France: The Death of the Elephants

Benoît Hamon speaking at a Socialist Party rally at the University of La Rochelle, August 2015 (Parti socialiste / Flickr)

A French friend said something terrifying to me the other day: “ISIS has not yet voted in the election.” The point was clear. A year ago, France was still reeling from the atrocious terrorist attacks of January and November of 2015—including the massacres at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Bataclan theater. Today, as the spring presidential election approaches, security anxieties have faded considerably, despite the horrific Nice truck attack of last summer. Brexit, and the American election, have done much to change the conversation. One sign of the shift is the poor performance of former Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls in the recent “pan-left” primary staged by the Socialists, in cooperation with various smaller parties. Valls made the fight against jihadism, through rigorous enforcement of French secularism (laïcité), a key element of his program. His runoff opponent was former education minister Benoît Hamon, whom some on the right call an “islamo-gauchiste” for his more flexible and tolerant attitude towards French Muslims, and whom some on the left call “the French Bernie Sanders.” Hamon won in a landslide.

Meanwhile, the main right-wing party, Les Républicains, has been distracted by a classic French corruption scandal. The satirical, muckraking newspaper Le canard enchaîné revealed that former Prime Minister François Fillon, who won the party’s presidential nomination in November, paid his wife and children over nine hundred thousand euros in public funds in return for virtually non-existent services as parliamentary assistants (a criminal inquiry is now underway). A Fillon-friendly magazine paid his wife, Pénélope, a further 100,000 euros, apparently as fees for two book reviews totaling 400 words in length (memo to the editor of Dissent: I am available to review books for a small fraction of this rate). For the moment, terrorism is generating less attention than the wonderfully named “Pénélopegate” and Hamon’s call for a guaranteed basic income (which he initially proposed for all citizens, but is now limiting to youths who already receive benefits). But another attack could change all this, very quickly.

Even without the security factor, volatility has already been the distinguishing characteristic of the current campaign. Traditionally, a heavy degree of inertia has prevailed in French politics. The parties might change names (especially Les Républicains, who have gone through a dozen different incarnations since their founding by Charles de Gaulle), but the principal figures, popularly known as “elephants,” remain much the same, decade after decade. François Mitterrand, who first entered ministerial office in 1947, and stepped down as president forty-eight years later, was only the most impressive example. Most of the elephants graduated from the same ultra-elite school, the École Nationale d’Administration (“ÉNA”), and have much the same technocratic outlook, regardless of party affiliation. Incumbent President (and “énarque”) François Hollande remained the likely Socialist candidate even when his approval rating fell below 15 percent, reflecting his dismal and uninspiring record since defeating Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. Only when it fell towards 4 percent did he finally bow out.

French policies, too, have often seemed to change at the pace of an escargot. Overexcited British correspondents like to compare François Fillon to Margaret Thatcher, and claim that, if elected, he will crack open fossilized economic structures in the same way she supposedly did. They said the same thing about Sarkozy when he won the presidency in 2007. For that matter, they said much the same thing about Jacques Chirac, another long-surviving elephant and énarque, when he briefly struck a neoliberal pose during the parliamentary elections of 1986. Thatcherism has still not crossed the Channel to this land of “dirigisme” (large-scale state direction of the economy). On the left as well, change has come slowly. In 1981, the Socialist Mitterrand took power in alliance with the Communists, and implemented a strongly Marxist-inflected program of nationalizations and wealth redistribution. Two years later, in the face of capital flight and a dangerously weak economy, he abruptly changed course, announcing that it was necessary to open “a parenthesis in the history of socialism.” That parenthesis has never closed, and over the subsequent decades the party, when in power, has generally pursued familiar centrist policies without ever fully acknowledging the turn it has taken, or coalescing around a new vision of the future. In this respect, François Hollande is very much Mitterrand’s heir.

This year, however, largely thanks to winds sweeping across France from outside its borders, French politics has become less predictable than at any time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Old molds are being shattered, and the elephants are in danger of extinction. The moment holds some surprising possibilities for the French left, offering it a real chance to reinvent itself from the ground up—the first chance, in some ways, since Mitterrand founded the current Socialist Party in 1971. But the moment also holds terrible peril.

The election’s volatility first made itself felt on the right. Before Les Républicains held their primary in November, most French observers assumed the party would choose as its candidate the stolid, aging Alain Juppé, yet another former Prime Minister whose own corruption scandal led to a criminal conviction and suspended sentence in 2004. The primary was open to all French voters, and on the left, a spirited debate took place about whether to join in and vote for Juppé, so as to block the return of former president Sarkozy, who had taken a strong turn to the right in the hope of siphoning support from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front. (One widely-circulated cartoon had Sarkozy saying: “I’m going to implement the extreme right’s program, to keep those extreme right bastards from implementing it.”) Even lifelong Socialists who had decried Juppé’s failed attempts to reform France’s notoriously rigid labor protections in the 1990s now praised his “sense of the state” and his wit. They repeated, with delight, a comparison he made between his own criminal record and corruption accusations still hanging over Sarkozy: “It’s better to have a judicial past than a judicial future.” They agreed that if the election came to Juppé against Le Pen, they could live with Juppé. No one seemed to notice François Fillon, who trailed behind Juppé and Sarkozy in the polls.

But in the event, Fillon zoomed past the favorites to win the party’s nomination. He is a stern Catholic who benefited from the strong opposition to the legalization of gay marriage among those French people (now a minority in some polls) who still consider themselves practicing members of the Church. He also impressed the business community. As the comparisons with Thatcher suggest, he does, in fact, have a neoliberal side, and would like to take another crack at dismantling French labor protections and other elements of the welfare state in the name of improving the country’s anemic growth rates and reducing its perennially high unemployment (whether he can overcome the popular resistance that has torpedoed such moves in the past is another matter entirely). He also won votes because he seemed to be the least corrupt of the party’s three main contenders. Now that this argument no longer works, the possibility is increasing that if the scandal grows much further he will step aside—or be pushed. If he stays in, and ends up facing Le Pen in the runoff round, he will get much less support from the left than Juppé would have done.

The pan-left primary offered fewer surprises. Manuel Valls could not overcome his fatal association with his mentor Hollande, especially since the president, true to form, dithered for long months before dropping out of the race and allowing his protégé to declare (Hollande’s nickname in France is “Flanby,” after a jelly-like dessert custard). Arnaud Montebourg, the other principal contender, had few original ideas and struck many voters as unctuous. Hamon, with his call for a universal basic income, stood out.

In recent years, with French political inertia sometimes approaching petrification, the differences between Les Républicains and the Socialists could seem vanishingly thin. Both parties—or at least their leaderships—largely supported globalization, free trade, budget discipline, and the European Union. They posed as the parties of ouverture (“opening”) to the world, leaving it to the National Front and various left-wing radicals to insist on a protectionist fermeture (“closing off”). An election featuring Fillon and Hamon as the principal candidates would offer more of a real choice. Fillon’s unabashed Catholicism recalls the traditionalist French right that was discredited for decades by its participation in the collaborationist Vichy regime (although, with the big exception of his stand on gay rights, Fillon does not embrace the old right’s traditional prejudices). Hamon, meanwhile, in some ways sounds like a very old-fashioned socialist, in his call for the basic income and a thirty-two-hour work week, as well as his angry denunciations of Brussels-inspired austerity policies. In other ways, his policies are anything but traditional. He promises a socialism for the twenty-first century that mixes in heavy doses of environmentalism and assumes both a permanent low-growth economy and a workforce rendered increasingly obsolete by automation. In other words, Hamon versus Fillon would involve a real contest of ideologies. But even if Fillon’s candidacy survives Pénélopegate, the presence of other candidates will scramble the race in further, large, and as yet hard-to-predict ways.

The most important of these other candidates, of course, is Marine Le Pen. She leads most of the current polls, and it has long been assumed that she will make it into the runoff round of the two-round election. Le Pen is a bona fide populist extremist—although, perhaps, not by current American standards. Her xenophobia, Putinophilia, and carefully veiled racism are no worse than Donald Trump’s (she also expresses them more articulately), and unlike Trump she takes climate change seriously and supports things like universal state-run health care and child care. She has run a very successful campaign to “de-demonize” the party founded by her racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic father Jean-Marie, notably by cultivating Jewish support (against the common Muslim enemy, of course). She has worked hard to build up the Front’s organization, and to convince people to vote for it in the decisive second round of French elections, rather than just as a protest vote in the first round. Back in the 2002 presidential election, her father shocked French and world opinion by edging past a divided left to win a place in the second round. But in that second round, all but 18 percent of the electorate formed a “republican front” against him, ensuring the re-election of Jacques Chirac. In the regional elections of late 2015, the Front’s second-round total rose to 28 percent. Most likely, if Le Pen makes it into this year’s second round, she will do still better. She might even win.

This last possibility still seems somewhat remote, but over the past year Le Pen has benefited from a remarkable irony. For a politician who has built her reputation on opposition to immigration and globalization, international trends do more for her than for any of her opponents. She is part of an international populist wave that has already taken power in Hungary, Poland, and, of course, the United States. Her rhetoric and her old, white, heavily working-class and heavily resentful constituency have striking similarities to those of Viktor Orban, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Britain’s “Leave” campaigners, and Donald Trump. This should not be surprising. Populist nationalists across the globe may all insist on the irreducible exceptionalism of their own nations, but in fact they resemble no one so much as each other, and can trace a common descent to the same nineteenth and twentieth century precursors. Marine Le Pen has benefited from the victories of Brexit and Trumpism, whose examples suggest to her admirers that choosing her does not mean throwing away a vote.

Benoît Hamon’s unexpected victory in the left primary, however, could still pose problems for Le Pen. Just as Bernie Sanders’s left-wing populism attracted many of the same voters who eventually supported Trump, so Hamon could steal support from Le Pen. His denunciations of austerity and inequality play well with the surprisingly large number of working-class men and women who once voted Communist but now generally swing to the National Front (the extremes touching, as the French say). Hamon belongs to a group of relatively young Socialist leaders, including Montebourg, who ostentatiously “rebelled” against François Hollande’s government, and lost their ministerial posts, after Hollande embraced supply-oriented austerity policies. In addition, Hamon’s vision of socialist “modernization,” seemingly tailored for a millennial audience, could gain significant support among disaffected young voters who might otherwise turn to Le Pen out of desperation.

Hamon, however, is not the only left-wing candidate who will compete in the first round of the election in April. Although he won the “pan-left” primary, two prominent rivals refused to take part in it and are now standing as independents. One is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who broke with the Socialists in 2008 and heads a far-left coalition that includes the Communists. If Hamon offers a left-wing populism genuinely retooled for the new century, Mélenchon presents a classic case of old wine in new bottles. Although he campaigns in large part through YouTube videos and invites contributions from young people to his platform (open-source politics, so to speak), he recalls the Communists of old with proposals for nationalization of major industrial firms and confiscatory taxation on high incomes. And then there is Emmanuel Macron, a handsome, thirty-nine-year-old énarque and former investment banker (for the Rothschilds, no less), who served two years as François Hollande’s Minister of the Economy. He speaks for a center-left comfortable with globalization and free markets. Before he broke with the Socialist Party, he wanted to “modernize” it in a manner reminiscent of Tony Blair’s “New Labour.” His vision has little in common with Benoît Hamon’s. Macron could likely take votes from Fillon, but, in part because of his background, he is widely despised among the schoolteachers, professors, and civil servants who still provide much of the Socialists’ bedrock support.

According to the most recent polls, Hamon, Mélenchon, and Macron between them would receive no less than 46 percent of the vote in the first round, compared to 25 percent for Le Pen and 22 percent for Fillon. A left-wing triumph! Unfortunately, the three split that 46 percent too evenly, eliminating all of them and leaving Fillon to fight against Le Pen in the runoff (Macron currently has 21 percent, Hamon 15 percent, and Mélenchon 10 percent). Hamon has called on Mélenchon and a minor ecologist candidate to join him in a governing coalition—with Hamon, presumably, as president. If Mélenchon were to agree, Hamon might well inherit enough of his supporters to crawl past Fillon and Macron. But so far Mélenchon, whose narcissism can swell to Trump-like proportions, has rejected the idea. Yet another possibility, adding even further to the election’s volatility and confusion, is that François Bayrou, an old warhorse of the center-right, might yet declare his own independent candidacy, hurting both Macron and Fillon. The Fillon scandal has only encouraged Bayrou to pose as the white knight galloping to the rescue (as Bayrou likes to remind people, he comes from the same region of southwest France that produced its most popular king, Henri IV, who rescued the country from civil war). When taking Bayrou into consideration, the equation becomes so complicated that the most seasoned pollsters and prognosticators throw up their hands in despair.

Even without a Bayrou candidacy, it would be foolhardy to make predictions at this point, more than two months before the first votes are cast. Too much is changing, too quickly. The only certainty is that the inertial trends of the past decades have been badly shaken, and perhaps decisively broken. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the two main parties that have dominated the French scene for most of the history of the Fifth Republic, namely the Socialists and the Gaullists/”Les Républicains,” will not survive 2017.

For the left, the most important point is that voters in April will have a choice between three genuinely distinct visions of France’s future: Mélenchon’s YouTube Marxism; Hamon’s “modernized” eco-socialism, with its own populist tinge; and Macron’s centrist, market-friendly social democracy. Mélenchon is unlikely to get much more than his current 10 percent in the first round. Still, either Macron or Hamon could conceivably break out, make it into the second round, and go a long way towards setting the French left on a genuinely new path, even if someone else ends up in the Élysée Palace. Macron is the more likely of the two at this point, but given the campaign’s volatility, whether this will still be the case in April is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, it is also entirely possible that all three will be swept under and crushed by the new Trumpist Internationale, with its call for (white) workers of the world to unite, behind their walls, in the name of Christian civilization. If ISIS “casts a vote” between now and April, abruptly shifting the conversation back to security and Islam, that possibility will only grow larger.


David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton. He is the author of five books, including the prize-winning The First Total War, and writes regularly for a number of journals and magazines.



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