The cleansing wave of ‘Pasokification’ (the process whereby traditional European social democratic and conservative/Christian democratic parties lose their support base) crashed in France in the 2017 election, leaving three populists on the shore with their heads above the water. Macron, the election winner and self-declared ‘Jupiterian’ sun-king, was a populist only in loose terms. He branded himself as a centrist-extraordinaire, rejected the old left/right dichotomy and defined the enemy of the people as the bureaucratic establishment that he wished to reform. His rise had strong echoes of the now defunct Anglo-American third-way of the ’90s. Since taking office, he has swung heavily to the right; he has attacked workers’ rights, attempted privatisations and abandoned the left elements of his platform to such an extent that Nicolas Hulot, his affable environmental minster, quit in protest.
Macron’s victory was not the revival of centrism that it was hailed as by many in the British media. In a two-stage electoral system, when the choice is neoliberalism or fascism in the second round, a burning tricolour emblazoned with the words “baguettes are overrated” would win as a presidential candidate as long as its free-market manifesto did not indicate a desire for a white ethno-state. In this populist moment, a genuine anti-establishment sentiment simmers, threatening to boil over into the apoplectic rage of a fash candidate or the revolutionary ambitions of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Resistance to Macron’s presidency has come in manifold forms with a wave of ongoing strikes aimed at halting his proposed reforms. Some of this is not necessarily even a response to policy but an articulation of anger of the opaqueness of his plans. Teachers at the school I work in have consistently struck to counter his plans to reform le Bac (A levels) and to higher education, not because they disagree with them (though they probably will) but because reforms are being made hubristically without the consent of the public sector workers and without any indication of what the reality of these ambiguous reforms will be for people on the ground. His polling as of September was disastrous, with only 29% of the French electorate saying they were satisfied with him. He has also been plagued by the Benalla scandal that played out over the summer, in which his then security officer and deputy chief of staff was filmed beating up a protestor while dressed as a policeman. A very normal scandal for a very regular time in politics. The Benalla affair has significantly reduced his credibility, and public trust in Macron is low with many dubbing him “the president of the rich”.
Macron’s swing to the right aims to capture the hearts of Republican voters (traditional and free- market conservatives). But, they are a relatively spent force electorally. The most worryingly right-wing tradition in France is the Rassemblement National, formally the Front National (FN), headed by Marine Le Pen. They are an unapologetic far-right party with policies including expansion and further militarisation of the already armed and very visible police force, not to mention the creation of 40,000 extra prison places within 5 years and the expulsion of all foreign criminals and “delinquents”. Their manifesto contains a series of anti-Islamic policies, which include the banning of all organisations with ties to Islamic fundamentalism, mosque closures and the creation of a state agency against terrorism. The deliberately vague nature of these policies and the past rhetoric of the FN suggests their problem is not just with Islamist terror, but with practising Muslims and anyone of Muslim heritage. This party made it to the second round of the election.
Possibly the most interesting politician in the mix is Jean-Luc Mélenchon. ‘Pasokification’ incarnate, this left populist gutted the vote of the social democratic party the Parti Socialiste despite their radical swing to the left under Benoît Hamon. France has retained more of the infrastructure of the Keynesian post-war settlement than the UK and consequently their radical left party makes Corbyn look like Anna Soubry. Mélenchon’s party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) are fascinating when viewed from a British perspective. Although Mélenchon is a legacy figure among the French left, his party- like Macron’s- is a new phenomenon founded in 2016 with spectacular electoral success gaining 21% in the first round, just 3% short of Macron. He is, however, a deeply problematic figure for the liberal left. Committed to Laicité, the constitutional secularism of France, he supports a burqa ban. He is aggressively anti-EU and admires Russian action in Syria. He is an incredibly charismatic figure, commanding a movement of anti-establishment radicals that take commendable direct action to vent their rage at the political and financial elites. However, his many unsavoury opinions have led several international commentators trying to understand the current populist moment, to compare him to Beppe Grillo of the Five Star Movement rather than Pablo Iglesias of Podemos- a comparison he prefers. A lot of his platform is, in my opinion, fantastic left radicalism, but he also represents a worrying streak of nationalist anti-cosmopolitanism. Recently having his home raided by police on grounds of over-spending, he remains as divisive as ever, and although I think the comparisons between him and Le Pen are overstated, Mélenchon would no doubt be a dangerous figure to those of us committed to progressive internationalism if he held the keys to the Elysée Palace.
Macron’s victory was not the revival of centrism that it was hailed as by many in the British media
France is a deeply divided country politically. The left, centre-left and centre-right have failed dramatically in controlling various narratives so now demagoguery reigns. The centre held in 2017, but second round turnout was at a historic low. My guess is that Macron’s presidency won’t survive the next election, so the question now is: which form of populist nationalism will sweep through France in 2022?