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"Nothing Happened as Expected": Reflections on the French Elections

Following the results of the first round of France’s presidential election, executive power will be contested by Marine Le Pen, (ex)leader of the fascist National Front, and Emmanuel Macron, a vacuous neoliberal technocrat who represents precisely the kind of politics that have facilitated the growth of the far right in recent years. Haymarket Books’ John McDonald interviewed Clément Petitjean, a contributor to the recently published Europe in Revolt, for a critical perspective on the election the New York Times calls the most consequential in recent French history.

(image credit: radiowood/flikr)

John McDonald: I’m hoping that you can start by giving a little bit of context. What were the driving forces of this election, what were people thinking about, and what led people to support the candidates they did? 

Clément Petitjean: I would say what’s most striking about the election is that nothing happened the way it should have. The first sign of something strange was in December when the incumbent, François Hollande, who was elected in 2012 against Sarkozy, decided to step aside and not run for reelection. This is unprecedented since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. 

From that point, basically nothing happened as expected. The Socialist Party (PS) had an open primary and everyone thought that the candidate would be former Prime Minister Manuel Valls. But he was defeated by a much more left-wing candidate, Benoît Hamon, which meant you had the president stepping down, and the prime minister being defeated in the primaries. 

Then essentially a similar process happened on the right. Sarkozy was defeated in the primary (he received only 20 percent of the vote), and one of the favored candidates, Alain Juppé—himself a former prime minister—was also defeated. The winner, François Fillon, was much farther to the right than Juppé, much closer to the Catholic Conservative, anti–gay marriage, anti-abortion factions of the French right. 

When Fillon was selected, he had a reputation as a very clean candidate. He had no record of embezzlement—something that is a very common feature in French politics. Whether you’re looking at the Socialist Party or the right-wing parties, there has been rampant corruption for decades. These politicians are never convicted and are rarely even indicted, so his reputation in this regard was very important. 

By the time Hamon became the official candidate of the Socialist Party, in late January, things already looked completely different than originally predicted. Then scandals about Fillon began to emerge and made everything even more unstable. There was a scandal about him employing his wife as a parliamentary assistant for years (and his children for some time, too) when she didn’t do any actual work, and another surrounding his acceptance of extremely expensive suits from a famous and influential lawyer. Following these charges of corruption, he started declining in the polls—but never stepped down. At around the same time, leading Socialist Party functionaries started defecting to Emmanuel Macron, who they saw as a more reasonable, less “utopian” choice; as a result, Hamon’s campaign lost its initial impetus. When the calls for unity with Jean-Luc Mélenchon petered out, Hamon started plummeting in the polls.


Can you say a bit about Macron? Who is he? Where does he come from? 

Macron was Hollande’s Minster of Finance, between August 2014 and August 2016. Before that, he was a private economic advisor, a “behind-the-scenes” guy who was a very close aide to Hollande. He stepped down in August 2016 to work on his own movement called En Marche! ["Forward!"], which he launched a couple of months earlier, claiming that he wanted to go beyond the right vs. left cleavage and to replace that divide with something more inclusive. 

This is all total bullshit—he is a former investment banker and the absolute embodiment of neoliberal politics. I cannot think of anyone more vacuous and technocratic. He is the smirking face of austerity, privatization, poverty…He is despicable. But because Fillon’s campaign was floundering and the SP was in shambles, a lot of people coalesced around Macron. The representatives of the extreme center, but also people who felt alienated by the current state of French politics.

And then of course you have the whole Marine Le Pen situation. It had been on everyone’s minds that Le Pen would make it to the second round. For the entirety of Hollande’s term, the question hadn’t been whether Le Pen would be in the second round, but who would face her. 

So, in a way, even though no one actually predicted the exact outcome, or how the campaigns would go, what happened in the first round was foreseeable, particularly that Marine Le Pen would get to the second round. The National Front has spent years doing the groundwork of building a base, and they have capitalized a lot on people’s resentment, pushing it in very reactionary, nationalistic, xenophobic, directions. There is this anxiety and anger that you find in a lot of advanced countries, and she managed to tap into and channel that. On the other hand, because Macron is so empty, my sense is that people coming from different social and political backgrounds could project onto him whatever hopes they have.


Say a little more about the issues that Le Pen mobilized people around. Why has support for her increased? How important has the fear mongering against Arabs and Muslims been for her campaign? And how has she used her posturing in defense of “French liberal cultural values” to justify the scapegoating? 


Le Pen’s campaign is interesting in that it was fairly low key. She didn’t manage to focus the debates on immigration, on terrorism, on Islam. Part of this is because there was so much attention on the scandals and questions of corruption. 

The one time in the past few weeks where this did become an issue—a negative issue—for her was when she mentioned the rounding up of some 10,000 Jews in July 1942 in France by the Vichy regime and claimed “this was not France,” meaning that this was not done by France. In saying this, she sounded like she was appealing to the old antisemitic, fascist, nostalgic roots of the party, but it didn’t really harm her too much. Lots of people used this to say, “Oh my god, the Front is still racist, and still extremely xenophobic,” but I don’t think it played a big role in refocusing the conversation in any major way. 

One of the reasons she didn’t mention most of those issues very much was because of the state of the other campaigns. They were floundering, so she didn’t need to. But the most important reason, which is a much more worrying one in my opinion, is that a lot of what she says has been rehabilitated by the right and by segments of the Socialist Party. For example, it is taken for granted by many politicians that there is a line to be drawn from terrorism to “Radical Islam,” to Islam in general, that “Muslims” constitute a homogeneous category and that they are intrinsically foreign to “French Republican Culture.” This extreme Islamophobia has spread in France over the past ten to fifteen years, and it has been pushed by Le Pen, but also by other forces. She capitalized on this.

To be clear, when you read her whole platform, it is xenophobic, it is anti-immigrant, but it also has elements about the need to defend workers, to build stronger social policies. She’s a master at confusionism, at blurring the lines between left-wing and right-wing rhetoric. The way she frames things, in terms of protecting French workers, allows her to push all of the racism under the carpet. Of course it’s still there, but for many reasons a lot of people now don’t see the bumps of dirt under the carpet—or don’t care about them either.


It seems to me that she’s essentially learned from American racism the difference between outright bigotry and what we refer to as dog-whistling. She seems quite practiced at relying on innuendo to fill in the gaps. But the difference between the people using this tactic on this side of the Atlantic and Le Pen is that she is also building an organization that is connected to people building groups on the ground to intimidate and harass the victims of her scapegoating. Can you say a bit about what this looks like, and who makes up the base of the Front? 


Looking at the map of election results, you can see that the Front has strongholds in the North of France, the Northeast and the Southeast. Historically, the Southeast is where the Front was most powerful, because that’s where you have lots of former French colonizers from Algeria who fled in 1962 after Algeria became independent. I’m not sure how to say it in English, but they’re called the “pied noir” [black feet] in France. These people often had traditionally very right-wing, almost fascist politics. Geographically and socially, this is where the Front first sunk its roots most deeply. 

The North and the Northeast, on the other hand, were industrial strongholds where there were coal mines and steel mills, and those have been destroyed by financialization, capitalism, and the shifts in the global economy since the ’80s and ’90s. Historically, those regions were Communist Party-voting districts. 

As the CP disappeared, or strongly declined in the polls, the National Front was able not so much to grab their voters, but to attract those who traditionally voted right. When you look at the electoral sociology of those places, it’s not so much that left-wing voters shifted to the Front, it’s that the workers on the right or center-right were gradually attracted by the nationalistic, chauvinistic, militant rhetoric of the Front. 

So their electoral success depended on these newer bases of voters, but they still have roots in the traditional sectors of the far right: Catholic fundamentalist, neo-nazi, “Identitarian,” street-fighting groups. Marine Le Pen has been very good at downplaying those ties—in very sharp contrast to her father. Since taking over from him, in 2011, she has been very skilled at saying that the National Front is a “legitimate organization,” a  “respectable organization.” She has been quite successful at polishing their image and relying more on dog-whistling, without completely severing her ties to that old base.

Although, I think it’s necessary to remember that the FN is not a mass organization, with hundreds of thousands of dedicated cadre and members ready to fight the Commies in the streets. These hardcore neo-nazi groups exist, but they’re fairly small. There are no mass parties in France today, and the FN is no exception.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I don’t know whether this election is going to be a real boost for the Front or not … As soon as the results were announced Sunday, most of the left and center jumped onboard the line that “we need to uncritically support Macron.” This included the Socialist Party, who, by the way, only got 6.3 percent of the vote—the lowest result they’ve had in 50 years. A total disaster for them.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Front have maintained a view that there is no difference between the mainstream right and the left—both of them want to support globalization, instead of the "French People" and "French Values." So the calls to unify behind Macron feed into the Front’s narrative, which says that “the parties pretend to disagree, but really they don’t, they're part of the same oligarchy.” 

The day after the results, Marine Le Pen announced she would temporarily step down as leader of the Front. It’s only a symbolic maneuver, no one can seriously believe she won’t come back. But in doing so, I think she’s trying to further personalize her campaign, to persuade people to vote for her, not for the Front. So this is in direct keeping with her communications strategy over the past five years and during the campaign: on the campaign posters, where you have Le Pen’s smiling portrait and the slogan “La France apaisée” (An Appeased France), the logo of the FN is nowhere to be seen.


That touches on the next thing I wanted to ask you about. What does it mean that the Socialist Party not only barley got 6 percent of the vote, but also that huge sections of the party were openly supporting Macron? How is that going to play out? Will the political center continue to collapse? 


I think we will only be able to tell once the legislative elections happen. The second round of the presidential election is May 7. Then on June 11 and June 18, legislative elections will take place. Honestly I have no clue how things will go. What’s clear, looking at Sunday's results, is that we have four blocks of equal size vying for power. We have Macron who has 24 percent, with 8.6 million votes. Le Pen posted almost 21 percent and 7.7 million votes. Fillon, a proven liar and embezzler, had 20 percent and 7.2 million votes, which is very worrying. It’s clear that this guy is a cheat, a fraud . . . and yet 7 million people voted for him. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but it’s crazy that he came third when most of the campaign was about how corrupt he was. Then fourth is the left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose support was very close to Fillon, with 19.6 percent and 7 million voters. 

So the question is how those four separate blocks will develop together. This is unprecedented in the history of the Fifth Republic. Up until Sunday you had, traditionally, the Socialist Party as the repository of the mainstream left and various right-wing parties that changed names over time, and those were the two main players. Then you had the National Front, which, while it grew in the ’90s and early 2000s, was always quite small. You also had a small but resilient radical left. Now there are four blocks of basically equal size. 

I don’t see the Mélenchon block making any alliances with Macron. Maybe people will vote for him because they’re scared of Le Pen—and rightfully so.

But what’s likely is that if Macron is elected president, there is very little possibility of agreement between these blocks. What’s possible is that the right-wing cadre of the PS joins En Marche, leaving the left of the Party (Hamon and others) stranded: will they go leftward and join whatever will come out of Mélenchon’s campaign? I don’t see how Hamon could join forces with Valls, given how he has been so blatantly backstabbing him for the past six months.


Valls, the current prime minister, enthusiastically endorsed Macron, correct? 


Yeah, Valls, and a good section of the top old white dudes in the Socialist Party readily abandoned ship. And on the right, a lot of the cadre came out against Fillon just after the results were announced. Top right-wing officials blamed him personally for the loss. People are jumping over the sides and swimming for safety everywhere, hoping to save themselves from the sinking parties. 

At the same time, Macron ran on an “anti-system” campaign—probably the most ironic platform for this guy to run on—saying he wouldn’t keep any of the old-guard politicians . . . So, will people like Valls strong-arm him into giving them positions? Or will he have enough arrogance to say, “Enough, I want new people”? We'll see. 


I saw that you and some other folks in Paris shared graffiti that read “Macron 2017: Le Pen 2022.” I think this is striking because it almost doesn’t seem to matter whether Le Pen wins the run-off, since her profile will grow out of this, she will continue to build in the legislative districts and on the ground. 


What I think the graffiti means is that Le Pen grew because of the neoliberal policies implemented by Sarkozy and then Hollande. And because Macron is the essence of Hollande’s policies, even if with a smiling face, he will go about business as usual. Keep privatizing, keep downsizing social policies, keep pushing austerity, not renegotiate the European treaties in any way, and this will keep fueling the National Front, allowing them to sink their roots deeper into the despair they feed on. 


And Le Pen will likely benefit from this? 


Yes, most likely, but to what extent exactly can't be determined in advance . . . How many seats they will get remains unknown. Given the way the system works, it’s hard to say . . . I’m not even sure how many candidates the Front will run. Everyone has been so focused on the presidential election that they forgot to write about what’s likely to happen in the legislative elections, so I don’t know. 

I do think that if the people supporting Macron try to reconstruct what is often  called “the republican front” against Le Pen, it is very likely that this will be great, great news for her. In a way, there is this toxic dialectic between the extreme center and the Front. On the one hand, the National Front keeps growing because of its attacks on the system and because of the actual policies being implemented in France. Conversely, the extreme center benefits from a strong National Front because whenever someone wants to criticize Macron, for insistence, people will instantly jump on you and say, “How can you speak like that? If you don’t vote for Macron you are supporting Le Pen!” But, in the end, this relationship can’t go on forever. There is a point where it has to break. 


This is one of the places where the analogy to the American election seems strongest. Lots of people talk about understanding Le Pen as a Trump figure, but that doesn’t really hold up. What does seem to hold up is the lesser-evilist notion that We Must Unite Behind the Center to Defeat Fascism, but where the alternative put forward by the center is literally the only possible candidate who could fail to defeat the fascist boogeyman. It seems exceedingly unlikely, but in some respects Macron is a sort of Hillary Clinton figure who might just be able to lose. 


Yes . . . except that he has one thing he that Clinton didn’t have. I don’t think many people voted for Clinton with gusto, or because they liked her. But because Macron is new and young at 39, he’s never held elected office before, so in a very limited way, he’s not a professional politician compared to the other candidates. 

This has allowed him by some weird social alchemy to turn himself into an anti-system candidate—despite the fact that he is a pure product of the system and of Hollande’s policies. I think that a lot of people, because they’re so disillusioned with French politics, really want to believe that. Macron is not exactly the same type of representative of “the system” as Clinton is, for instance. The chances are much higher he will win than the Clinton comparison suggests. For one thing, because the National Front was built on its isolation from the rest of the political system, it’s less likely that center-right voters would vote for her. At most levels of government they don’t, or can’t, make electoral deals with anyone. Le Pen has not taken over the main right-wing party apparatus, as Trump did for example. However much she tries to deny it, the party she runs is on the far right.

The other difference with the U.S. situation is what happened on the left, where there was a complete and total collapse of the Socialist Party, followed by Mélenchon’s rise to almost 20 percent of the vote. This is extremely significant—probably the most significant outcome of the first round. He went from around four million votes in 2012 to nearly seven million this time. He ran on a platform criticizing both Hollande and the right. And while the rest of the candidates rushed to endorse Macron, Mélenchon first said that he would have to consult with his base. 

What this means is that Mélenchon has no ties to the floundering social-liberal party in the way that Sanders has with the Democratic Party. And Mélenchon polled best among young voters and the unemployed: in both categories, he’s around 30%. This is an extremely positive sign for the future.


So maybe we could wrap up with what Mélenchon means for rebuilding the left in France. The flip side of him not being in a major party is that he doesn’t have an organization that’s been built up over years. He projects himself individually. What does that mean on the ground moving forward? Is he going to run candidates for the legislature? 


Yes, he is going to run candidates. La France insoumise (France Unbowed, Mélenchon’s platform) was created last year out of the ashes of the Left Front, which ran Mélenchon as a joint candidate in 2012. After its promising 2012 rise was stopped around 2014, he gradually moved away from that kind of organization and became more inspired by Podemos and that kind of “anti-party,” "post-party" rhetoric. In La France insoumise, there are no intermediate elected layers, and it’s not really clear how you become a member. There are just various “supporters groups” and then Mélenchon at the top, so it’s quite an amorphous structure of supporters and leader.

On the ground, they can be quite dogmatic and sectarian. They see people who vote for the PS, people in the left of the PS, or even people who just criticize them, as “the enemy.” It’s a very paranoid style of politics. I don’t know how that might become institutionalized or be the start of something bigger. It’s not even certain that he will stick around or run next time. Because of the sectarian attitudes I mentioned, it’s not even certain that he can bring the left together. I think someone with a more strategic mind would see the opportunities in the PS’s collapse and try to take advantage of that. Some of the voters who went to Hamon were very close to Mélenchon, but hesitated to take that step. Someone who had more skills in maneuvering in this situation might be able to bring those segments over. It’s worth saying that Mélenchon could realistically have gone to the second round. He was less than 700,000 votes away from getting through, so this could have made a big difference.

Another problem is that, while Mélenchon has improved on a couple of issues, he’s still very chauvinistic, with a left-wing nationalistic bend. For a while he had terrible positions on refugees, he opposed freedom of movement for instance, and he has very objectionable positions on Syria, saying we should support Assad as a lesser evil and has refused to condemn Russian imperialism. He got better during the campaign, but these are important fault-lines that we can’t ignore. When he doesn’t talk about them, he’s good, but as soon as he starts to tackle those issues, he stumbles.

One last word about the second round. On the night of the election, I thought I would not vote on May 7. And I thought the graffiti “Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022” most pointedly summed up the effects of neoliberal politics on the growth of the Front. Since then, there have been very bitter debates on the Left about what to do: should we vote Macron to defeat Le Pen? Should we abstain? In the midst of this shitstorm, I read some very convincing arguments on social media and in outlets like Jacobin – I’m thinking of an excellent piece by Mathieu Bonzom, for instance. There aren’t many options: either we don’t vote, we vote “null”, or we vote Macron. The problem is, because there are only two candidates, if we don’t have Macron 2017, we have Le Pen 2017…That’s an impossible dilemma, of course, but we can’t wish it away.

Of course, we can, and should, start building the opposition to Le Pen “in the streets” right now—and in that regard we can hope that May 1 rallies and protests will be a huge success and a first step in rebuilding a broad antifascist movement. But no matter how much I despise and hate Macron and everything he stands for, it seems that our most strategic course of action right now is to defeat Le Pen on May 7, and then oppose Macron right away.

There’s a good slogan that I’ve seen circulate among comrades which sums up my position today: Defeat Le Pen on May 7, Fight Macron from May 8 onwards!


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