Presidential campaign in France: populism and anti-populism, two expressions of capitalism’s dead-end

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After the push from the extreme right in Austria and Holland, the Brexit vote in the Uk and the victory of Donald Trump in the USA, France could be the next big power to see a populist movement at the gates of power, or at least to seriously shake up the electoral machine. While the more lucid factions of the bourgeoisie, both right and left, are not at all just folding their arms faced with this objective threat to the state and the ruling class, the scenario of a victory by marine Le pen at the next presidential election is taken sufficiently seriously to mobilise the European governments and send shivers through the financial markets. Such an event, at the heart of the European motor, would pose a major danger to the EU, much greater than Brexit. It would be a disaster for Germany and all the pro-European governments, potentially menacing the imperialist balance of power at the historic centre of capitalism.

The electoral game is off-balance

As we have previously underlined in previous articles, the roots of populism in Europe and the USA are in the first instance a result of the historical weakening of the traditional government parties, which have been discredited by decades of attacks against living and working conditions, by unbearable levels of chronic mass unemployment, by the cynicism, hypocrisy and corruption of numerous political and economic spheres, and by their incapacity to offer the masses the illusion of a better future. Faced with a working class which for the moment is unable to put forward a revolutionary perspective and pose a tangible threat to capitalist society, we are seeing a mounting tide of indiscipline, of every man for himself, both at the international level and in the relations between the different bourgeois cliques. The examples of this latter phenomenon in France are legion, such as the battle between Villepin and Sarkozy, who, in 2004 around the “Clearstream” affair , threatened to hang his opponent on a butcher’s hook, or, in 2012, the merciless rivalry between Copé and Fillon to get to the top of the party of the right, are good illustrations of the dangers such a process poses to the political life of the ruling class.

The other essential factor for understanding the surge of populism is the current political weaknesses of the working class, in particular its huge difficulty in identifying itself as the only social class capable of overturning the capitalist order. Faced with the incessant attacks of the bourgeoisie, there are real feelings of revolt within the proletariat and strata of the petty bourgeoisie. But given the lack of a real proletarian political perspective, this discontent can’t express itself on the terrain of the class struggle. For those who are deeply fed up with what’s going on, the only apparent answer is either to withdraw from any political involvement, or to support parties which are fraudulently presented as being against the “system”, who are marginalised and attacked by the mainstream media, and who are prepared to purge society of “elites” and “foreigners”. In sum, a whole mish-mash of demagogy based on social frustration, despair, and the hunt for scapegoats.

All these elements lie behind the growing difficulty of the state apparatus to put forward strategies based on parties best suited to the needs of capital. This is how a person as irresponsible and incompetent as Donald Trump has been able to get into the White House against the will of virtually the whole American political establishment, the more rational parts of the media and show business.

Not one populist force really stands against the system, every one of them are ready, in their own way, to defend the interests of capital. But the upsurge of these movements still represents a serious problem for the bourgeoisie. The defence of the national capital in the period of decadence opened up in 1914 has up till now demanded a strict subservience of the various political factions around the state power, around common capitalist interests which overrule the particular interests of this or that clique or party. Since 1945, the artifice of democratic pluralism has been assured by the alternating game of the more responsible parties of left and right. But the current populist movements have a totally irrational and obscurantist approach. Lacking a clear vision of the objective interests of their class, bereft of any real competence, they threaten at any moment to create havoc at the summit of the state and to block its proper management, as every day in the catastrophic presidency of Trump seems to demonstrate.

The extreme right in France: stronger than ever

In France, the Front National (FN) is for many the embodiment of those who have been “left behind” by the most recent phase in the globalisation of capitalism. Its incoherent programme is not even taken that seriously by many of its own electors. But it is presented as a kind of final resort for “getting things moving”.  This image is greatly helped by the fact that it has never been associated with managing the state. Since the 1980s, when President Mitterand was able to present a rather insignificant assemblage if ancient Petainists, Poujadist shopkeepers , old partisans of colonial Algeria and desperate young skinheads as a major fascist danger, the FN has made considerable progress on the electoral level. The tactic of inflating the FN as a bug-bear escaped the control of the tacticians, so much so that, although it’s still pointed to as a basis for anti-fascist campaigns aimed at reviving the image of the bourgeois republic and its democratic values, the rest of the bourgeoisie is now much more interested in actively weakening the FN.

Part of the French right, headed by Nicolas Sarkozy, has thus taken up the language and themes of the extreme right. In 2007 it managed in 2007 to reduce the electoral base of Jean-Marie Le Pen to a more respectable proportion (10.44% of votes at the first round of the presidential election). But the rapid wearing out of the ‘rational’ right after its spell in power, and above all with the deepening decomposition of the social and political tissue (particularly the rallying of many who had previously voted for the Stalinist party, having being seduced by the rabid patriotism of the FN) allowed Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the old leader, to obtain a historic score at the following presidential lection (17.90%).  

But it was the regional elections of 2015 which really made the French bourgeoisie aware of the scale of the danger represented by the FN, which had become the “first party of France”, with more than 27% of the vote. It has again responded, albeit with much greater difficulties than before, in reviving the tactic of the “Republican front”: the Socialist party withdrew its candidates in favour of the right in two important regions in danger of falling into the hands of the FN. But the victry of the “Republican front” was just a hasty parade faced with the inexorable growth of populism. Despite all the legal and media weapons being used against it by the established factions of the bourgeoisie, Marine Le Pen knows that there is a real possibility of her party entering the Élysée.

The government parties organise in response to populism

The danger represented by the FN to the objective needs of the ruling class is increasing the difficulties of a bourgeoisie which already has a lot on its plate with the economic crisis. The militancy of the working class up to the mid 80s, the archaic nature of the Gaullist right and the role played by Stalinism in the state apparatus still weigh on the French bourgeoisie, which has inherited an enoros bureaucracy and and has always had a hard time modernising its economic structures, in carrying out the reforms needed for the national capital, unlike its immediate competitors, germany and Britain.

The accession of François Hoolande in 2012 clearly corresponded to this necessity of French capital: as in many other countries, the Socialist party represents the most intelligent faction of the bourgeoisie and thus the best placed to carry out the required attacks both at the economic and ideological level. But the beacon measure of Hollande’s presidency, the reform of the Labour Code with the adoption of the “El Khomri” law ended up weakening it and increasing the resistance of certain sectors of the bourgeoisie who are very attached to state intervention and Keynesianism. Although the SP, especially its social democratic wing, has long been in the forefront of the combat against the extreme right, the impossibility of keeping Hollande in power and the weakening of prime minister Valls have made its strategies obsolete.

The right wing has tended to base itself on relatively consensual personalities who have a statesman-like air. But Juppé’s candidature failed at the primaries and against all expectations, Fillon, the incarnation of the more stupid conservative right, came through on the basis of another kind of ‘electoral revolt’ while also playing the card of someone who is badly thought of by the mainstream media. But right from the start the new candidate handled his victory very badly, getting rid of the Sarkozyites from the top of the party, making no compromise on the virulence of his programme (for example, promising to get rid of hundreds of thousands of state employees…) which his own camp described as “radical”, and showing a worrying sympathy for Putin, in flagrant contradiction with the imperialist orientations of the French state. There was a big risk that Marine Le Pen could get the better of him in the second round of the presidential election. But the sabotaging of his candidature, thanks to the revelations about “Penelopegate” (the fake jobs given to his wife and family members) seems to have allowed the bourgeoisie to block his path to the Élysée.

The difficulties on the established right, Hollande’s withdrawal of his candidature and the victory of the ‘radical left wing candidate’ Benoit Hamon in the SP primary, have opened the door to the ‘independent’ candidate, Emmanuel Macron, who is presented as a new face, not mixed up with politicians’ intrigues. Having left the Socialist government in 2016, Macron can put himself forward as a credible alternative for the most lucid elements of the bourgeoisie, as a barrier against populism. What’s looking more and more like a coalition between left, centre and right, a bit like in Germany in 2013 with the third Merkel cabinet, the Hollande clan, a significant sector of the centre right and even of the right, like the MEDEF, and a number of personalities from economic and intellectual milieus like Martin Bouygues, Alain Minc and Jacques Attali seem to be counting on this former banker to block the route of the FN. And this despite the fact that a win for a man without any real anchoring in the state apparatus, and dependent on political spheres with very differing outlooks, could pose real problems for the management of state affairs and end up further accelerating the dynamic towards every man for himself.

Without predicting the result of the next election, especially since the situation is so unstable, it seems that the bourgeoisie is fully aware that the old electoral circus, arranged around the alternation between the traditional parties, is worn out and being rejected. So it is trying to come up with new faces, with people who claim to be doing things ‘differently’ and to be uninvolved in the old wheeling and dealing. But this approach, even if it works for a while, is also likely to be used up and thus to give ground to the most irrational tendencies in society.

EG, 28.2.17