French Elections: Cracks in the Neoliberal Consensus
Democratic elections in the NATO member states serve one clear purpose. They contribute to the self-satisfaction concerning “our values” needed to justify military intervention in the imperfect internal affairs of other countries. But do the citizens really decide policy through their votes, or is electoral democracy fatally corrupted by the power of money?
At least in its form, the French presidential election is a model of resistance to the power of money that so blatantly dominates presidential elections in the United States.
While the United States is locked in a two-party system where both parties depend on millions of dollars from rich donors, the French two-round system allows as many candidates as can gather the required number (500) of mayors’ signatures to run in the first round. Then voters can decide between the two front-runners in the second round.
For the final phase of the first round campaign, which ended with the election this Sunday, April 22, all candidates receive equal television time to get across their message, without having to pay for it.
This time around, there were ten candidates, five of whom had at least a chance at the start to make it into the second round, even though polls showed the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist Party candidate François Hollande leading the pack. But an upset was at least theoretically possible, as happened in 2002, when the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen knocked out the Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin in the first round, handing Jacques Chirac a landslide victory in the run-off.
The most suspenseful aspect of the first round turned out to be the duel for third place between Jean-Marie’s daughter and political successor Marine Le Pen and the Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Marine set out to beat her father’s score ten years ago, while Mélenchon set himself the goal of beating her. The two adversaries were the most charismatic of the ten candidates. As candidate of the Left Front, Mélenchon lost his bid to come in third, but thanks to his extraordinary verbal skills has succeeded in reviving a political force to the left of the Socialist Party.
Percentage results of candidates in April 22 first round of French Persidential election
François Hollande, Socialist Party 29 %
Nicolas Sarkozy, outgoing President 26 %
Marine Le Pen, National Front 18 %
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Left Front 11 %
François Bayrou, centrist 9 %
Eva Joly, Greens 2 %
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, Social Gaullist 1.8%
Philippe Poutou, New Anti-Capitalist Party (Trotskyist) 1.2%
Nathalie Arthaud, communist (Lutte Ouvrière, Trotskyist) 0.7%
Jacques Cheminade, progressist (Lyndon Larouche influence) 0.2%
Participation was high, at around 80%. The first round is altogether more entertaining and interesting than the second round. It provides more information about the real preferences of voters than the second round, which, like U.S. presidential elections, is often decided on the “lesser evil” principle, with increasing numbers of voters aware that whoever wins, the policies will be much the same.
A few observations:
Every candidate except Sarkozy, the self-styled centrist Bayrou and the Green candidate Eva Joly singled out the world of finance as the main adversary. Hollande did so quite explicitly in his main campaign speech, although shortly afterwards he watered his wine considerably during a visit to London, the City oblige. This hostility toward banks has horrified Anglo-American commentators, from The Economist to John Vinocur of the International Herald Tribune, for whom realism consists in docile obedience to the demands of “the markets”. Acting uppity toward finance capital is close to insanity. If “the right” is defined first of all by subservience to finance capital, then aside from Sarkozy, Bayrou and perhaps Joly, all the other candidates were basically on the left. And all of them except Sarkozy would be considered far to the left of any leading politician in the United States.
This applies notably to Marine Le Pen, whose social program was designed to win working class and youth votes. Her “far right” label is due primarily to her criticism of Muslim practices in France and demands to reduce immigration quotas, but her position on these issues would be considered moderate in the Netherlands or in much of the United States. Even she stressed that the immigration problem, as she saw it, was not the fault of the immigrants themselves but of the politicians and the elite who brought them here. The main tone of her political message was resolutely populist, attacking the “Paris elite”. Demagogic, yes, often vague and playing fast and loose with statistics, but a model of reason compared to the utterances of the “Tea Party”. Her political challenge was to hold onto her father’s ultra-conservative constituency while wooing discontented low income voters. She apparently won more working class votes than Mélenchon.
Mélenchon left the Socialist party to found the Left Party in 2008. As candidate for the broader Left Front, he has raised the spirits of the demoralized French Communist Party, which fell below 2% in the 2007 election and gave up running a candidate of its own. Its militants have responded enthusiastically to Mélenchon’s revival of red flags and fiery rhetoric. He would put lower and upper limits on wages and salaries. His program, including calls for constitutional revision that would guarantee such progressive measures as gay marriage, assisted suicide and the right to abortion, surely goes far beyond the demands of his constituency, more concerned with jobs and wages, and reflects his personal adherence to the progressive philosophy of French Free Masonry. It is certainly his quick witted debating skill that appeals to voters more than the details of his ambitious program.
Disillusion with the euro and Europe
The two leading candidates remain faithful to the dogma of “European construction”. But elsewhere splits are beginning to show. Marine Le Pen condemns the euro as a failure which had wrecked European economies and is doomed to disappear.
Certainly, François Asselineau, who has founded his own party, the Union Populaire Républicaine, with the sole object of leaving the European Union, has been totally deprived of any media coverage, and was unable to gather the necessary signatures for candidacy. But the social Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who is only beginning to be known to the French public, is adamant that France should return to the franc, retaining the euro only as a reserve currency around which EU member state currencies should be allowed to fluctuate. Dupont-Aignan calls the euro a “racket” and a “poison” for EU economies, which are too diverse for a single currency. To the objection that leaving the euro would cause huge inflation, he accuses present EU leaders of creating inflation by allowing private banks to borrow at 1% and then ruin member States by lending to them at higher and higher rates. After France recovers its sovereignty by leaving the euro, Dupont-Aignan would have the Bank of France finance the state at zero interest, which would allow the government to reduce its debt and hire more teachers, policemen and researchers, instead of reducing their number. He would also take measures to protect French industry from cheap imports.
In contrast, Mélenchon advocates strongly interventionist economic policies without accounting for the fact that they would go against European Union directives as well as the monetarist policy governing the euro. Mélenchon speaks of using the economic weight of France to persuade Germany to change its deflationist policies. This raises the problem of the clear contradiction between social policies to which the French are attached and the European Union’s control of economic policy that is fatal to those social policies.
Foreign policy confusion
Foreign policy has been almost entirely absent from this campaign. This could be because voters are not thought to be interested, or because there is no strong opposition between the candidates. François Hollande conforms to the mainstream consensus, saying he would support military intervention in Syria if based on a UN resolution. Much of the French left has swallowed the “Responsibility to Protect” ideology.
Already last year, Mélenchon dismayed a certain number of his admirers by supporting the war in Libya, on the grounds that it was based on a UN Resolution. He now calls for withdrawal from NATO and construction of an independent United Nations intervention force.
Not surprisingly, the Gaullist Dupont-Aignan opposes arming the Syrian opposition, pointing to the fact that arms provided to Libyan rebels ended up in the hands of militias who are destabilizing the whole region. He maintains that France should have acted differently in Libya and with Russia, instead of following the anti-Russian policy of the United States.
Among the leading candidates, the only clear anti-war policy is that of Marine Le Pen, who favors immediate withdrawal from both Afghanistan and the NATO command, describes the current French government policy of supporting the Syrian opposition as “totally irresponsible”, calls for recognition of a Palestinian State and opposes threats to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, which have not been proven to be military. And she adds: “As far as I know, no nation which has atomic weapons has ever asked for permission from anyone, neither the United States, nor France, nor Israel, nor Pakistan… Must we then plunge the world into a war whose extent we will not control because certain foreign counties ask us to?”
Marine Le Pen is regularly stigmatized as “racist” for her desire to reduce immigration. But which is worse: refusing entry to Muslim immigrants, or bombing them in their home countries?
The worst is yet to come
Even before the vote, John Vinocur raged against the “miserable precedent” represented by the fact that what he dubbed the “Rejection Front” made up of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon was almost sure to beat the first round score of either mainstream candidate. Thus, he said, France would have “legitimatized two political currents that spurn serious solutions for France’s economic grief, reject civility and common sense and variously propose regression through loony yet authoritarian economics, class warfare, class or racial prejudices, anti-Western instincts, and the politics of endless rage.”
Wow, take that you frogs. Look to the calm, intelligent debate of U.S. Republican primaries for guidance, and remember that whatever foolish things you want, like jobs, medical care or a roof over your head, it’s the markets that have the last word.
Exit polls pointed to a solid victory for Hollande in the second round. The standard description of Marine Le Pen as “the far right” could suggest that her voters would turn to the right wing candidate, Sarkozy, in the runoff. But this is far from the case. The social and foreign policy positions of Marine Le Pen have won over a number of voters disenchanted with the left. Her voters may split fifty-fifty in the second round. She herself clearly looks forward to the defeat of Sarkozy in order to become the undisputed leader of a recomposed right-wing opposition, which could make life difficult for the future President Hollande. Perhaps the only thing that could save Sarkozy would be massive abstention, but that does not look likely.
Actually, the timing of this election is favorable to a fairly limp, ill-defined candidate like Hollande, because the future is as unclear as he is. The Greek disaster, the financial woes of Portugal, Spain and Italy are ominous for France, and the French are worried. But most French people are still too well off to be seriously alarmed. The critics like Vinocur or The Economist seem to think that a French candidate for president should run on a campaign of telling people that they should happily prepare to give up all the comforts they enjoy, because that is what the financial markets demand. If things are as bad as these champions of financial globalization are predicting, then this first round may provide better hints to the French future than the final round of the Hollande-Sarkozy election in two weeks time.
DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Marine Le Pen scores stunning result in French presidential election (guardian.co.uk)
Superbly ignored by the media until recently, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the new flavour of the day in the French presidential campaign. In truth, while trying to account for his dramatic rise in the polls – latest reports put him at 17% of the vote – most commentators could not help pour scorn on the Left Front candidate.
A survey of the main articles recently published in the British media provides a compelling case study of political prejudice and misunderstanding. Mélenchon is described as an “Anglo-Saxon basher with a whiny voice” (the Independent), a “populist” who’s “on the hard-left” (all newspapers) and a “bully and a narcissist, out to provoke” (BBC). More sympathetic commentaries compare him to George Galloway or depict him as a “far-left firebrand”, a “maverick” and the “pitbull of anti-capitalism”.
It is striking that the more favourable assessment of Mélenchon’s politics remains off the mark. Mélenchon is seen as a “lovable but old-fashioned leftwinger”. This fails to capture the essence of his political ambitions. Mélenchon’s rise has nothing to do with “1970s-style politics and nostalgia”, but is linked instead to his resolute take on the current capitalist crisis. He tells audiences that the austerity policies implemented across Europe are not only unfair but also counterproductive (even the Financial Times agrees). Mélenchon’s debating skills serve his cause, but he is also a lettered pedagogue: a dignified politician who has never participated in vulgar reality shows. What is more, Mélenchon is a French republican and a socialist, not a “far-left” or a fringe politician. He spent 30 years in the Socialist party unsuccessfully arguing that it should be a force at the service of ordinary workers, and he was a cabinet minister in Lionel Jospin’s government.
Oratory is politically useless if one does not have an important message to deliver. Mélenchon has one: neoliberalism has failed, so it would be suicidal to persist with its inadequate policies. The French MEP also had a credible programme. In didactically crafted speeches or in media interviews, he radically departs from mainstream politicians by explaining that the economic crisis is systemic, that is to say that it is due to our flawed political choices and priorities. Our societies have never been as productive and wealthy as today, but the majority of the population are getting poorer despite working harder and harder. The problem is not a question of wealth production (as neoliberals and Blairite social democrats would have us believe), but of redistribution of wealth.
In France raging pundits and opponents call the Left Front programme an “economic nightmare” or a “delirious fantasy”. Shouldn’t they instead use this terminology to describe the banking debacle or austerity policies across Europe? Mélenchon’s growing number of supporters view it as common sense and salutary: a 100% tax on earnings over £300,000; full pensions for all from the age of 60; reduction of work hours; a 20% increase in the minimum wage; and the European Central Bank should lend to European governments at 1%, as it does for the banks. Here are a few realistic measures to support impoverished populations. Is this a revolution? No, it is radical reformism; an attempt to stop the most unbearable forms of economic domination and deprivation in our societies. Fat cat bosses may leave France; they will be replaced by younger and more competent ones who will work for a fraction of their wages.
“Humans First!” is more than a manifesto title, it is a democratic imperative: a sixth republic in place of the current republican monarchy; the nationalisation of energy companies (as energy sources are public goods) and, less often noticed, the ecological planning of the economy, the core of Mélenchon’s political project.
Mélenchon has done French democracy a further favour. In a memorable TV debate, he emphatically defeated the extreme right for the first time in 30 years. Concentrating on policy details, Mélenchon demonstrated that Marine Le Pen’s programme was regressive for women. Furthermore, he smashed to pieces the myth of the Front National as a party that has the working class’s best interests at heart. Le Pen appeared lost for words and ill at ease.
Mélenchon’s campaign politicises the young. He appeals to the working class, which, contrary to some claims, has largely shunned Le Pen and which has been abstaining from the vote. For the first time in decades, Mélenchon is helping the left to reconnect with the popular classes. For Mélenchon, free market politics does not work and inflicts unnecessary suffering on the people. No other European politician is better placed than he is to convincingly argue that point.
Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European politics at University College London (UK). He can be reached at: email@example.com
- Thousands Rally in France Behind Call for ‘Civic Insurrection’ (commondreams.org)