Notes on a bad photo of a sick society, or, What does democracy looks like?

With Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory, the second episode of the electoral process France has been going through is over. The third episode, the parliamentary elections, will take place on June 11 and 18. For months, social life has been frozen by electoral politics, with all their lies, promises, and invectives. The only exception was the rare youth and student reactions to it, in demonstrations in Paris and other big cities, organized around the slogan, “Ni Patrie ni Patron, ni Le Pen, ni Macron,” (“Neither nation nor boss, neither Le Pen nor Macron”), which were immediately repressed by the police and stayed quite isolated.1

Photo: Charles Reeve.

As is more and more the case, the campaign was centered on fear: fear of economic and social insecurity, and the ideological fears of the past. In this context, the extreme right became an essential element of electoral politics. Their ideas correspond to (and reinforce) what millions of people think. Nevertheless, the common use of the reference to fascism is misleading, because today’s extreme right is basically a xenophobic, reactionary, and racist current with a liberal economic program. It is not a mass racist movement demanding totalitarian state intervention in the economy and society. The totalitarian aspect is here reduced to the police-state project—a project which has been pushed now for years by different governments including, with clear determination, the last Socialist government. Citizens vote less and less for ideas, and even less for programs (which are, as everyone knows, a collection of demagogic promises which will probably never be kept), and more and more to refuse the opposite camp. Fear is the central element, stifling people’s self-determination and making them unable to act for themselves.

Now the results are in, and, as in every election, they give us a photo of society, a fixed image and therefore a superficial and distorted one, since societies are bodies in permanent movement. A photo doesn’t let us see what is below the surface, behind the appearance of things. In this particular case, the fact that the photo is not at all clear suggests that below the surface things are also quite confused.

Since the beginning, the choice between the young, fresh banker, a former minister in the socialist government, and the ambitious reactionary politician did not appear to be a real one. As the slogan put it, the choice was between the Bank and Shame (La Banque ou La Honte). Monsieur Macron got more than 66% of the votes but it’s not clear how many of the votes cast for him expressed support for him; most of them are, surely, a rejection of Madame Le Pen. On the other hand, one could say that those who voted for her clearly made a choice for her. But even this is not so clear, since a number of National Front (NF) voters were basically rejecting the continuation of the liberal policies of the recent past and their disastrous social effects, even if they probably share Le Pen’s racist, xenophobic ideas. For sure, the 11 million voters who cast their votes for the NF expressed the state of mind of a big part of French society. They testified to social confusion, distress, discontent, frustration, and hate, which is not easy to face, feelings with deep material roots and not only reflective of ideology. We will go further into this later. A limited but strong sector of Le Pen voters express, as always in French society, a hard right-wing tendency which goes back to the bloody suppression of the Commune by Versailles in 1871, to Petain and collaboration with the Nazis in World War II, to the right-wing reaction against May ’68 and so forth. But the large majority of NF voters express the new trend in modern society that has been called the “wall syndrome”: the enclosure of minds, xenophobia, protection of “ourselves” from the “other,” the refusal of Europe which those who run the NF call “patriotism.”

A third element of obscurity in the situation is what is called nowadays “the second party,” the 12 million abstentionists and the 4 million of those who voted but cast their votes in an irregular manner, leaving them blank or voting for “None.” These numbers are a record in modern French elections and much larger than the NF vote. They represent a big question mark for the system. This massive refusal to choose, even in a situation where ideological fear on both sides was strong, is a new phenomenon, along with the fact that a bigger and bigger number of people now vote without believing that voting means or changes anything. Modern abstention goes well beyond the traditional abstentionism of the “politically conscious abstentionists,” who refuse to play the electoral game, and that of the “apolitical” abstentionists who just don’t care. If people fought in the past for the right to vote, to choose between those who wish to represent them, nowadays people are aware that those they vote for will not represent them. Passive abstention or individual abstention, even if it is politically conscious, is one thing; abstention in the form of an explicit refusal of the representative system­—seen as not adapted to modern times—is another. An attitude that expresses strong doubts about the electoral process and the political system raises, in a negative, not explicit, form the possibility of thinking about another kind of political representation. Never, in recent times, has public discussion about the meaning of voting, elections, and abstention taken such a great dimension in society.

True, the photo is distorted and unclear. But the results are nevertheless surprising, given the way the political machine usually functions in France. A young manager from the capitalist system, without the support of a party and totally unknown a few months ago, made it to the top of the State. The traditional parties, left and right, have collapsed. For sure, this is a deep crisis in the functioning of the political system. What is the meaning of it? I will focus on some aspects to try to make sense of it.

Above all, it is necessary to relate the crisis of politics to the economic and social crisis France is experiencing. A recent study showed how the NF vote and abstention has increased in areas abandoned by the postal service. This banal aspect indicates how the destruction of public services is related to increased poverty, the destruction of social relations, the isolation and atomization of individuals. All that has been the result of the political choices of recent governments in a period of economical stagnation. Following the governments of the Right that preceded it, the last Socialist government left French society in ruins. Continuous deindustrialization, growing unemployment and precarity of work, destruction of public services, destruction of the legal framework of working people’s rights, repression of the poor, together with all the wars going on in the world, with their terrorist consequences and the militarization of public space.2 Besides being a “new political man,” Macron has played a role in this social disaster. As the economics minister in the Socialist government, he was the man who put forward the more aggressively neoliberal laws of the last years, among them the “Work Law,” which destroyed labor protections, and brought hundreds of thousand people on the streets to protest in 2016.

The dire consequences of current capitalist policies have immediate effects on the political attitudes of people affected. The traditional political forces, Left and Right, are unable to deal with this situation; they have lost all credibility, and corruption has become their public face. They are unable to recreate the conditions of social consensus. A common trend in the old capitalist countries (and also in the new ones) is this fracture in the economic and social spaces of the national state. The unequal development which characterizes capitalism is not compensated for by state action so as to create a common national interest. As there are different United States, different Chinas and different Brazils, there are nowadays different Frances: that of the big urban areas and working-class suburbs is more and more separated from the rural and abandoned industrialized zones. The new extreme Right develops its influence in the latter, with the promise to protect the natives by excluding foreigners, a xenophobic welfare state reserved for the French.3 Thus the electoral results show that the NF’s popularity is bigger in the old industrial areas, where the old working class has been destroyed as a social force, and in now isolated and abandoned rural areas. As an NF voter said to a journalist: “We are not fascists, we are forgotten people!” The issue here is the fact that in the field of democratic politics, people feel they have no power; they delegate power to the politicians who they hope will care of them. When nobody does so, they seek a savior. They have lost the capacity to defend themselves and their interests.

In the big urban areas, both the metropolis and the suburbs, the NF is a very weak force, and it was the new extreme-left party France Insoumise (FI), which became the strongest force amongst young people and working-class voters. In the first round FI got more than 7 million votes and missed inclusion in the second round only by a few ten thousand votes. France Insoumise occupied the space left by the collapse of the old Socialist Party and the slow death of the Communist Party.4 There is a fundamental difference between the old left parties and France Insoumise: the later incites people to take their fate in their own hands. Such talk can be seen as a demagogic move, an attempt to bring the independent movements which spread in France last years back into the institutional framework. This new extreme-left force is a mixture of the political past and present. Created out of a traditional left-socialist group, allied to the old Communist Party, it became something different by integrating many militants and others involved in new movements, such as the 2016 Nuit debout.5 In fact, the Communist Party apparatus from the beginning showed some resistance to supporting the new party’s campaign. After the success of France Insoumise the CP finds itself in an uncomfortable position. First of all, because of the implosion of the Socialist Party, which had always helped the Communist Party in local elections. In its program France insoumise defends a “social Europe” and the welfare state, together with a recognition of the crises of the present system of representation, a recognition that the current democratic system is rotten and separated from people’s sovereignty, a failing system which needs to be replaced. These last ideas are the heritage of the new movements. In this way FI is closer to the Spanish Podemos party than to the old extreme Left. Is it just another party that absorbs social protests from below, strangling them while translating them into political slogans? The electoral base of France Insoumise seems to be quite independent for the moment and difficult to be oriented by the leadership. Several analyses suggest that many of the millions of Blank and None votes cast in the second round came from this sector of the political spectrum, while abstention was bigger amongst the traditional right-wing voters. The France insoumise voters seemed to be more reluctant to accept the traditional blackmail of the fear of fascism. And many of them were in the streets the day after the election, in the first demonstration of the Macron period, which took place in Paris, organized by different autonomous groups and radical union sectors under the slogan “A social front against hate and finance.”

It’s hard to predict what will happen to this new political force. The conflict between the new tendencies of FI and the old Communist apparatus is a crucial issue. The success of the FI has dealt a violent blow to the old Communist Party apparatus. Everything depends on how society will react to the measures of the new government.

The first demonstration after the election. Photo: Charles Reeve.

A few hours before the final results of the election, the vice president of the French Employers Association was in the studio of the Belgian francophone television station (RTB) representing and defending Macron: a quite clear sign of the nature of his politics to come. Of course, on French television this could not occur so soon. Nevertheless, the militant sectors of society have a clear perspective on the present situation and know that Macron’s victory means the victory of the modern capitalist class. His talk about the end of Right and Left is a smoke screen to hide his neoliberal conceptions. His promises mean more precarity and work flexibility under state control, the creation of a sort of state of permanent poverty maintained with a minimally larger social protection by the state.

Macron’s job will be a difficult one. He can use the surprise of his victory, his image of a “new young politician,” for a while but not for a long time. His violent neoliberal policies and his ties with the capitalist class are already expected and will face opposition in a society which is full of frustration, dissatisfaction and potential revolt. One of his first jobs will be to try to co-opt the bigger unions to participate in managing his project to “modernize” the labor market—that is to say, to make it even more precarious. In that sense the next struggles may raise new problems for the old unions. As one young guy said to a TV journalist, “I voted Macron because I think it will be easier to fight against him.” It may well be. Certainly only the struggles to come can clarify the political situation. Meanwhile, the present crisis of the capitalist system will follow its course, with Macron as with those who came before him.

– Paris, May 15th, 2017


Endnotes

  1. The police used violence to repress people who tried to rally independently of the “official” trade-union May Day demonstration. The level of violence of police repression is constantly rising in France since the big demonstrations of last year against the Macron Work Law. On this occasion more than 100 people were seriously injured; the media insisted that one cop was slighted burned by the demonstrators… The photo made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
  2. With regard to the “terrorist question,” it should be stressed that the attacks inside France do not seem to have had a strong influence on the elections. There is a growing general understanding that they are related to the wars in which the French state is engaged; while they reinforce the fear of “refugees” and “Islam,” they also reinforce the “isolationist” tendencies present within all the political forces.
  3. This explains also the growing split inside of the NF party itself, between the NF from the old abandoned industrial zones of north and east, with a more xenophobic welfare satate program and the NF of the east-southern zones, more neoliberal-oriented racist, and organized amongst the former French colons from North Africa.
  4. It must be recognized that the last Socialist government took on an important historical function: After the marginalization of the Communist Party (achieved by Mitterrand) the Socialists were able to integrate and destroy the Green Party and, finally, to destroy themselves!
  5. See the reports in Field Notes, June 2016 and July-August 2016.

Contributor

Charles Reeve

CHARLES REEVE lives and writes in Paris.

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