France walked to the edge of the abyss, looked over, and decided to turn back. This is the outcome to the country’s most seminal presidential election for a generation, ending in a decisive victory for centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron over his far right, Front National opponent Marine Le Pen by 66% to 34% on May 7th.
Regardless, the result carries with it a warning it would be folly to dismiss. With just under 11 million votes received, Le Pen and the far right – not only in France but throughout Europe – still have reason to believe that better days lie ahead when it comes to their forward march to power. Consequently, for those who consider the far right to be a greater threat than the extreme centre, you did not have to be a fulsome supporter of Emmanuel Macron to oppose Marine Le Pen and the French National Front.
Which is where we come to the apparent foolhardiness of the position adopted by the far left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, with his refusal to endorse Macron after losing the first round of the election on April 23rd. Perhaps the most telling statistic to come out of the election is the record number of people, 12 million, who were eligible to vote but opted to abstain. At just over 65% the turnout was historically low, which given the stakes involved suggests a high level of conscious abstention, based on the narrative that both Macron and Le Pen are as bad as each other.
This synonym is hard to conjure with however. Why? Because though the extreme centre politics of Macron may have crushed the hopes of millions in recent years, the ultra-nationalism, bordering on fascism, espoused by Le Pen carries with it the potential to crush human skulls. And as everybody knows, though hope can be restored skulls cannot.
Scottish trade union leader Jimmy Reid gave a summation of nationalism impossible to surpass: “Nationalism is like electricity,” he said. “It can kill a man in the electric chair or keep a baby alive in an incubator.” The profundity contained in these words are evident in this epoch of competing nationalisms, currently dominating the political firmament. In the UK we have the expansive and inclusive civic nationalism of the Scotland’s SNP and Ireland’s Sinn Fein counterposed to the toxic inward-looking nativism of UKIP in England, whose brand of anti-migrant and xenophobic politics succeeded in persuading enough people that the solution to the despair sown by austerity was Brexit – i.e. fortress Britain.
France’s problems, as with the problems that have engulfed the working class of every industrialized economy, are the product of the neoliberalism and globalisation. When it comes to foreign policy, this is most grievously embodied in the regime change fanaticism that has given birth to the bastard child of Salafi-jihadi terrorism.
Over the past two years 230 French citizens have fallen victim to this terrorist menace – the very same that has engulfed the Middle East. It is largely, though not solely, a result of blowback in response to the extreme centre’s obsession with remaking the world in its own image, regardless of historical, cultural or regional specificities. Following on from that, the alarming trend of radicalisation that has taken place among a small but dangerous minority of young Muslims within France’s 5 million strong Muslim community, this is a challenge which by necessity will be at the very top of the incoming French President’s in-tray.
It is to be hoped that Mr Macron realizes that this radicalisation is not merely a consequence of events in the Middle East, however. There is also a strong socioeconomic dynamic involved, reflected in social indicators lower than the national average among French Muslims when it comes to employment, housing, education, and health. The problems of integration in a country with a large immigrant population are particularly acute, where a strong tradition of republican values has clashed with the alienation that is the lived experience of far too many. A very small proportion of those – and it is worth stressing that it is very small – have embraced the ideology and values of radical Islam as an alternative to a mainstream from which they have been excluded.
Macron, to be frank, does not enter the Elysee Palace with the solution to this problem. But his presidency does allow space for a rejuvenated left to organize and mobilize along class rather than national, cultural, or religious lines.
As for the EU, while the election of a pro-Europe centrist may well have saved it from extinction, it cannot afford to be sanguine over its survival going forward. In this respect, structural reform is now non-negotiable. The question, of course, comes down to whether it can be reformed? The answer here lies with its member states, particularly Germany, which sooner rather than later must abandon neoliberalism and austerity as failed experiments in human despair. The barbaric shock treatment meted out to the Greek people in 2015 gave succor to the far right rather than left. Avoiding falling into a far right abyss should be at the forefront of the minds of all who are committed to escaping the past as prologue.