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France: Why Macron’s victory over Le Pen deserves no cheers
15 May 2017. A World to Win News Service. Emmanuel Macron, who beat the fascist Marine Le Pen in the final round of the French elections, was the consensus candidate around whom most of the French capitalist ruling class and its political representatives rallied. But that doesn’t change the fact that the man who won by a two-to-one margin represents a deeply unpopular programme opposed even by most of those who voted for him because he was the “least worst” candidate. Further, it doesn’t change the reality of the collapse of the political set-up that has governed the country since the end of the last world war, and the erosion of the underlying social compact and ideology that held the country together. It won’t bring political and social stability. And rather than turning back the danger of fascism in France, these elections demonstrate and further the legitimation of Le Pen’s party and especially of her openly-stated fascistic politics.
A candidate of continuity and capitalist consensus
One irony of this election is that even though neither of the two parties that have alternated in governing France, the Socialists and the party now called Les Républicains, made it into the run-off elections, Macron’s programme represents the continuation and intensification of measures favoured by both of them. The difference is that until now the process of making French capital more competitive has largely proceeded in disguised form. For example, despite the official 35-hour work week, many service and transport workers feel the life drained out of them by split shifts. Office employees spend “free time” in front of a home computer screen. Long periods as unpaid or underpaid interns feel like slave labour to young people, and the extensive use of renewable short-term employment contracts means that many never obtain job security. Employees with seniority face harassment – sometimes to the point of suicide – meant to force them to quit despite supposed legal job protection.
Now Macron proposes to “unblock” the labour market with new laws. One is that wages and working conditions be negotiated enterprise by enterprise, eliminating the whole concept that society owes any general protection, which would surely lead to a downward spiral. He would also give employers far more power to lay off at will, force the unemployed to accept almost any job after the first two offers, and in other ways abolish acquired entitlements that used to make life tolerable for many working people. He calls for drastically cutbacks in social services in order to provide government financing in key areas to make French industries stronger and reduce the public debt.
This is the path already well worn in the UK and Germany. When the outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande brought in Macron as his protégé and finance minister as part of a broader bid to implement such measures, the resulting social upheaval helped kill Hollande’s career and led Macron to resign from the government and party. Yet now Macron is back, with a new party and the same programme on steroids. Under the cover of his defeat of Le Pen and the spectacle focusing on his age (at 39, the youngest French head of state in modern times) and his penchant for off-the-rack rather than bespoke suits, Macron promises to “renew” and “moralize” French politics by replacing some of the country’s old men politicians with young women and men. It’s not hard to predict that the current media-driven intoxication will be followed by a bad hangover. It’s also not hard to predict that this will work to the benefit of Le Pen.
In a way similar to other imperialist countries since the end of the last world war, the French monopoly capitalists have ruled through a political model where governance has alternated between centre-left and centre-right political forces representing real, but far from fundamental, variations on an underlying social model in which the satisfaction of a few basic human needs has been more or less guaranteed to a broad section of the population, including much of the working class, in exchange for a social peace underwritten by the country’s position among the global imperialist system’s top predators. In particular, the Socialist Party, which plunged to the level of a fringe party almost overnight, is no longer able to pose as a real alternative to the traditional openly capitalist right-wing party, while a significant part of society, including strata once considered the base of the parliamentary left, has fallen prey to Le Pen’s promises to upend the status quo. This is a new and dangerous polarization.
Le Pen’s paradoxical defeat
The attack on Le Pen by her rivals, the media and other highly placed figures mainly took place on grounds favourable to her, so that even in defeat she is stronger than ever. She claims, not without reason, that others in the political establishment are copying her proposals, differing mainly in degree and determination. Macron, for instance, rather than denouncing her ugly demand for more repression, calls “security” his priority concern and plans to institute systematic jail terms for petty crimes and make room for 20 percent more prisoners in a country that already has one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe. He would also hire far more police and border guards, institute house arrest for asylum seekers and speed up their processing and expulsion. Such steps have little to do with protecting people against violent crime, which despite politician-stoked popular perception, is in decline. Nor, reactionary experts agree, would any of this have prevented the recent Islamist terrorist attacks. These measures are largely in line with Le Pen’s argument that what France needs most is an even more punitive climate aimed especially at Moslems and at people kept at the bottom of society more generally, along with the strengthening of the state’s repressive forces. All this demonstrates that rather than being an isolated phenomenon, Le Pen is part and parcel of an overall rightward shift in French politics.
But paradoxically, it is where Le Pen is qualitatively different from her rivals that she enjoyed impunity in the electoral campaign. It might seem obvious that the fascist label objectively describes her party, which is rooted in the fascist Vichy regime that ruled in collaboration with the Nazi occupiers during World War 2. Her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen is notorious for calling the Holocaust a mere “detail” of World War Two. An amnesty for French war criminals shielded him from prosecution on charges that he committed torture as an army officer during France’s unsuccessful war to prevent Algerian independence.
Marine Le Pen is more than a key actor in the rightward shift in France and Europe more generally. She also represents an effort to create a whole new legal and ideological framework, one that explicitly demonizes and strips the rights of millions of people she deems insufficiently “French”, even if born in France, with more than a hint of threatened ethnic cleansing – fascism for short. Although tens of thousands of angry people demonstrated against her candidacy, it was nothing like the angry million who marched against her father when he made a breakthrough and reached the Presidential run-off elections in 2002 – and far from what needed to take place this time. This is partially explained by the fact that most ruling class politicians and media refrained from erecting a political ring fence around her. She was treated as a legitimate candidate in the televised debates, especially by Macron, who condescendingly focused on her intellectual clumsiness rather than calling her out as the enemy of the bourgeois-democratic form of rule and the slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. This slogan summarizes an ideal, that all people are equal, which never could describe the reality of a society divided into antagonistic classes, let alone a world divided into oppressor and oppressed nations. But it has been at the core of the ideological glue holding together French society.
In short, Le Pen got a free pass when it comes to what she really represents. That she captured one third of the votes is seen as sufficient to make her a legitimate figure, despite her programme, but even that probably could not have happened had she not been treated as a legitimate possibility all along. Part of what changed is that a small but very significant section of the traditional right joined with her, for the first time in her party’s history. She, at least, hopes to place herself as the leading alternative to Macron and what she denounces as the political system he represents. At the very least, it can be said the French ruling class overall has objectively favoured her presence in the electoral landscape, if not her victory – under current circumstances.
How the “far left” candidate did his bit for the system
The other major player in producing electoral illusions – the illusion that elections are anything more than a form of rule under which the monopoly capitalists exercise a disguised dictatorship – was Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his party, La France insoumise (France Unbowed). His appeal to “all the children of the Republic” was not so different than Macron in covering up the systematic and vicious structural oppression of those in France whose origins lie in the former French colonies and slavery. While Le Pen’s nationalism stinks to many people, Mélenchon did a great deal to give French nationalism and patriotism a left cover and make it respectable. This was the most important aspect of his programme, and not his wish list of new benefits of the kind unions successfully sought in decades gone by when French imperialism and the world imperialist system were in better circumstances. (He also distinguished himself by his unstinting praise for the police and the CRS, the paramilitary force widely hated for attacking strikers and protests, whose only mission is to enforce social order.)
Mélenchon’s proposed solution to the failure of the Socialist Party to keep its promises is to strengthen French imperialism’s position in the world. This does not contradict or distinguish him from what unites Le Pen and Macron: taking French imperialist interests as the highest good. Mélenchon’s hostility to the European Union may very well be a major reason why France’s “political class” excludes him in a way that Le Pen is no longer entirely excluded, especially now that she appears to be backtracking on her previous opposition. But he continuously emphasizes France’s necessary place in “Europe”, a term that refers to something more than a continent only insofar as its identity is that of the collective heir (along with the US and UK) to the riches produced by slavery and colonialism, whose living standards are made possible only by constantly expanding global exploitation and the looting of the world’s oppressed peoples. On the contrary, Mélenchon’s gripe is that France is not doing well enough in the sharpening rivalry within this fraternity of thieves.
Once elected, Macron, like his predecessors, was scheduled to open his presidency with a visit to Mali, one of the many places where French troops stationed abroad. These troops are tasked with defending French domination against both Islamists and rival imperialists – to defend, against the interests of humanity, the illegitimate notion of “Françafrique”, that France has an inherent right to dominate much of Africa in collusion and rivalry with other imperialists. Would – could – Mélenchon have acted very differently?
Further, it’s striking that while Mélenchon called Le Pen a fascist in a previous campaign – and won when she sued him for libel – he did not repeat that charge this time. This is consistent with his attempts to poach supporters from her social base, as she did to his. He called on his followers not to vote for her in the run-offs, and it seems that far more Les Républicains supporters ended up voting for Le Pen than did Mélenchon’s. Still, there is a similarity in their appeal to the sentiment that vaguely identified “elites” have opted for a globalization that has destroyed traditional values and robbed “the French” of their rightful place in the world. This reactionary nostalgia has a particular resonance among those in the working class who held jobs denied to the immigrants or in other ways enjoyed petty privileges compared to the many millions brought to France to work as labourers. Furthermore, as part of his effort to appeal to Le Pen’s social base, Mélenchon did not attempt to fight her on the field of values, where Le Pen vigorously reaffirmed patriarchy and other traditional Catholic values that have been increasingly strained by objective economic and social factors at work, including major changes in French society itself. (Significantly, the French Catholic hierarchy, unlike its counterparts of other religions, did not call for Le Pen’s defeat.)
Despite the seeming opposition between the defence of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” by Mélenchon – and Macron – and Le Pen’s fascism (“French people first”), these positions both hide the fact that France, like all other countries, is a society made up of social classes, most basically exploiters and exploited, whose interests are in antagonistic opposition to one another.
A way out of today’s unacceptable choices
There is a need and a basis for a completely different kind of society that works toward the elimination of class distinctions throughout the world, relying on and unleashing the creative energies and vast potential of human beings. This can only mean genuine proletarian revolution as it has been re-envisioned by Bob Avakian, when those at the bottom and their allies throughout society seize political power led not by an appeal to narrow perceived self-interest, but as part of a global process to consciously transform themselves and the world.
No political force in French society has vigorously opposed Le Pen with a vision and a plan for an entirely different kind of society and world, one that is neither a continuation of the current capitalist status quo that so many people in France today find unacceptable, nor a resolution of its hypocritical values through an even more reactionary appeal to naked self-interest and oppression enforced by terror. Yet the circumstances cry out for for just that – the development of a genuine revolutionary communist movement.