The first round of France’s presidential elections took place on April 23, and two candidates emerged to compete in the runoff on May 7: Emmanuel Macron, the candidate of En Marche (“On the Move”) and Marine Le Pen, candidate of the Front national (“National Front”)—although she officially resigned from her party on April 24 in a cynical effort to repackage her candidacy. They won 24 and 21.3 percent of the vote, respectively.
By Scott Cooper
The results are a shocking reversal of French history. The parties that have governed for nearly 60 years within the framework of the Fifth Republic—the Republicans and the Socialists—were eliminated in the first round. It should also be noted that the abstention level was the second highest for a first round in Fifth Republic history, and the abstention rate in working-class voting districts was particularly high.
As I wrote in a piece published in Resistance that appeared on April 21, Macron is a former investment banker and current French minister of economy, industry, and digital affairs who founded his own “movement” (not officially a party) with which to launch his candidacy. Le Pen is the daughter of the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen and is widely characterized in France as a “crypto-fascist” or just “fascist”—her party demonizes immigrants and Muslims, is notoriously anti-Semitic, and advocates a “France First” policy that would likely take France out of the Euro zone and eventually out of both the European Union and NATO.
The backdrop of this election, though, is the growing, open rejection of neoliberalist policies in Europe (as evidenced by the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom), the social implications of the refugee crisis that has brought streams of people from Syria and elsewhere to France and other European countries, and the specific assault on the working class in France that has been unfolding for a long time now and has most recently taken the form of what is known as the El Khomri law (also known as the Loi travail, or “labor law”).
Named for Myriam El Khomri, France’s minister of labor, the legislation was proposed in the French parliament in February 2016 and soon provoked strikes and demonstrations organized by trade unions and student groups. Public opposition was widespread to the law, aimed at creating a more “flexible” labor market—which its proponents, perhaps none more vocal than Emmanuel Macron, have claimed will drastically reduce unemployment in the country. At its core, the El Khomri law is a gutting of the French Labor Code, which has long been one of capitalist Europe’s most protective of workers. The law makes it easier for companies to lay off employees, slashes government-mandated severance payments to which laid off workers have been entitled, and reduces overtime pay for work beyond France’s statutory 35-hour workweek.
Protests against the El Khomri law led to a widespread social/political movement in France known as Nuit debout that is similar to the Occupy movement that erupted in the United States beginning in September 2011. Following a demonstration on March 31, 2016, many protesters began to hold nightly assemblies in the Place de la République in Paris; these spread to dozens of other cities and towns throughout the country and even beyond France. While turnout diminished after a few weeks, the political content of the movement—the broad aim was expressed as “overthrowing the El Khomri bill and the world it represents”—became firmly established within a growing rejection of neo-liberalism in the run-up to presidential elections the French people knew were on the near horizon.
The manner in which El Khomri law came to be enacted is also an element of the backdrop that must be understood, because it represent a frontal assault on the norms of legislative action, and as such is an exercise in subverting France’s democratic norms. On May 10, 2016, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that the government would invoke Article 49.3 of the French Constitution to force the legislation through the National Assembly, the lower house of France’s parliament (similar to the U.S. House of Representatives). Article 49.3, called “commitment of responsibility,” allows the government to do this under the cover of a rejection of a vote of no confidence. The law went straight to the French Senate, the upper house, for debate. The government invoked Article 49.3 two more times to get the law passed in the lower house and approved by the country’s Constitutional Council, and it was finally adopted into law on August 8, 2016.
Essentially, the French government worked overtime to prevent a debate in the run-up to presidential election campaigning that could have scuttled this vital component of the assault by the French capitalist class on working people. The French capitalists have wanted the “flexibility” of the El Khomri law for a long time: they see it as a lifeline in maintaining profits and exploitation, and by undoing protective norms that exist for every segment of the French working class they can manipulate new “differences” to their advantage.
It is a time-honored strategy: divide the working class by pitting different segments of it against each other, instead of against its common enemy—the bosses. Differences in employment protections, wage scales, mandated vacation time, and so on can be used to sharpen schisms among working people. Social and ethnic differences provide further opportunities for exploitation, and that is where Marine Le Pen plays her role. As long as workers, the oppressed national minorities in France, and their organizations focus on confronting what they see as a fascist threat, they expend less of their power on confronting the bourgeois state and its policies aimed directly at them. Such is the role Marine Le Pen plays. She plays a purpose for the French rulers. No doubt, there are some in the ruling class who actually support her candidacy, but overwhelmingly the rulers support Macron. Fascism is a choice the ruling class makes when other avenues have been exhausted, and for now Macron’s policies—and the belief they can be fully enacted and extended—serve the interests of the ruling class. They will give Macron a chance.
In my April 21 article, I also wrote of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”), considered by most in the corporate media as the “far-left” candidate and referred to by many as the “French Bernie Sanders.” His late surge proved insufficient, and he placed fourth with 19.6 percent of the vote. Many on the French left decried before the election and after that Mélenchon and Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon did not agree to merge forces behind one candidate, since they campaigned against the El Khomri law which was at the center of much of the debate. Hamon came in fifth, with 6.5 percent of the vote, and assumedly their combined forces would have surpassed Macron in the vote totals.
Within minutes of the official announcement of the first-round results at 8:01 pm in Paris last Sunday, most of the candidates who had been vanquished lined up behind Macron. It was a reminder of what happened in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father, shocked the French people by managing to make it by a slim margin into the second round of a presidential election. The entire apparatus of every major political party lined up behind Jacques Chirac, candidate of the center-right, and dealt Le Pen a crushing defeat: 82 to 18 percent. The French ruling class, not ready for crypto-fascism, is hoping for the same thing.
“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” declared Hamon. He called on Socialists to vote for Macron. “Now this is deadly serious.” France’s president, François Hollande of Hamon’s Socialist Party, also endorsed Macron in the second round.
“Extremism can only bring unhappiness and division,” declared François Fillon of the center-right Républicains. “There is no choice but to vote against the far right.”
Mélenchon has not joined these other candidates in calling for a vote for Macron—a refusal that some in the French media have likened to Sanders supporters refusing to back Hillary Clinton. “Look what that did in the United States,” I heard one commentator on Radio France Internationale Monde say the day after the first round. “It brought the Americans Donald Trump.”
This is significant, because 2017 and 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father ran in the second round, are very different times. As Trump’s election showed, there is a significant part of the working class that is fed up with globalism and its economic consequences to embrace even a crypto-fascist who espouses a “France First” ideology that could be demagogically presented as in their interests. Just as Socialist voters famously went to the polls in 2002 to vote for Chirac with clothespins on their noses, is it possible that French workers who did not vote for Le Pen may do the same and vote for Le Pen as a vote against the bosses’ candidate Macron, against one of the architects of the El Khomri law that seeks to rob them of their protections under the Labor Code?
And what of the Mélenchon supporters who say “a pox on both of them,” believing that their movement to change France at a fundamental level through a Constituent Assembly to launch a new, Sixth Republic is where they ought to put their energy. Could an abstention by those who have that position boost Le Pen’s percentage. And what about the Mélenchon supporters who may believe something regarding Le Pen along the lines of what American actor Susan Sarandon said in early 2016: “People feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately. If he gets in, then things will really explode.”
Current predictions in France are that Macron will beat Marine Le Pen by anywhere from 25 percent to more than 60 percent of the vote. The wild cards may not have been accounted for in any of these calculations.
Putting aside the predictions, it is a fact that regardless of whether Macron or Le Pen is ultimately elected the crisis that rocks France today will not abate. Both candidates stand against the working class, not for workers. The assault on democracy that has been going on in the country for some time, intensified by how the El Khomri law was pushed through parliament, promises to heighten social divisions. The implementation of the El Khomri law promises to heighten economic divisions, increase poverty and unemployment, and ultimately compel the French masses to confront their real adversaries. Those adversaries are not the Muslim bogeymen Le Pen would have them attack; it is the French capitalist class and the institutions of the Fifth Republic that continue to fail the French people.
The period after May 7 will be as much about an uptick in the struggle to defend the working class and its gains, to defend working-class organizations, and to defend France’s national minorities as it will be about a new president settling into Élysée Palace. And it will be a period when the need for a political party that represents the genuine interests of the French working class—the French Socialist and Communist parties long since having crossed the class line to become the willing partners of capitalism—will be perhaps more acute than ever.