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French election: new political landscape built on old foundations

Benoit Renaud

April 26, 2017

On April 23, 47 million citizens of the French republic had the opportunity to cast a ballot for one of 11 candidates for the first round of the presidential election. Ten million of them elected not to vote. Of the remaining 37 million, 24 per cent voted for Emmanuel Macron, former star Minister of the economy in the previous social-liberal government, and 21. Per cent for Marin Le Pen, leader of the far right Front National, founded by her infamous father. These two will face off in the second round of voting on May 7.

Very close behind, with a little more than 19 per cent each, came the candidate of the conservative party, and former Prime Minister under Sarkosy, François Fillon; and the former Socialist party Minister and leader of the ecosocialist Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The race was so tight in the last few days of the campaign that no one new, of these top four candidates, who would make it to the second round. In fact, Mélenchon came only 1.5 per cent shy (or 620,000 votes) of beating LePen to a spot on the final ballot. 

Ultimately, for the first time in the 5th republic, none of the candidates from the historic two parties of government (Gaulists and Socialists) made it to the second round. Macron came first as the candidate of a tailor made political movement which he personally controls from the top. He has never occupied elected office of any kind, having come directly from the banking world to a cabinet position, at the invitation of current president François Hollande. The Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, only received 6.3 per cent and came fifth, a scathing condemnation of the policies of his party over their past five years in government. That in spite of the fact that Hamon himself was a dissident and critic of the Hollande government and beat the former Primer Minister Manuel Valls for the nomination of the party of Mittérand.

As for the candidates of the radical left NPA (former LCR) and Lutte ouvrière, who once garnered up to 10 per cent of the vote between them, they barely got about 1 per cent each, in spite of the egalitarian media coverage between the 11 candidates during the last three weeks of the campaign. It is clear that those who sought an alternative to the Left of the Socialist Party went massively with Mélenchon and his France insoumise movement, which had the support of parties formerly involved in Front de gauche, including the old Communist Party.

What now?

The big debate on the Left, coming out of the first round, is what to do in the face of a choice between the candidate of the neoliberal extreme-center and one of the far right. Many point out the fact that the policies of the neoliberal governments, from the time a coalition of Socialist and Communists under Mittérand gave up changing society and created social-liberalism, have created the rotten social conditions favorable to the rise of the neo-fascists. This being true, it doesn’t mean that there is no qualitative difference between a continuity of the current policies under a Macron presidency and the shift towards radical anti-immigration measures, repressive attacks against minorities and dissenters, and anti-Europe isolationism under a possible FN government.

The Right is also divided between those willing to work with Front National (a dangerous minority) and those ostensibly favoring a “republican front” against Le Pen. Of the voting base of Fillon, about a third would be willing to vote Le Pen. Many voters of the candidate who came sixth, Dupont-Aignan, who agrees with FN on immigration and security issues but not on Europe or the economy, will also vote for Le Pen. This easily brings her in the 30% range from the get go. This is much higher than what her father got in 2002—the last time a candidate from FN made it to the second round—and a clear indication that her goal of “dédiabolisation” of FN has been at least in part achieved. But her second place was in fact a disapointement for a party that had dubbed itself the First party in France over the past few years, following unprecedented results in European and local elections.

With the unpredictability of a modern campaign and the fracturing of old political families, it is not out of the question that Le Pen could win. So people on the Left, radical or not, should not be complacent and count on other people to do the unpleasant work of voting for her only opponent in a strictly tactical way. But voting for Macron is not a strategy for opposing the rise of the far right. For that, as many supporters of Mélenchon are currently arguing, it is imperative to build social movements against austerity and fight against the racist ideas of the FN everywhere.

It should be noted that Mélenchon himself, immediately after learning he would not make it to the second round, refused to say how he would vote on May 7 or to tell his supporters what to do. There is an online consultation taking place all this week with three options: tactical support for Macron to beat Le Pen, abstention and void ballots (vote blanc). This was very ill received by some who saw it as underestimating the threat posed by Le Pen. But in fact, this gesture was in logical continuity with the way the whole Mélenchon campaign was built, around structures of participatory democracy. He presented himself as a spokesperson and not a messiah, refusing that the large crowds attending his meetings chant his name.

Being an active member of Québec solidaire, I couldn’t help but notice how his movement was so similar to QS both in the content of the program (ecological transition, peace, gender equality, social justice…) and the approach to politics. Our hope for the next few months and years is that the 7 million votes for Mélenchon and the half a million strong movement that was build around him will be the basis for a restructuring of the French Left around a rejection of the neoliberal consensus and a rediscovery of the deep radical roots in this country.

Finally, about Macron, his campaign slogans about renewing the political landscape and building a movement that is “neither from the Right nor from the Left but from both and more”, is in fact as old as the French republic itself, taking roots in Bonapartism from the early 1800s and original Gaullism from 1945. Putting himself above parties as a loner presidential figure is quintessential to the Fifth Republic as De Gaulle himself created it 70 years ago. Some things change, but there is also a lot that stays the same.

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