French Blairism

Like most elections these days, the French presidential election have been unpredictable. First, it looked like Sarkozy would make a comeback, then Fillon beat him to it only to be taken out by a corruption scandal. Meanwhile Hollande bowed out of the race, leaving Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon to fight over the left-wing vote. And then, there were two: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

Naturally, people were shocked that the far-right candidate got through. Just as they were shocked that Trump made it past the primaries, got nominated and took the White House. Some people have not been connecting the dots. Of course, this is partly down to distance. No one in France was surprised to see the National Front get past the first round. The truth is that the only certainty of this election was that Le Pen would make it to the second round. Everything else was up for grabs, or so it seemed for a while.

Now we’re told that the French establishment will mobilise a republican front united behind Macron in order to stop Marine Le Pen. This was how the French political class stopped Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. The Socialist Party and the Republicans put aside their differences to ensure the conservative Jacques Chirac won a handsome victory of 82%. It didn’t amount to much because Chirac was fantastically shit, and the National Front continued to grow towards its current stature.

Today the polls suggest Le Pen will get around 40% of the vote and Macron will come out with 60%. Fifteen years ago, the FN got less than 20% and the Republicans secured over 80%. Although it looks unlikely right now, it may not be too far in the future before we see France elect a fascist head of state. No doubt this will come after another re-run of 2002, where the left and the right gather behind one mediocre centrist in hope of stopping the brownshirts. But for now, the name of that mediocre centrist is Macron.

The politics of a void

Much like Obama in 2008, Macron has been successful by posing as a blank slate for voters to project their hopes and dreams onto. Yet the rise of Macron is a part of the decline of the Socialist Party. It is no insignificant fact that the leading presidential candidate was a member of the PS and a part of the Hollande government until fairly recently. Indeed, Macron was the Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs under Manuel Valls.

What we will probably end up calling ‘Macronism’ is set to be another variation on Third Way politics. We know what to expect from Macron because we’ve seen it all before with Clinton, Blair and Schroeder. There are some differences of tone, of course. In his most noteworthy rally, Macron just screams at his audience like his nuts are caught on something metallic. By contrast, Blair felt the hand of history on his genitalia and spoke like a fervent preacher.

This time the Third Way comes with an astroturfed ‘movement’ and a candidate styled as an ‘outsider’ despite having all the credentials of an insider. The conditions did not favour a mainstream candidate, so it was necessary for the centre ground to reassert itself outside the mainstream. En Marche! (‘On the Move!’) was launched as a neither-left-nor-right platform with anti-establishment rhetoric. The purpose was always to deepen the neoliberal project of past governments. Except Macron says he will deliver where they all failed.

‘Macronomics’, as we will probably talk about it in the future, consists of tax cuts for the rich and a smaller state bound by an even smaller corset. Austerity is the name of the game, except not for capital. Macron promises to slash the budget by €60 billion and cut 120,000 jobs in the civil service. He wants greater integration within the EU and wants to sign up to CETA – the Euro-Canadian free trade deal. It is a fantasy for Nineties liberals.

Unfortunately for Macron, the Nineties ended a while ago and the situation today is very different. Not only is French society as volatile as ever, the world has seen a populist tide sweep away mainstream governments. There is a crisis of European social democracy, where only the far-right stand to gain until the radical left can rebuild itself and find the strategy it needs. But this also means that the Macron government can be challenged. The game is not over just yet.

The extreme centre is back

At last, the liberal commentariat has found its man: a millionaire stockbroker with an astroturfed mass of support. Mainstream European opinion long ago coalesced around Macron, he is supposedly the guy who can save the centre ground and restore the Franco-German alliance. The hope is that the populist zeitgeist can be vanquished, and the clocks turned back, in just one vote. The illusion is that President Macron will change much for the better.

Without a united front the French left was divided between Hamon and Melenchon, leaving a space open for Macron to reach the second round. Of course, I do think everyone should hold their nose and vote against Le Pen. However, the problem is that a negative vote is not enough in politics. Macron stands for a style of social and economic liberalism that is rapidly going out of date all over the world. And, in the end, the Macron programme will likely leave Le Pen and the FN in a much stronger position.

The good news is that La France Insoumise (France Defiant), the movement formed around Melenchon, might well be the basis for a new left-wing party and an offensive against the centre ground and the far-right. All the French left can do is try to build the alternative their country desperately needs. But, for the time being, you can expect more racism, more violence and an even more precarious existence for the working class. And that’s with the liberals in power.

Photograph courtesy of Mutualite Francaise. Published under a Creative Commons license.