, Thèse. Paris, EHESS.
  • Prendre Parti. Pour une sociologie historique du PCF. par B. Pudal, Paris, Presses de la FNSP, 1989.


[1Présidentielle 2017: 2002-2017: cinq leçons sur la progression du Front national par Catherine Petillon. 08.05.2017

[2"Lors des élec­tions cantonales de 2011, un sondage Harris Interactive estime à 9 % la proportion de sympathisants des syndicats à avoir voté en faveur d’un candidat FN (dont 6 % de sympathisants de la CGT, 8 % de ceux de la CFDT et de la CGC, 15 % de ceux de FO)" dans Syndicalisme et politique par Dominique Andolfatto, Dominique Labbé le 26 octobre 2011

[3Comment le Front national capte-t-il l’électorat de gauche ?

[4Les Années Mitterrand – Du changement socialiste au tournant libéral par Mathias Bernard, Belin 2015

[5The Brexit working class counter-revolution: British lefties who are rejoicing today risk being engulfed by a right-wing firestorm by Harsh Kapoor, 6 July 2016

[6L’Allemagne, Mélenchon, et la souveraineté par Jacques Sapir, dans Marianne, 10 mai 2015

[7see: The Brexit working class counter-revolution: British lefties who are rejoicing today risk being engulfed by a right-wing firestorm and also: Nationalism and Fear of Foreign Capital: The Indian capitalists in organised retail are angels are they?