As I sat down to write this brief article on the upcoming presidential election in France, which will take place on Sunday, April 23, my phone lit up with an alert from the Associated Press that Parisians were being warned to stay clear of the Champs-Élysées area. A shooting attack in which police seem to have been deliberately targeted had just taken place, and at least one officer was dead.
By Scott Cooper, April 20, 2017
As I got to the end of the article, the Associated Press reported that a suspect in the shooting had previously been flagged by French authorities as an “extremist.” While no identities have yet been released (at this writing), one thing is certain: if an attacker turns out to be an immigrant, or the child of immigrants, or a Muslim, the far-right candidate for president, Marine Le Pen, will exploit it to her advantage.
In many respects, the French elections mimic the U.S. presidential election that unfolded over 2016 and culminated in the unexpected victory of Donald Trump. France has multiple “major” parties and there is May 7 runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in this first round, so that’s different. However, like a play adapted for another language or culture but based on the same story, the characters—that is, the major candidates and their positions—bear striking similarities.
First, let’s look at Marine Le Pen, candidate of the Front national (“National Front”). She is the Trump character who celebrates Brexit, has publicly sought campaign funding from Putin, demonizes immigrants and Muslims and lends support to violence against both, and promises a kind of “France First” policy that would take the country out of the European Union. She once compared Muslims praying in the street to the German occupation of France. She is perhaps more openly anti-Semitic than Trump, whose White House infamously omitted any mention of Jews in the annual presidential statement on “Holocaust Remembrance Day”: Le Pen stated earlier this year that France bears no responsibility for what is known as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, when Paris police rounded up 13,000 Jewish citizens for deportation to Auschwitz.
Emmanuel Macron, the candidate of En Marche (“On the Move”), bears a few similarities to Trump, too. He has never run for public office before. He comes from the investment banking community, and has been the French minister of economy, industry, and digital affairs since 2014. His “Macron Law” was a frontal assault on the French way of life, allowing shops to open more often on Sundays and deregulating some industrial sectors—both with profound effects on French workers. His political party is his own creation, which he calls “neither left nor right.”
Up until this week, most polls predicted Le Pen and Macron would advance to the second round, where Macron was given the edge. Then along came the surge of another candidate who launched his own party—Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), who is referred to by most of the world’s media as the “far-left” candidate. In recent weeks, he has been moving up in the polls at a rapid rate, and some analysts are now suggesting that the French runoff could be a match between the far left and far right.
Mélenchon is the Bernie Sanders candidate in the French elections. One of his campaign spokespersons, Raquel Garrido, made this explicit to Jacobin Magazine in early April. “I think we are similar to Bernie Sanders … who rarely spoke about ‘the Left,’ but about the people against the 1 percent or the billionaire class.” And his supporters have circulated a meme on social media that states: “To beat Trump it would have been necessary to support Sanders. Let’s not make the same mistake!” The meme equates Le Pen to Trump and Macron to Hillary Clinton.
There are other similarities, too. For instance, Mélenchon enjoys the support of the French Communist Party, which in terms of actual dues-paying members is the country’s third largest party. Sanders was supported by the Communist Party in the United States.
The other major candidates are François Fillon, the “center-right” candidate of Les Républicains (“The Republicans”), which is the renamed Union for a Popular Movement of former president Nicolas Sarkozy; and Benoît Hamon of the current president’s Socialist Party, who prior to Mélenchon’s campaign was often called “the French Bernie Sanders. In addition, there are five “minor party” candidates, including Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière (“Worker’s Struggle”), standing for president a second time as an avowed Trotskyist.
Mélenchon could have chosen to vie for the Socialist Party nomination, as Sanders did with the Democratic Party, but instead launched his own party. As the election nears, he is hoping that the plummeting support for Hamon will provide enough of an edge for him to pass Le Pen or Macron.
What, though, does Mélenchon offer the French working class, which has been facing increasing austerity, attacks on its organizations and institutions, a concerted effort to pit workers against each other based on national origin, immigration status, and religion, and an ongoing state of emergency that has used terrorist attacks to strip away democratic rights?
As did Sanders, Mélenchon calls for big changes in trade agreements; he goes further, calling for France to get out of its treaties that allow the European Union’s “liberalism” to stem French efforts to “deliver real democratic change.” He cites climate change as a major concern. He decries wealth inequality, growing in France as in the United States and having devastating effects, despite the former’s far more substantial social safety net. He demands an end to homelessness and full reimbursements for prescribed healthcare. He peppers his fiery speeches with the terminology of revolutionary socialism, such as “the means of production”; Sanders labeled his campaign as a “political revolution.”
Among other planks in his platform, Mélenchon calls for lowering the voting age in France to 16; replacing the existing presidential system with a “Sixth Republic”; and for a Constituent Assembly, voted in through proportional representation, to write a new constitution for this new republic.
Mélenchon’s campaign, though, is not an anti-capitalist campaign. Yes, he has roped in many organizations of the left, including many that characterize themselves as supporting the overthrow of the capitalist state. Sanders did the same: the Communist Party has long supported the left wing of the Democratic Party, but among Sanders’ most ardent and active supporters was Socialist Alternative, a self-described revolutionary socialist organization.
What will result on Sunday remains unclear. It is likely that two candidates from among Le Pen, Macron, and Mélenchon will head to Round 2 in early May. The bosses and the politicians who serve them fear the instability that would come from a runoff between the “far-left” and the “far-right.” They hold their breath regarding who becomes the next French president. They hope that the mainstream analysis that the National Front’s much-vaunted transition from its fascist roots (given fascism’s very particular meaning in a European context) to a kind of “national populism” (words used to describe Trump’s campaign) is correct. They fear Mélenchon not because he will overturn capitalism, but because his inability to deliver on his campaign promises in the capitalist context will set fire to the voters who bring him to power—and May-June 1968 is never too far from the French consciousness, whether it was a “pre-revolutionary situation” or not. So, they pin their hopes on Macron.
We shall see what happens. What is certain is that the French masses will ultimately not be served by whoever wins.