A crumbling political order in France's election

Alan Maass analyzes the outcome in the first round of voting in France's presidential election--and the consequences for the struggles to come.

Emmanuel Macron (left) and Marine Le PenEmmanuel Macron (left) and Marine Le Pen

FRANCE'S STORMY 2017 presidential election will continue for two more weeks after the first round of voting on Sunday made history: For the first time, neither of the mainstream center-right and center-left parties that have held power since the Second World War got their candidates into the top two spots to qualify for the May 7 runoff to decide the presidency.

The top finishers were Emmanuel Macron, a banker and head of a newly formed party, who recently served in the incumbent Socialist Party government, but who represents traditional center-right politics; and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN, by its initials in French).

Mainstream commentators in France and internationally were congratulating themselves that Macron prevented Le Pen from claiming another victory for xenophobic right-wing populists to follow on Donald Trump's triumph in the U.S. But their celebrating is both premature and shortsighted.

For one, Le Pen wasn't so far from winning the first round. And her zealously nationalist and anti-immigrant politics set the terms of the debate for the whole campaign. This will continue through the second round, given that Macron's biggest political asset is his young and slick image, which camouflages a commitment to completely conventional status quo politics.

Polls show Macron winning a comfortable victory on May 7, but a long-shot upset can't be ruled out--not after the shocks and surprises of a campaign that consigned the mainstream right-wing party to a virtual tie for third place and the candidate of the incumbent center-left Socialist Party to a woeful fifth, with just 6.2 percent of the vote.

After sweeping into power in elections five years ago, the Socialist Party (PS) is despised for having presided over essentially the same program of austerity as the center-right government before it, while ordinary people continued to suffer stagnating or declining living standards.

Le Pen has exploited these conditions by promising a revitalized economy after breaking with the European Union--and by scapegoating immigrants, especially Muslims.

But discontent with the status quo also fueled the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who ran a left-wing independent campaign that was the real surprise of the election. Mélenchon, a former Socialist Party member and co-founder of the Left Party in 2008 after leaving the PS, nearly doubled his vote total from five years ago, climbing to a virtual tie for third with just under 20 percent.

He was the generally acknowledged winner of the televised presidential debates, where he managed to put both the mainstream parties and Le Pen on the hot seat over corruption scandals. Mélenchon put forward a left-wing economic program, with a particular emphasis on environmental justice, that was a stark contrast to the PS's commitment to neoliberalism.

Though Mélenchon fell shy of his making the second round, his strong showing is cause to hope that the choice in future French elections won't be limited to right and further right.

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LE PEN's 21.5 percent of the vote in the first round was a decline for the FN from its showing in the 2014 elections for European Parliament and national voting in 2015 for local and regional offices.

Still, the party can boast about making the presidential runoff for a second time--the first was in 2002 with the campaign of Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen--and to judge from the mainstream media coverage in the U.S., Marine Le Pen is now considered a mainstream candidate, rather than a far-right extremist.

This is the culmination of her efforts to change the image of the FN from the party of her father that embraced openly fascist themes. Marine Le Pen engineered her father's expulsion in 2015 after he repeated one of his most notorious comments of earlier years--that the Holocaust was a "detail of history."

In particular, the FN of Marine Le Pen has banished open anti-Semitism and has even appealed for Jewish votes. Since a dominant theme of the FN now is Islamophobia, it isn't such a stretch courting votes from staunch supporters of Israel. In fact, as Mathieu Desan wrote at Jacobin, the younger Le Pen now poses as a defender of republican values in terms that wouldn't be out of place among the mainstream parties.

But the "new FN" isn't so very different from the old one. For instance, while Marine Le Pen got her father expelled from the party he co-founded, her presidential campaign was bankrolled by a 6 million euro loan from Jean-Marie.

And the new republican image is definitely for the TV cameras, not for the party's base supporters. As Jim Wolfreys wrote at Jacobin:

More than eight out of ten FN sympathizers describe themselves as racist, three-quarters have a negative view of Muslims, over half express "very strong" anti-Semitic views, and a third neither consider Jews to be fully French nor object to the phrase "dirty Jew." Indeed, anti-Semitism among this hard core of the FN electorate has increased under Marine Le Pen's leadership.

The reason for Marine Le Pen's success in the 2017 election isn't better public relations, but mass discontent with the French political system. As in the U.S., masses of people yearn for an alternative to the economic and political status quo, and the FN is filling the vacuum with its nationalism and racist scapegoating.

The stage was set for this by the disastrous reign of the Socialist Party since François Hollande's victory in the last presidential election five years ago.

Rather than take action on their vague promises to confront inequality, Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls continued and even intensified neoliberal austerity. And the PS has been at the helm of a drastic increase in state repression, especially following the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.

In this authoritarian political climate--the Hollande government has extended a state of emergency for more than a year and a half now--it was easy for Le Pen to set the terms of the election debate.

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MACRON'S CAMPAIGN for the presidency emphasized that he was an outsider to the political system--he has never held elected office and served in the PS government only briefly --but politically, he stands squarely with the establishment parties.

In fact, Macron was most associated previously with various business-friendly reforms, including changes to French labor laws, which have been the source of several recent eruptions of mass protest.

After the presidential runoff come elections for the National Assembly in June. Traditionally, the winning president can count on a victory for his party in these elections, ensuring a legislative majority.

But in this case, Macron will be competing for National Assembly seats with a newly formed political movement called En Marche! It will probably do well, considering the disgust with the mainstream parties, but a majority of seats is highly unlikely. That means the next government will rely on a coalition that could bring the PS back into government alongside the mainstream center-right party.

PS leaders are certainly banking on that. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who ran for the party's presidential nomination and lost, abandoned the PS candidate Benoît Hamon and supported Macron during the election campaign.

After the vote on Sunday, Hamon and the rest of the PS called on supporters to vote for Macron, and the candidate of the center-right Republicans, François Fillon, did the same. All seem to be envisioning themselves with a role in the next government.

This is why the media's premature celebration of Le Pen's expected defeat is shortsighted, too.

If Macron does become president, he will try to carry out policies that are identical to those of the discredited mainstream parties. And if his En Marche! doesn't enjoy an unprecedented landslide, the Macron government will likely be filled with a combination of PS and Republican hacks who earned the hatred of voters during their reign in the last two governments.

Macron's "outsider" status will evaporate--and his "victory" can lay the groundwork for Le Pen to have an even wider hearing for the coming elections.

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BUT LE Pen and the FN aren't the only outlet for discontent with the status quo in France. Mélenchon's strong showing in the first round shows there is potential for a left-wing alternative.

Last spring, amid the continuing state of emergency and depressing climate of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim scapegoating, there was an eruption of mass protest against the government's determination to drive through a revision to France's Labor Code--exactly the kind of labor law "reform" that Macron has championed.

The upsurge gave rise to the Occupy-like "Nuit Debout" (Up All Night"), nightly demonstrations in the Place de la République in Paris--followed by workplace action and a general strike at the end of May.

The outpouring of class resistance--which at its high point united union workers with younger low-wage workers, students and the unemployed--showed in concrete terms the alternative to the FN's politics of despair and hate.

Mélenchon relied on this very different spirit of dissent in the election. His ambitious proposal for reform of the political system to reduce the powers of the presidency provided a stark contrast with the increasing authoritarianism championed by every party on the spectrum from the PS to Le Pen.

Some of Mélenchon's political weaknesses showed through during the campaign. For this election, he chose to start a brand-new political formation, called France Unbowed, rather than be the candidate of the Left Front coalition he headed in 2012. The result is that he isn't answerable to other forces on the left.

Mélenchon is particularly weak on one of the most important political issues in France: Islamophobia. At the very moment when anti-Muslim propaganda is being used to drive through draconian restrictions on democracy, Mélenchon has supported a ban on wearing "conspicuous religious symbols"--none-too-subtle code for the Muslim women's head coverings--in schools.

This was one of the few issues where Le Pen was able to score points against Mélenchon in the presidential debates. When Mélenchon tried to criticize her for supporting a ban on the hijab worn anywhere in public, Le Pen was able to point out that left republicans like Mélenchon supported the ban in schools.

What Mélenchon was able to do during the election was articulate a clear left alternative to the neoliberalism of the Socialist Party government.

The enthusiasm for the campaign can be touchstone for future Nuit Debouts. But at the same time, the left and social movements must rise to the challenge of fighting for the rights and demands of those scapegoated and oppressed by the far right and the political mainstream alike.

A left that can turn the tide in France must be an alternative in every way to the fear, hate and despair of Marine Le Pen and the FN.