The renewed polarisation between Macron and Le Pen in the presidential election conceals a pas de deux.
For the last 20 years, French politics has been an unforgiving puzzle, whereby democratic votes result in neoliberal and xenophobic policies the French say they resent. Sunday’s presidential election first round is no different.
The clear winner, the incumbent Emmanuel Macron, is offering an even harsher version of his ‘progressive’ agenda, pushing forward with the dismantling of the social model the French overwhelmingly support, starting with a financially unnecessary and grossly unfair reform of the public pension system. The other finalist, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, is offering a rhetorically softer than before yet still relentlessly racist and authoritarian platform, using ‘national preference’ as a discriminatory weapon against ethnic minorities in all public spaces. This would be contrary both to the French constitution and its social fabric: 20 per cent of the population is immigrant or of immigrant descent.
There are at least three possible explanations for this sorry, and paradoxical, state of affairs. The first is that Covid-19 fatigue has frozen the political landscape and prevented a true debate on Macron’s mandate and record. After all, the two participants in the second round are the same as in 2017, with essentially no new ideas. And all emerging figures, including from the once-dominant political families, have been hammered: the Socialist Anne Hidalgo and Valérie Pecresse on the centre right were humiliated.
The second explanation is that polarising media, increasingly owned by a handful of oligarchs, have managed to divert the campaign from the real concerns of the population. The amount of attention and airtime devoted to the far-right radical Eric Zemmour—who ended with a meagre 7 per cent—before Russia’s aggression on Ukraine effectively ended his campaign is a sign of an increasingly dysfunctional democracy. Hence the disconnect between aspirations and outcomes.
The third explanation is that the enduring strength of Macron and Le Pen comes from an objective alliance: their political offers are in fact not substitutes but rather complements. On the one hand, Macron embodies the culmination of neoliberal ideology: he is a an elite public servant using the state to attack the social model, dismantling unemployment benefits, weakening public services (education and health), outsourcing key policies including national defence to consulting giants and so on. But by convincing a large chunk of the population that the social model is about to collapse, he has breathed life into a social-xenophobic ideology, which aims at reserving the remaining social protection for the ‘good’ French and protecting the welfare state from undeserving ‘foreign’ profiteers. Social xenophobia is the monster child of neoliberalism.
Conversely, neoliberalism needs a credible threat to impose unpopular reforms and the truly frightening far right happily fits the bill. This odd couple of 21st-century French politics has nothing good to offer: Le Pen pretends to fight insecurity by waging civil war while Macron pretends to embody rationality by breaking the backbone of the French economy. Oh, and neither has anything substantial to say about the climate crisis nor biodiversity and ecosystems destruction, which in France as elsewhere is visibly degrading human wellbeing.
Fortunately, Sunday’s results carry a promise amid a sea of disappointment and anger—the constitution of a social-ecological bloc, able to counter neoliberalism and social xenophobia. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a veteran politician who parted ways with the Socialist Party decades ago over the European project, has reinvented himself as an ‘eco-socialist’.
His programme, widely recognised to be the most structured and consistent in this political cycle, has the goal of ‘building a mutual aid society with the aim of achieving harmony among human beings and with nature’. He has put forward bold ideas such as ‘ecological planning’ and the ‘green rule’, whereby not more should be taken from nature than can be replenished. Reaching 22 per cent, he fell short by 500,000 votes (out of 35 million) of beating Le Pen and qualifying for the second round, which takes place on April 24th.
While there has been a lot of talk, and time wasted, over the last two years on left unification, Mélenchon has managed de facto to bring together social issues and ecological challenges and proved this social-ecological alternative to be politically viable by winning the support of a large part of the French population. He should now display the wisdom of Moses and let a new generation cross the Jordan river.
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For the time being, the French puzzle remains: Macron will win and the French will waste no time voicing their discontent about their enduring unwilling willingness.
Éloi Laurent is a senior research fellow at OFCE, the Centre for Economic Research at Sciences Po in Paris, professor at the School of Management and Innovation there and visiting professor at Stanford University. He is the author most recently of The New Environmental Economics: Sustainability and Justice (Polity Press).