Can the center hold in France's election?

Tom Gagné reports on developments in France's looming presidential election.

Benoit Hamon, candidate of the Socialist Party for the French presidencyBenoit Hamon, candidate of the Socialist Party for the French presidency

FRANCE'S PRESIDENTIAL election is still two months away from the first round of voting, but it has already made plenty of headlines.

For months, the frightening news has been that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is expected to come in first or second in the first round of the election. For a time, it seemed like her main challenger would be François Fillon of the main center-right electoral formation. That was little better tidings: Fillon had positioned himself as a right-wing populist alternative to the miserable former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

But February brought more positive news: Benoît Hamon pulled off a surprise victory in the center-left Socialist Party's primary election for a presidential candidate. Hamon, who is compared to Bernie Sanders or the Labour Party's Jeremy Corbyn, prevailed over a guardian of neoliberalism, Prime Minister Manuel Valls--though Hamon isn't expected to do better than third or fourth in the first round of voting.

Coming in the wake of last year's contentious "Brexit" vote in the UK referendum on leaving the European Union, and now Donald Trump's already tumultuous presidency, the presidential elections in France, set for two rounds in April and May, will be closely watched to see which way the winds are blowing in Europe--particularly in reaction to the reality of the right in power in the U.S.

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FRENCH POLITICS have been characterized by a sharp polarization over the past two years.

On the one hand, the French government, presided over by the Socialist Party's President François Hollande, has carried out harsh repression--exemplified by the draconian state of emergency declared in November 2015 following a terrorist attack carried out by adherents of ISIS that left 130 people dead and scores more injured.

On the other hand, a popular mass movement against austerity and the security crackdown--known as "Nuit Debout," or Night Out, and characterized by the occupation of public spaces--emerged as a bitter response to anti-worker legislation sponsored by the ruling Socialists.

Hollande and the Socialists swept into the presidency and a parliamentary majority just a few years ago, but they are widely despised after presiding over a neoliberal program. Toward the end of last year, with his approval rating seeking to a low mark of 4 percent, Hollande decided not to seek re-election in 2017.

At that point, it looked like the presidential election would shape up as a contest between far-right and very-close-to-far-right.

Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN) has been riding high in opinion polls for the presidential contest since her party came out ahead in elections to European parliament more than two years ago.

The other frontrunner was François Fillon of Les Républicains (LR, formerly the UMP – Union for a Popular Movement), who trounced Nicolas Sarkozy in the LR primaries.

But Fillon's campaign took a nosedive in early February with revelations that he used public revenues to pay his wife and other family members almost $1 million over several years. Fillon had previously been described as a "squeaky-clean" champion of austerity and was a favorite among much of the French ruling class.

The Fillon scandal opens the way for Le Pen to do even better. Yet the FN's virulent racism and xenophobia, and its thinly veiled links to the fascist right, remain a barrier to winning majority support.

Le Pen is doing her best to position herself as "respectable." Although Donald Trump has remained uncharacteristically closed-mouthed about her, Le Pen is desperately trying to position herself as his French counterpart--for instance, giving full-throated support to Trump's ban on refugees and Muslims.

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THE BIG news of this month, however--and an indication of just how volatile French politics has become--was the victory for left-wing candidate Benoît Hamon in the Socialist Party primary. Hamon's upset win, coming days after the Fillon scandal broke, buried the pro-market choice of the party establishment, Manuel Valls.

Hamon is trailing in the polls by 18 percent, effectively sidelining the SP as a serious presidential contender.

Hamon's rise has the same sources as the successes enjoyed by Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. But as for the coming election, Hamon is trailing in opinion polls by double digits. He is unlikely to be able to repackage the Socialists' disastrous record in power to rally the progressive vote.

Thus, with a little more than two months before the first rounds of elections, the presidential election is shaping up as a contest between Le Pen and Hollande's former Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron.

Macron resigned from the Socialists and launched his own party called En Marche! ("Working on it" or "On the move") less than a year ago. Macron himself is the bête noire of the Nuit Debout movement, having lent his name to legislation championed by Hollande that was supposedly aimed at cutting unemployment by means of neoliberal deregulation and gutting labor protections.

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DURING THE last presidential election in 2012, ex-Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon emerged as a left-wing dark horse to challenge Le Pen's anti-immigrant rhetoric, popularizing the slogan "Blame the bankers, not the migrants."

After leaving the SP in 2008, Mélenchon founded the Left Party and ran under the banner of the Left Front in alliance with France's Communist Party. He waged a spirited campaign that amassed around 4 million votes in the first round of elections, running neck and neck with Le Pen.

In the current cycle, he is polling at around 12 percent, having created a new electoral vehicle called La France insoumise (France Unbowed).

With a blend of left-wing populism, euroscepticism and French republicanism, Mélenchon is earning support in line with his 2012 Left Front bid. However, opinion on the far left is divided with respect to his candidacy--even as LePen expects to win around 25 percent of the vote in the first round of elections, according to current polls.

Criticisms of Mélenchon aren't without warrant. For instance, two years ago, he was able to raise the ire of the French far left with a pamphlet called "The German Poison," which was aimed at the pro-European Union fiscal and social policies originating in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office.

The pamphlet appealed to French nationalism, as if France were under the domination of German financiers and not its own ruling class. By contrast, Mélenchon could have pointed to the inspiring internationalism on display in solidarity actions on both sides of the border in the environmental movement.

If Le Pen hoped Trump's victory in the U.S. would be the boost she needed into the Elysée Palace, the mass anti-Trump protests in the U.S. have sent shock waves across Europe. Hamon's victory the Socialist Party primary is one sign of a left-wing surge in response to the menace in the White House. In his acceptance speech, Hamon reached out to other left candidates, including Mélenchon and Yannick Jadot of the Greens.

France's biggest revolutionary left parties maintain that the working class and mass movements must remain independent from these compromised parties, including Mélenchon's electoral vehicles. As for Hamon, a statement from the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), which is running presidential candidate Philippe Poutou, invites voters to recall Hamon's complicity as a cabinet minister in the Socialist Party government, who voted for Hollande's budgets every year.

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FRANCE IS at a crossroads, facing a growing political crisis that will not be resolved easily.

Inequality and poverty have increased and the absence of any guaranteed future for its younger generation serves as a radicalizing factor. Meanwhile, politics as usual has been upended by French military intervention aboard, terrorist attacks at home, and a seemingly perpetual state of emergency that constrains working-class and social movement activity, while stoking further bitterness among immigrant and Muslim victims.

Adding to the volatility is the case of a young Black man, identified in the press only as Théo, who was sodomized with a police truncheon in early February, leading to angry protests.

Stopped by police for an identity check and with no prior criminal record, the attack on Théo was a clear case of racial profiling by France's notoriously racist police force. Many are calling this France's "Black Lives Matter" moment--the outcry is such that Hollande was forced to visit Théo in the hospital for a photo op to appeal for calm after "a lawyer for one of the officers suggested his expandable baton slipped into the man's anus by accident."

How this case will effect the elections is difficult to tell, but whoever wins, organizing protests, linking struggles and breaking the state of emergency will remain priorities for the social movements and the revolutionary left. Chasing votes matters much less than building solidarity in the streets. As the NPA's Poutou put it:

As in the case of Adama Traoré [a 22-year-old Black man who died in police custody in the summer of 2016 on the outskirts of Paris] and the subsequent prosecution of his brothers, and after so many other cases, the NPA--alongside all the local collectives who are fighting against police brutality, which almost always goes unpunished--demands the truth and justice for Théo.

Furthermore, our immigrant, poor, working-class neighborhoods must no longer be areas in which the police can play cowboy with impunity, assured of judicial protection. It is necessary to finally end the security clampdown in these quarters, as well as the police targeting them for racist violence.

As the French left reorganizes itself under these challenging circumstances, this spring's elections will most likely produce a new centrist head of state--Macron, Fillon or Hamon--narrowly assuming office with a weakened mandate. But bigger surprises--from the left or the right--cannot be ruled out in advance.

Todd Chretien contributed to this article.