France’s moderate left and neoliberal right all but vanished in last month’s presidential election, while support for a real left and radical right grew. Where does that leave Macron’s project of ‘extreme centrism’?
Emmanuel Macron’s re-election concludes a showdown that most French voters had wished to avoid — and marks the start of a new five-year term devoid of momentum or hope. The incumbent won by default, even though a majority of French people believe that he mainly serves the interests of the rich (72%), the country’s in a worse state than when he came to power (69%), his record is poor (56%) and his programme is dangerous (51%) (1). So purely to keep out the far right, millions of leftwing voters reluctantly voted for Macron, yet some of them are ready to take to the streets against him. Reasons for doing so abound: a fall in spending power, the raising of the retirement age, lack of action on climate, rising interest rates, punitive measures against the unemployed...
Five years ago The Economist, in a state of near-ecstasy, put the French president on its cover, showing him walking on water, sharp-suited and smiling cockily. To a global elite, class stunned and fearful after Brexit and Donald Trump’s election, Macron’s arrival on the international stage felt like payback. Now they could count on Europe’s tide of far-right populism receding in favour of ‘progressive’ liberalism and globalisation.
Macron’s problems grow
Little of that illusion remains. With crises in healthcare and hospitals, energy supply problems and the war in Ukraine, the public debate is increasingly about issues of sovereignty, spending power, the relocation of jobs and ‘environmental planning’. To the extent that on 10 April, during the first round of the presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s breakaway leftwing party La France Insoumise (LFI) consolidated its influence, and the nationalist far right, which Macron’s policies were supposed to curb, made significant strides. The three far-right candidates together took 32.3% of first-round votes (2), more than the president (27.8%). Two weeks later, in the second round, Marine Le Pen got 2.6 million more votes than in 2017, and the man who beat her two million fewer.
Macron, who was economy minister under Socialist president François Hollande, managed to win by retaining the support of most of Hollande’s Socialist voters despite having policies that were decidedly not Socialist. He sealed the deal by mopping up rightwing votes through tax and social policies that satisfied the mainstream right’s expectations. Quite an achievement. Since the Fifth Republic (1958), every second-round run-off has included a candidate from the right or the left, and most often both, going head to head. In this year’s first round, the rout of the Socialists and the official right swept away this scenario: the right and the Socialists combined took just 6.5% of the vote. In 2012 their joint share was 55.81%.
The French president has thus become the preferred choice of the mainstream right and simultaneously of a middle-class left which has grown used to (and satisfied with) neoliberal policies since the time of François Mitterrand (president 1981-95), the ‘austerity turn’ in 1983, the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and the European Constitutional Treaty of 2005. Rather than admit this obvious fact, Macron has instead presented himself as the creator of a muddled ‘ideology’ whose only discernible value is that it allows him to do what he wants. ‘The extreme centre project’, he grandly declared the day before his re-election to a handful of tame journalists, is based on a ‘grouping of several political families, from Social Democrats through Greens, the centre, and a right that is partly Bonapartist and partly Orleanist and pro-European’ (3).
Bringing together social democracy and the Orleanist right, or the European Greens and the Bonapartist right makes no sense either theoretically or historically. Sociologically, though, they constitute today’s ‘bourgeois bloc’, the ‘party of order’, France’s ‘top tier’. It’s a coalition of everyone who was appalled by the Gilets Jaunes movement and reassured by its brutal repression. This same audience gave Macron a standing ovation at his big rally in Paris on 2 April when he resoundingly declared, ‘Despite the crises, we have kept our promises. To put an end to the French disease of mass unemployment, we had to attack the old taboos on taxation, labour law and social security.’ Other ‘taboos’ he attacked included housing benefits and the wealth tax.
It is therefore unsurprising that in places as wealthy and conservative as Neuilly, Paris’s 16th arrondissement and Versailles, Macron’s vote doubled compared to 2017 and that he crushed the right’s official candidate, Valérie Pécresse (4). After the repression of the workers’ movement in June 1848 and of the Paris Commune in 1871, the monarchists lost their political usefulness as the republicans showed the middle class that they too could deal ruthlessly with the masses. In sum, with Macron in power, the conventional right has become dispensable, as has a Socialist party that long since converted to social liberalism and capitalist globalisation. Their joint destruction feels like a clarification.
Macron’s ‘extreme centre project’ has attracted a conservative electorate of well-off retirees and senior managers in a percentage that rises along with their age and affluence (5). Its impact at the polls is amplified by its exceptional turnout rate (88% of 60-69-year-olds), while turnout among the young and the working class, who are much more likely to back Mélenchon or Le Pen, continues to fall (54% of 25-34-year-olds voted this year in the first round, compared to 72% in 2017). Mélenchon, the leader of the radical left, has a large following among students in big cities and working-class youth in deprived housing estates, and is now trying to mobilise them for a ‘third round’, June’s parliamentary election. This is an ambitious gamble since generally only half of the electorate turn out for this election, and they tend to be older and more affluent.
But Mélenchon has already achieved several objectives. At a time when elsewhere in Europe the breakaway left has been marginalised by the centre-left (in Germany, Spain and Portugal), or converted to neoliberalism (Greece), or is non-existent (the Baltic states, Eastern Europe), or has been wiped out (Italy), LFI received 21.95% of the vote. And it inflicted a humiliating defeat on the moderate Greens (4.63%) and in particular the Socialists (1.74%), who had long dominated this terrain. Pablo Iglesias, Podemos founder turned political commentator after his electoral defeat, concluded that Mélenchon had become ‘the figure to watch on the European left’. He’s unlikely to face challengers. Mélenchon explained his success like this: ‘We’ve never given in on our fundamentals. We’ve not just rejected the world we live in, we’ve put forward a different one’ (6).
A question of governing
The fact remains that a good result in the first round is no guarantee of victory. Mélenchon has provided a reminder that it is no longer a question of pointing out the problem but of governing. Yet power dynamics remain highly unfavourable to the French left today. Not only was Mélenchon beaten by two candidates, from the right (Macron) and far right (Le Pen), but he also beat one candidate from the right (Pécresse) and one from the far right (Éric Zemmour).
Nevertheless, electoral dynamics sometimes trump arithmetic. The first-round result made Mélenchon’s supporters the arbiters of the final vote, which means his presidential campaign ended better overall than it began. ‘None of the rightwing electorate’s issues were at the heart of the second-round campaign,’ said Le Figaro Magazine regretfully (7). Debates over security, identity and Islam did indeed yield some ground to issues of purchasing power, public services and pensions, which put Emmanuel Macron on the defensive as his plans for them are so unpopular.
But since the left’s main ambition is not to influence its opponents’ policies, but to implement its own, the results of the first round didn’t just show what progress had been made; they also showed how far it still had to go. Mélenchon did achieve some stunning results in France’s overseas territories (doubling his 2017 vote, with an outright majority in Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyana), partly because Macron is so hated there. The result was equally impressive in poor outer suburbs (banlieues), which are home to many French people of foreign origin, often Muslims. And he made a breakthrough among the urban middle class, often young and college educated, in cities with Socialist or Green mayors (including Paris, Grenoble, Montpellier and Rennes).
These electorates are very disparate, but political and activist work has paid off. Mélenchon has made frequent visits to French overseas territories and has publicly addressed their social and environmental problems. In the banlieues, LFI was ironically helped by Zemmour’s campaign of hate and threats against Muslims, which was widely echoed by the media, the right and several of Macron’s ministers. All of them are now indignant that a ‘Muslim vote’ or ‘community vote’ exists, as if after having portrayed an entire section of the population as a threat, they would also like to stop it voting for the candidate who came to its defence.
Although the left has apparently won back the former red banlieues, albeit through an unexpected turn of events, there’s no hint of anything comparable in France’s small towns, countryside, or in the (now deindustrialised) former mining, carmaking and steel bastions of France’s north and east. It is in these areas, among manual workers and salaried employees, and also among the young, that the far right has made a breakthrough over the last 20 years and is taking root, while it is stagnating or declining among the managerial class, city dwellers and pensioners.
Left’s leaders don’t look abroad
This situation is not unique to France. Globalisation and offshoring (to China, North Africa, Mexico and Eastern Europe), which have often been backed by political forces that claim to be on the left (American Democrats, British New Labour, European Social Democrats), have finalised these parties’ divorce from working-class voters. Lorraine and Pas-de-Calais have their equivalent in Saxony in Germany, the Rust Belt of the American Midwest and the Red Wall of northern England and Wales. Yet there seems to be no transnational reflection on these issues. Leftwing activists and leaders do not look beyond their own borders, as if the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders had nothing to teach France, Germany or Italy. Yet the major sociological and electoral shifts (the inroads of the right and the far right in social groups that used to be loyal to the left) can be seen there just as starkly.
Although vital, focusing on social policies will not in itself be enough to hold on to, or win back, three groups as disparate as the educated middle class, the working class on housing estates, and the working class in suburbs and the countryside. Over time, in France as elsewhere, distinct political identities have formed around issues as diverse as immigration, religion, car use and rural life. A ‘wall of values’ often sets different sectors of the working class against each other. In the absence of regular contact or powerful organisations to ensure a link between them, prejudices become take root.
Each group believes it is neglected, despised and humiliated because of its beliefs or way of life. An election campaign every five years won’t permanently eradicate such misunderstandings, which are constantly exacerbated by both traditional and social media. During the election campaign, the TF1 television channel (France’s most popular) asked all the first-round candidates to state their position on three issues: surrogate motherhood, wearing the veil at university, and regulating hunting. For a leftwing candidate, any response on these issues risks alienating one of the potential components of his social base. The middle-class bloc, which is more homogeneous and more focused on protecting its financial interests, is able to surmount such difficulties.
Twenty years ago, Jacques Chirac won a second presidential term, defeating Jean-Marie Le Pen, thanks to the support of 61.1% of registered voters. On 24 April this year, Macron beat Le Pen’s daughter with just 38.5% of registered voters. The collapse in support is not just a personal one but also that of an exhausted political system whose lack of representativeness is becoming intolerable. The far right has 1% of seats in the National Assembly, LFI 3%; five of metropolitan France’s 13 regions are run by socialists, eight by the official right — in other words by two parties heading for extinction. However, their candidates easily collected the signatures of 500 elected politicians needed to run for president, while Le Pen and Mélenchon barely made it onto the ballot. Meanwhile, Socialist party presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo took just 2.3% of the vote in Paris, where she is mayor; the Socialist mayors of large cities who supported her (Montpellier, Nantes, Rennes, Lille, Rouen, Clermont-Ferrand etc) drummed up similar levels of enthusiasm.
Macron’s cynical behaviour between the two rounds of voting increased working-class disdain for institutions and those who represent them. To knock out the rightwing candidate, he stole her radical pension plan. Once Pécresse was defeated, he sought to win back leftwing votes by announcing that the rise in the retirement age was up for negotiation. After refusing to raise the minimum wage during his first term, he is now backing it, as well as a pay rise for teachers, dangled two days before the second round. Though largely indifferent to green issues during his presidency, he suddenly announced a Festival of Nature and promised that ‘big business will be green and environmentally responsible.’
He declared himself ‘fond of referendums’ although he has not held any, and ‘not against’ full proportional representation, although he has taken advantage of the majority vote to lock down his authoritarian exercise of power. He must therefore have been surprised that 28% of voters, a record in the past 50 years, chose not to vote on 24 April rather than back a democratic president who has such respect for his fellow citizens. Perhaps he is also offended that an overwhelming proportion of French people (79%) expect social unrest in the next five years (8)
(1) Cevipof survey published in Le Monde, 15-16 April 2022.
(2) This figure is the total won by Le Pen (23.1%), Zemmour (7.1%) and Dupont-Aignan (2.1%).
(3) France Inter, 22 April 2022. Bonapartism and Orleanism were the two major strains of 19th-century French conservatism, each supporting their respective houses and systems of government.
(4) In Neuilly-sur-Seine, Macron got 48.98% of the vote in the first round of the 2022 presidential election, compared to 23.74% in 2017. In the 16th arrondissement, he increased his share from 26.65% to 46.75%.
(5) In the first round, 43% of Macron’s voters were pensioners; 40% of private sector executives backed him.
(6) Speech at the Maison de la Chimie, Paris, on 21 April 2022.
(7) Carl Meeus, ‘La drôle de campagne’ (An odd campaign), Le Figaro Magazine, Paris, 22-23 April 2022.
(8) Cevipof survey published by Le Monde on 15-16 April 2022.