France 2017: The next big surprise?

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France’s Presidential election set for April 23rd could deliver the next major political surprise with the increasing popularity of Front National’s Marine Le Pen.

From the outset most of the political elite were confident that Les Républicains candidate François Fillon would win, only for his campaign to be derailed by revelations of his wife’s ‘fake job’. They are now turning their hopes to the centrist ‘Blairite’ candidate Emmanuel Macron.

The left has begun a resurgence in the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) with the election of Benoît Hamon who is compared to Jeremy Corbyn.

Whatever the outcome, the elections will not halt the growing turbulence in French politics.

France 2017 main presidential candidates
France Presidential election 2017, main candidates: Fillion, Hamon, Le Pen, Macron, Mélenchon

Growing support for Front National

The Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, has been able to tap into widespread disillusion with the mainstream parties and exploit anti-immigrant feelings.

The driving force behind the growing threat from the Front National is summed up in an interview with the BBC’s Lucy Williamson. Fabien Engelmann a former left union member now Front National mayor of Hayange, a declining manufacturing town, explained that:

“The left betrayed its voters, betrayed the workers, the middle class, the shop owners,” Mr Engelmann told me. “There’s also mass immigration today, and I think that after a while you can’t welcome the poor from across the world. We have to stop this immigration and take care of our own.”

This sense of betrayal is understandable given that during the 2012 election campaign, François Hollande visited Hayange and promised laws preventing blast furnace closures. The promised law was watered down and the furnace closed a year later .

The danger of left voters defecting to the Front National is a real one and was also highlighted in the BBC interview. Patrice Hainy joined the Font National and although he became disillusioned and switched support to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he described the danger of the Front National:

“I was attracted to them because the other parties don’t listen to the people, and I believed the FN was listening to me,” he explained. “It attracts weak members from the left. I was from the left and I was angry with our politicians who are sacrificing French people.”

Failure of Socialist Party rule

Hollande’s Socialist government’s enthusiastic adoption of pro-market policies have had very little impact on the sluggish economic and job growth. The unemployment rate has stuck stubbornly around 10% for the past few years while GDP and employment growth is lagging behind that of the major western economies.

The poorest have been hit particularly hard. Al Jazeera reported in an interview with the Paris director of the food aid charity Les Restos du Coeur that, about 32 percent of those who use the services of [Les] Restos du Coeur are single mothers with children and that those requiring help was growing at around 3% to 4% per year.

The Socialist Party’s leadership became so pro-business that one socialist MP protested that his objective, is not to vote for all the measures that Sarkozy did not manage to pass and which we fought against in opposition..

Damaged Socialist Party swings to the left

The damage done to the socialist base was shown by the turnout in the preliminary rounds of the primaries to choose a presidential candidate. At 2 million this was nearly a million less than the primaries in 2011.

Party membership also suffered, down 40,000 at 86,000 since the unpopular Hollande took office.

Their failure in government triggered a sharp shift to the left in the party with the election of Benoît Hamon who beat ex-prime minister Manuel Valls.

Hamon’s success was greeted with relief. A typical reaction was summed up by Fayçal Bourich speaking to France 24:

“He’s just what we need,” Fayçal Bouricha from Paris’s troubled northern suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois told FRANCE 24 while attending Hamon’s rally in the capital’s fifth arondissement, where hundreds of supporters had gathered. “He’s young, he has ideas to renew the Socialist Party and he’s in touch with what’s actually happening in society today. He’s in touch with reality. Valls seems to be offering nothing new. I don’t see him changing anything,” he said.”

Harmon has put forward radical policies that have captured attention not just in France but internationally. They include support for a universal basic income of €750 a month, taxing companies that replace employees with robots and stopping the ‘unbridled Uberisation‘ which undermines workers rights.

A positive sign is that while the socialists still look to come only fourth in the elections, they have been rising in the polls since Hamon’s election.

The elites swing behind Macron

It seems the establishment are losing a candidate every week! Their hopes were pinned on Valls of the Socialist Party, who lost out to Harmon. Fillon has been wounded, perhaps terminally, by a fraud scandal. They have now swung behind Macron, who was Economy minister until he resigned in 2016 to form the En Marche! party.

As Economy Minister Macron advanced the interests of business with the ‘loi Macron‘ (Macron Law), which was welcomed by French business organisations as a real step in the right direction in attacking workers rights. His economic programme differs little from that of Hollande’s discredited government.

Reboot 2002?

With Fillion facing accusations of fraud, a repeat of the 2002 elections looks unlikely. In 2002 Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, made the second round and the left vote gave victory to the conservative Chirac on the slogan ‘vote for the crook not the fascist’.

If the run off does involve Fillion and Le Pen, then the Thatcherite programme of assaults on jobs and conditions, including the sacking of 500,000 public sector jobs proposed by Fillion, will provide little incentive to back him as the anti-fascist option and may actually drive some voters to Front National.

The most likely outcome at the moment is a run off between Marine Le Pen and Macron. Although Macron is very much part of the establishment which may be seen as an Achille’s heel, at this stage he looks the clear favourite. However, a low turn out from traditional left voters coupled with a switch of left voters in dying industrial towns such as Hayange mentioned above, may confound expectations and play in Le Pen’s favour.

Backdrop of a changing world

Davos 2017
Davos 2017 – Global Economic Outlook

The events in France are not taking place in isolation, they are part of the fall-out that hit the western world after the 2007/08 crash. The working and middle classes have been made to pay for a crisis not of their making.

Against a backdrop of growing global instability, the neo-liberal consensus that underpinned western policies has degenerated into an ossified orthodoxy that now looks obsolete in the face of rapidly changing events. The ground is being prepared for more crises and social upheavals.

This is now being reflected in French politics with the rise of right-wing populism on the one hand and on the other, the leftwards shift of the Socialist Party. It is also manifesting itself in the main capitalist party Les Républicains in splits and acrimony amongst its leadership. Ex-Prime Minister Alain Juppe refused to stand in Fillion’s place because as Reuters reported, …The Republicans were too divided for him [Juppe] to be able to rally them behind him.

Will normal service be resumed?

The current French political landscape illustrates the fragility of the middle ground consensus of the established parties on the left as well as the right.

The elites are hoping that with the election of Macron or Fillion normal service will be resumed. But the turbulent nature of the election is a harbinger that normal service in France will be that of crisis and upheaval.

Gary Hollands – March 12th 2017

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