Unprecedented Politics in the French Elections


We are entering an era in politics in which statements beginning ‘It would be the first time that…’ often announce that something previously inconceivable may be about to happen. This French presidential election is the first in which the Front National (FN) going through to the second round is not in doubt: there is a possibility (still highly improbable) that it might win. For the first time, no one is defending the record of the past five years, even though two of the outgoing president’s former ministers are standing: Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party (PS) and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! (Forward!). It is also the first time that the candidates from the PS and the right, which have governed France since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, could both be eliminated in the first round.

There is no precedent for a campaign so badly compromised by rolling news, legal proceedings and an inability to focus on any question of substance for more than 24 hours. There is certainly no previous instance of a major candidate (François Fillon) being investigated for the misuse of public funds after declaring for a decade that France is bankrupt.

The fact that the current president is not running for re-election risks obscuring the origin of all this. François Hollande became the most unpopular head of state in the Fifth Republic’s history, right after his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was denied a second term at the ballot box. Yet Hollande has admitted that he has had ‘five years of more or less absolute power’ (1): in June 2012, the PS for the first time had effective control of the presidency, the government, the National Assembly, the Senate, 21 out of 22 metropolitan regions, 56 of 96 departments, and 27 of 39 cities with over 100,000 inhabitants.

Hollande’s exercise of power was both discretionary and solitary. He declared a state of emergency, involved France in external conflicts and authorised drone strikes against terrorist suspects. He changed the labour laws, using article 49.3 of the constitution to force his parliamentary majority into a reform it refused to endorse and for which neither he nor it had a popular mandate. He also redrew the map of France’s regions in his office in the Elysée palace.

All this raises pressing questions about the Fifth Republic’s institutions, which Hamon (PS) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise) have said they will challenge, but which Fillon (Les Républicains) and Macron accept, as does Marine Le Pen (FN). No other western democracy concentrates so much power in one person’s hands. Apart from the very real danger of it being used one day by a head of state less benign than Hollande, the grandiose declarations about French democracy and the republic run counter to a fact that Hollande has made blindingly clear: the solitary exercise of power makes it possible to trample on campaign pledges, which should be the basis of a popular mandate.

Hollande pledged to defend France’s metalworkers, but approved the closure of the Florange steel plant in the northeast. He swore he would renegotiate the EU Stability and Growth Pact, but abandoned that at the start of his mandate. He promised to ‘reverse the unemployment trend’ by the end of 2013, but it continued to rise for three more years. However, if people feel a sense of betrayal, it’s probably because of a campaign slogan from 2012, heard repeatedly since: ‘My only enemy is the world of finance.’ Yet Hollande was no sooner elected than he appointed Macron, a former Rothschild investment banker, as an Elysée adviser, and later handed him the ministry of the economy.

Macron’s favourite ideas

Macron’s current popularity in the polls is all the more troubling because it risks propelling to the top job the heir to a president of record unpopularity. Hollande has said: ‘Emmanuel Macron, c’est moi. He knows what he owes me.’ Macron certainly isn’t a socialist, but then neither is Hollande. One says as much; the other sidesteps the question. Macron has turned his back on a leftwing tradition that attacked capital or finance, but that too echoes convictions Hollande set out in the 1985 book La gauche bouge (The Left is On the Move), co-authored with current defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Jean-Pierre Mignard and Elysée chief of staff Jean-Pierre Jouyet; the first two already support Macron, and Jouyet is likely to do so (2).

One of Macron’s favourite ideas appeared in this book, which he now re-presents in woolly verbiage: that there should be a new social alliance between the educated middle class and neoliberal bosses, joined by their desire to spread out in a global market. He speaks of entrepreneurship, not welfare dependence; profit rather than unearned income; reformers and modernisers against extremists and conservatives; none of the old nostalgia for the ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. Listening to Macron is like listening to Bill Clinton in the 1990s, or Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder a few years later (3). Following him would mean pursuing that neoliberal-progressive ‘third way’ that beguiled the US Democratic Party and European social democrats even more than Hollande, and then brought them to their current dead end.


Le Pen must be delighted that the debate has been reduced to what she calls ‘globalists’ and the ‘Brussels party’ versus ‘patriots’. Richard Ferrand, a PS member of parliament and key player in Macron’s campaign, has already anticipated her wish saying: ‘There are on one side reactionary, identity-focused neo-nationalists, and on the other progressives who think Europe is necessary’ (4). Framing the ideological debate like this is not accidental; for both, the question of class interests is submerged, as one feeds fears about identity while the other vilifies ‘reactionary impulses’.

But with due respect to the market progressives, those who think Europe is necessary are in a particular socio-economic position. The ‘posted workers’ (sent to work in another member state) created under a 1996 Brussels directive, who have multiplied by ten over the past decade, are more often construction and agricultural workers than surgeons or antique dealers. What the victims of this directive think is primarily the product of their fears, that wage dumping threatens their material welfare. For them, Europe is not about the Erasmus Programme or the Ode to Joy.

Making your vote count

Donald Trump’s political strategist Steve Bannon knows the advantage the nationalist right can extract from the loss of social status that accompanies celebration in the global village: ‘The centre core of what we believe, that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being. There are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado, and they have more of this elite mentality that they’re going to dictate to everybody how the world’s going to be run’ (5).

When Macron, in his public meetings decked with EU flags, enthuses about mobility, calls for ‘reflating the economy by stimulating corporate profits’,and says he will stop unemployment benefit for those who turn down a second ‘decent’ job offer (6), it’s hard to distinguish his proposals from the interests of the oligarchs of the ‘Davos party’ in the money- and knowledge-driven economy. One can imagine the damage to democracy from a showdown like the one the media intends to bring about between Macron and Le Pen.

For over 20 years, advocating ‘making your vote count’ has meant presenting the two main parties as bulwarks against an extreme right, the rise of which has been encouraged by their concurrent choices. ‘Today,’ Hamon has said, ‘Emmanuel Macron’s project is a stepping stone for the Front National’ (7). Conversely, the FN’s strength has reinforced its adversaries’ power monopoly, including that of the PS (8). In 1981, François Mitterrand calculated that a powerful far right would force the right into an alliance that might make it unelectable (9). That approach failed for the PS in the April 2002 election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen edged out Lionel Jospin and faced Jacques Chirac in the second round. Since then, the right has only to overtake the PS in any election, national or local, to become the saviour of democracy, culture and the republic, in the eyes of almost all on the left.

We have quasi-monarchic institutions that permit craftiness and disavowal; a politics we are locked into through fear of something worse; media that accommodate one side while feeding off the other. And then there’s Europe. Most of France’s economic and financial policies are rigidly subordinate to the European Union, though this hasn’t stopped much of the campaign giving the impression that the next president will have complete freedom of action.

Similar aims, different plans

A victory for Le Pen could mean the end of the EU. She has already warned that she ‘will not be Mrs Merkel’s vice-chancellor’. In the event of a win for Fillon or Macron (favourites to win the election, and Merkel’s preferred candidates), continuity with the presidents they served would be guaranteed, consistency with the European Commission’s policies maintained, and German hegemony and ‘ordoliberalism’ confirmed (with that hegemony vigilantly guarding ordoliberalism). The question would be put differently in the case of Hamon or Mélenchon. Apart from Hamon’s federalist sympathies and his support for a European defence force, their aims may seem similar. But their plans to achieve them are completely different, which explains why they are competing with each other at the risk of being both knocked out.

With Hamon, it’s hard to avoid a sense of déjà-vu. In his attempt to reconcile his attachment to the EU and desire to see it swap austerity for a policy that is more favourable to jobs and the environment (and less unforgiving towards states such as Greece, which are crippled with debt), Hamon has had to convince himself that the change of direction he hopes for is possible, even in the context of existing institutions; that ‘achieving tangible results without turning our backs on Europe’ is conceivable. His optimism is based on the European left regaining some influence, especially in Germany.

This is almost exactly the same prospect that Hollande held out; on 12 March 2012 he solemnly told his European comrades in Paris that he undertook to renegotiate the budget treaty that Merkel and Sarkozy had agreed, and said: ‘I am not alone, because there is a progressive movement in Europe. I will not be alone because there will be the votes of the French people, who will give me a mandate.’


Cécile Duflot, who became his housing minister, recalled what happened next: ‘Everyone was waiting for [Hollande] to lock horns with Angela Merkel … We were finally going to turn our back on Merkozy … Italy’s Mario Monti, however neoliberal and rigid he may be, was counting on France to reverse the trend. The highly conservative Mariano Rajoy thought François Hollande’s election offered the chance of loosening the vice that gripped Spain. And Greece and Portugal were ready to follow any saviour to avoid ruin’ (10).

We all know what happened: nothing fundamentally different from 15 years earlier (11), when Hollande led the PS and Lionel Jospin the government. A fiscal pact had just been negotiated, ostensibly to prepare for the single currency. It set out budgetary disciplines, including fines for excessive deficits. When Jospin had led the opposition, he had denounced the agreement as a ‘super-Maastricht’ and ‘an absurd concession to the Germans’. Yet when he became prime minister in June 1997, he accepted all the terms of the Treaty of Amsterdam within days. Pierre Moscovici, then minister for Europe, claimed that in return for his agreement, he had secured ‘the European Council’s first resolution on growth and jobs’. We all know what a resounding success that was.

‘From the party of hope’

Hamon and Mélenchon claim they will renegotiate the European treaties. But how hard will they try? Hamon is not challenging the independence of the European Central Bank but is hoping to make its statutes evolve. He agrees with the 3% rule on public deficits but wants ‘relaunch policies’ compatible with his green ambitions. He is proposing ‘the creation of a democratic assembly for the eurozone,’ but adds, ‘I accept it would be open to discussion, of course. I won’t go to Berlin or somewhere and say “Take it or leave it.” That makes no sense.’

Some of these reforms require the unanimous agreement of EU states and there is no German support for any of them. Hamon hopes he can transform the situation through ‘an arc of alliances of the European left.’ He rejects the none-too-encouraging precedent of 2012: ‘I believe the Germans are more open today than when Hollande came to power.’ Fear of the EU splitting, and the prospect of a change of government in Germany, may alter things in his favour. ‘I’m from the party of hope,’ he concedes.

Mélenchon’s hopes have changed since 2012. Since ‘no progressive politics is possible’ in the current EU without a ‘concerted withdrawal from the European treaties’ or their redrafting (plan A), he is no longer ruling out unilateral withdrawal (plan B). As he does not have great faith in a concerted push by the left in the near future, since it has been on the wane in recent years, he believes that France, as the EU’s second most powerful nation, is becoming the ‘driving force of the European battle.’ Jacques Généreux, co-creator of his presidential programme, summarises: ‘The forced departure of France would mean the end of the euro and quite simply the end of the European Union. It’s in no one’s interest to take such a risk. Especially Germany’s.’ As a result, even if it refuses to accede to the EU rules that constrain its economic priorities, ‘France can, without fear, and if it wishes, remain in the euro for as long as it wants’ (12).

The EU had become indifferent to the democratic choices of its peoples, confident that treaties lock in the member states’ fundamental directions. Since the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory, politics has taken its revenge; a now febrile EU is watching every national election as if its life depends on it. Even victory for one of the two French candidates who have its blessing will not reassure for long.


(1) Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme, ‘Un président ne devrait pas dire ça…’: Les secrets d’un quinquennat (A President Shouldn’t Say That), Stock, Paris, 2016.

(2) By a group of authors writing under the pseudonym of Jean-François Trans.

(3) See Serge Halimi, Le Grand Bond en arrière: Comment l’ordre libéral s’est imposé au monde (The Great Leap Backwards: how the neoliberal order imposed itself on the world), Agone, Marseille, 2012.

(4Le Journal du dimanche, Paris, 12 March 2017.

(5) Quoted in William Galston, ‘Steve Bannon and the “Global Tea Party”’, The Wall Street Journal, New York, 1 March 2017.

(6) For a salary ‘not less than 20-25% below’ the previous job.

(7) France 2, 9 March 2017.

(8) See Serge Halimi, ‘France’s FN election success’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, January 2016.

(9) See Emmanuel Faux, Thomas Legrand and Gilles Perez, La Main droite de DieuEnquête sur François Mitterrand et l’extrême droite (God’s Right Hand: an inquiry into François Mitterrand and the far right), Seuil, Paris, 1994.

(10) Cécile Duflot, De l’intérieur: Voyage au pays de la désillusion (From Within: a journey to the land of disillusion), Fayard, Paris, 2014.

(11) See Serge Halimi, ‘Sacking Sarkozy won’t be enough’, Le Monde diplomatique,English edition, April 2012.

(12) Jacques Généreux, Les bonnes raisons de voter Mélenchon (Good Reasons to Vote for Mélenchon), Les Liens qui Libèrent, Paris, 2017.

More articles by:

Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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