- Interview by
- Sébastien Gillard
Sunday’s French election runoff saw Emmanuel Macron reelected for another five-year term, on 58 percent of the vote. Yet with turnout at historic lows and an increased score for his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, the incumbent took the weakest popular vote for any winner since 1969. This narrowing support also owes to a broader weakening of the French party system over the last four decades, with the collapse of the old center-left and center-right parties that once mobilized public opinion.
In their book, The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the Origins of France’s Political Crisis, economists Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini analyze the material bases of this shift, as former Socialists and Republicans have formed a new alliance behind Macron while marginalizing working people from political representation. By taking in forces from both these parties — and thus appearing to cross the previous center-left/right divide — Macron’s presidency intensified the class content of this project, accelerating France’s neoliberal transformation to the benefit of a handful of ultrarich individuals.
This shift has hollowed out the old main parties — resulting in the complete collapse of both the Socialists and Republicans, who totaled just 7 percent in the April 10 first round. Macron is thus a perfect symbol for the rise of a new “bourgeois bloc” that supposedly crosses the political spectrum yet itself struggles to mobilize popular support. After five years of Macron’s presidency, Sébastian Gillard met up with Amable to discuss the election.
The last five years have seen much social unrest, with the gilets jaunes and the struggle against Macron’s pension reform. Furthermore, according to polls, French people’s primary concerns relate to purchasing power, health, and the environment, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine also turning a focus to foreign policy issues. Yet far-right themes and identity politics remained a central part of the debate — why do you think this was?
According to our analysis, the grand unifying project of the bourgeois bloc is the transformation of France’s socioeconomic model through a far-reaching set of structural reforms relating to employment and social protections (labor law, unemployment insurance reforms, pension reforms, and so on). It wants to push the current model in a radical neoliberal direction, and that is what unites the bourgeois bloc. Though we have seen major protests, it is clear that this bloc intends to pursue this program over the next presidential term. Inequality will increase, and social tensions will grow more acute, because these neoliberal reforms are not broadly and freely supported by the population.
The election campaign and the media coverage of it have both totally ignored these economic issues. We should think it is no accident, but rather a convenient means of shifting the debate toward issues of identity and away from topics that might present a problem for the current president. Macron’s strategy involves pressing the traditional right to speak out even more on identitarian issues in order to compete with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and also with her new competitor Éric Zemmour. The media coverage is quite paradoxical, but you have a lot of political actors who have an interest in not talking about the important questions.
Doubtless, not talking about the important questions is one of the reasons for Macron maintaining his electoral supremacy. But if you wrote in 2017 that the bourgeois bloc was an illusion that could not be maintained, how do you explain his success in 2022?
What we said, and what has been confirmed, is that the bourgeois bloc is homogeneous but not very numerous. It unites only the most affluent and educated sectors of the old right-wing and left-wing blocs (executives, intellectual professionals, etc.). Its political future depends on broadening this bloc. The neoliberal reform program is central, and the only way to broaden the bloc is to bring in social groups that are part of the former right-wing bloc, such as private sector employees, the self-employed, and so on. The social groups from the former left-wing bloc that could potentially join the bourgeois bloc have already done so — meaning that Macron has little more to hope for there.
The bourgeois bloc is now becoming what I call a “right-wing bloc 2.0.” This is because it is aggregating other social groups around itself and chipping away at the traditional right-wing bloc. We saw this politically as right-wing personalities rallied around Macron over the course of his term, and we saw it again in 2022 with ever more of them openly rallying to his campaign. Éric Woerth [former minister under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, now an MP], for instance, or even Sarkozy himself, though he is more discrete.
Le Pen is in a difficult spot. She doesn’t have much support among her own party. I think this reflects the fact that she lacks the support of the traditional right-wing base. The illusion was in thinking that the bourgeois bloc, such as it was, could maintain itself. It is not merely maintaining itself; in fact, it is growing wider. It is becoming even more dominant in a way. In our theory, social blocs are not homogeneous, and they are not blocs in which each group has the same importance. There are groups that are essential and others that are peripheral. The core of the right-wing bloc 2.0 is ultimately the bourgeois bloc, and the other social groups are being aggregated around this core.
In 2017, the bourgeois bloc destroyed the Parti Socialiste, which had once represented the left-wing bloc, as it fell to 6 percent support. Today, it seems to be the Right’s turn to collapse, with the Republicans under 5 percent. With the emergence of Macron, many commentators are talking about the end of parties, since France’s two biggest political formations have been completely discredited and replaced by new movements. Do you get the feeling we are moving toward a society without political parties?
Political parties are not central to our analysis. Rather, we are interested in political strategies that are capable of incorporating different social groups. In our book, we identified three main socioeconomic models that line up with different political strategies. There is the social-ecological model, the neoliberal model, and the authoritarian or illiberal model (though I don’t care too much for the latter term).
From these three models, we can imagine a three-dimensional space in which these political strategies evolve. Parties can then customize these strategies. Clearly, the strategy of the Socialist Party has totally failed. It is searching for an equilibrium that is no longer possible, a sort of moderate neoliberalism, but its social base wanted none of it. In this three-dimensional space, you can have recompositions and new combinations. Macron is a sort of combination of the neoliberal model and the authoritarian model. Because French institutions are quite rigid, you have a social democratic model that persists, which Macron will endeavor slowly and patiently to destroy.
In terms of the rightward shift in French politics, we saw the Republican presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse repeat the Great Replacement theory at a rally; Macron’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin saying that Le Pen is too soft; and billionaire media baron Vincent Bolloré supporting Zemmour. Can we speak of the growth of fascism or of a shift to the far right among France’s political and economic elites? Are there historical precedents?
It clearly more resembles the period prior to World War II than the postwar period, which includes years of colonial war that was also very violent. Actually, it was a split in the right-wing bloc that has led to what we are seeing today, and that came to the fore in the 1980s with the appearance of the Front National. The bourgeois bloc was constituted and grew broader, and finally broke up the right-wing bloc. It left a large space that would be filled by the far right and politicians that play on authoritarian themes.
You could imagine competitors to Macron’s La République En Marche! debating economic policy, but instead you hear quite reactionary discourse on social issues, because they are trying to scrape together a voter base that is closer to the far right than the traditional right. Economically speaking, there is practically no difference between Macron and Pécresse.
Images of police violence have stuck to the Macron government, especially with the events around the gilets jaunes protests, where the government displayed its authoritarian character. Yet Macron was first elected by promoting his image as a young, progressive entrepreneur, representing liberal values in the wider sense. Can we speak of a shift from progressive liberalism to authoritarian liberalism? There is a need to widen the bourgeois bloc toward the right, as you have said, but more broadly speaking, has there been a change in the very nature of neoliberalism?
While it is true that Macron gave off “progressive” signals, he sent them toward very specific social groups. He sent very different signals to other groups, some a bit more discrete but no less ambiguous. I am thinking of his meeting with Philippe de Villiers [leader of the hard-right Movement for France party]. It was a message intended for certain social groups specific to France, namely Catholics and traditionalists associated with the Right.
Macron’s discourse sent contradictory signals but in the end was successful in targeting the various groups concerned. In addition, many political scientists make a career out of the idea of progressive social groups, which are supposedly economically liberal while being progressive in their social values. Personally, I think that it is a bourgeois illusion propagated by somewhat narcissistic social groups who think they are ever so progressive.
When you question these so-called progressives, the police repression did not upset them at all. When you listen to the discussions that they had in the media and on the internet, you notice that they justify the police violence on the pretext that the gilets jaunes were antisemites, fascists, or rednecks. One poll showed how “centrist” voters want order to be maintained. The voters most favorable to a strongman pushing through policies without parliamentary constraint were Front National voters, and right behind them were the “centrists.”
To come back to the more general question, I think that this authoritarian aspect is present in liberalism. This way of wanting to impose things, even in the face of social resistance, is always present because liberals believe that a proper social order is founded on the market, and this must be preserved at any cost. Then there are social groups that, for political reasons, are completely indifferent to police repression against such social resistance. Social violence is part of neoliberalism. It is not there all the time, but when needed, it can be applied.
A few months ago, Emmanuel Macron said that NATO was brain-dead. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine, and NATO members are speaking more with one voice, strengthening their presence in Eastern Europe. Given the president’s special prerogatives over foreign policy, how do you think the war impacted the campaign?
There has been a renewal of Atlanticism, and this is dealing the cards in such a way as to marginalize the far right, which has been compromised by its past relationship with Vladimir Putin. This should favor the extension of the bourgeois bloc into the right-wing bloc 2.0, since they can easily agree on a pro-NATO position.
As for the European question, it is a sort of half-victory, half-defeat for Macron. On the one hand, we see that there is a will to build a Europe for defense, and on the other, events will make dependence on the United States even more important because of the need to buy arms.
This has been used to try to discredit Jean-Luc Mélenchon and thus also the Left. The position of the France Insoumise candidate has been consistent, stating that we have no interest in aligning ourselves with the United States, especially if the US takes a position of confrontation with China in the near future. It is clear to me that, in the short term, this is a difficult position to hold. Everything will be done to place NATO at the center of the strategy for European defense by arguing that the Atlanticist alliance will protect us from the threat of Russia.
Beyond the election, how do you envision the rebuilding of a popular bloc that might inject new life into a hegemonic left, putting social issues on the political agenda?
Despite the grim context, I do think there is a serious place for an opposition against Macron’s right-wing bloc 2.0. Will a strategy emerge to develop an alternative, popular bloc? This seems necessary, but it also needs to be a strategy for the medium term rather than the short term, because it has to be based on putting forward a new socioeconomic model articulated around the ecological and social questions.
The difficulty lies in the fact that many of the social groups rejected by the right-wing bloc 2.0 have not been mobilized to support this new socioeconomic model. A popular bloc would require aggregating the working class from both the left and right blocs. It may be that the neoliberal reforms will affect some social groups in a way that moves them to support a political initiative that heads in that direction. It may even involve people who supported the bourgeois bloc, who will see that neoliberalism does not serve their interests.
Perhaps a process of political maturation will be needed to lend more public credibility to the social-ecological strategy. Pursuing the neoliberal strategy will result in a radical transformation of our socioeconomic model, and that means the alternative strategy must also be radical in its own way. Discontent will grow, but it will also make implementing the alternative strategy ever more costly.