Don’t be fooled by France’s election

Foreign Affairs & Security
Thursday, June 1, 2017
Clement Julhia

One would think from France’s recent election that the current wave of nationalism has been stopped at the French dyke. Recall the collective sigh of relief breathed by the press and all those who were certain they had avoided a return of fascism (sic).

Indeed, in almost every way our new president is a vector of continuity for the general regime which has existed since the days of Francois Mitterrand (elected in 1981), for several reasons.

First, his vision – as he likes to call it – is conspicuously empty and it is difficult to remember a candidate who has relied so much on the use of slogans, catchphrases and the incompetence of his opponents rather than the credit of his proposals. One might think a candidate who has nothing to say about what he will do once elected could be expected to go in any direction with his policies. However in reality, this is not the case.

Do not forget that a president in France –like everywhere else – does not rule alone; he will be surrounded by agents of pressure with their own views and interests (parties, government institutions, unions, corporations, banks, international organisations, foreign powers…). A leader who has a clear objective in his rule, will ally with some against others accordingly to try and achieve his goal; one that has no clear vision, on the other hand will simply follow the interests whatever agent of pressure can threaten most his popularity and interests as head of state (i.e. the strongest).

Hence, an empty candidate like this one is bound to act as a blank canvas on which interest groups will be at leisure to paint, and the more power, the bigger the brush.

Second, there is the fact that what we do know about him and his vision is rooted in the most fervent support for a federal Europe any leader France has ever had (or will have, hopefully), and naturally the EU itself is in fact and by law what has been governing EU countries for thirty years and is therefore not a change from the current form of government. On top of this, the EU as well is structurally an empty vessel to be filled by the most powerful agents of public life – what we have taken the habit of calling the “system”, precisely because it too is empty of any clear policy because its voters are from countries with no natural solidarity or common interests.

However obvious it is that France will continue on the path it is on at the moment, it is also interesting to note that most of Macron’s supporters do not see it that way. When asked, they usually claim their vote goes to him because of their belief he will “change things”, as it were.

This touches to an often overlooked aspect of French social history, which makes us as a nation awfully different from others, like the British. France styles itself as the homeland of human rights; while that is a bit of a self-serving title, it is unquestionably, however, the land of revolutionaries, who do not hesitate to overthrow a system however old or strong if we do not find it to our convenience.

To put it simply, the French are always either rebelling or wondering how much more patient they are going to be before rebelling. Right now, after about thirty years of socially libertarian yet fiscally destructive, conformist and increasingly federalist policy (when it comes to the EU), everyone, even among the best-off classes, can sense change is indispensable.

It is inevitable therefore that current elites will do whatever they must to protect themselves from this subversion. To imagine that faced with such popular discontent – recall Hollande’s 4% approval rating at the end of his term – French leaders, whose disdain for the “national” interest is remarkably outspoken and evidenced, would put it way second to their interests is beyond doubt. Right now, the dominant regime (characterised mainly by its Atlanticism, economic deregulation and multiculturalism) has obtained a reprieve from their natural condemnation in the polls through putting forth someone like Macron to absorb our desire for reform while doing nothing of the sort (though we might be pleasantly surprised, I am not counting on it…); but people will not be duped so easily every time and since national sovereignty will ultimately be exercised against those elites’ interests, one can expect they will use this time to bury the idea for good.

This cannot lead to anything other than an equivalent bounce in nationalism.

And the causes for concern do not stop there. There is an economic aspect to this disaster which has not been brought up often enough. It is interesting to see the sociology of the two main candidates’ electorate. One might have noticed that during the campaign, unlike Le Pen, who was looking to please several electorates at the same time – which is likely a cause for her defeat – Macron’s strategy was to stick with the general beliefs and interest of one specific social class, in this case, what Marxists call the bourgeoisie and what it is conventional to call the middle-class, as can be seen through his stance on virtually all economic, societal or diplomatic issues.

Economically, this means he is in favour of deregulation in the labour laws and globalisation of production. Of course, this sort of reform has its advantages in terms of economic expansion; however it also leads to more inequality between those who make money by owning shares or whose job is not outsourceable and others, especially manual workers, whose employment is threatened by foreign cheap labour.

In the short term, therefore, this is an additional reason to want to get rid of this centre-left for those people; in the long-term, this will also be true of the population as a whole when this leads, as it likely will, to an economic crisis similar to that of 2008.

Indeed, increases in GDP naturally drive prices up, which is all right for those whose wealth has increased accordingly, but if the growth in question excludes some of the population, those people have to rely increasingly on credit. Once inequality has increased so much that the poorest cannot even pay their loans, this is when financial crises happen, especially if bond trading by banks is also deregulated.

As it happens, nationalism is not just a social ideal whose many supporters will be given more and more causes for frustration by the current government, it is also seen, with reason, as a necessary tool to protect oneself as a people from the ups and downs of the global economy as well as from the destructive behaviour of domestic actors. The looming crisis I have just described will, as the previous one has, increase the ranks of nationalist militants.

On top of all this, faced with what is essentially a war between economic classes, the government and opposition parties in France (and elsewhere) will do what governments often do in these situations and use ethnic divisions to again deflect social movements, which in turn is just more kindling for civil conflict.

Nobody has failed to notice the principal line of division in Western societies today. It would be a mistake to think France has put an end to this reactionary episode; it has only stalled it and it will only start up again more furious and more extreme than it was before. France has missed an opportunity to reconcile modernity with the eternal aspiration to defend one’s country from serfdom and delayed wars are always all the more violent.

Clement Julhia


Bow Group International Affairs Research Fellow