Finding a compass in France's election storm?

With the first round of France's presidential election less than three weeks away, opinion polls show Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN) in a dead heat for first place with independent center-right candidate Emmanuel Macron. No candidate is likely to win a majority of the vote in the first round, so the presidency will be decided in a second round of voting on May 7. Le Pen is predicted to lose that vote, though that isn't certain. Even if she doesn't become president, Le Pen's showing would be a huge advance for the FN.

Le Pen has cleaned up the party's image since her father ran it, but she is winning support on the basis of a reactionary program that scapegoats immigrants and refugees, particularly Muslims, for the social crisis. Like Donald Trump in the U.S., she has cloaked her campaign in promises to champion the interests of working-class people, but this goes hand in hand with racism and xenophobia.

Le Pen has been able to exploit the rightward lurches of the French government, led by the center-left Socialist Party (PS) since the last presidential election won by François Hollande. Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls continued the neoliberal program of Hollande's predecessor, right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy, and they are responsible for a draconian escalation of political repression in the name of national security.

Now, both the PS and the parties of the center-right are facing a historic crisis. The PS's presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, is at least identified as a more liberal opponent of Valls and Hollande, but since winning the party's nomination, he has run a lackluster campaign, and is currently in fifth place in the opinion polls. For the center right, François Fillon won the presidential nomination by playing the right-wing populist card, but he was exposed in a corruption scandal and has fallen far from the frontrunner position.

This has opened the way for Le Pen and independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former minister in the PS government notorious for driving through neoliberal measures. A law named after him abolished protections for workers. Macron was also one of the main adversaries of the "Nuit Debout" (Up All Night) mass protests against further deforms.

Thus, the presidential election campaign has been dominated by candidates ranging from the center right to the far right. To the left of the PS, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, formerly of the Left Party, is running as an independent candidate, but many on the left in France are critical of his top-down campaign.

In this article published in English last month by International Viewpoint, Léon Crémieux, an activist in the Solidaires trade union federation and the New Anti-Capitalist Party, explains the context for Le Pen's rise in electoral support and the factors driving the crisis of the mainstream parties.

France's leading presidential candidates, from left: François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoît HamonFrance's leading presidential candidates, from left: François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoît Hamon

TO SAY that France is experiencing a regime crisis is a euphemism. Every day, there emerges a new element of a political crisis which has shaken the two pillars of French political life for more than 40 years: the center-left Socialist Party (PS, by its initials in French) and the Republicans (LR), the center-right party that comes from the Gaullist tradition. A "surprise" election of Marine Le Pen in the coming presidential vote cannot be ruled out. This political and institutional crisis is also the consequence of a social crisis in which political polarization is taking place. Unfortunately, this is happening mainly toward the right and the far right.

Even though unexpected situations have multiplied over the last few weeks, the most probable outcome now is that neither the PS nor LR will be present in the second round of the presidential election on May 7. This unprecedented situation will have ripple effects on the election of the National Assembly. In France, the electoral mechanics introduced since 2002 have made the presidential election the lever for the election of the Assembly, which takes place a few weeks later, with the party of the president-elect systematically receiving a boost for its candidates.

We are therefore probably on the eve of a serious reorganization in the field of institutional political parties and perhaps a wider political crisis. Three new phenomena have been at work in recent weeks.

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An Unprecedented Crisis of the LR Party

This was triggered by the revelation of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds by François Fillon, the LR candidate for president. The investigative journalists of the Canard enchaîné and Médiapart, in particular, have for two months been distilling new elements that highlight practices which, although there is nothing new about them and François Fillon has no monopoly of them, have had a deleterious effect.

Fillon, who had built his campaign, during the primaries of the right-wing parties, around an image of "Mr. Clean," appears as the champion of misappropriation of funds for personal benefit. For more than a month, his campaign has been inaudible, totally stifled by his "affair" and his narcissistic obstinacy to maintain his candidacy. Little by little, during the month of February, practically all the leaders of the LR, with Sarkozy at their head, became convinced of the major risk represented by maintaining Fillon's candidacy, and tried to find an alternative solution so that the right would be present in the second round. But if Fillon succeeded in winning in the December primaries against the "natural" candidates of the right--Sarkozy and Juppé--it was because of the weakening and discrediting of these leaders with the most reactionary electorate, which preferred to give its votes to a conservative and ultra-liberal Catholic. Between March 1 and 5, with the announcement of the coming indictment of Fillon, almost all the LR leaders asked him to withdraw--starting with his spokesperson and his campaign manager. The ally of LR, the centrists of the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI), "suspended" their support.

But the leadership of the party did not have the strength to compel Fillon to resign. First of all, it did not succeed in agreeing to put forward an alternative candidate who could bring together the various currents. Then Fillon himself proclaimed that he would maintain his candidacy come what may, conducting a battle against the apparatus of his party. Totally isolated within it, but understanding the weakness of its leadership, he played the card of mobilizing, outside the party, the most conservative, reactionary wing of his supporters, organized by the "Common Sense" movement (set up in 2014 from the activists of "The Protest for Everyone," the opponents of gay marriage). With the support of Common Sense and the far-right weekly Valeurs Actuelles, Fillon organized a demonstration on March 5 to support him, aiming to denounce "the judges" and force the party apparatus to accept him. He pulled off the coup de force of staying in the race, building on the success of the rally of as many as 50,000 demonstrators in the Place du Trocadéro in Paris.

Within 48 hours, the leadership of LR had capitulated "in unity," and renewed its support for François Fillon, for fear of seeing whole layers of his most reactionary electorate go over to Marine Le Pen. The same people who, in the name of principles in politics, had criticized Fillon the day before and demanded his withdrawal finally put political fortunes before their "morals." Similarly, the UDI centrists, who could not find harsh enough words for Fillon a few days before, renewed their support in exchange for 20 more candidates on the right's joint list for the legislative elections.

All this would just make us laugh if it was not the sign of a decay of LR--of its submission to its most reactionary wing under the pressure of the National Front and of a strong political polarization to the right. On the other hand, disaffection multiplied in the wing of the party around Alain Juppé, several of whose supporters joined the campaign of Emmanuel Macron.

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The Break-up of the Socialist Party

Here, too, centrifugal tendencies are at work. In exchange for the leadership of the PS accepting him as its official candidate, Benoît Hamon has run a dull, colorless campaign, putting aside any criticism of the record of the Hollande governments. It is a campaign without any sharp edges, which could only manage to obtain the withdrawal of the Greens in his favor--and in this case, too, in exchange for about 40 candidates reserved for them in the legislative elections.[1]

Some people compared Hamon's victory to a French-style "Corbyn effect." This was partially true from the point of view of the action of left-wing voters in the primaries, who wanted to protest the policies of Valls[2] and the presidency of Hollande. But the comparison stops there. As soon as he was elected, Hamon started to behave himself and took his place in the PS apparatus, even asserting that he defended the bulk of Hollande's record.

There is not a shadow of popular mobilization around Benoît Hamon's campaign, and even his flagship proposal of a universal income has become bogged down in the necessary compromises with the PS leadership. Hamon is in no way an anti-austerity candidate who breaks with the neoliberal rule of the European Union. His allegiance to the apparatus has not prevented a slow hemorrhage, for the past two months, of PS members of parliament and party officials joining the ranks of Emmanuel Macron's campaign: The latest to date are Bertrand Delanöé, former PS mayor of Paris, and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the current minister of defense.

The certainty of Hamon not making it to the second round is leading to a particular climate within the PS. The leadership officially continues to assure Hamon of its support and makes threats of expulsion and refusal to grant the party's nomination to anyone who would sponsor Macron's candidacy. At the same time, more and more leaders and elected officials are preparing for after the first round. An appeal of PS MPs is being circulated surreptitiously, and Claude Bartolone, Socialist President of the National Assembly, considers that he is ready to vote Macron "if democracy is in danger, and it is the only alternative." Macron's political ally Manuel Valls, defeated by Benoît Hamon in the primaries, has just publicly announced his refusal to support Hamon. The vast majority of ministers remain on the sidelines of the PS campaign, expressing a silent sympathy for Macron. François Hollande himself displays this silent support.

Many are hoping for a scenario that is unlikely to happen. In this scenario, the second round of the presidential elections opens up a space for the PS to make an alliance with Macron, mitigating the consequences of the failure of Hamon during the legislative elections--because the PS, just like LR, is afraid that the Macron effect will sweep away its candidates in the legislative elections in June. In any case, the upcoming elections will have a corrosive effect on the Socialist Party. Although the candidacy of a "dissident" PS member has blocked any increase for Mélenchon (see below), if the neoliberal Macron wins, it it will certainly lead to an explosion of the PS. The project of Manuel Valls of constructing a party like the Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi in Italy, is likely to be concretized--without the PS, or at least built on its ashes! Indeed, faced with a President Macron, the PS as such will not be an opposition against him.

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The Catch-all Candidacy of Emmanuel Macron

Coming from the social-liberal orientation of Hollande and Valls, and having emancipated himself from the PS and its record, Macron has succeeded, for the moment, where many had failed before him: in creating a center-right movement capable of overcoming social democracy and the Christian-Democratic allies of the Gaullist movement.

Macron comes across in the media as breaking with the old parties, with a young, modern image on questions of society and a neoliberal one on economic issues. He proclaims his intention that at least half of his candidates for the legislative elections will come from "civil society"--that is to say, without any political background. From the outset, he has refused any type of alliance with currents coming from the PS or the right, and his strength in the polls, the success of his meetings, and the shift of the media behind him give him the means to maintain this position.

Obviously, the policies proposed by Macron are nothing new. They have their source in the neoliberal measures developed under Sarkozy and Hollande, of whom he was an adviser and a minister. The main author of his program is Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist and senior civil servant, a neoliberal with long experience in ministerial circles, notably around Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The economic program is not innovative, focusing on lower spending and public revenues, perpetuation of employers' exemptions on wages and taxes, a new restructuring of the Labor Code, and gradual transition to retirement income based on pension funds, rather than state benefits.

To organize his elected representatives and officials in the regions, he has appointed an old political operator, a parliamentarian under Chirac, Jean-Paul Délevoye. But the image is that of renewal. Moreover, Macron can pull support more effectively in the PS as well as in LR because the profiles of the candidates of these parties create a force of attraction toward the centre--Valls and Juppé would have considerably reduced the space for Emmanuel Macron.

Moreover, the polls over recent weeks are interpreted as showing that he is "the only candidate capable of beating Marine Le Pen," which will have a pull on even the left electorate that fought the Macron and El Khomri laws. Today, even without a previously constituted party, Macron benefits from enough defectors from the PS, UDI and LR to structure his campaign and prepare for the legislative elections. In the event of a victory in the presidential elections, he can therefore afford to maintain an official position of refusing any alliance for the legislative elections with the apparatus of the PS or the partisans of Juppé. As a result, the question of alliances would be postponed until June. In any case, its success would have an explosive effect on the PS and a corrosive one on the UDI-LR right.

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Polarization and the Shift Toward the Far Right

All these elements reinforce the polarization towards the far right through the candidacy of Marine Le Pen, so much so that her presence in the second round is assured and her election in the second round cannot be ruled out. As in many European countries, the far right has reaped the fruits of the social crisis by playing on a nationalist withdrawal into patriotism, to which, in the absence of an anti-capitalist political pole active in the popular strata, many voters affected by austerity policies can be attracted. The neoliberal policies pursued by social democracy have accentuated these phenomena.

In addition, security policy, state Islamophobia and the institutional racism of the Valls government have also been grist for the mill of the National Front. The influence of the FN has developed on a broad scale within the army and the police, whose most reactionary tendencies have been flattered by Socialist governments. The refusal to accept migrants and the repressive policies developed after the terrorist attacks have also been capitalized upon by both the most reactionary wing of LR and by the FN. The polls show that in the present electoral maelstrom, Le Pen's support among voters remains stable--and not affected by financial scandals, in which the National Front is also involved.

To the left of the PS, the prospects do not match the scale of the political crisis.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has succeeded in imposing his candidacy on his former partners in the Left Front, which he himself scuttled so that no one could control his candidacy through "France insoumise" (Unsubmissive France, or FI), whose local representatives and campaign themes are under the exclusive control of Mélenchon himself. This autocratic campaign, which claimed a few months ago to be the alternative to Sarkozy and Hollande, has been destabilized by subsequent developments. Stuck at around 10 percent in the polls, it appears as the fifth wheel of the electoral competition. From that point, the purely personal aspect of his campaign, a posture inherited from Mitterrand, has a catastrophic boomerang effect.

Mélenchon explicitly refused to base his campaign on an organized convergence of political forces and fronts of social mobilization. His program, even though it takes up a whole series of questions that have been present in the social mobilizations of recent years, molds them and reconfigures them along republican and chauvinistic lines, such as the way its meetings close with the singing of the national anthem. The forces which, alongside the Left Party, support him are reduced to the role of extras and spectators, with the spokespeople of the campaign being personally appointed by JLM.

The Communist Party (PCF) has continued, up to now, its fight to ensure that the FI doesn't put up candidates against 15 PCF candidates, including 10 sitting MPs. JLM's refusal to make this commitment led the PCF to block its 850 elected representatives from signing his nomination papers, delaying until the end the confirmation of JLM's candidacy.[3] This episode of electoral bargaining is similar to the one between the PS and Greens, or between LR and the UDI. This illustrates, above all, the lack of progress of the Mélenchon campaign, which is organizing on the basis of his appeal to be the savior of the left. It will certainly together many militants of the trade union movement and the social movements, who are backing him in order to express a vote to the left of the PS with some weight.

But this leaves open the essential question for those who, on multiple fronts, are fighting against neoliberal and reactionary policies. One year after the most powerful social movement in the country since 1995, the only real political polarization is to the right. Tens of thousands of protesters managed to paralyze the Notre Dame des Landes airport project; tens of thousands of activists mobilized in the country to welcome migrants; numerous workers' strikes, some more important than others, take place each month in the different regions of the country around questions of wages or employment. Important mobilizations have taken place and will take place against police violence and state racism, such as the murder of Adama Traoré last summer in the Oise department and the rape of young Black man known as "Theo" in the woods in Aulnay in February. This violence, benefiting from the climate of impunity of the police, is the product, not of isolated incidents, but of a racism structured by the practices of state institutions and government policies. To counter it, a political anti-racism is being built.

All these social mobilizations demonstrate the resistance of the popular strata. They all point to the need for a wider political project of social justice in the face of capitalist exploitation and discrimination. Fillon's affairs have, once again, revealed the practices of politicians who enrich themselves, engage in all sorts of shady dealings and impose on the working classes the shredding of basic rights for workers. They are really no more than the reflection of the big capitalist corporate executives who enjoy generous bonuses while implementing layoff plans and productivity increases. The struggles of workers at Air France and Goodyear were the echo of these social demands. The Fillon affair brings to the forefront democratic demands for popular control and for questioning how institutions function. The Nuit Debout movement expressed these democratic demands. We would not be able to understand the shock waves from the revelations of the Canard enchainé about Fillon if we did not relate it to the disaffection and the profound rejection of political institutions on the part of the popular strata, among whom abstention is steadily increasing.

All these elements of mobilization, these social and democratic demands are present, in a fragmented way, in the background of the political situation, but they have not exerted much influence up to now. They do not provide a compass in a presidential campaign polarized between Macron occupying the center-right, Fillion yet further to the right and the far right of Le Pen.

The activists of the NPA have succeeded in obtaining the 500 signatures necessary for Philippe Poutou to stand in the presidential election. The aim of the NPA in this campaign is precisely to put forward the need for representation of the exploited and the oppressed--to be the bearer of the project of a society rid of all oppressions. This demand can speak to the expectations of many activists of the social movement. The coming weeks, whatever happens, will make this necessity even more urgent.

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Notes

1. The maneuvering of the main parties in France cannot be understood without taking into account the country's archaic electoral system. Deputies are not elected by proportional representation, but by separate votes in electoral districts, taking place in two rounds. So it is practically impossible for a minority party to gain elected representatives--this is what happens with the far left--without an agreement with a big party to, in some constituencies, withdraw its candidates in the first round in favor of a smaller party. Otherwise, the lack of proportional representation blocks the road to minority parties, even if they obtain 5 or 10 percent of the votes at the national level.

2. Manuel Valls, who was Hamon's main adversary in the primaries, was prime minister from April 2014 to December 2016.

3. Each candidate must obtain the signatures of at least 500 elected representatives. They do not necessarily express political support for the candidate; some sign for democratic reasons, so that candidates without party machines behind them can stand.

First published at International Viewpoint.