Although France has a different system for choosing its president than does the U.S., their presidential run-off election this weekend bore an uncanny similarity to America’s 2016 contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
French voters had a binary choice between a neofascist with an enthusiastic populist base ― Marine Le Pen ― and an establishment neoliberal investment banker — Emmanuel Macron ― with a largely disillusioned and unenthusiastic base, a majority of whom supported him mostly to stop fascism rather than because they like his policies.
The failure of neoliberal elites — both Clintonite corporate liberals in the U.S. and pro-austerity “socialist” parties in Europe — to address the needs of the working and middle classes is a major cause of Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. and of Le Pen coming in a close second in the first round of the French elections before losing in the final round.
Neither the Macron/Clinton brand of neoliberalism, nor the Le Pen/Trump brand of neofascism serve the interests of the majority of the working and middle classes. Yet without an alternative, the failures of neoliberalism lead to the rise of neofascism.
Still, there’s good reason to celebrate the defeat of Le Pen, whose National Front party has its roots in holocaust denial and in the remnants of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government of World War II.
As David Sedaris wrote of the choice between Clinton and Trump, it was a bit like a flight attendant asking, “Can I interest you in the chicken? Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”
Fortunately, unlike us Americans, the French chose the rubbery chicken over the plate of shit with broken glass.
But French, American, and transnational elites shouldn’t be too quick to break out celebratory cases of 1945 Chateau Rothschild to go with their chicken. The disaster of France electing a racist neofascist who wants to break up the European Union has been averted, at least for the moment.
But the Macron’s neoliberal political project—to weaken France’s social safety net, privatize government resources, and cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy—are exactly the kind of policies that ignore the problems of France’s working class and led to the rise of Le Pen in the first place, just as Hillary and Bill’s Clinton’s neoliberal history of support for “free” trade agreements, deregulation of the financial sector, and paid speeches for Wall Street banks—helped fuel the rise of Trump.
A former investment banker, Macron’s economic program includes:
― Cutting 120,000 government jobs.
― Reducing public spending.
― Slashing corporate taxes and capital gains taxes.
― Excluding financial investments (held mostly by the rich) from France’s Solidarity Wealth Tax on those with incomes over 1,300,000 Euros; i.e. a tax cut for the wealthy.
― Deregulation of the economy.
In other words, it’s Reaganism or Thatcherism light. And it’s justified on the same grounds as Republicans and corporate Democrats in the U.S. justify their policies — that it will promote job growth.
But even though Macron defeated Le Pen, neither he nor his policies are particularly popular. Many in France compared the choice of Macron vs. Le Pen to a choice between cholera and the plague.
Indeed, according to a Harris poll, 57 percent of Macron voters chose him in order to deny Le Pen the Presidency, not because they otherwise supported Macron. 25.3 percent of registered French voters stayed home, and 12 percent of those who did show up submitted blank ballots in protest of the choice.
So Macron hardly has a mandate for his neoliberal policies. And if he fails to improve the lot of the French working and middle classes, Le Pen could well win the next election.
Both in Europe and America, to defeat right-wing populism and neofascism in the long-run, there needs to be a political alternative to both neoliberalism and neofascism.
In France, as in America, the established political parties are broken. In France, neither of the traditional major parties even made it into the final election round.
In the first round of the French presidential elections, the leftist candidate, Jean-Luc Melanchon, received 7,059,951 votes, only slightly less than Le Pen’s 7,678,491 votes and Macron’s 8,858,341 votes. The Socialist Party received 2,292,288 votes. So when the Melanchon and Socialist Party votes are added up, the candidates of the left received more votes in the first round than either Macron or Le Pen.
In America, the Republicans are fractured between the economic nationalist Trumpists and the traditional anti-government conservatives. As for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton barely defeated the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t even a Democrat, and a significant number of Democratic voters who had cast ballots for Barack Obama voted for Trump.
On both sides of the ocean, almost everything is up for grabs politically. To permanently vanquish right-wing-populism and neofascism, the energy of the progressive anti-Trump movement needs to transform itself from protest to political power.