emmanuel macron Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Flickr/Ecole Polytechnique University Paris-Saclay

While seeking to style himself as outside traditional politics, Emmanuel Macron in fact constitutes its newest incarnation, writes Susan Ram

The election of Emmanuel Macron as president of France has received a rapturous welcome across much of the mainstream media as well as in the boardrooms and financial markets of international capital.

In the second round of the presidential poll, held on Sunday May 7, Macron trounced his opponent, Marine Le Pen of the fascist Front National, gaining 66.1% of the valid votes against 33.9% for Le Pen. The scale of his victory has been greeted with relief, and in many quarters it is being presented as some sort of revalidation of France’s credentials as a liberal democracy committed to core republican values (among them liberty, equality and fraternity).

The reality is in fact remote from this comfort zone. Over the past few weeks, the election process has lifted the lid on deep divisions within French society, ruptures resulting from a thorough-going economic and political crisis.

At the most visible level, the political and constitutional arrangements that have been in place since 1958 (the founding of the Fifth Republic) are under pressure as never before; a two-party system dominated by mainstream parties of the centre left and centre right is disintegrating before our eyes; and the extreme Right is exerting formidable muscle power in its bid to present itself as a ‘legitimate’ political alternative.

Beneath this lies a profound structural problem, attributable in part to the operation of French capitalism but accentuated and rendered intractable by the economic straitjacket imposed by the European Union (EU). In France as across much of Europe, national governments must answer to the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when making economic decisions. They face demands to reduce budgetary deficits by cutting government spending (including on health care and pensions) and reducing public-sector employment, and to ‘liberate’ the labour market by undermining job security and slashing away at workers’ hard-won protections and gains.

This no-option-but-austerity imperative is evident in the IMF’s 2016 Article IV consultation for France, as well as the Stability Programme that France has signed up to with the EU. These documents insist that France freeze real spending and commit to reducing its budgetary deficit to zero by 2021. This rules out of court any effort by a French government to reduce mass unemployment, which is around 10 per cent but rises significantly among young workers. Also debarred is any significant programme of public investment, hence any realistic prospect of economic stimulus.

A look back over the past few decades reveals a succession of French political leaders falling victim to the iron dictates of neoliberalism and tumbling at the wayside. The most recent example is François Hollande of the centre-left Socialist Party (PS), who was swept to power on a surge of optimistic expectationsin the last presidential poll in 2012. While confident predictions were made about his ability to utilise his overwhelming mandate to propel France to better things, it did not take long for Hollande’s approval ratings to plumb previously unreached depths. His government became indissolubly linked in people’s minds with intractable high unemployment, repeated assaults on working people’s rights, ill-conceived foreign adventures (Libya among them) and (since 2015) a permanent state of emergency. French presidents routinely stand for a second term in office, but in Hollande’s case this option was blocked by the party establishment, making him the first president of the Fifth Republic to ‘relinquish’ this right.

The sway of neoliberalism has also impacted the relationship between traditional parties and their mass base. In the case of the SP, a hollowing-out process is evident, with a socialist-leaning base (including many trade unionists) finding itself increasingly at odds with the party leadership. This discontent boiled over at the primary the party held in January to select its presidential candidate. Instead of backing the ‘official’ choice – Manuel Valls, prime minister under Hollande and the architect of core elements of his anti-worker programme – party members and supporters opted for a candidate from the party’s left wing, Benoît Hamon. This was the cue for key operators on the party’s right, Valls among them, to jump ship and join forces with Macron.

A parallel process of division and disintegration is evident over on the centre-right, within the party now renamed as Les Républicains (formerly the UMP). Here, too, political impotency in the context of EU-enforced neoliberal policies is wreaking havoc, with the addition of jaw-dropping levels of corruption to spice things up. Once again, the choice of a US-style primary to select a presidential candidate was akin to opening a Pandora’s Box: the ‘moderate’ favoured by the party big-wigs was passed over in favour of Francois Fillon, champion of the party’s right-wing base. Supposedly a man of rectitude and high principle, Fillon was soon revealed to be anything but; within weeks he was under formal investigation for the wholesale misuse of public funds (specifically payments of roughly one million euros to his British wife for purely notional work). Undaunted, he battled on – triggering many of his campaign supporters to abandon him and fatally weakening his party’s effort to get through to the second round of the presidential poll.

The turmoil and hollowing-out evident within both of France’s mainstream parties has thus created a vacuum, an opening which has enabled other forces to seize the initiative and join battle. Perhaps at the risk of oversimplification, I would identify three such forces.

The first, represented by the victorious Macron, is what the British Marxist Tariq Ali has described as the “extreme centre”: a “dictatorship of capital that has reduced political parties to the status of the living dead” with centre-left and centre-right colluding to preserve the status quo. Young, telegenic and charming, Macron is the embodiment of neoliberalism as defined and enforced by European and global finance. Backed by an army of tech-savvy enthusiasts organised into what is characterised as a ‘movement’ rather than a party, the President-elect is casting himself as the new broom required to sweep away the detritus of the past and get France ‘en marche’ (on the move). Adept at coining pleasing but empty phrases (“What France needs is more young people who want to become billionaires”; “Who cares about programmes? What counts is vision!”), he pursues a strategy whose content and overtones are eerily reminiscent of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK. As an ardent free marketer and champion of the EU, Macron upholds the free movement of labour as well as capital and is a devotee of social liberalism. A former banker at Rothschild’s, he served as a minister under Hollande, in which role he spearheaded (and lent his name to) a raft of legislation targeting key protections for workers.

While seeking to style himself as ‘above’ or ‘outside’ traditional politics, Macron in fact constitutes its newest incarnation.

The second force, vicious and deadly dangerous, is the Front National (FN), unbowed after its electoral defeat and spoiling for action. Since wresting control of the party away from her father (the unabashed racist and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen), Marine Le Pen has focused on detoxifying the FN, whose roots reach back to the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazi occupiers of France during the Second World War. This masquerading effort has involved a rebranding of the party and a carefully calculated courtship of those taking the brunt of austerity, in particular working-class communities in the northeast, France’s old industrial heartland, and young people confronting years of unemployment. In tandem with this “I feel your pain” theme, with its contrived but sharply pitched anti-EU message, Le Pen emits copious quantities of ultra-nationalism, racism, Islamophobia, militarism and allusions to what she calls “French values”. It was on this basis that she made it through to the run-off of the presidential poll, albeit with a lower percentage of support (21 per cent of first round votes) than had been projected.

That Le Pen performed significantly below expectations (both her own and those of media pundits) has everything to do with the third force that has thrust itself forward so thrillingly over the past few weeks: the anti-capitalist Left. The cannon ball at the centre of this magnificent charge has been Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his movement La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). On the basis of an incendiary campaign which mobilised tens of thousands of left activists and many new to politics, Mélenchon has succeeded in three essential tasks: holding the fascist offensive at bay, projecting a Red-Green alternative, and demonstrating a readiness and capacity on the part of the Left to take power.

How this has been achieved will be explored in the second part of this article, which will also take a more detailed look at the French Left.   

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.