French Elections 2017: No Cause for Celebration

In contrast to some of the shock wins for far-right forces internationally of recent months – the Trump victory and the British vote for Brexit in particular, the big news of the French Presidential election was not so much who won – the neoliberal reformer Emmanuel Macron – but the defeat of Marine Le Pen’s fascist Front National which had succeeded in reaching the second round of the two stage elections for a run-off against Macron’s recently formed En Marche! (Forward!).

Macron, a former banker, contributed to some of the most unpopular neoliberal reforms of the previous government. But France, despite a weakened trade union movement, has not to date experienced the complete transformations experienced in the US and UK under Reagan and Thatcher/Blair, and a major battle is likely around the further dismantling of labour legislation expected in the near future. And given the character of the contest, it is clear that Macron’s comfortable victory in the Presidential elections– he won over 66% of the second round vote – is by no means a mandate for the austerity and attacks on labour rights which he is expected to try to push through.

A very large proportion of those who voted for Macron in the second round did so solely in order to keep the fascist Le Pen out – including many of those who voted for the left candidate Mélenchon in the first round. According to commentator Stathis Kouvelakis, a supporter of Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (Rebellious France) which is not a political party but a movement modelled on Spain’s Podemos, ‘the political legitimacy of Macron will be very low. Already in the first round, half of the people who voted for him said that they did so only against the threat of Le Pen or against the possible second round run-off between [traditional right-wing candidate] Fillon and Le Pen. So already in the first round the level of consent to his programme was very low; it was enormously more so in the second round’.

Kouvelakis explains that ‘The four political currents that came to the fore in these elections, that is the remnants of the traditional right around Les Républicains, the fascist right around Le Pen, the “extreme centre” — to use Tariq Ali’s formulation — around Macron, and the radical left around Mélenchon, have all existed in French society for some time but the balance of forces has changed. Social democracy, which used to be quite central, has disintegrated, at least in the way it has been structured until now, the traditional right is in tatters and a totally new political landscape has already started emerging’.

Crucially, the fight against fascism is very much still on. Marine Le Pen’s National Front received more than a third of votes cast – up more than 16% on the party’s previous high in 2002 under Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen – and could build further support in the 2022 elections with Macron’s programme of austerity further increasing unemployment and alienation. The slogan of some on the left before these elections, “Macron in 2017 equals Le Pen in 2022” could well become a reality.

While parallels between Trump and Le Pen – extreme nationalism, calls to close borders, anti-globalisation rhetoric, attacks on migrants and rampant Islamophobia – are evident, there are also important differences. Reflecting the very different histories and expectations from the state in the two countries, Le Pen appealed to white working class voters with a pro-welfare, anti-austerity programme. She also moved the party away from explicitly socially conservative positions on women’s and LGBTQ rights, although this is primarily in order to chime with broader Islamophobic discourses in which ‘progressive’ European values are held up against Muslims, constantly demonised as ‘backward’ and oppressive.

The fascism of the Front National has a direct link back to the sections of the French establishment who supported Hitler and ran the collaborationist Vichy regime during the WW2 German occupation of France. It is also deeply entrenched in France’s colonial history – the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was a French intelligence officer in Algeria during Algeria’s struggle for independence and was recently exposed as having directly engaged in torture of Algerian civilians.  People from Algeria and other North African countries colonized by France and their descendants today form a large section of France’s marginalized ethnic minority communities who bear the brunt of racist and Islamophobic attacks and state surveillance and harassment under anti-terror laws.

While France’s deep-rooted racism is perhaps less recognized globally, French society is marked by the acute marginalization of minorities – often hidden by the refusal of the state to acknowledge ethnic difference (necessary to collect any evidence of discrimination), which is inherent in the French concept of citizenship – and institutionalized racist violence. This was underlined by the recent case of a young black man, 22 year old Theo, who was brutally raped with a truncheon by police officers who arrested him in the street in a suburb of Paris, leading to mass protests. The left has historically failed to address this: in the recent elections, Mélenchon’s left movement France Insoumise did draw many working class Muslim and Black voters, but as Mathieu Bonzom writes, it has not challenged ‘the worst aspects of republicanism on the French left, especially as it relates to not foregrounding the struggle for immigrant rights and international solidarity, fighting police brutality and anti-Muslim “secular” laws’. In fact Mélenchon – who was the central figure at the head of the organisation which was deliberately ‘structureless’, and therefore lacking in democratic structures – remains committed to a French Republican tradition which is complicit in colonialism, and has been criticized for his refusal to engage with struggles against Islamphobia and racism.

In terms of foreign policy, President-elect Macron is committed to the beleaguered European Union in its current form as a neoliberal institution to protect corporate and imperialist interests, and is expected to keep France at the EU’s heart in close partnership with Germany’s Angela Merkel. France’s extensive imperialist interventions abroad  – both as a key member of NATO and independently in its ex-colonies, particularly in Africa where it has repeatedly intervened militarily to install pro-World Bank and IMF leaders, recently for instance in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali, and is playing a central role in the ‘war on terror’ –  are set to intensify.  Macron’s first trip abroad was to Mali, where he stated that ‘France will step up the fight against resurgent militants in north and west Africa’.

In India, France has played a major role in the expansion of nuclear power and increasing militarisation. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France in April 2015, agreements with France’s Areva for the French-designed 1650 MWe EPR reactor in Jaitapur, Maharashtra were signed with great fanfare, in the face of powerful people’s resistance to the reactor.  This was despite the fact that question marks on Areva’s future had already been piling up and the company has since folded, with serious construction and safety flaws being a major reason. Yet Modi is hoping that Macron will rescue the deal, so that India can adopt failed technology which has already been deemed too dangerous to be used in France. Meanwhile, in September last year Modi signed India’s first fighter jet deal in 36 years with Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande, pledging to spend Rs 58,000 crore on 36 French Rafale fighter jets over the next three years.

It is clear then that despite the holding back of the fascists, this election result is no cause for celebration: France’s new President is committed to austerity at home and neoliberal imperialism and war abroad. While the elections showed that the radical left in France is now a force to be reckoned with (a pattern we are seeing across Europe) the country will need a more sustained and democratic, explicitly anti-racist and anti-imperialist left movement to resist the neoliberal offensive and permanently defeat resurgent fascism.