The Centrist Cul-de-Sac

Jonah Birch

Even if Macron wins, five more years of neoliberalism in France could further bolster Le Pen's National Front.

A presentation of Emmanuel Macron's political program on March 31 in eastern France. Thomas Bresson / Flickr

Interview by
Jason Farbman

After Sunday’s first-round elections in France, voters are now left to choose between Emmanuel Macron, the establishment candidate, and the far-right Marine Le Pen, who has positioned herself as the “anti-system” candidate. How did France arrive at this place, where protest against the neoliberal establishment is embodied in a candidate of the far right?

From Paris, Jacobin contributing editor Jonah Birch discussed the rise of the National Front (FN) and how it has changed to break into the mainstream — while traditional left parties have lost their footing.

Jason Farbman

Sunday was the first round of the French presidential election, during which the field was whittled down to just two candidates. Who are they?

Jonah Birch

You have Emmanuel Macron, a neoliberal, ruling-class consensus choice, against Marine Le Pen, until Monday the leader of the far-right National Front.

Emmanuel Macron was, from 2014 until August of last year, the finance minister under Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President François Hollande. Macron oversaw their very aggressive program of neoliberal reforms, passing a series of laws including what was known as the Macron Law in 2015, which liberalized a broad array of regulations, and then last year’s El Khomri law, which sparked mass protests.

Macron is a former investment banker who’s never been elected to any office, but is at this point clearly the consensus candidate of the French ruling class. After Sunday’s results were announced, he was quickly endorsed by everyone from Benoît Hamon on the center-left (of the Socialist Party, SP) to François Fillon (the candidate of the right-wing Les Républicains).

It’s part of Macron’s message that he transcends the left-right divide. He already had the support of Valls (who chose to back Macron over the candidate of his own party, Hamon) and has picked up endorsements from key figures on the Right, including ex–prime ministers Alain Juppé and Dominique de Villepin. He wants to position himself as the candidate of the neoliberal center. He’s very close to employers, so there’s a lot of support for him among ruling-class circles.

Marine Le Pen took over from her father in 2011 as the head of the National Front, and has tried to position it as a more normal, mainstream party, while keeping its emphasis on anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia. Under Marine, the National Front has dropped some of the rhetoric around Holocaust denial, while unapologetically attacking Muslims.

She’s tried to expand the party’s base from its traditional centers of support — the petty bourgeoisie and the families of repatriated settlers from Algeria (called “pied noir” in France) — to the working class. That’s also meant moving geographically beyond centers of support in the South, and parts of the East, into Northern France, the country’s old “rust belt.”

Since the 1980s the National Front has seen its vote totals go up again and again. There’s a very dangerous situation where you have this right-wing populist who’s attacking the European Union, immigration, and also saying “neoliberal globalization is destroying French workers.” She’s often ambiguous about what she wants to defend in the French welfare state, but she’s very clear in her rhetorical attacks on neoliberalism.

Jason Farbman

How did France arrive at this point where it has a second round face-off between a center-right candidate and a far-right candidate? A few years ago it would have been difficult to predict this would be the case.

Jonah Birch

What we see now is the product of thirty-five years of neoliberal transformation that really goes back to the economic crisis of the 1970s and then the U-turn of François Mitterrand, the turn towards austerity in 1982–83 and the process of economic restructuring that’s come after that. The big breakthroughs for the National Front have consistently come at moments in which Socialist governments pushed through neoliberal reforms.

The first big breakthrough happened after François Mitterrand’s U-turn in 1983, first in local elections in a town near Paris called Dreux, and then in the 1984 European elections the National Front suddenly saw a surge of support. Running against Mitterrand in 1988, Jean-Marie Le Pen got over 14 percent of the vote — this is someone who seven years earlier couldn’t even get on the presidential ballot because he was so marginal.

In the early 2000s, the “Plural Left” government, an alliance of the Socialists, Communists, and Greens, led by the SP under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, tried to push through neoliberal reforms like privatization, and weakened what it had promised to do around labor law improvements. In the 2002 presidential elections, Jospin got hammered so hard that he couldn’t even make it to the runoff, allowing Jean-Marie Le Pen to make it to the second round of voting for the first time ever. He got destroyed in the second round, amidst huge protests against the National Front. But it was a moment where support did also rise for the National Front.

Over the last five years the National Front has been able to make real gains by positioning itself as the alternative to the neoliberal Socialist government of François Hollande. Just last year, the government pushed through the El Khomri law, the most recent of neoliberal reforms, which raised the number of hours in the work week, limited unions’ ability to fight for certain things, etc.

The government enacted this law over massive opposition and enormous protests by using a constitutional provision called the 49-3, which allows the government to go around a parliamentary vote. Were it not for this completely undemocratic measure, the reforms probably would not have passed, at least in that form. And today we see Marine Le Pen advancing to the second round, a finalist for president of France.

The Left has not been able to counter that effectively.

Jason Farbman

The National Front has undergone quite a transformation under Marine Le Pen, from the days when it was headed by her father, Jean-Marie.

Jonah Birch

The National Front first came to prominence in the 1980s, and they were a hard neoliberal party. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s program was privatization, deregulation, stop socialism, fight the Marxists and the Soviet threat, and so on. In the 1990s, as the far-left parties went into decline, they essentially reversed themselves. Suddenly they began claiming they were the champions of French workers (not all workers), and they positioned themselves in opposition to neoliberalism.

This is very complicated for them because there are lots of competing tendencies inside the FN, and the far right still has a middle-class base which does not want more regulation. But they are trying to make breakthroughs and have been really effective in making inroads into the working-class vote by positioning themselves as the opponents of neoliberal globalization.

It’s part of their opportunism that they’ve made that reversal, as they have on the European Union, the “cosmopolitan,” neoliberal elites who just want to give everything to immigrants and to international financial interests. They talk about “national preference” in jobs, which require that companies prioritize French citizens over foreigners for jobs. They call for the “voluntary repatriation” of immigrants, and so forth.

Now if you go through their program, they’re not as anti-neoliberal as they make it seem. But certainly in their rhetoric, they’ve been very strong critics of neoliberal globalization. So you’ve seen the National Front make inroads in the working-class vote, while at the same time the center-left has suffered from increasing incoherence. From the center-right as well.

Jason Farbman

The Right has capitalized when the center-left pushes through unpopular neoliberal measures. It also seems that the effects of those measures, the policies themselves, have actually made the ground more fertile for the growth of the far right. For example, retrenchment of the welfare state has created openings for the far-right attack on immigrants as stealing benefits from French workers.

Jonah Birch

There is a lot of assumption that far-right anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by this increasing prevalence of Muslim immigrants. There has been politicization of immigration and in particular attacks on Muslims, like the ban on headscarves in public schools — an absurd and racist measure passed in 2004.

At the same time, mass immigration from the Arab and Muslim world, and from the French colonies, has been a permanent feature of post–World War II life. The numbers kept increasing in the decades following that war, from the Maghreb, during the 1960s and 1970s. There was a lot of racism during that time.

During France’s brutal colonial war in Algeria, there was an infamous incident in 1961 when a police captain ordered the massacre of several hundred Algerian pro-independence demonstrators; the police then dumped their bodies into the Seine River.

Throughout all of this, the far right never managed to make sustained headway. Certainly not like they have in recent decades. In fact, at the beginning of the 1970s, the French far right was in complete and utter disarray and had no traction. So it can’t simply be the presence of foreigners, or even the presence of racism, that explains the increasing traction the far right has enjoyed since the 1980s.

Instead, you have to look at the neoliberal reforms and direction of French capitalism during this time. The traditional stability that came with the “thirty glorious years” after World War II — full employment, expanding welfare state, improving living standards, have disappeared. Over the last couple of decades, France has increasingly had a two-tier economy where people in more stable, full-time jobs are able to rely on a whole range of social protections that come with those jobs.

Access to the French welfare state, which represents more than a quarter of the overall economy, is largely based on workers’ employment history. Those who have long records of stable employment, particularly in industries that come with unionization, have been hammered by the changes of the past three decades, but there’s also a big gap that’s opened up between that group and the growing numbers stuck on the edge of the labor market.

People relegated to the margins of the labor market, who suffer from high rates of un- and underemployment, and who get far more benefits than in the United States but don’t get the same protections as the upper-tier workers, are easily stigmatized in France.

In this situation, given this increasingly precarious and segmented welfare state and labor market structure, those people are really easy to stigmatize, and the Right is able to pit people against one another. It’s easier for the far right to get a hearing when they claim that “it’s those scroungers living off basic assistance who are stealing the bread from your mouth and are the reason why your benefits are under threat.”

The direction of neoliberalism in France has encouraged these kinds of divisions among workers.

Jason Farbman

Meanwhile, the reorientation of the Socialist Party and the collapse of the Communist Party meant that the traditional, major parties of the Left have lost substantial sections of their bases.

Jonah Birch

After World War II, the French left and labor movement was dominated by the Communist Party. In this situation, the government wanted to control and limit the power of unions, not bring them into the infrastructure of economic governance. Unions therefore had fewer rights on the shop floor than in other parts of Western Europe, and employees never enjoyed the kind of protections workers had in Scandinavia or even in Germany. In fact, France never had a social democracy on the Northern European model.

But class-wide organizations tended to be quite strong. At the end of the 1970s the unions and the parties of the Left, they were remarkably strong across the country. At the peak of Communist Party power in 1978, they controlled over one-third of municipalities with over thirty thousand people. These were mass organizations, and that’s disappeared at the same time as this neoliberal restructuring has gone through.

To give one example of what this has looked like: northeast of Paris there’s a city called Bobigny, one of the traditional “red suburbs” around the French capital, which was controlled by the Communist Party for decades. It’s a very working-class suburb with a lot of immigrants and a lot of nonwhite people. It’s a poor area. The city hall sits between Boulevard Lénine and Avenue Karl Marx, because it was controlled by Communists for so long.

But that city hall is now occupied by a right-wing mayor. It’s such a symbol of the sea change in French politics over the last few decades.

Jason Farbman

The Socialist Party did historically badly — their candidate, Hamon, got 6.5 percent. The sitting president is a member of the Socialist Party, a party which has held the presidency and a majority in the National Assembly (and thus the right to form a governing cabinet) since 2012. To see a party falling apart this quickly is pretty stunning. Is this the end of the Socialist Party?

Jonah Birch

In 2012, at the end of the Sarkozy administration, the Socialist Party swept into every level of government. Hollande won the presidency, they won the parliamentary elections, and they had a majority of regions as well. They were the dominant party. By the end of last year, Hollande had a 4 percent approval rating. What do you have to do to be that widely loathed?

Within that, there was a complicated process of them losing elections. So in 2014 they lost municipal elections and also lost control of the Senate, one of the two houses of parliament. Hollande shuffled the government, twice actually. He got rid of his first prime minister and he put in Valls. Very soon after he pushed out the more left members of the government, including Hamon, who had been minister of education, and brought in people like Macron.

That government continued along the path that had already made it so unpopular, which was a complete and utter failure to deal with the crisis of French capitalism. The economy has barely grown since 2008. Unemployment is startlingly high, and the government hasn’t managed to put an end to all of that.

The Socialist Party’s strategy for doing that has been to pass these incredibly unpopular neoliberal reforms. They are essentially trying to eviscerate the labor code which protects employees. It’s been a losing strategy. After 2014, the government doubled down, and they kept becoming more and more unpopular.

But there is a gap between what happens at the national level in politics and what happens at the local level. In the municipalities there are places where the SP still has very strong bases.

In the 2015 regional elections, everyone was talking about the possible “Pasokification” of the French SP, like when the Greek Pasok party got totally wiped out and replaced with Syriza. But that didn’t happen. The Socialist Party still got over 20 percent of the vote — a sign of the strength of the party apparatus.

We’ll have to see what happens in the parliamentary elections. They’re definitely going to take a big hit. But there are a lot of people, who for their own local reasons, have a lot invested in the maintenance of this party.

Jason Farbman

You said Hamon has already endorsed Macron. Was that on the basis of supporting him as the lesser evil?

Jonah Birch

They clearly don’t like each other. It’s very complicated, because the Socialist Party is getting torn apart. In some ways Hamon tried to keep it together, kind of represented its left wing. The right wing of the SP is very much firmly behind Macron, including the Prime Minister Manuel Valls. The right wing isn’t being kicked out of the Socialist Party, even though members of the established Socialist government did not endorse the Socialist candidate for president, and instead endorsed someone who is not a member and has started a competing party.

Even former candidate François Fillon – the candidate of the right-wing Les Républicains – has said he can’t vote for the National Front, that he’s going to vote for Macron. Fillon is very far right: he said he wanted to lay off half a million workers, and elsewhere that French colonialism was an attempt to share its culture. He shares a lot of rhetoric with Marine Le Pen about the evils of “Islamic fundamentalism.” And even Fillon is voting Macron.

So there’s definitely a coming together on an essentially lesser-evil basis, from people across the political spectrum.

Jason Farbman

Towards the end of the runoff there was a prospect that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the best-polling left candidate, might wind up with enough votes to sneak into the second round.

Jonah Birch

The last poll I saw put Mélenchon at 19.6 percent — that’s fourth, but only 0.3 behind Fillon. Which was was very close. It’s eight points above what he did in 2012.

Mélenchon has built up a base for himself. For instance, in 2012 he got 17 percent of the vote in the Department of Seine Saint-Denis, a very large, heavily working-class area north of Paris containing a lot of the traditional “red suburbs.” It was 35 percent on Sunday, and he came in first in the department this time around.

Jason Farbman

Can support for Mélenchon lead somewhere meaningful?

Jonah Birch

What happens now is very complicated, and no one knows. He’s ditched his old party, the Parti de gauche, and the electoral alliance he had been in, the Front de gauche, he’s abandoned, and both of those are kind of on their way out.

His campaign was called France Insoumise (France Unbowed), and there is clearly going to be an effort to turn that into some kind of party. What that will look like is not entirely clear. He appeared with Pablo Iglesias of Podemos at an event on the Friday before the election, and he clearly wants to model what he’s doing on what Podemos is doing.

There are a ton of questions to answer about what that would look like. On top of that, we have to be honest about the real decline of the forces of the Left that I would date back to the defeat of the movement against Sarkozy’s pension reform in the fall of 2010, which was a huge movement of millions, but lost.

On the one hand this was a very important result, and it’s important to be hopeful about what this means and that there is still a basis for a left-wing vote. Whether he’s able to form something like Podemos, there is no “movement of the squares” in France, as there was in Spain, to give legs to such a party.

Jason Farbman

It seems likely Macron will be the next French president.

Jonah Birch

Macron is the ultimate monument of a neoliberal, ruling-class, consensus choice. He’s way ahead in polls, but there is a danger that even if he wins, five more years of neoliberalism will only further increase support for the National Front. Until now the NF has had very limited representation in the French Parliament.

Six weeks from now, there will be parliamentary elections. Usually those are heavily influenced by the results of the presidential elections which immediately precede them. It’s clear that there is going to be a pretty bad wipeout for the Socialist Party at least, and maybe even a real decline for the traditional main parties of the Fifth Republic, and possibly big gains for the National Front.