The spin of the two-horse race conceals the anti-capitalist hopeful, notes Susan Ram
As blustery showers jostle the cherry blossom in springtime France, uncertainty and apprehension govern the hopes and expectations of an uneasy electorate. With the campaign for the 2017 presidential elections set to open formally on April 10, eleven candidates are strengthening their sinews and summoning up their blood, only five of them judged front- or second-rank runners capable of scoring double-digit percentages in the first round of voting on April 23. If, as seems likely, no candidate attains a clear majority in round one, a run-off between the two highest scorers will be held on May 7.
While French voters face the familiar prospect of weeks of unrelenting political pugilism, coloured by media-facilitated point-scoring and hyperbole, the 2017 presidential campaign contains new elements. The first is the weakness of the candidates fronted by France’s traditionally dominant parties of the left and right: the Parti Socialiste (PS) and Les Républicains (LR, formerly the UMP or Union for a Popular Movement). Then there’s the new phenomenon in town: the media-friendly centrist, Emmanuel Macron. And hovering over the campaign is the hideous prospect of a strong showing, if not outright victory, for the fascist candidate, Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN); this aspect of the campaign has been ably covered by John Mullen (see below).
Under François Hollande’s ‘socialist’ presidency, characterised by intractable unemployment, determined assaults on workers’ rights, interventionist actions abroad, an unending state of emergency and unprecedentedly dismal approval ratings, dissatisfaction has developed apace within the PS. This manifested itself in pressure on Hollande not to seek a second mandate (he is the first president of the Fifth Republic to have relinquished this right) and then in the shock defeat, in the party primary held in January this year, of Manuel Valls, prime minister under Hollande and the architect of core ingredients of his reactionary agenda. Instead, party members opted for a candidate from the left wing of the party: Benoît Hamon, a former minister in Hollande’s government who resigned in 2014 in protest at the party’s anti-socialist agenda. The members’ choice was the cue for key party operators on the right, Valls among them, to jump ship.
Over in the LR camp, things have hardly run smoother. As with the SP, the decision to hold a US-style primary to determine the choice of presidential candidate had unanticipated results: while Nicolas Sarkozy’s bid to stage a comeback was seen off, the party establishment-preferred candidate, Alain Juppé (an incarnation of ‘moderate’ policies seen as offering the strongest challenge to Marine Le Pen in a second-round run-off) was outpaced by François Fillon, a champion of austerity burnished by what was thought to be a “squeaky-clean” reputation for rectitude. In January, this notion was blown apart by some exemplary investigative journalism by the satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné, which published a sequence of revelations about Fillon family nest-feathering, specifically payments of close to one million euros of public funds to Fillon’s British wife, Penelope, for what appeared purely notional work.
Further revelations implicated Fillon’s children in the scam, and on 14 March Fillon was placed under formal investigation for misuse of public funds, failure to comply with disclosure requirements, fraud, forgery and falsification of records; two weeks later, Penelope Fillon was herself being investigated for complicity in, and concealment of, embezzlement and misuse of public funds, as well as aggravated fraud.
It says something about Fillon’s chutzpah (and perhaps also about how the French political system operates) that the candidate remains undaunted by the reeking ordure encasing him. Rather than withdraw his candidacy, he has gone on a Trump-style offensive, hitting out at what he has presented as judicial and media machinations, defiant even as support for him within the party has haemorrhaged away (by March 5, as many as 306 elected officials and members of his campaign had withdrawn their support). In a televised debate involving the five frontrunner candidates held on March 20 (the first of three such debates planned for the campaign period), Fillon’s insouciance was underlined by the reluctance of any participant (whether journalist or politician) to raise the delicate matter of his (alleged) epic-scale diddling. Recent polls place Fillon in third position in the first round of voting, with 17-19% of the national vote.
Mention of the TV debate brings us to its purported victor: Emmanuel Macron, the ‘miracle man’ of the extreme centre. Youthful, vibrant and (thus far) untainted by scandal, Macron is the ‘fresh face’ of the 2017 campaign, a purposeful young man striding forth to rescue France from outmoded shibboleths and ingrained ways. Nurtured by his experiences in French academia, the Inspection Générale des Finances (a corps of experts reaching back to the days of Napoleon) and investment banking (Rothschild’s), Candidate Macron is a political debutant, more comfortable talking money, jobs and recovery than engaging in party rough-and-tumble. A master of charm and of 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 seems to have entered politics almost by accident; appointed deputy secretary-general of the Elysée in 2012, he was elevated to the post of economy minister by Hollande in 2014. During his term he lent his name to a package of legislation (Macron’s law) which, under the guise of cutting ‘red tape’, targeted key protections for workers, including lay-off procedures, labour tribunals and rules governing severance packages.
In April 2016 Macron seized the headlines by launching his own political party, En marche! (‘Forward!’ or ‘On the move!’), which he characterised as a progressive organisation “of the right and of the left.” Only later did he formally part company with Hollande, resigning his ministry in August 2016. Since then, he appears to have invested considerable effort in his presidential bid, building up a body of enthusiastic, tech-savvy foot-soldiers and fashioning a strategy whose content and overtones are eerily reminiscent of Blair’s New Labour. As one commentator notes, “The Macronian centre is actually more like a circumference which he hopes will enclose and revive the muddy area inhabited by the institutional parties, and modulate the old habits of diplomacy. For this to work, he has to tell as many people as possible … what he thinks they wish to hear.” Such calculations may lie at the root of Macron’s surprise declaration, while on a visit to Algeria in February, that French colonialism was a crime against humanity and “une vraie barbarie” (barbaric) that merited a national-level apology. These observations triggered apoplectic rage on the Right while reinforcing perceptions of Macron as a new broom bent on sweeping away the detritus of the past. As an ardent free marketer and champion of the EU, he upholds the free movement of labour, favours capitalism-boosting immigration, and is a devotee of social liberalism.
On the anti-capitalist Left, the veteran activist Jean-Luc Mélenchon offers a bold, coherent and energetic repudiation of both the outright fascism of Le Pen and Macron’s neo-liberal nirvana. A long-standing member of the PS, with considerable political experience (he was a senator for twenty years and a minister in Lionel Jospin’s government from 2000-2002), Mélenchon quit the party in 2008 to form the Parti de Gauche (Left Party). The PG then became part of a broad coalition, the Front de gauche, which included the French Communist Party (PCF) and a number of smaller left organisations. Modelled to a large degree on Germany’s Die Linke, the Front de gauche ran its own candidates in the 2009 European elections and 2010 regional elections, and over time became the dominant force to the left of the PS, outpacing the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA). In 2012, Mélenchon was the coalition’s candidate for the presidential election, garnering around four million votes and 11.1% of the total in the first round. Subsequently, however, the coalition entered a period of crisis and decline.
Gutsy and indefatigable, Mélenchon in February 2016 launched a new political movement, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed or Unsubmissive), towards the goal of victory in the 2017 presidential polls. The movement’s programme, L’Avenir en commun (The Future in common), advocates the jettisoning of the current overcentralised presidential system in favour of radically democratic Sixth Republic; the reduction of the working week from 35 to 32 hours; a major assault on inequality, including through tax reform; France’s withdrawal from NATO; and a complete renegotiation of the nation’s relationship with the EU, in the absence of which France should effect an exit. This programme, together with Mélenchon’s combative style and ability to articulate the profound anger and disaffection of broad sections of French society, explains his strong showing in the polls (currently at 15-16%), as well as his ability to eclipse Hamon of the PS (whose support, according to recent polls, has tumbled below 10%). Understandably, pressure on Mélenchon to stand down in Hamon’s favour has been given short shrift.
Hamon’s sole campaign achievement to date has been to forge an electoral pact with Europe Ecology – the Greens (EELV), thereby ending the presidential bid of EELV leader Yannik Jadot. If a glimmer of hope can be extracted from the unfolding campaign, it is the strong showing of the anti-capitalist left: when support for two other left presidential contenders – Philippe Poutou of the NPA and Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière – is added to Mélenchon’s current level of support, the anti-capitalist tally crosses the 20% threshold.
As to the final outcome, the prevailing consensus places Macron and Le Pen on course for the run-off: both are projected to garner roughly 25% of the votes in the first round. Macron’s camp has been strengthened by the arrival of SP malcontents, chief among them Valls, who continues to insist that his opportunist leap has been motivated primarily by the overriding need to defeat Le Pen. Most commentators expect Macron to surge ahead of Le Pen in the run-off, although fear-mongers (including the Financial Times) have been mooting the possibility of Marine mustering her forces so masterfully as to deliver an unimaginably high voter turnout, one that could demolish Macron’s dreams and install a fascist in the Elysée. Intimations of what would happen then are already in evidence. On April 2, thousands of protestors take to the streets of Bordeaux to challenge the presence of the FN leader in the city. France’s exemplary tradition of mass protest can be relied upon to rise again to the challenge.
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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