France: Elections mark a political crisis

A rally for left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon on April 16.
April 30, 2017

For the first time since France’s fifth republic was established in 1958, the presidential run-off to be held on May 7 won’t involve a candidate from either the traditional centre-left or centre-right parties.

Former investment banker and ex-government minister Emmanuel Macron (24%) and far right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen (21.3%) topped the results in the first round of France’s presidential elections on April 23.

The results were consistent with opinion polls, but the outcome had been in doubt given the closeness of the top four candidates. Francois Fillon, from the traditional right-wing Republicans party, and left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon were within 2% of Le Pen in the opinion polls and some 30% of the poll respondents remained undecided on who to vote for.

In a major shake-up, Benoit Hamon of the Socialist party, France’s major social-democratic party currently in government, scored only 6.36%.

Political crisis

France moves towards the second round in a profound political crisis. The contest will be between a far-right racist candidate and a representative of the status quo committed to deepening unpopular neoliberalism policies.

In this context, the left faces the challenge, whoever wins, of building a united fight back that goes beyond Melenchon’s late-surging election campaign.

Hanging over the elections has been a profound alienation among French society from the entire electoral system. This was reflected in both the near record 22% abstention rate (only the 28% abstention rate in the 2002 elections has been higher) and that over 3% of ballots were spoiled.

It was also reflected by the response to comments made in a live debate by the far-left New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) candidate Philippe Poutou, a factory worker and trade unionist. Poutou slammed his opponents, such as Fillon and Le Pen, as corrupt.

Despite being accused of being disrespectful by significant media commentators, Poutou's comments resonated and were widely circulated on social media. Left-wing daily Liberation ran an article headlined “Poutou or the right to disrespect”.

The late surge for Melenchon was another clear example. An ex-PS minister who now heads his own movement, Melenchon ran as an outsider on a platform that combined anti-austerity with calls to democratise society.

Speaking to mass meetings of tens of thousands of people, Melenchon’s campaign acted as an alternative on the left to counter Le Pen’s anti-system posturing on the right. In the last weeks of the campaign, his polling jumped from about 12% to over 20%. He eventually came fourth with 19%, a rise from the 11% he won in 2012.

‘Outsiders’

In the campaign, both Macron and Le Pen sought to build images of themselves as outsiders — despite this being far from the reality.

Macron is a former investment banker and was a senior member of the PS. In 2012, he became deputy general-secretary at the Elysee Palace. From 2014, he was minister of the economy in PS Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ government.

Macron has moved with ease between the closely entwined worlds of big business and establishment politics. As minister, he drove through a range of pro-business laws, including a bill to make it easier to sack workers. Macron also supported last year’s controversial El Khomri laws, which undermined France’s labour code and deregulated the labour market.

Last year, Macron established his own party En Marche. He will be relying on this new force to secure him a working majority in legislative elections scheduled for June.

As for Le Pen, Since taking over the leadership of FN from her father, she has has sought to rehabilitate its image from a deeply anti-Semitic and reactionary force to make it more palatable. Ties were cut with older layers of activists, who were seen as being damaging to this project — including Marine’s father and party founder Jean-Marie.

The party limited its public racist statements to those section of French society that the mainstream parties were already attacking — namely Muslims, Roma and undocumented migrants and refugees.

Indeed FN, the PS, and the Republicans have played off each other in shifting the debate on these issues profoundly to the right.

The FN has even won significant support in France’s Jewish and LGBTI communities. This has been partly based on FN encouraging the racist idea that France’s Muslim community represents an existential threat to the Jewish and LGBTI communities — and that only FN’s tough approach can protect them.

It is unclear what impact on these efforts to rehabilitated FN’s image was made by Le Pen's April 10 comments denying the French state’s responsibility for deporting 13,000 Jews to Auschwitz in 1942.

The FN has also actively built an image as the only defender of some of France’s marginalised communities — particularly in France’s former industrial heartland that used to be a strong hold of the PS and French Communist Party. These communities have been left behind by the policies of both the traditional right and the PS.

Despite these shifts, Le Pen is running up against the limits of her base and her ability to reach into the broader French election in the second round. In order to further broaden her appeal, she announced on April 24 that she was stepping down down as FN president to “allow her to better represent the interests of all French people”.

Given the likelihood that most supporters of other candidates would vote for Macron to prevent Le Pen winning, it remains likely Macron will win the second round. However, the elections reflect a further consolidation and normalisation of the FN within French politics.

This means the far right group is likely to win a significant number of seats in the legislative elections and will be in a strong position for the 2022 presidential elections.

Traditional parties

As for the Republicans and the PS, both face difficulties and divisions, although the dynamics in each case are different.

The primaries for the Republicans (formerly the Union for a Popular Movement of ex-presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacque Chirac) were surprisingly won by Fillon, an ex-prime minister.  

However, Fillon faced serious corruption allegations. In February, Fillon publicly acknowledged his “mistake” and apologised “to the French people”. However, he defended a salary paid to his wife via an alleged fake public sector job he arranged, calling it “perfectly justified”. In March, his home was raided by an anti-corruption agency.

With the allegations causing a fall in polling, there were calls from within his party for Fillon to step aside, which he successfully dodged. In the end, Fillon’s 20% result to place third was not as bad as may have been feared. However, it nonetheless reflects a further weakening of the position of the traditional right, which is under siege from FN.

The PS’s fortunes have been on a downward trend since the 2012 elections, won by PS presidential candidate Francois Hollande on a platform promising a break with austerity. But when in power, the PS continued the policies of Sarkozy and Fillon to make working people pay for capitalism’s crisis.

This had a profoundly demoralising impact on the PS’s electoral base. In June last year, the PS announced it would hold primaries for a “common candidate of the left” — which would include other left-of-centre forces such as the Radical Party of the Left and the Ecology Party.

Both Macron and Melenchon refused to participate. In December, Hollande — facing an approval rating of just 4% — announced he would not seek renomination.

The final round of the primary was between ex-prime minister Manuel Valls and Hamon, a former PS minister. Pitching left, Hamon won 58.69% to 41.31%.

Hamon’s triumph has been painted as an insurgent victory similar to the Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the British Labour Party. However, the PS primaries involved almost 1 million less people than in 2011 — reflecting the depth of its crisis.

Hamon sought to recapture ground by presenting a more left election platform including support for a universal basic income. However, much of the PS’s right wing broke ranks to openly support Macron — including both Valls and Hollande.

This break in support led to a further fall in Hamon's polling, reinforcing the perception that his bid was doomed. More PS voters shifted to other candidates, particularly Macron, and to a lesser extent Melenchon.

The left

Melenchon began the election campaign as a marginal candidate, but in March and April he surged, polling as high as 22%. Melenchon’s ultimate vote of just under 20% was the highest received by a candidate to the left of the traditional social democratic forces since 1969.

This result was partly based on the fragmentation of support for the PS. But it was also driven by the mass movement around his candidacy, expressed in the France Insoumsie (France Unbowed — FI).

As part of this movement, more than 3000 local FI committees have been formed, comprising about 400,000 people. FI also has built huge public rallies drawing in tens of thousands of people. Melenchon has pioneered the use of holograms to allow him to address multiple mass rallies simultaneously.

His campaign was backed by the Communist Party and small far left group Ensemble (Together), the same forces that backed Melenchon’s 2012 campaign as part of the Left Front.

Melenchon’s campaign featured a call for a Constituent Assembly as part of constructing a new, Sixth Republic; restrictions on the ability of employers to sack workers; the right for workers in companies facing closure or sale to convert the company into cooperative; and a target for 100% renewable energy by 2050.

In addition to Melenchon, both the NPA and Lutte Ouvriere (Workers’ Struggle) stood candidates, polling 1.3% (395,505) 0.6% (232,547) respectively.

Poutou, a mechanic at a car plant in Aquitaine and secretary of the plant’s CGT union, was presented as a worker candidate under the slogan “Our lives, not their profits”. He was able to make a considerable dent in the media beyond his strong showing in the debates.

Although the NPA’s campaign was overshadowed by Melenchon’s — its largest electoral rallies attracted 1500 people — the NPA was able to reach out to layers who may otherwise not have voted.

The second round

In the wake of the first round, pressure has been brought to bear on left parties to swing behind Macron to ensure his victory. However, so far the left has resisted endorsing Macron.

For instance, Melenchon called on April 24 for “not a single vote” to go to the FN. But he has declined to say whether FI will call on its supporters to vote for Macron. Instead,   Melenchon indicated the FI would consult its members on whether to support voting for Macron, abstaining or casting a blank vote in the second round.

The NPA released a statement on April 23 which explicitly refused to call on supporters to vote for Macron.

The statement said: “We understand their desire to reject the deadly danger for all social progress and for all rights, especially for immigrant and immigrant populations, that Marine Le Pen’s election would represent. But it should be remembered that it is the austerity and security policies, particularly of a so-called left government, that are the reason for the rise of the FN and its nauseous ideas.

“Macron is not a bulwark against the FN; to impose a lasting retreat there is no alternative but to take the streets against the far right and against all those who, like Macron, impose or try to impose anti-social measures.”

High school students have already started mobilising under the slogan, “Neither the banker, nor the racist” and “their election, our future”.

May Day, six days before the second round, provides the first chance to build significant mobilisations against both the racism of the FN and the attack on social rights represented by both candidates.

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