The French Presidential Election

[Do what you want but vote for Macron; Libération, 6 May 2017]

The second round of the French Presidential election will be held on Sunday 24 April. The two front runners contesting the election from the first round are Emmanuel Macron (27.85%) and Marine Le Pen (23.15%). The left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon came a close third (21.95%).

Macron and Le Pen also met in the 2017 election, gaining 24.0% and 21.3% in the first round, with Macron winning decisively in the second round with two-thirds of the vote. It was extremely convenient for Macron that the front runner for the 2017 election, François Fillon (President Sarkozy’s Prime Minister, 2007-12), was found to have employed family members at public expense and for no recognisable work (emploi fictif) – a perennial practice but for which Fillon was found to be a culprit of some consequence.

It will be closer this time, reflecting a protest vote against the incumbent President. Marine Le Pen (MLP) is a stayer, having run in the 2012 election, surprising pundits by coming third in the first round with 18% of the vote.

Another facet of the 2022 election was the candidacy of journalist/author Éric Zemmour. Stridently anti-immigrant, and his interpretations of history controversial (for example, the treatment of the Jews under Vichy, 1940-45), he was given saturation media coverage – not least on billionaire Vincent Bolloré’s CNews. Zemmour’s star faded into fourth place with 7% of the vote – whose numbers will presumably flow to MLP.

In the medium term, the rising votes for MLP are a protest not merely against Macron but also against his two predecessors in office and their two Parties – Nicolas Sarkozy (Union pour un mouvement populaire, now Les Républicains) and François Hollande (Parti socialiste).

The previously formidable LR and the PS have now gone to the dogs, appropriately, with LR’s Valerie Pécresse getting 4.8% and PS’ Anne Hidalgo 1.7% in the first round. Getting under 5% means that the Parties aren’t reimbursed for their campaign expenses. Pécresse, as President of the Île-de-France Council, has demonstrated indifference and incompetence in office. Hidalgo, as mayor of Paris, has accumulated a huge debt – not least with madly acquiring the deadweight Olympic Games for Paris in 2024 as a means of leveraging her running for Presidential Office. Hidalgo is so much on the nose that in Paris itself she managed to garner only 2.17%.

MLP heads the Rassemblement national, renamed in 2018 from the Front national (France creates and changes the names of its political parties with the weather). The universal qualifying adjective for the RN/FN is ‘far right’. The RN/FN policy agenda has varied, not least for opportunistic reasons, but the essential permanent planks are social conservatism and a hostility to (read African and/or Muslim) immigration. In respectable circles the Party and its adherents are the perennial subjects of vilification and condescension.

Representative of the condescension is a July 2019 piece by academics Pablo de Orellana and Nicholas Michelsen. It’s a juxtaposition between the rational and enlightened (the governing class and its minders – of which us) and the irrational and ignorant. More, the latter are prone to invent and believe in ‘conspiracy theories’ – from which ‘we’ are entirely immune! The problem is that these people have the vote and that their numbers keep growing.

The French far right’s traditional stamping ground is in the South-East. But the 2017 election saw MLP popular right across the North and North-East, a veritable brown tide (the felicitous expression is a “vague bleu Marine”) across a landscape of long term de-industrialisation. For 2022 votes by Departments, see here; for votes by Communes, see here. For example, in Pas-de-Calais, MLP obtained 38.7% of the vote. MLP herself is a Deputy since 2017 in one of Pas-de-Calais’ 12 Constituencies, along with three other RN Deputies. None of the 12 Constituencies presently has a left-wing Deputy – historically unprecedented. Moving East, MLP obtained 33% in the Somme, 39% in Aisne, 30% in Marne, 36% in Ardennes, 35% in Meuse, 27.5% in Meurthe-et-Moselle, 30% in Moselle, but losing to Macron in the far-East Bas-Rhin.

The astute commentator François Asselineau (of the Union Populaire Républicaine Party) has noted that, in the first round, MLP arrived at the head of 20,036 Communes of 35,080 (57%), whereas Macron won 11,861 Communes (34%).

Orellana and Michelsen acknowledge the tangible background to the dissent:

These [New Right alliances] depend on the continued presence of grievances that directly affect people’s lives, particularly growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points.

They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. … If their success is to be confronted, the basic grievances they claim to resolve will need to be addressed and solutions offered.

But it isn’t going to happen, in France or elsewhere. These people are misguided trash and we’re not going to cater to them. Rather, the mainstream media (plus the ‘progressive’ media) have mounted a broadside against MLP and RN to ensure that France is rendered safe for the moment against the nasties. Representative is the online site Mediapart (originally created by a bloc of refugees from Le Monde). As per 2017, it devotes multiple articles to denigrating Mélenchon and his La France insoumise Party with the aim of keeping Mélenchon from the second round. With Mélenchon disposed of, Mediapart editorial (read Edwy Plenel) goes full bore against MLP and RN (corrupt, anti eco, anti worker, anti-Islam, etc. – and, worst of all, pro-Russia!), pretending that the always preferred candidate Macron is the journal’s reluctant choice by default.

Nevertheless, Mediapart has in its stable admirable journalists – at least on French matters. On 14 April, the journal interviewed sociologist Didier Eribon (in French, paywall), who brings a close personal experience to the ascendancy of MLP and RN. Eribon notes that almost all his family have passed in less than ten years from voting Communist to voting FN. For Eribon’s mother, her vote has always been a protest vote. But underneath the continuity of protest there has been a profound transformation – from one background culture to another. The first involved industrial employment, membership of the communist-affiliated CGT union, communal solidarity built on workplace solidarity. The second involves unemployment or precarious employment, social isolation and desperation.

Eribon lays special blame on the Parti socialiste in power from Mitterrand after 1983 but especially from the government of Lionel Jospin (1997-2002) onwards. The PS should have read the wind after Jospin, self-considered a shoe-in to the second round of the 2002 Presidential election against incumbent Jacques Chirac, was edged out by MLP’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen. But no. An incisive account of the PS’ ongoing self-deception is made by Serge Halimi in the June 2018 Le Monde Diplomatique (English, paywall).

The PS’ neoliberal drift is reinforced by a new generation of intellectuals seeking to destroy the culture underpinning the long boom (“les trentes glorieuses”) in France, comprising academics, some industrialists and bankers, and journalists to sell the story. The establishment of the think tank la fondation Saint-Simon in 1982 encapsulated the onslaught. Sympathetic technocrats emanating from the École nationale d’administration, especially those ensconced in the Finance Ministry, completes the picture. As Eribon notes, Macron is the incarnation of this historical sequence.

Emmanuel Macron is a cold fish, without empathy. In January 2017, I claimed that there was a touch of Chauncey Gardiner, the hollow character of Kozinski’s Being There, in Macron. But there is no malice in Gardiner. An expert has weighed in on this delicate subject. Dr Adriano Segatori, an Italian psychiatrist, has mercilessly decoded Macron’s persona. His presentation, in Italian with French subtitles, is here. An English translation of the essence of Segatori’s diagnosis is here. Macron displays the characteristics of a sociopath.

A minor interaction with a ‘member of the public’ well reflects Macron’s mentality. The person, unemployed gardener, was anxious to improve his lot. Macron haughtily told him: “There are heaps of jobs, it’s necessary to find them! Hotels, cafés, restaurants, I can find you a job just by crossing the road”. Here’s the event recorded. Macron’s period in office is peppered with such arrogance and disdain for the hoi polloi.

Macron was elevated into President Hollande’s administration and then into the Presidency courtesy of very well-connected patrons and mentors, supported by a private media dominated by very wealthy businessmen and by a compliant public media. Since 2017, private media ownership has become even more concentrated, with the bulk owned by five billionaires – Bernard Arnault (luxury goods), Vincent Bolloré (transport and logistics), Martin Bouygues (construction), Patrick Drahi (telecom) and Xavier Niel (telecom). Add the Dassault family, who have long held the dominant conservative paper Le Figaro, and Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky, who in 2018 secretly bought a controlling interest in the iconic daily Le Monde. Macron faces no opposition from this coterie, other than pressure to hasten his neoliberal agenda.

As Economy Minister under Hollande, Macron led the introduction of the loi Travail in August 2016 which weakened workplace rules and protections, including measures to ease employer rights to sackings and to lower sacked employee payouts. After widespread resistance, including in parliament, the law was imposed under section 49.3 of the Constitution, a draconian secret of the Fifth Republic never before used for such purposes. Here was Macron’s authoritarian character on full display.

Once elected in 2017, Macron set about abolishing the wealth tax, the Impôt de solidarité sur la fortune (ISF). True, the tax was largely symbolic, and some wealthy were quitting the country. Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man, and in his maltreatment of employees having no sense of solidarity (vide François Ruffin’s documentary Merci patron!), threatened to clear out. Solidarity is also not in Macron’s makeup, as he had failed to report his sizeable earnings at Rothschild when becoming Economy Minister in 2014, lying about them, and thus avoiding his personal liability for the ISF.

It is standard practice for neoliberal governments everywhere to cut taxes on the wealthy, to go easy on their tax evasion lurks, and then claim that fiscal prudence demands that arms of the ‘unsustainable’ welfare state be wound back (‘defense’ spending is, of course, off the table). This ruse is institutionalised in the EU, with Brussels pressuring national governments under the 1992 Maastricht strictures. In 2013, as Hollande’s economic adviser, Macron fostered the introduction of the Crédit d’impôt pour la compétitivité et l’emploi (CICE). This tax credit was granted in the claimed expectation that businesses would create a huge number of jobs. But the credit granted was in the form of relief on employer contributions to the social security fund. This mechanism was thus a direct redistributive vehicle from the welfare state to the well-off (the greatest beneficiaries were large corporates like the supermarkets). As President, Macron closed down the CICE at the end of 2018, but replacing it with a permanent comprehensive lowering of social security contributions by enterprises. The cost to the exchequer has been enormous, in tens of billions of euros, for estimated minor gains in employment generated from this poorly targeted measure.

In the run-up to the 2022 election, Macron declared his candidacy belatedly and declined to campaign, declaring that his opponents didn’t deserve his attention. In any case, how could he run on his record?

Macron’s obsession with enslaving wage labour has continued with his prolonged attempt to achieve ‘reform’ of the unemployment relief system (assurance-chômage). After two years of Macron trying, delayed partly by objections from no less than the authoritative Conseil d’État, the structure was belatedly installed in October 2021. The unemployed face lower payments, already derisory, and being readily ‘penalised’ – cut off from any payment for failure to adhere to impossible demands.

The spontaneous and prolonged protests, in the form of the ‘yellow vests’ movement, against his contempt for struggle street have been met with brutal repression.

Macron has nothing but disdain for public infrastructure. He has been happy to kowtow to Brussels’ demand to facilitate ‘competition’ in areas where natural monopolies prevail (electricity generation, transport). He presided over the cynical privatisation of Toulouse-Blagnac airport – a strategic public asset adjoining a major Airbus facility. He wanted to privatise the core Aeroports de Paris, but was forced to back off due to the public backlash.

Macron has had no overall industry policy. He legitimised the scandalous selloff of Alstom Energy – the dominant part of the French flagship (fleuron) Alstom – see my articles here and here. The only beneficiaries have been vulture advisory law firms and banks. He overlooks ongoing de-industrialisation. He tacitly endorsed the predatory and anti-competitive takeover of Suez by Veolia.

His election manifesto to instigate ‘the start-up nation’ appears formally to have had some success. Macron boasted of such in January. But a 23 February article in Le Canard Enchaîné is cautionary. Many start-ups are in flippant domains, and with minimum employment prospects. Those in substantive fields, like Exotec which makes small industrial robots, are rare. Insiders note that “The concept of a unicorn [start-up reaching a billion dollars in market valuation] rests on a sole criterion: the capacity of an individual to convince investors to hand over their money. That says nothing of the capacity of an enterprise to be profitable, of its social and environmental impact, of its employment generation capacity …”. Quite. To date, there is little to see here with respect to overall employment generation and regional township viability.

Macron has consciously neglected the health system, subject to long term corporatisation and funding cuts. The ravages of Covid have seen no change of heart. Respected medicos have pleaded with the government for assistance, without effect. I wrote a short piece on the background to the health system crisis after the early months of Covid in June 2020. In early June 2020, France had witnessed 29,000 deaths attributed to Covid. Now the figure is over 144,000. Meanwhile the aged care system (ehpad), subject to the diabolical excesses of for-profit companies, remains a national disgrace.

Macron’s interventions in both higher and secondary education are reactionary and divisive.

His environmental record is heavy on rhetoric and devoid of substance.

His administration has involved a series of scandals, none of which have rubbed off on him because of complicity of relevant institutions of state (in particular, the Parquet national financier). The placement of his income (essentially a gift from his patrons) from employment at Rothschild and the sources and extent of his 2017 campaign spending remain mysteries. Representative of the scandals are Macron’s employment and defense of bully boy Alexandre Benalla and the most recent disclosure of the fabulous sums spent on advisory firms (McKinsey in the first rank) in the outsourcing of public policy advice and operation.

As for the European Union, Macron has done nothing to offset the ongoing dominance of the EU’s institutions by a selfish Germany. His duplicity and weakness, with Germany, in prevarication with respect to Ukraine’s non-compliance with the two Minsk Accords, and its implied subjugation to US imperatives, has facilitated the catastrophic outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war which we currently endure.

Finally, Macron’s foreign policy has been quixotic and chaotic – most striking in France’s humiliating retreat from the Sahel – the work of an absolute novice.

In short, Macron’s reign has been wretched. Macron deserves, like his predecessors Sarkozy and Hollande, to be consigned to irrelevance and to write his memoirs regarding his salutary role in public life.

If re-elected for a second term (quinquennat), Macron’s first agenda will be unfinished business with the welfare state – ‘reform’ of the retirement system (retirement age pushed back from 62 to 65), against which he has also faced dogged resistance.

Régis de Castelnau has been a long time lawyer turned legal scholar and commentator. He blogs at Vu du Droit. From an ‘old’ family, he has acted for clients on the left of the spectrum (due to lessons learned from working on the factory floor). However, his commentary is detached, unique and astute.

de Castelnau notes:

to vote for Macron for a non-renewable term will have him engage in open slather. We know his project. Social security and the retirement system will be dismantled to the profit of private pension funds. McKinsey will be charged at great expense to put it in place and those such as Blackrock will walk off with the loot. That which remains of French industry will be auctioned off, to the great pleasure of the investment banks organising the selloff. Our sovereignty will finish by being dismantled to the profit of a EU dominated by Germany, to whom we will acquiesce to share our seat on the UN Security Council and to access our nuclear force of dissuasion. The all of course in the name of a “European sovereignty” which doesn’t exist.  … At the end of these five next years, France will be unrecognisable and it will be irreversible.

As with 2017, there is no satisfactory option. Some principled people have given notice that they intend to vote blank – an option ultimately to little effect unless tens of thousands demonstrate by such means their disgust. The French electoral system being non-compulsory, the abstention rate is a significant player – in the local vernacular, many choose to ‘go fishing’. In the 2022 first round, the abstention rate (voters relative to enrolled citizens) was a high 26.8%. There is a tug between those who call to come out in droves to keep ‘the fascists’ from gaining power and those individuals who can’t bring themselves to endorse either of the poxy alternatives.

Whatever the outcome, France’s immediate future is guaranteed to be not much fun.

Evan Jones is a francophile and retired political economist at University of Sydney. Read other articles by Evan.