- The exhaustion of traditional parties.
The absence of both mainstream political parties that have dominated French political life for the last decades from the 2nd round of the elections mirror the current period of rapid political reshuffling, of disintegration of old categories and schemes of understanding, and of great uncertainty and volatility, across the West.
The result of the 1st round marks the end of the regular “alternance” between the centre-right and the centre-left, and clearly indicate, even if in unclear or contradictory ways, a strong desire for change, and a deep discontent with the outdated and obsolete French institutions and economic stagnation.
- The collapse of the Parti Socialiste.
Despite being a decent, principled man, socialist candidate Benoit Hamon could do nothing to prevent the historical electoral debacle of the Parti Socialiste (PS). The weight of the disastrous legacy of François Hollande, marked by the full embrace of neoliberalism, was too heavy to carry.
The very low result (6.3%) of Hamon was also due to the sabotaging efforts of his campaign by part of leading figures of the party, including former PM Manuel Valls. In an indecent show of contempt for democracy, many top ranking party members refused to back Hamon, despite his victory at the primaries expressly organised to designate the party’s candidate, and rallied behind Macron instead.
Besides undermining Hamon’s chances to win, the crippling efforts by prominent figures of the PS revealed the rotten core of the party apparatus. As in the case of the Democratic contest between Sanders and Clinton in the US, the attempts to obstruct an even moderately left-wing candidate like Hamon to campaign illustrated the extent to which the party does not tolerate any deviance from its new liberal, pro-business, anti-social character.
Despite his efforts and commitment, Hamon’s attempt to reform and conduct a left-wing campaign within the corrupt structures of the PS has failed. Like in many other former social-democratic parties in Europe, there appears to simply be no political space available or margins of manoeuvre inside the PS to reverse its rightward shift.
- The rise of the far right.
If the PS suffered a heavy defeat, the Front National (FN), with 21.5% of the share of the vote, obtained the biggest result in its history.
Since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2007, the FN has been able to successfully ride the wave of discontent in the country: through a carefully thought-through repackaging operation, marked by the discarding of the old symbols and visual codes, and a new pseudo-leftist social discourse addressed to the working class and the most vulnerable communities of the country, the party has gathered a solid base of popular support, and attracted a high number of people understandably fed up with mainstream politics and their precarious economic situation.
The ascent of the FN has meant that its themes and rhetoric have entered into the mainstream. As other parties trail behind, reproducing the FN’s similarly bigoted discourse to follow public perceptions, the FN can dictate the agenda, pushing the limits a little further each time. Thus, issues like immigration, security, identity or secularism have come to dominate the French public debate, while socioeconomic questions are relegated to the margins, or framed through religious or culturalist prisms.
The combination of the failure of traditional parties, responsible for the impoverishment of the middle and working classes, and the “detoxification” process of the party’s image, helped by the media establishment, have pushed a large number of people towards the FN, and made its access to power a very real possibility.
- The Macron imposture.
1st round winner Emmanuel Macron is the candidate of the oligarchy, of the 1%, the quintessential representative and guardian angel of neoliberalism.
Fabricated through a massive marketing operation and promoted at the point of saturation by the media, the Macron phenomenon succeeded in deceiving many French citizens craving for political change by hiding the man’s politically bankrupt policies and vision behind a rosy, appealing, vacuous, impalpable rhetoric filled with meaningless slogans and buzzwords.
French economist Frederic Lordon succinctly explained the meaning of Macron in a piece for Le Monde Diplomatique:
” … with Macron the void is not in contradiction with fullness of content, even if at the present moment when he does have to show something to the outside world, the void is greatly preferable. For the substance is the oligarchy’s: this is the fullness of a class’s project to persevere, in the very moment that everything condemns it, testimony to an era that has perceptibly reached its tipping point. In these conditions, for the oligarchic substance to maintain itself in the face of — and against — everything else, it needed an empty candidate, a candidate who said nothing, for what truly had to be said would be too obscene to present openly: the rich want to remain rich, and the powerful to remain powerful. That is this class’s only project, and that is its candidate Macron’s raison d’être. In this sense, he is the spasm of a system pushing back its own death.”
Macron represents everything that gave rise to the FN in the first place. In this sense, in the 2nd round French voters are called to choose, as in the 2016 US presidential elections, between proto-fascism and what fuels fascism.
The extreme centre and the xenophobic right feed off each other in a toxic, dangerous cycle. They are two sides of the same coin. Although barring the way to the FN on the 7th of May is the most sensible thing to do in the short term, we must have no illusions: Macron and what he represents are part of the problem as much as the FN and the far right across Europe.
- A bittersweet defeat for the left.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, the candidate of La France Insoumise, conducted a remarkable grassroots campaign, mobilizing millions of people, carrying a message of hope supported by a detailed, ambitious programme, centred on the democratization of French political institutions through the collective drafting of a new constitution, the transition to a new ecological mode of production and consumption, and a radical redistribution of wealth to decrease inequalities and relaunch the economy. The frustration and disappointment at the results of the 1st round among activists and supporters of La France Insoumise is understandable: Melenchon came very close to earning a ticket for the 2nd round, obtaining 19.5% of the share of the vote, less than 2 points behind Marine Le Pen. Victory was undoubtedly within grasp; hopes were high. Nevertheless, it is important to remain lucid, and not dwell and mourn too much on the bitter defeat.
While they certainly are a very important event, elections do not represent the bulk or the end station of the struggle. The movement of La France Insoumise has laid the foundations for a durable progressive movement. The mobilizations around the regressive El Khomri law, as well as the Nuit Debout movement of 2016, have demonstrated that there is a large dissatisfaction with the functioning and aberrations of today’s society, especially among the youth. These are certainly promising elements for the coming years.
The task of the French left for the near future is to keep the impressive dynamic of the campaign alive, expand its reach, and transform it into something durable. As the rise of the FN has shown, the left has lost a lot of ground in recent decades; creating a strong, unitary progressive force, opposed to both the new puppets of neoliberalism and the noxious far-right, will be a long process that can only happen beyond the limited framework of elections.
In other words, the difference at this point can only be made in the streets, to keep the powerful to account, whoever is in power, and to work towards the creation of a new political alternative.
- A lost (last?) opportunity for the European Union.
In terms of the repercussions of the election on Europe, the scenario in front of our eyes could not be worse. On one side, there is a candidate, Macron, who sides with the European establishment who crushed Greece, and who is fully committed to preserve the status quo. On the other, Marine Le Pen intends to quit the EU, and retreat into a narrow, exclusivist nationalism.
This presidential election could have marked a major shift in European politics, had Melenchon passed the 1st round: his plan to renegotiate the EU treaties and pressure Germany (Plan A), and quit the EU in case of failure of the negotiations (Plan B), would have represented a moment of truth for the future of the EU, a sort of “make it or break it” situation.
These elections may well have been the last chance for the EU to change course and engage in a process of radical reform, and avoid its implosion. The EU is racing right against the wall, and there are no signs things are going to change in any significant way in the near future.
© Tommaso Segantini