France’s Transient Centre

France’s Transient Center

This is an article I wrote in the lead up to France’s presidential election earlier in the year. Although it relates to events past, I think it has ongoing resonance given Macron’s growing unpopularity, and the deepening crisis of the political centre.

Emmanuel Macron as he appeared in the Melenchon campaign's videogame, Fiscal Kombat

Emmanuel Macron as he appears in Fiscal Kombat, a videogame made for the Melenchon campaign

The victory of outsider candidate Benoît Hamon in the French Socialist Primary expresses a rejection of the party’s right-ward shift. Although in practice it has improved the chances of moderate presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, it nonetheless reflects a deeper shift in industrialized countries that leavemes Third Way tactics of accommodation out of step with economic reality. Macron has a reasonable chance of winning the coming elections against François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. But in the longer term, the centrist politics he stands for will be incapable of addressing the conditions favoring the radical right’s ascent.

Under François Hollande, the Socialist Party has governed in difficult times. But its leaders made things worse by misreading the historical moment, shifting to the reformist center at a time when politics across Europe are polarizing. Pundits often blamed Hollande’s unpopularity on personal qualities and on a French public unwilling to contemplate necessary reform. After Hollande declined to run for a second term and his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, resigned his post to declare his own candidacy, the latter was widely touted as the Socialist Party’s sensible option—a necessary modernizer of an archaic system, whose tough stance on law and order could win back votes from a swelling right.

But the results of the Socialist Primary show that voters do not simply spurn Hollande or change as such, but the ideology that informed his policies. Valls was defeated by Hamon, a marginal candidate from the left-most wing of the PS, who had resigned from his Ministerial post as part of the frondeur rebellion against the party’s rightward turn.

Socialist voters’ rejection of Hollande’s and Valls’s vision for the Socialist Party and for France is justified. Their shift to the right was not only disastrous on its own terms; it was also strategically senseless. By responding to the terrorist threat with rhetoric of war and a state of perpetual emergency, the Hollande government gave credence to the right’s foreboding narratives of an enemy within. By taking a top-down approach to reform and failing to stand up to EU creditors, it allowed the far-right to harness anti-elitist sentiment. And by moving towards market liberalism, it has delegitimized itself as an alternative to liberal capitalism precisely at a time when this system is in crisis, and low growth, outsourcing, and automation are obsolescing the compromise between capital and labor on which Europe’s centrist, social democratic politics were built, returning distributive conflicts to the foreground of public life.

Against a backdrop of pessimism and the threat of a Thatcherist or far-right presidency in the form of François Fillon or Marine Le Pen, it may have been tempting to shift further right to avoid greater calamity. But in the long-term, centrist caution leads to the shadowing of right-wing parties, and consequently to ideological marginality. Voters in the primary have rightly rejected it.

On its own, having a left-wing presidential candidate is not enough to make the Socialist Party an emancipatory force, as demonstrated by Hollande’s about face mid-term, and that of François Mitterrand three decades earlier. It does, however, give the party an opportunity to escape Hollande and Valls’s toxic legacy.

The Hollow Center

Hollande’s shift to the right was initially incremental, but became obvious when he forced the resignation of most of his cabinet, replacing them with centrists like Valls and Macron.

Valls presented himself as a modernizer. We can gain a general picture of what he took this to mean when we consider the starting point he suggested in 2009: changing the Socialist Party’s name. A self-declared admirer of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, he applied their policy prescriptions at a moment when inequality was rising, further austerity and deregulation were unlikely to deliver economic results, and low growth, high unemployment and poverty were polarizing politics to the far left and right. His political career is, for the time being, finished.

Macron has likewise presented himself as an ideologically neutral voice for progress, taking the best ideas from both the left and the right. Part of Valls’s defeat by Hamon likely owed to the Socialist Party’s centrists jumping ship to join Macron’s camp. Those who haven’t already are bound to do so with Hamon as the Socialist leader.

Prior to his recent entry into politics, Macron was an investment banker. He is often presented as the best hope for sober-minded French progressives, as against the extreme positions of Fillon and Le Pen.  On economic questions, he represents a similar trend to Valls. As Economics Minister, he was responsible for the Macron Law, one of the government’s unpopular, pro-business labor reforms that (along with the El Khomri Law) was forced through the parliament through the use of Article 49(3) of the Constitution. Mid-2016, Macron abandoned the ship he helped scuttle to declare a centrist “political revolution” in the form of his own presidential candidacy.

His coupling of centrist and faux-radical discourse has thus-far been quite successful, allowing him to ride the populist wave of anti-establishment discontent while presenting middle-of-the-road, neoliberal policies. Since a recent scandal regarding Fillon’s use of public money, at least one poll has predicted a Macron victory. Moreover, the elimination of Valls from the contest gives Macron a monopoly on the centrist vote. But what kind of platform can centrists offer in the present environment?

To be sure, Macron’s use of radical rhetoric is easily identifiable humbug. Yet his alternate self-presentation, more typical of centrists, as a sensible pragmatists seeking the middle ground, is also misleading, since the center is not determined by fixed, objective parameters, but by the political mood of the day. As has been pointed out elsewhere, “the center is a moving target”. The aura of moderation surrounding the idea of the center often serves as a substitute for reasoned positions. A centrist argument cannot depend on this appearance of rationality, but must be tested, like any other, on its own merits.

In practice, Europe’s centrist politics have generally entailed mediation between opposing values and interests to ensure a social truce. Their justification has been the stewardship of a stable and growing economy, in which gains are shared between profits and rising living standards. Yet such mediation can only function if emancipatory values and the interests of labor are properly represented. When adopted by left parties, shifts to the center are often not so much a position as a strategy for winning over voters from the right, undergirded by a confident monopoly on left voters. The greatest danger of such a strategy is making excessive sacrifices, permitting the entire spectrum to shift to the right, achieving power at the cost of principle.

Whereas Tony Blair and Bill Clinton sacrificed left ideology, worker interests, and loyal party bases for medium-term electoral gains, the Socialist Party performed the pivot with no popular mandate. As a result, the centrist leadership alienated traditional supporters and the wider public, divided the party, and strengthened the narratives of their conservative, liberal, and nationalist opponents. Their approach was exemplified by the undemocratic means they used to push through labor laws against their own party’s will, and by their use of police powers – expanded by the state of emergency – to repress the widely supported Nuit Debout movement against these same reforms.

Given that triangulation had little merit as an electoral strategy, the most generous conclusion we can reach about Hollande’s rightward turn and appointment of Valls and Macron is that, overwhelmed by circumstance, caught between the left and the right of his own party, and unable to achieve an emancipatory exit from France’s politico-economic impasse as a member of the EU, Hollande fell under the sway of Third Way ideology: principally, the notion that the best way to improve the lot of a State’s workers in a competitive, globalized world is to create a business-friendly environment that attracts investment and jobs—precisely by reducing the rights of workers. Liberal reform is presented as the tough medicine needed to restore growth, and those who oppose it as the rearguard of “entrenched interests”.

A recurring line of argument adopted by proponents of liberalization in France is that rigid protections for one group of workers reduce opportunities for others, creating an inside-outside dichotomy: security at the cost of opportunity. This leaves no openings for young and upcoming workers, particularly since employers are reluctant to expand their workforce when they are afraid they won’t be able to shed workers should times get hard. While this account is not wholly untrue, the argument that it must be remedied through increased flexibility bears unspoken implications.

One is that we should open up opportunities for the unemployed by firing existing workers. How this—or, for that matter, lengthening the work week, as the El Khomri Law has done—is supposed to reduce unemployment remains unclear, though such zero-sum approaches may persuade the desperate or resentful.

Another is that it is not possible or not desirable to extend the same protections to all workers—presumably because it would make France still less competitive for business. Absent a convincing class analysis that provides a means of shifting power from capital to workers without driving industry elsewhere, such intra-class and inter-generational resentments bear a grim, Spenserian logic.

Where such liberalization must lead as other states reciprocate the beggar-thy-neighbor competition and social dumping remains unspoken, while the more ambitious approach of pushing for raised social standards through inter-state cooperation and democratization of the EU is dismissed as unfeasible.

As a democratic project, centrist politics is in decline across the West, dependent as it was on nurturing a continual growth in GDP that could forestall the question of distribution by enabling a simultaneous rise in profits and living standards. Valls’ coupling of liberal economics and authoritarian methods exemplified this decoupling of liberalism and democracy. Since ecological scarcity, the newly industrialized States, and the world’s present financial system make rapid, sustained growth unlikely in post-industrial countries, political polarization will continue.

Macron, though vastly preferable to Valls, Fillon, or Le Pen, is ill-equipped to deal with the ruptures ahead. Though there are many paths forward, an unavoidable choice is resolving into focus: inter-class redistribution, authoritarian repression, or the explosion of the conflicts that Europe’s postwar order has deferred.

Filling a vacuum

Absent a convincing left narrative on economic issues that kindles the hopes of dislocated workers and unites them around a common project, they will seek other explanations. While France’s anti-establishment feeling has raised the profile of left-wing populists of substance, like the Left Front’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in isolation the latter’s organizing capacity is limited, and the rejection of traditional parties often manifests along paranoiac, identitarian lines.

An increasingly popular response is the flight into conspiracy theory, into visions of cultural apocalypse and social decay. This millennial gloom infuses the novels of Michel Houellebecq, is legitimized by conservative public intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, and finds its apotheosis in the bilious ravings of doom-mongers like Eric Zemmour.

While not unique to right-wing authoritarians—Tony Judt has observed the predilection, in the 60s and 70s, of Jean-Paul Sartre and French Communist writers for images of decay—necrotic fixations have, of late, tended to favor them. Recycling the tropes of the nativist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories embraced by Acción Francaise in the 1930s and 40s, the National Front has long thrived on fears of decadence and foreign contagion:

Under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the late twentieth centuries, the basic components of [an anti-Semitic, nationalist conservative] rhetoric of exclusion (conspiracy, national decadence, the marginalization of ‘native’ French by foreigners) were appropriated by the Front National, which added two overlapping elements to the Maurassian confederacy: immigrants and Islam.

Marine Le Pen and her cohort have since airbrushed anti-Semitism, homophobia, and biological racism out of the party’s official image while retaining much of the underlying mythos, populated with a new caste of demons. The National Front and its fellow travelers attribute France’s problems, real and imagined, to the debasing influence of mass-migration, to a self-serving political caste, to an insidious collusion between mainstream politicians, Islamists, and the European establishment. It is easy to subsume the real disconnect between the ruling classes and ordinary people into such a narrative, and the National Front is thus more than happy to spread and inflame a popular belief regarding political elites: “tous pourris”: they’re all rotten.

The National Front was further strengthened by the Socialist Party’s tepidity regarding social protections. Upon cuts to the welfare system in 2014, Valls declared that “For 40 years, we have lived beyond our means”, echoing the austerity narrative on Europe’s crisis. This retreat allows the National Front to left-flank the Socialist Party by appropriating left and anti-globalist discourses, presenting itself as the only party capable of protecting the welfare state—but on a “French-first”, protectionist basis, proceeding from the premise that the shortage of resources owes to political graft and a surfeit of immigrants.

This melding of left-wing and nationalist discourse aids the FN’s expansion beyond its traditional base of Pétainists, empire nostalgics, and disgruntled petit-bourgeois in France’s south-east to workers and former Communists in areas of industrial decay in France’s north and east (important in this re-brand has been the FN’s deputy-leader, Florian Phillipot). This does not imply that the National Front genuinely stands for left-wing values or social justice; rather, the etiolation of left narratives allows it to fill a discursive hole and batten on working class anxieties.

The pervasive pessimism that feeds the far-right has less to do with reality and than with political psychology. A demographic and cultural study of France from 1980 to 2010, helpfully summarized by Sudhir Hazareesingh, shows that, contrary to narratives of decay, there has been “a decline in suicide and homicide rates, rising levels of fertility, higher educational achievements […] a growing trend towards the emancipation of women and the successful assimilation of immigrants.” According to this study, the “social underpinnings of contemporary French pessimism […] lie instead in the sense of economic and cultural fragility of the middle classes, and in the disappearance of the secular faith presented by communist culture.” All this implies the importance of the left presenting a positive, empirically-grounded narrative of the present. And, while it must never return to the Stalinist dogmas of the French Communist Party (PCF), the left would do well to build once more towards visionary politics that give hope for the future.

Absent such hope, there is a retreat into nostalgia; the ground is laid for the National Front to present itself, and its leader, as a force of providence, a righteous vanguard to purge corruption and restore France to its former greatness.

No enemies on the right

A significant factor favoring the nationalist, authoritarian turn is a pervasive fear of terrorist attacks, and a growing, nativist dread of cultural replacement by Islam. Aside from the influence of right-wing discourse and France’s troubled relation with its own colonial history in Algeria, this exaggerated reaction may owe in part to a conflation of culture and democratic institutions in France’s concept of “the Republic”, and an underlying anxiety as to these institutions’ fragility. There is a plausible argument that France’s history of “political upheaval and collapse” has fostered “a sort of permanent defensiveness, a siege mentality that treats criticism as treachery and the admission of failure as an “anti-Republican” threat to the nation’s very survival”.

The possibility that the country’s particular approach to Islam, or the integration of its post-colonial underclass, or the poor concrete neighborhoods of the banlieues, might contribute in some way to this sad phenomenon has not been the subject of any serious political debate since the start of the Syrian conflict.

On certain of these issues, Valls had enough in common with the National Front to lure away some voters driven by fear, giving him a margin of strategic appeal for poll-fancying strategists. For the same reason, he was badly placed to slow the xenophobic drift in French political discourse. Over the course of his political career, Valls fought in France’s culture wars over the meaning of laïcité, taking a consistently hardline, exclusionary stance on matters from Halal supermarkets through to burkinis on beaches.

He was something of a law and order enthusiast, having announced the construction of 33 new prisons, supported the stripping of French citizenship from dual national citizens convicted of terrorism, declared France to be in a state of war after the November attacks, claimed that Europe could not “accommodate any more refugees”, and pioneered the expansion of police powers under the state of emergency. Valls offered little to address the underlying causes of radicalization, such as the socio-economic disadvantage and cultural exclusion of France’s Muslim and Maghrebi population. Incarceration statistics foreground the problem in stark terms. At around 8–10% of the total population, immigrants from Maghreb and their descendants represent approximately 60% of the prison population. While there is much commotion over the role France’s prisons play in politico-religious radicalization, less emphasis is placed on the bleak prospects pushing marginalized young men towards crime and into the prison system.

As long as the French State adopts the right’s tactics of force and exclusion in its response to radicalization, the situation will continue to escalate. Valls’s reflection of Le Pen’s exclusionary rhetoric might have been expedient for an election overshadowed by fear, before which “four-fifths of non-left voters told pollsters they backed tougher immigration and penal measures”. But, moral bankruptcy aside, this uncritical acceptance of the right’s terms of discourse ultimately works in its favor, leading to the impression that the center-left is no more than the right’s ersatz imitation.

Unlike Valls, Macron does not attempt to compete with the right in the culture wars or on questions of law and order. Indeed, his stance on social issues seems genuinely liberal: he advocates fulfillment of Europe’s duty towards refugees, shows rather less zeal than Valls for authoritarian measures, and supports the expansion of European sovereignty. In this respect, he appears to argue convictions rather than drifting with the mood of the moment, giving him greater plausibility at a time when voters are anxious about political decay.

However, one cannot entirely separate social, cultural and economic questions. Any viable attempt to stem the growth of nativism in France must address the insecurities generated by a global capitalist economy, and promote a sense of a shared life that does not depend on the assimilation of smaller groups. Whatever his intentions on social and cultural issues, in the longer-term, Macron’s liberal economic policies are unlikely to address the insecurity, rising inequality, and social fissures that feed both politico-religious extremism and France’s ethno-nationalist turn.

Europe – between liberalism and social democracy

In dealing with questions of economic insecurity, a key consideration for any left movement in France will be its relationship to the European project. Several issues arise:

  • the role of the EU, Berlin, and the stability pact in enforcing austerity.
  • the compatibility of strong labor protections and industrial competitiveness within the Single Market (and its prohibition on independent tariff policies) if other States are not willing to coordinate social policies.
  • the present use of the EU by national cabinets and third parties to circumnavigate democratic accountability, and the resulting mistrust this generates, contributing to the perception of politicians as corrupt and out of touch.
  • the role of the single currency and European fiscal paradises in facilitating tax evasion (e.g. Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Monaco etc.)

With these factors in mind, the French left faces the question: is it viable to have strong and inclusive social protections, large-scale redistribution, and viable industry while embedded in a neoliberal EU? If not, it will be necessary to renegotiate the terms of union in a way that Hollande was unable to: success will likely depend on building a coalition with other governments opposed to austerity, particularly in Southern Europe, and the ability to push for a fully federalized and democratic EU. (Britain’s recent exit, though a reactionary move, may provide some additional leverage.) Though he is at least in favor of more complete European sovereignty and fiscal policy as against nationalist revanchism or endless austerity, there is reason to be skeptical that a centrist like Macron, and the interests he represents, is any more capable than Hollande of leading such a coalition.

Although leaving the EU would bring problems of it’s own, and for many internationalists is difficult to contemplate, it is clear is that present arrangements are unlikely, in the long-term, to be compatible with social democracy.

The Coming Election

Hollande and Valls’ divisive government has left the Socialist Party deeply unpopular. The presidential and legislative elections draw close, in April and June respectively, and after a single term in power, the party faces electoral obliteration.

The left presidential vote is split between Hamon, Mélenchon to his left, and Macron to his right. Polls predict the election’s leading contenders to be Macron, the Thatcherist–cum-Catholic Conservative, François Fillon, and the hard-right nationalist Marine Le Pen. While Fillon has sometimes been presented as a last resort bulwark against Le Pen’s extremism, he too deals in fear and nationalist myth-making, having proposed to replace schools’ critical approach to history with a “national story”, and declared that “the bloody invasion of Islamism into our daily life could herald a third world war”.

Given the division of the left vote, Hamon’s chances seem slim; polls are certainly not in his favour. Yet his nomination was similarly unexpected, and Trump, Brexit, and Macron’s ascent have made it obvious, if it was not already, that polls have little predictive power. Hamon’s victory in the Primary brings some hope of a genuinely left-wing Socialist Party. And while a Socialist victory in the coming election remains improbable, with renewed ideological coherence and the offer of a real alternative, the party may yet shift public discussion and turn the tables.

Important propositions in Hamon’s platform include the annulation of sovereign debt in the EU, a goal of 50% renewable energy by 2025, a reversal of the El Khomri Law, and constitutional reform that includes a provision for citizens to propose laws to parliament, the placement of restrictions on the use of Article 49(3) by the government to force through laws, and a general shift in power from the president to parliament. In addition to promising to return the party to its socialist and social-democratic tradition, Hamon is unusually forward-looking with regard to economic automization; he advocates, for instance the introduction of a universal income, a tax on the robotization of industry, and measures against the Uberization of employment.

Any success for the left in the coming election will depend on union between its presently fragmented groupings. This is unlikely to occur. In a hopeful sign, Hamon sought to open negotiations with Mélenchon, as well as Yannick Jadot of the Greens, to form an electorally viable alliance. Mélenchon and Jadot have expressed sympathy with Hamon, but were skeptical. In response to Hamon’s proposal for a parliamentary alliance, Mélenchon declared that Hamon must choose between “us and them… between the anti-establishment wave (vague dégagiste), and the rescue of the old world”, pointing to the continuing significance of centrists in the Socialist Party.  For now, it looks unlikely that the left will present a united front.

It would be quixotic for Mélenchon to reject cooperation out of hand, but his wariness is partially justified. Hamon’s defeat of Valls has not concluded the fight to decide what interests and values the Socialist Party will represent. Nonetheless, it confirms that there is still appetite in France for a left alternative, and that there is no safety in casting one’s fate with a vanishing center.


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