The French Elections: What is the Republic? Will It Stand?

Whether the fascist Marine Le Pen wins or loses in the second round of the French presidential elections on 7 May, the first round produced a profound upheaval in the country’s political landscape. Coming on top of Brexit and Trump, these elections are influenced by and give further impetus to the overall right-wing lurch in Europe. These developments are very dangerous, both for the stability of capitalism in France, and, in a different way and for different reasons, for the people of France, and, ultimately, everywhere.

The first round of the elections brought two momentous changes that are interrelated and interacting. One, it eliminated the candidates of the two main political currents that have alternated in office and dominated French politics since the end of World War 2, the “centre-right” party now called Les Républicains and the “centre-left” Socialists. This brings the governance of France into uncharted waters at the very least and very possibly into a maelstrom. The other is that it’s not impossible that Le Pen could be elected, if not now, then maybe soon. Again, at the very least her National Front (FN) party, long consigned to the fringes, has been awarded the seal of legitimacy, if far from broad acceptance, by the electoral process and the makers of public opinion.

The 7 May second-round run-off will see Le Pen face off against Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist minister who only a year ago formed his own party, En Marche, which describes itself as neither left nor right. A young investment banker, Macron was brought into politics by François Hollande, the current Socialist president, who, with his public approval ratings dipping into single digits, became the only post-war president not to seek a second term. Macron has been compared to the UK Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, social democrats who began to dismantle the welfare state model that has prevailed in most of Europe since the last world war. This model brought political stability by making small concessions to a few very basic human needs in a way denied most of the world’s people.

Macron promises that more globalisation – making French capitalism more competitive in international markets – will ameliorate the problems that globalization has already produced in France. The compulsion of facing international capitalist competition brought an unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent for decades, while making work more intense and life much more stressful for many people struggling to keep their jobs. Budgetary constraints have steadily eroded health care, education, public housing and other benefits. The sense that the conditions for working people will gradually get better, as they have for previous generations, is gone.

The fact that Macron advocates taking France further down the same road as his predecessors makes him more or less the consensus candidate for the country’s ruling capitalist class, at least right now, but it also means that he represents a worsening status quo that a great many people reject. He is considered “the least worst”, at best, by most voters who hate what Le Pen represents. For the moment, many people say they will refuse to vote for either candidate, casting a blank ballot or staying home instead.

Le Pen declares herself the only candidate of radical change. But in calling herself anti-system, she is lying. She is not an opponent but a would-be representative of the capitalist-imperialist system that over centuries brought France its major position and relative privileges,including through the slave trade, the brutal colonialization of Africa and other parts of the world, and the continuing flow of superprofits from oppressed nations and its own “spheres of influence”.As the number two financial power in the European Union, France has fattened, for instance, on the looting of Greece as well as countries of the global South. But Le Pen is telling the truth in terms of her radical opposition to the political model and ideology that have characterized France since the end of the last world war, when the country’s rulers affirmed their allegiance to the “values” of the (bourgeois) French Revolution and declared France a Republic again, after the establishment of a fascist French state in collaboration with the Nazi German occupiers during the war.

Macron’s programme and career trajectory (a banker working for the financial empire headed by the Rothschilds, a Jewish family targeted by the populist politics of resentment for two centuries before anti-Semitism was swapped for Islamophobia) make him Le Pen’s dream opponent. Her charge that he is “in the pocket” of Islamists might seem like just another bizarre “alternate fact” of the kind adored by her counterparts abroad, but like so many such lies it resonates with her supporters as part of a narrative in which the problem is not the functioning of the world capitalist system but an “arrogant elite,” an “oligarchy” that has to be brought under Le Pen’s baton because their “worship of money” and “lack of patriotism” has led them to betray “the people”.

Le Pen’s definition of “the people” clearly marks her as a fascist. It represents not only a rupture with the country’s post-war model but a rejection of the defining ideology and proclaimed values of the French Republic since the 1789revolution against the monarchy. In fact, she is the heir both to very powerful counter-currents rooted in traditional Catholicism that surfaced repeatedly in different forms since then as well as to more modern secular fascist traditions. She has complained that the unity of the major political parties (what’s called the Republican Front) against hers is unfair, since hers is as much an electoral party as theirs, but her programme is in opposition to the Republic’s founding slogan, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. She outright rejects the concept of the same rights for all. Her promise is to lead not the people of France – the country’s inhabitants, or the citizens of the French Republic – but the French people, those who share a common “blood”, the volk, to use the German equivalent, with all the similarities to Nazi ideology which that makes obvious.

Le Pen’s programme, while vague on many points, especially when it comes to pledges of tangible benefits, is precise on this subject: she promises to close the borders; hire vast numbers of police to keep out immigrants; restrict, and at least temporarily halt, all legal immigration; reserve public housing and public and private sector jobs for French citizens and give them priority in access to health care; bar citizenship to, potentially, millions of French-born people (ending the almost routine granting of citizenship at age 18 to those born in France of foreign parents); no longer recognizedual nationality, which could lead to expulsions of French-born people. This is aimed particularly atpeople from Islamic-majority countries where children inherit their father’s citizenship automatically, even if they don’t live there. It also heralds much more police terror, especially in the banlieues, which include concentrations of public housing on the outskirts of Paris and other major cities, home to people whose forefathers came from former French colonies, some working-class “native French” and recent immigrants.

Le Pen’s extreme enmity toward a substantial section of the population is not only in the name of fighting jihadi Islamic fundamentalists whose attacks have rightly repulsedmost people whatever their religion or non-relgious beliefs. It is also in the name of an imagined Frenchness, directed against the part of French society that originated when people were recruited from their home villages abroad to lend their shoulder to France’s “three glorious decades” of economic expansion after the war, people who played a huge role in creating the prosperity whose future so worries Le Pen’s social base today. This can only mean an almost mind-boggling step-up of massive violent repression. During WW2, this same kind of discourse, the same kind of ideology and policies, led to mass round-ups and concentration camps for Jewish people and others and to collaboration with the Nazi occupiers who killed many millions throughout Europe.

It is often said that Le Pen’s social base is largely composed of those who have “lost out” in globalisation, especially much of the former industrial working class and merchants and other small businessmen whose fortunes are related to theirs. It is true that the former mining and factory towns of northern France, until recently stalwart bastions of the left, gave their votes to Le Pen. So did traditionally more reactionary regions in rural eastern France and the well-off Riviera. It is seldom recognized that globalization’s “losers” also include the millions of people from immigrant backgrounds whose parents and grandparents were brought to France on false promises, like being treated as more than arms and backs, only to be discarded when worn out or no longer needed, with a future in French society denied to their children and children’s children. Not to mention those today forced to flee the Middle East and black Africa because of wars fuelled by France and other imperialists and the collapse of their livelihood and prospects for a future under the pressure of globalised capitalist development.

Actually, Le Pen’s programme promises concrete improvements mainly for employers and the self-employed, and little for any of the lower classes. What seems much more importantthan economic distress, as real as that may be, to all too many people is a more generalized, hard to define but very – deadly – real sentiment among many people that “the French” have lost their rightful place in the world, and that the values they were brought up to believe – “work, family, fatherland”, as the French World War 2 fascists put it – have evaporated. They often blame the changing nature of French society on the presence of people seen as “different”, “intruders” in “our home”, and are dismayed by the whole society’s development, including its changing ethnic and religious composition and shifts in class structure and in the role of women. This is reactionary in the literal sense of the word – a nostalgic longing to go back to an earlier point in time when the system might have seemed to be working in their favour.

Le Pen represents only one stream of the fascist far right in France. François Fillon, the candidate of the traditional centre-right party who came in a close third in the first round, threw in his lot with a particularly reactionary strain in the French Catholic church (not so much lower-class religious people as the better-off and others who yearn for the Church as it used to be when religious mass was in Latin). This is often focused in opposition to abortion and homosexual rights in the name of preserving the family, explicitly meaning the patriarchal family and patriarchy in general. While Fillon paid lip service to his party’s grudging acceptance of these rights, he also stated opposition to allowing women access to medically assisted fertility procedures if they are in a lesbian relation or otherwise not in a relationship with a man. Again, symbolism is at work in communicating that which can’t now be pronounced openly: a call to bring back the authority of the Church to draw what it calls “red lines” in society – and once a church has that authority, it will draw more such lines. This, too, is a direct challenge to the separation of church and state touted as a “Republican core value”, even though secularism in France today is basically used to target Islam and largely Moslem communities and not to fight religious obscurantism and superstition in general.

Many of Fillon’s supporters, members of the Républicains party, will go for Le Pen and against the Republic. This is another example of the collapse in France of the traditional political model and cohering beliefs. But the collapse is coming from all sides of the power structure. The currently governing Socialists may have been all but reduced to a fringe party in this election, but it played a major part in preparing the ground for the surge of fascism. The party whose prime minister declared that the Rom people (Eastern European “Gypsies”) have no place in France did a lot to make ethnic hatred “respectable”. If you replace the word “Rom” with “Jews”, you get a discourse most people could instantly recognise as worthy of the Nazis. For decades, and increasingly, French presidents of both parties have legitimised what they called “the debate around national identity”, which is really a debate about whether racism would do a better job of cohering French society than the Republican values that never described French reality anyway. Similarly, Le Pen’s insistence that French colonialism was a blessing for the Middle East and Africa – in contrast to the crocodile tears of repentance from the Socialists, for instance, who helped administer colonialism and wage atrocious wars to prevent independence – is beneficial for French imperialism’s multiplying armed interventions in those regions and what its interests may soon require in countering its rivals.

No matter what happens in the second-round elections, Le Pen’s party has played a very useful role for the ruling finance capitalist class as a whole and for the “political class” that represents them bylegitimizing ideas once considered anathema. Only a few decades ago kids were encouraged to sing “We are the children of the world” and protect their ghetto “buddies”, masking the prevailing inequality, exclusion and oppression in France and the world. This hypocritical benevolence is no longer so useful in dealing with what French imperialism has to deal with at home and abroad. Preaching narrow self-interest and acceptance of cruelty is more the order of the day.

Not only has Le Pen’s candidacy helped legitimize the “system” she denounces, this system haslegitimized her. It is really striking that “everybody knows” she is a fascist, even just by looking at her party’s history and formal ties with neo-Nazi and other openly fascist groups, but, at least now, none of the leaders of any of France’s major parties are calling her a fascist. Perhaps they feel that if they did, they would be challenging the electoral system, the media structures and the whole set-up that they are part of and that brought her to where she is today. Despite the disapproval that hangs over her head among most political opinion makers, and her own project of overturning the political set-up that has so well served French imperialism so far, there is a convergence of interests between Le Pen and all the so-called Republican Front. This was blatantly illustrated when President Hollande invited Le Pen and Macron to stand beside him, along with the previous prime ministers and heads of state, at a ceremony honouring a policeman killed recently in a reportedly Islamist attack, and the forces of order in general. This was similar to Obama’s statement that he and Trump are “on the same team”.

Another important player on that team, although loath to wear its uniform, is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is generally labelled “far left” in the media and who came in a close fourth in the very tight first round. He combines strident nationalism with promises to bring back the good old days of social-democratic welfare programmes, with a laundry list of promises such as higher pay for less work and other ideas that are out of whack with what French capitalism requires today.Mélenchon’s fantasy of restoring prosperity by loosening France’s ties with its imperialist alliances (the European Union and Nato) is not just impossible to realize, but poison, as it converges with Le Pen’s stands on these issues, and, worse, her nationalist ideology. Racism aside – which is no detail, their programmes have much in common. Le Pen’s supporters are actively trying to poach his supporters, just as Mélenchon made only semi-disguised overtures to Le Pen’s base in the first round. Practically and ideologically, Mélenchon’s “far left” cover for nationalism has contributed to today’s very bad situation.

The slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” covers up the fact that society is divided into classes with very different, antagonistic interests. Today it is a slogan for the disguised dictatorship of French monopoly capitalists seeking to unite the people, including the oppressed and exploited inside the country, in conflict and war with rival capitalist countries, for the subjugation of other peoples and in the acceptance of the bourgeois dictatorship. That is the social content of the Republic. Even if some people wish it could be otherwise, they need to stop conciliating with oppression and exploitation and face the truth. The Republican Front is no solution: it attempts to consolidate the capitalist state and it will not stop the fascists who are the system’s Plan B if today’s form of rule proves impossible to continue, again due to contradictions produced by the system itself.

The idea of Le Pen becoming president is a frightening prospect to millions in France as well as elsewhere, and there should be, and needs to be, much more militant and vigorous rejection of this possibility throughout the society. One frightening indication of how far fascism has been “normalized” in France is how much less expression of shock and outrage there is today compared to 2002 when Le Pen’s father made the second round of the presidential election.

But voting “against” Le Pen (in other words, voting for Macron) can only mean accepting (however unhappily) France as it is today, with all that many people find unacceptable, and in opposition to the interests of humanity. It means legitimising and strengthening the system, going along with a resolution of the French ruling classes’ problems in a way that is favourable to them. What is needed instead is to seek to use this situation and the turmoil that it is creating to begin to work for a revolution to topple French imperialism and support revolution everywhere. Supporting Macron also means falling into passivity and expecting elections and the parliamentary parties to save the day, when this is the day they all played a key role in bringing about. However reactionary, Le Pen represents a coherent response to the system’s problems, with a minority but large and very energized and enthusiastic social base rallied around her programme and many willing to fight for it by any means necessary. No matter what happens in the second round, the contradictions to which Le Pen offers an extremely reactionary response will remain unresolved The question will be: resolve it which way, in whose interests?

Juan Sui writes for A World to Win News Service.