Behind France’s election shock

April 25, 2012

François Hollande, the presidential candidate of France's Socialist Party, led right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy after the first round of voting in the country's presidential election on April 22. The two will face off in a runoff election on May 6, with Hollande holding the edge in a close race, according to opinion polls.

But the shocking news was the third-place finish of fascist Marine Le Pen with 18 percent of the vote--the best-ever finish for the Front National founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. Opinion polls had given Marine Le Pen about half the total vote that she got.

The frightening result for the Nazi Le Pen dampened celebrations of one of the strongest showings for France's far left parties in decades--led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left Front coalition that united Mélenchon's Left Party, which split from the Socialist Party three years ago, and the French Communist Party. Mélenchon's popularity shot up this year on the strength of a radical campaign that savaged Le Pen and criticized the moderate Socialist Party for its commitment to neoliberalism. His success came in the wake of an upset victory for left-winger George Galloway in a by-election for British parliament.

At his blog Lenin's Tomb, British socialist Richard Seymour, author of The Liberal Defence of Murder, published these comments on the meaning of the French vote.

FOLLOWING HIS victory in Bradford West, George Galloway's article in the Morning Star argued that the conjunctural factors making his success possible were the same that are undoing the neoliberal consensus in France and Greece, and shortly would across the EU.

There are, caveats aside, obvious parallels between Galloway and Jean-Luc Mélenchon; we will see whether a UK equivalent to the Left Front emerges.

If last weekend's election results in Paris are anything to go by, you might think this a rather worrying comparison. Not only did Mélenchon not receive the 15 to 17 percent the polls promised him (far less the 19 to 24 percent an internal government poll prophesied back in April), but the Front National gained a fifth of the vote.

We should keep this in perspective. First, the total left vote is (I am assured) the highest since 1988. Second, the Left Front has still improved the radical left vote from 2007, in a situation where that was by no means a guaranteed outcome given the sharp decline in working class struggles over the last few years. Eleven percent for a radical left candidacy is far from insignificant. We should have problems of this kind, where millions of votes for the radical left is a disappointing result.

Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen (Marie-Lan Nguyen)

It is particularly not to be sniffed at when Mélenchon so rattled the capitalist class that the president of the French business confederation MEDEF referred to him as the heir of Terror. And what did Mélenchon say to induce such drool-spattered venom? Oh, this:

Anything above 360,000 euros, we take it all. The tax bracket will be 100 percent. People say to me, that's ideological. I say, too right it is. It's a vision of society. Just as we won't allow poverty in our society, we won't allow the hyper-accumulation of riches. Money should not be accumulated but circulated, invested, spent for the common good...Look, we have to smash this prejudice that the rich are useful just because they're rich.

The Left Front seems to have really shaken things up and even, in the short campaign, forced the establishment parties to make some concessions. Sarkozy adopted a Mélenchon policy of pursuing tax exiles and forcing them to pay their taxes. Hollande adapted to Mélenchon's rhetoric, eventually sounding "left wing" enough to give the jaded, faded old liberal hack Nick Cohen "an erection." (Do I really misrepresent him?)

BUT WITH the results as they are, it is now the fascists who are exerting the stronger gravitational pull on the mainstream. Both Sarkozy and Hollande have cited Marine Le Pen's strong vote as a reason to be all the more protective of France's borders--exploiting legitimate fears which we must not ignore, you know the drill. I am assured by people who know better than I do that the FN also adopted a sort of "Strasserite" platform of protectionism and corporatism that went down well with sections of the working class, and may have contributed to their becoming more "respectable."

But the single biggest issue that galvanized far-right voters, according to the polls, was immigration. Integrally linked to this was Le Pen's campaign against Islam, and the "footprint" that it is said to be leaving in French cities. Alas, she was only expressing, in radicalized form, the Islamophobia that is respectable in almost every section of French society, and in almost every party. Mélenchon was the only major politician who came out fighting against Le Pen, and defended Muslims against racism. Unfortunately, even he is compromised by a problematic left republicanism, which led him to vote for the ban on the "foulard."

I am just saying that the racial populist idioms that have availed the far right are bound up with this doomed, crisis-ridden French republicanism, and with the failure of any sizeable section of the French left to come to terms in any meaningful way with the colonial legacy. This is one issue on which I genuinely don't envy the French left (allow me to have one). Moreover, there is no national organization with any weight in France giving expression to its traditions of militant anti-fascism (please don't say SOS-Racisme unless you want me to laugh-barf), which is a serious absence in terms of the impediments that could exist for the far right.

Lest I seem to be giving an overly political reading of the fascists' success, allow me to qualify what I am saying. I can agree, readily and enthusiastically, that certain factors such as the specific composition of classes in France, the large rural population, the way in which its rapid imperial decline and the absorption of the pied-noirs was experienced, the effect of this loss of imperial fantasies of omnipotence on the petty bourgeoisie, and the effect of regionally concentrated long-term unemployment have presented conditions favorable to the growth of fascist politics in France.

All of these aspects, conjoined with the crisis of the Socialists, the eurozone calamity, the demise of le petit Nicolas, are undoubtedly present as over-determining factors in Marine Le Pen's ascendancy. Nonetheless, ultimately, these conditions and the multiple antagonisms they produced have had to be resolved (or not) at the level of political struggle; there is nothing automatic about the way these factors impact on politics.

The fascists continually reconstruct and maintain a fairly huge coalition behind far-right politics (at present, some 6.4 million votes) by working on these antagonisms, by producing racist-populist articulations that "mention," in their own idiom, the conditions alluded to already. And they can do so to the extent that: a) their "quilting point," the issue of racism around which they organiae their whole popular platform, is supplied almost free of charge by the bourgeois parties; and b) the left refrains from efforts at systematically disorganizing their actions and at mobilizing the constituencies who would be their victims in self-defense.

First published at Lenin's Tomb.

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