Who will be France’s next president?

Issue 
Protesting Emmanuel Macron's pension reforms in 2019.

Presidential elections will take place in France in May next year, and the diverse political forces are already on the starting blocks.

The election takes place in two rounds — the second round a run-off between the two leading candidates. Last time, neoliberal Emmanuel Macron with his brand new party won the second round against far-right Marine Le Pen of National Rally (previously the National Front).

The parliamentary elections, which followed a few weeks after the presidentials, gave the new president a comfortable majority.

In a situation where the traditional parties of the left and right (especially the left) are in grave difficulty, and in a pandemic that poses new problems for capitalists and anticapitalists alike — What is likely to happen in 2022?

Starting with a series of emblematic statistics, this article tries to clarify the main variables for the coming year’s campaign.

75,000: the number of people who have died in France from COVID-19, so far.

2 million: the number of demonstrators in 2019, on the most successful of the seven days of strikes and protests against the government’s plan to slash pensions.

24.01%: the percentage Macron got in the first round of the 2017 presidentials, which was sufficient to get him through the the second round and practically guaranteed victory.

7,060,000: the number of votes obtained in the first round last time by Jeremy Corbyn-like radical candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

6.36%: the percentage of first round votes in 2017 for the Socialist Party of outgoing president, François Hollande.

10,640,000: the number of votes for closet neofascist Marine Le Pen in the second round.

€500 billion: the rise in national debt in 2020

Seventy-five thousand deaths from COVID-19 puts France sixth in the world for total deaths and 21st for deaths per million, better than Britain or Italy, but far worse than Greece, Russia or Germany.

Just like in Britain, years of public service cuts, the priority given to keeping companies open, a certain dose of incompetence and insufficient financial support to workers who should have been self isolating, killed hundreds of times more people than should have died.

It is unclear, though, among those who might vote, how high a political price Macron will pay. How many will see the deaths as sad, but nobody’s fault? Will the government benefit from a boost in popularity, simply by being the government as the epidemic gets less deadly?

In this aspect, Macron has been helped by many unions and left organisations who have been campaigning for cinemas, theatres and universities to be reopened, even when this would accelerate the pandemic. The left has not yet seemed to be able to make Macron pay the political price for all these deaths.

Two million people in the streets and mass strikes over several months in 2019–20, protesting against the smashing up of a national retirement scheme, which has been chipped away at, but ensures that pensioner poverty is only half that in Britain.

As the pandemic took over the front pages, the pension bill was suspended and Macron has not yet dared relaunch it. As has been the case for 25 years, worker resistance is robust and the advance of neoliberalism has been much slowed.

The strikes were a sign of a widespread political class consciousness, and a very large number were not striking for their own pensions, but for those of their younger workmates, children or neighbours (since the government plan was to be phased in over many years).

Twenty four per cent of the first round votes was enough to propel Macron into the second round and then to be assured victory against Le Pen.

France has fifty million adults. Three million didn’t register to vote, and ten million more stayed at home for the first round. Just 9.9 million voted for candidates seen as left, and 9.7 million for candidates seen as traditionally right-wing.

Just over eight and half million people voted for Macron, who was claiming to be “neither right nor left” at the same time as muttering about wanting to be France’s [Margaret] Thatcher. Seven and a half million voted for Le Pen.

The electoral system means that any candidate wanting to be president in 2022 is thinking about how to get the nine or ten million votes or so in the first round that would, no doubt, get them through to the second. Obviously, the ten million who stayed home in 2017 could be helpful.

More than seven million votes went to left winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2017. His new movement, La France Insoumise (France in Revolt, FI), has 17 MPs.

This is the highest vote for a radical left presidential candidate, and it brings the idea of a radical Left president into the realms of the possible. The movement’s program, The Future in Common, includes: nationalisation of energy companies, some banks and other services; the end of nuclear power and a move to 100% renewable energy; the establishment of a maximum salary; a shorter working week; a million low-rent houses; retirement at 60; leaving NATO; free school canteens; and a free health service.

The pandemic period has added demands to nationalise pharmaceuticals and to extend basic benefit rights to 18–25-year-olds (for the moment over-25s can receive a basic benefit of a few hundred euros, if they have almost no income).

Imagine if Corbyn had left Labour to found a new movement 10 years back, and then support for the social-liberal Labour party had collapsed?

France Insoumise is the most promising space on the left, and, unsurprisingly, Mélenchon has been targeted by endless media smear campaigns just as Corbyn was (with other sections of the Left and far Left here joining in the attacks from time to time).

A quick look at the maths shows that Mélenchon has an outsider’s chance of getting through to the second round, and even winning. Present polls put him at around 11%.

France Insoumise MPs have been useful in parliament, showing support for strikers and Yellow Vests as well as shifting the debate to the left about what laws can be made in favour of ordinary people.

Of course, huge obstacles remain for those who want change: if FI did manage to win and then form a government, they might well be allied to people to its right and its program could get watered down. Even more seriously, the whole weight of ruling-class media and capital flight would put immense pressure on FI, and could break a radical Left government. The smoke from the spectre of the failure of Syriza in Greece can be smelt in the wind.

Just over 6% of the first round votes in 2017 went to the Socialist Party of outgoing president, Hollande.

Shortly after the election, Hollande left the SP to form a new party. Is this an absolute historical record low for an outgoing party? At present, the SP is trying to find a candidate.

Generations that split from the SP and the Greens may all join together. Would this be enough to put forward a candidate capable of having a fighting chance? Present polls give 7% to the strongest SP candidate and 10% to the most likely Green candidate (who is considerably to the right of previous Green candidates).

Ten million votes for the fascist Marine Le Pen in the second round in 2017 is, obviously, a terrifying statistic, and by far the highest ever for a far-right candidate here. It shows that in a context of huge disillusion with conservative and SP governments, the far right can snowball.

Le Pen managed to persuade large sections of the population that her party, National Rally, is not or is no longer a fascist grouping. She has been helped by enormous media coverage — her well-spoken intellectual fascists are regulars on news and talk shows.

Macron’s attempts to win over voters by attacking “the Muslim danger”, banning some Muslim charities, and ramping up police violence, may well have helped Le Pen more than hindered her. But it has been a difficult few years for the National Rally.

The two huge and long-lived social movements — the Yellow Vests and the fight to defend pensions — were very popular, indeed, and she could not support them, because of the importance of small businessmen and police officers in her core base. Yet she could not oppose them, without abandoning her pretence of being a people’s candidate.

On COVID-19, too, she had little original to say. She proposed a new law last month to ban wearing Muslim headscarves in the streets, saying that the item of clothing demonstrates adherence to a “totalitarian and murderous” ideology.

A recent poll indicates that, if she were to run against Macron again in the second round, she might lose by only a few percent (it was more than 30% in 2017). Macron’s neoliberal attacks and Islamophobic laws have helped Le pen no end.

Five hundred billion euros were added to the national debt last year, as Macron’s government scrambled to find plenty of money to help businesses, and rather less to help workers and the unemployed.

This debt will have to be paid back, and Macron is determined that this will not involve tax increases for the rich (he has been slashing taxes for the wealthy). This means he wants it to be paid by workers, either working more for less, or having less in the way of public services. The already ferocious struggle between neo-Thatcherism and organised workers is likely to continue heating up.

[Abridged from John Mullen's Anti-Capitalist blog. John Mullen is an anticapitalist activist in the Paris region and a supporter of France Insoumise. His political website is at http://randombolshevik.org/.]