Is this really a surge in support for centrist politics?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
The words Charles Dickens chose to open his exploration of the contrasting worlds of late eighteenth-century Paris and London carry a certain resonance in the light of recent political developments. On the northern side of the Channel, energised voters galvanised by Jeremy Corbyn’s magnificent campaign have set the tumbrils rolling for Theresa May and the tattered remnants of her government while burying Blairism and the ‘third way’ fathoms deep. Across the water, however, things are looking bleak. Sapped of hope and denied the prospect of meaningful change, people across France yesterday voted with their feet, enacting a boycott of national legislative elections without parallel in the country’s recent history. As a result, President Macron, the Gallic incarnation of the ‘third way’, is set to gain between 400 and 455 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly: in effect a carte blanche to power ahead with his reactionary programme.
Official figures put the abstention rate in yesterday’s first round of legislative elections at 51.29% of registered voters. This, rather than Macron’s putative ‘landslide victory’, is the major result and the story to focus on. Never before under France’s Fifth Republic (imposed by decree by Charles de Gaulle in 1958) have electors stayed away from national polls in such numbers.
The second aspect to highlight is the further disintegration of the Parti Socialiste (PS), the standard-bearer of French social democracy. For the PS, yesterday’s vote was calamitous on an epic scale: its share of the vote shrank to 7.44% (against 29% in the first round results of 2012) and its seats in the National Assembly are projected at a meagre 15-40 (as against 280 in the outgoing parliament). Historically prone to ‘centrist’, anti-working class positions and hollowed out by its wholesale embrace of neoliberalism and austerity under François Hollande’s presidency, the SP is now a wrecked organisation, most probably beyond the resurrection effected by Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. Benoît Hamon, the party’s presidential candidate and prospective harbinger of change for those on the party’s left, was among those eliminated from participation in the second round of voting (on June 18). Another casualty was the current party leader, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who was knocked out of the race for a Paris legislative seat he had held for 20 years.
Over on the Right, the traditional formation fared somewhat better. Les Républicains (LR), the retitled party of Sarkozy, Juppé and Fillon, took second place after Macron, with 15.77% of the vote (21.2% with the addition of its electoral allies). Its projected tally of 70-110 seats is, however, a disappointment to party strategists aiming for at least 150.
For the anti-capitalist Left, the results from yesterday’s poll can only be seen as disappointing. La France Insoumise (LFI) failed to capitalise on Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s incendiary presidential bid, gaining only 11.02% of the national vote and two and a half million votes (against the 19.6% tally and more than seven million votes achieved by Mélenchon in the first round of the presidential polls back in April). The LFI is currently projected to emerge with 10-23 National Assembly seats; passing the 15 seat threshold will enable it to form a parliamentary group or bloc and thereby gain access to specified facilities and prerogatives. One of those seats will be occupied by Mélenchon himself, now leading the field in the fourth constituency of Bouches-du-Rhone (Marseilles) following the first-round elimination of its sitting député (MP).
A contributory factor in the LFI’s scaled back performance was its failure to reach an electoral understanding with the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), an experienced player in the electoral arena still commanding significant pockets of support, especially in the ‘red belt’ encircling Paris. The PCF, campaigning with the Front de Gauche and Ensemble! (a small anti-capitalist organisation with firmly anti-racist, feminist and ecosocialist credentials), achieved just short of 3% of the national vote and more than 600,000 votes.
But the at times fierce contention between the LRI and the PCF represents only part of the problem. As the pre-eminent force on the Left, the LFI appears wedded to an emphasis on electoral politics -- to the exclusion of movement-building, action on the streets, or efforts to reach out to new or alienated voters beyond mass rallies centred on a single individual. In the wodge of election literature bestowed on every French voter before polling day, the LFI leaflet for the constituency where I live stood out for its lack of attention to the (woman) candidate in the running; her name was there, but there was no information about her other than her profession and current unemployed status. Mélenchon’s face and signature dominated the show, suggesting something other than a team-oriented, instinctively democratic operation. This impression gains force in the light of the very different campaign waged by Corbyn and team.
The major bright spot of yesterday’s results is the poor showing of the Front National. Following Marine Le Pen’s ascent to the second round of the presidential polls, the fascist party was looking to cross the 20% mark in terms of the national vote and substantially increase its existing presence (two seats) in the National Assembly. In the event, it attracted just 13.20% of the national vote and is projected to land between one and ten seats: well short of the 15 required to form a parliamentary bloc. While Le Pen is riding high in the Pas de Calais seat she is contesting, other party luminaries have fallen by the elimination wayside, among them the party’s general secretary, Nicolas Bay.
Finally to that Macron ‘landslide’. Two points merit emphasis. Firstly, the fragile foundations of La République en Marche! (LREM) and its supposedly epic triumph become evident when its first-round results are examined more soberly. Even when taken together, the voting figures for LREM and its principal ally, the MoDem (Mouvement Démocrate), nowhere approach any sort of clear or conclusive mandate. The 32.32% of the national vote carried by the centrist alliance, in reality, expresses the choice of perhaps 15% of the French electorate. On the basis of this rickety framework, LREM and partners are projected to claim something between 69 and 79 percent of the seats in the national parliament: a level of domination rarely achieved outside the realm of dictatorships and one-party states.
With this is mind, the second point is unmissable. Rather than setting an invigorated France on course for a bright new future, Macron and his throwback army of extreme centrists are steering the country into a crisis of governance and an era of escalating conflict, including on the streets. With virtual ‘unanimisme’ prevailing in the National Assembly, constitutional constraints on Macron’s regal presidential powers will be curtailed and opportunities for expressing dissent in constitutionally mandated ways reduced. At the top of the new President’s agenda is a raft of draft legislation targeted at labour laws and codes which, fought for by generations of working people, provide workers with a modicum of protection and recognise at least some of their rights. Under the new dispensation, Macron won’t need to resort to ordinances to force though his Thatcher-Blair ‘reforms’. And the State of Emergency invoked back in November 2015 remains in place.
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.
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