France: nothing new under the Sun?

Despite many months of protests that have shaken the Macron presidency to its core, the radical left did not make an appearance in France’s European elections.

Posters for Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in France’s 2017 presidential elections. Photo: Laurie Shaull / Flickr

A Great Absence

In the European elections in France this May, there was one big absence: the Yellow Vests (gilets jaunes) movement. For the last six months, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to France’s streets in a very radical way in the biggest social movement we have seen since 1968, demanding higher wages and pensions and greater democracy. Polls showed between 50% and 75% of the general population supporting the Yellow Vests, suggesting it could have been a key political force in these elections. In the end, however, when the time came to vote for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the movement was decidedly absent from the public conversation. Some Yellow Vests issued a call to vote for “anything but Macron”, which did little to check the rise of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally). Although various candidates stood who presented themselves as the electoral expression of the Yellow Vests phenomenon, they attracted very few votes. The only party that could have been seen as a legitimate representation of the Yellow Vest movement was the far-left party Lutte Ouvriere, but they instead chose to distance themselves from the gilets jaunes.

The European Trap

The far-right RN (formerly the Front National) won the elections, taking 23.3 % of the vote. Their campaign was based on xenophobia and denunciations of elite corruption. The hypocrisy of the latter charge – Le Pen herself has recently been ordered by European courts to repay several hundred thousand euros that she misappropriated in her role as an MEP – did not stand in the way of RN’s victory.

What this means for the party’s prospects in a future general election is unclear. What is clear is that incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, who presents himself as the last bulwark against the far right, has turned out to be its best ally. Due to the competition between Macron’s ruling party LREM (La République En Marche!, formerly simply En Marche!) and Marine le Pen’s (RN), this election was presented in the press both as a referendum on Macron’s politics, and as a choice between more European integration (LREM) or less (RN). This obscures the issues on which left-wing voters and Yellow Vests supporters were more likely to have voted: low wages and democracy. Many politicians on the left fell into the trap of focusing their campaigning on France’s relationship with the European Union, and their low vote share (all left parties combined received less than 30% of votes) shows that this was a losing tactic. The Greens did manage to rank third with 13.5 %, but they waged a very confusing campaign, veering between professed anti-capitalism and courting the backing of big business. Conservative candidates took a beating, since Macron has siphoned off a large proportion of their electorate.

Rebuilding the left or rebuilding the workers’ movement?

Seeing the collapse of the left in these elections, many are tempted to say that we simply need to ‘rebuild’ it. But the reformist left has taken power in France many times over the last thirty years, and it has consistently been hard to differentiate their politics from those of the right: pro-privatisation, pro-austerity and anti-immigration. Jean-Luc Melenchon’s left-wing party France Insoumise (France Unbowed) did far worse than they had expected, only just reaching the 5% threshold required to win any MEPs at all. This followed the decision to put forward hard xenophobic policies, declaring opposition to open borders and to legal status for sans papiers (undocumented migrants). The only internationalist or revolutionary challenge was that of Lutte Ouvriere, which received only 0.8% of the vote.

What’s next for France is uncertain – analysing the results of the European elections in France is difficult because of the low turnout (52%, better by 9 points than 2014 but still very low, and considerably lower among young and working-class voters). Nevertheless, the wins for RN should be a warning to us: with the burgeoning danger of the far right, the idea we need to propagate in the workers’ movement is the unity of the working class, whether yellow or red (trade union) vests, migrant or otherwise.

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