In France, Emmanuel Macron and his new movement “La République En Marche” (LREM) spectacularly won the summer 2017 presidential and legislative (parliament) elections. This victory of the best possible candidate to defeat populism in France was the product of its ability to garner broad support around this goal among the French bourgeoisie, the bureaucracy of the European Union and influential political figures such as Angela Merkel. The Front National (FN), the main “populist” party in the country, had no chance in the second round of the presidential elections against Macron. Weighed down by the backwardness of its origins, in particular by the domination of the Le Pen clan, the double electoral defeat of the FN has plunged it into open crisis. In a front page editorial about the situation there, under the title “France is Falling Apart at the Seams”, the often astute Swiss daily, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote that “the French party system is falling apart”. This analysis was published February 4th 2017, long before the victory of Macron could draw attention away from the crumbling of the established parties. If, as we have seen, the Republican Party in the United States has been hijacked by Donald Trump, and the Conservative Party in Britain is divided, in France both of the main established state parties are presently floundering. The conservative “Les Républicains” (LR) won only 22% of the votes, whereas the Socialist Party (PS) did even worse, gaining only 5,6% at the legislative elections. Beforehand, neither of the candidates of these two parties succeeded in qualifying for the second round of the presidential elections (where the two candidates with the most votes in the first round fight it out). Instead the spectacularly incompetent populist candidate Marine Le Pen lost against the new shooting star Macron, who did not even have a party behind him.
At the beginning of the presidential campaign, most pundits had expected a fight between the president in office at the time, Francois Hollande from the PS, and Alain Juppé from LR, a “moderniser” much favoured by important currents within the French bourgeoisie. Five years previously, Hollande had become president after being nominated by the Parti Socialiste in a highly media-promoted “primary” - a voting procedure of the presidential candidate on the American model. Les Republicans, thinking that what worked for the Socialists could not fail for them too, decided to hold their own “primary”. In so doing, they lost control of the nomination process. Instead of Juppé or another, more or less solid candidate, Francois Fillon was nominated. Although the favourite of the Catholic vote and of parts of the High Society, it was clear to an important part of the French bourgeoisie that Fillon would in no way be assured of victory against Marine Le Pen if he did qualify for the second round. But if political judgement was not a particular quality of the candidate Fillon, stubbornness was. Despite the scandals directed against him, Fillon refused to resign, and LR were stuck with their “lame duck” candidate. On the side of the Socialists, the president in office Hollande renounced a second candidature in view of the absence of electoral or party internal support for him. As for the Prime Minister under Hollande, Manuel Valls, he failed at the party primary, where, out of protest against the leadership, the base nominated instead the hardly known candidate Hamon.
The loss of control by the established parties was the opportunity for Emmanuel Macron. The latter had already tried his hand as an economic and political reformer when he served as an adviser to the first PS led government under president Hollande, and then as member of the second government led by Valls. At that time, his goal seems to have been to start an economic modernisation process in France something along the lines of the “Agenda 2010” of Gerhard Schröder in Germany. But Macron did not stay long in this government, soon realising that, unlike the SPD in Germany, the Parti Socialiste was not strong, disciplined and united enough to put through such a programme.
By the beginning of the year 2017, a very dangerous situation had arisen for French capitalism. In face of the incompetence of the main established parties, the danger of an electoral victory of the Front National could no longer be ruled out. Its ideas about taking France out of the Euro Zone and even out of the European Union were in flagrant contradiction with the interests of the leading fractions of French capital. In face of this danger, it was Macron who rescued the situation. He did so, to an important extent, by using the methods of populism against the populists.
First,Macron succeeded in stealing from the populists one of their favourite current themes: that the traditional right and the traditional left have both failed historically because they have been too busy opposing each other ideologically and in their power struggles to properly serve the “cause of the nation”. But Macron did not only adopt this language, he put it into practise by deliberately recruiting support and supporters both from the left and from the right for his new movement “En Marche”. His claim to serve “neither the left nor the right, but France alone” helped him to politically disarm Marine Le Pen. He was even able to present the FN as itself belonging to the “establishment”, as a longer standing right wing party.
Secondly, Macron responded to the growing general disgust towards the existing parties by putting forward, not a party, but a movement, and above all by putting forward… himself. In doing so, he took into consideration a growing mood within parts of bourgeois society: a longing for the authority of a strong leader. If an “irresponsible” politician like Trump could be successful with such a tactic, why not Macron (who sees himself as a highly responsible one). Instead of hijacking one of the two main established parties, Macron instead incited, from the outside, a kind of partial mutiny and defection from within both of them. As such, he contributed seriously to damaging these parties. According to a theory of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), “charismatic leadership” is one of the three forms of bourgeois rule. In post-World War II in France, it has a tradition: That of General De Gaulle (1890-1970) who, in 1958 “saved” a nation in the throes of the war in Algeria. In doing so, De Gaulle altered the constitutional and party political structure of France in a manner which, in the longer term, proved not to be particularly efficient and stable.
But Macron does not only stand in the tradition of De Gaulle. He is also the expression of a new trend within the bourgeoisie in response to the rise of “populism”. At the spring elections of this year in the Netherlands, the Prime Minister in office, Mark Rutte, described the electoral win of the “pro Euro and pro EU” parties over the enfant terrible of right wing populism, Geert Wilders, as the victory of “good” over “bad” populism. In Austria, in an attempt to counter the populist FPÖ, the conservative ÖVP, for the first time, went into the electoral campaign, not under its own, once prestigious name, but as the “electoral list Sebastian Kurz–ÖVP”. In other words, the party decided to hide itself behind the name of a hoped for “charisma” of the young vice chancellor and foreign minister who recently threatened to mobilise tanks on the frontier to Italy against refugees.
Thirdly, Macron followed the example of the German chancellor Angela Merkel in openly defending the “European Project”. Whereas the established parties undermined their own credibility by adopting the anti-European rhetoric of the NF, while in reality continuing to uphold French membership of the European Union, the Euro-Zone and the Schengen- Zone. This clear stance helped to remind a bourgeois society in disorder that French capital is one of the main beneficiaries of these European institutions.
Like De Gaulle in the 1940s and 1950s, Macron is a stroke of good luck for the French bourgeoisie today. It is mainly thanks to him that France has been able to avoid landing in a similar political dead end to that in which its American and British counterparts presently find themselves. But the longer term success of this rescue operation is anything but guaranteed. In particular, if anything happens to Macron, or if his political reputation becomes seriously damaged, his République En Marche risks falling apart. This is the characteristic liability of “charismatic leadership”. The same goes for the new political star of the French left opposition, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who succeeded in responding to the demise of the traditional bourgeois left (Socialist and Communist Parties, Trotskyism) by creating a left movement around himself, in a manner strikingly resembling that of Macron himself. Mélenchon has lost no time taking up his role of canalising proletarian discontent in face of the coming economic attacks into bourgeois dead ends. Overnight, the division of labour between the two M's, Macron and Mélenchon, has become one of the axes of the politics of the French state. But here again, the movement around Mélenchon remains unstable for the moment, liable to fall apart if its leader falters.