The Political Significance Of The Outcome Of The French Elections

Vol 23 No 2

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The uncertainty prevailing in French politics has been heightened by the outcome of the presidential elections. For the first time in modern French history the two mainstream parties, the right wing party, renamed Les Republicains and the left, the Socialist Party (PS) were eliminated in the first round. Emmanuel Macron, a relative unknown in French politics who less than a year ago founded a movement, En Marche (neither left nor right) without a formal political structure, defeated the Far Right candidate, Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) decisively. He received 65% of the votes against le Pen’s 34%. Seen by the French establishment as riding to the rescue of the political system, Macron (a millionaire ex- banker, and former minister in Hollande’s PS), is an upholder of neoliberal policies such as privatisation of public enterprises and deregulation. He plans to shift labour laws further in favour of the bosses and lower corporation tax. His policies are no different in essence from those of the two mainstream parties. He is unlikely to obtain a majority in the legislative elections in June to the National Assembly. If he fails, he could form a coalition government with one or both mainstream parties .The FN has succeeded in taking root in France without shedding its far right politics. Le Pen’s score was an historic high for the party. It asserts that it is the main opposition party in French politics. The left wing party to have the most impact on the electorate was France Insoumise (Rebellious France), led by Jean-Luc- Melenchon.

Turnout was the lowest in 40 years. Almost a third of voters did not vote with 12 million abstaining and 4.2 million spoiling their ballot papers. Faced with the choice of voting for either Macron or Le Pen, many left wing supporters abstained or spoilt their ballot papers. The neoliberal policies pursued by successive French governments has led to a stagnant economy with increase in unemployment figures, which stand at nearly 10% . The figures for the young are worse, with one in four under the age of 25 out of work. There are over three million unemployed. These figures compare unfavourably with the dominant power in the EU, Germany. In an effort to become more competitive, the PS government of Hollande in 2016 bypassed parliament and issued decrees giving individual companies more power to hire and fire workers rather than being constrained by collective bargaining procedures. These decrees led to strikes, a state of emergency and violence on the streets between the protesters and police.

Marine Le Pen, since taking over the leadership of the FN has been responsible for the de-demonisation of the party and its increased share of the vote in local and national elections. She was instrumental in the expulsion of her father from the FN in 2015. This followed his remarks that the Nazi gas chambers were ‘a detail’ of the Second World War and that he had never considered Petain, the wartime collaborationist leader a traitor. This hardline approach to her father can only be understood in the context of her realisation that anti-semitism was the barrier that separated the FN from the majority of the French electorate. This, coupled with the FN upholding of French republicanism and its values, liberty, equality and fraternity and liberal democracy, opened the gates for the party to enter the mainstream of French politics. The FN lets slip its “rejection of anti-Semitism” from time to time , as was the denial by Marine Le Pen that the French state was responsible for the wartime roundup of French Jews before they were sent to Nazi death camps. The FN electoral program embraced France for the French. It promised a referendum to change the constitution so that “national priority” would be given to French people over non-nationals in jobs, housing and welfare. It gained significant support from white workers by pretending that it was their champion. It promised another referendum to leave the EU, an immigration clampdown and a ban on religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf from all public places in France.

The combined vote of the left wing parties in the first round of the elections was less than 30%. Melenchon’s “France Insoumise” was  the most impressive electorally , obtaining 19% of the votes in the first round. The main ideas coming across in his campaign challenged the role of president and the Senate and called for the convening of a Constituent Assembly. There was support for a break with Europe’s policies of budget austerity, an ecologically based social model and leaving NATO. His support came mostly from those who fought Hollande’s labour laws last year, from currents of social mobilisation and from disenchanted PS supporters. His refusal to discuss his candidacy with his Left Front partners, the French Communist Party (PCF) and Ensemble and the absence of democratic practice in building his campaign will hinder his party’s chances during the legislative elections . The broad forces of the left, the left wing of the PS, the PCF, France Insoumise and NPA ( New Anti-Capitalist Party) in which some members of the Fourth International work, are divided.

After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the French election has seen the established figures kicked out of office. Macron, pursuing his neoliberal policies, may only have a short honeymoon with the electorate. Fear of terrorism, resentment towards the elites, the refugee crisis, mass unemployment and de-industrialisation are issues which the FN will continue to exploit. The disunited left is not in a position to challenge the right or the far right. Philippe Poutou, who stood as a candidate for the NPA in the presidential elections,  issued a statement after the elections which makes a plea for unity in the struggle and concludes….”we need a political force to represent us, to organize our social camp facing the bosses and owners. A fighting party, anchored in daily struggles, that is not afraid of attacking capitalist property rights, that defends the need to break with national and European institutions. A feminist, ecologist, internationalist party for a revolutionary transformation of society – it’s urgent”.