Daniel Gordon, Senior Lecturer in European History at Edge Hill University, shares his thoughts on the French Presidential Election as France heads to the polls.
Emile Chabal has recently suggested that Emmanuel Macron is a kind of 21st century Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. In making this comparison, he is in good company. On 19 April, I witnessed the ill-fated Benoît Hamon give a brilliant speech in Paris’ Place de la République. For a man simultaneously stabbed in both the back by the elephants of the Parti socialiste scrambling for jobs in a Macron government (et tu, Valls?), and in the front by his own leftwing supporters from January’s Socialist primary, many of whom must surely have voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon on 23 April, Hamon seemed remarkably upbeat. But in the course of a largely positive affirmation of the values of the Left in France and around the world, Hamon could not resist the temptation to take side-swipes at the two candidates who have whittled away his vote to a pitiful fraction of what the once mighty PS could in the recent past have expected. Macron, implied Hamon, was insulting the intelligence of the French people by reducing politics to marketing. At the core of Macron’s project, claimed Hamon, there lies nothing but giscardisme relooké. The Macron-Giscard parallel has much to commend itself in terms of Macron’s youth, ideology and haughty technocratic manner. But rather than Giscard’s election in 1974, I would like to suggest a second comparison, the presidential election of 1969: the similarities and differences between it and 2017 arguably illustrating some of the underlying long term continuities in the structures of French politics.
We are constantly told that the current election is unprecedented in terms of the elimination of the main parties of both Left and Right at the first ballot. But we are now at the third out of ten presidential elections during the Fifth Republic where no candidate of the Left has qualified for the second ballot. It is of course the precedent of 21 April 2002 that is uppermost in most people’s minds, but the spectre of June 1969, buried in the mists of time, has started to resurface too. In not seeking re-election in 2017, François Hollande joins the company of a man with whom he otherwise bears little resemblance, Charles De Gaulle – who had, it is often forgotten, only once been directly elected in a presidential election (in 1965), but resigned following a referendum defeat in the spring of 1969. Although in scale Nuit Debout and the wider 2016 movement against the El Khomri Law are scarcely commensurate with May 1968, both sets of social movements certainly served to dramatically highlight a decline already underway in popular consent for an existing government. In both cases the state often gives a sense of being edgy and under threat: on the night of the first ballot results, having watched the results in the company of a bar full and more of Mélenchon supporters in Ménilmontant, I counted at least 16 vanloads of CRS heading one after the other towards the Place de la Bastille as, meanwhile a small group of would-be demonstrators could be heard repeatedly chanting ‘Paris debout – tous les soirs!’. Later that evening, the distinctive smell of tear gas could be sensed from one side of République to another – all of this giving a small whiff of how the political period around 1969 was strongly marked by the aftershocks of May.
But the most obvious similarity is in vote share of the candidates of the Left. Mélenchon’s almost-20% and Hamon’s 6% resemble nothing so much as the 21% of the Communist Party’s Jacques Duclos and the 5% of the Socialist Gaston Defferre in 1969. For there is no magic law that says the ‘Left of government’ have to outscore the ‘Left of the Left’: it is possible we might be reverting to the period from the 1940s through to the 1970s where quite the opposite rapport de forces predominated. The comparison may sound far-fetched, given that Mélenchon’s deepest political roots lie in a kind of Trotskyism rather than the Moscow-loyalist Stalinism of Duclos, but bear with me. Like Mélenchon, Duclos had, to say the list, been around the block a bit: he was a founder member of the PCF back in 1920, just as Mélenchon was already in 1969 a noted organiser of his fellow lycée students. Mélenchon’s carefully constructed image of the incorruptible, uncompromising tribune of the plebeian masses, the Left that unashamedly expresses the anger and ressentiment of ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’, is really quite similar in essence to the reason why millions of working class people used to be attracted to vote Communist election after election, even when there was no realistic prospect of victory under the Fifth Republic electoral system. Like Mélenchon, Duclos – another experienced member of the Senate – campaigned vigorously and was acknowledged by his political opponents as a talented orator. For like Mélenchon, Duclos placed greater emphasis than other candidates on speaking at big public meetings. Like Mélenchon, Duclos presented himself as not a conventional politician but as a devoted militant – and claimed to represent not a party but a wider constellation of democratic forces excluded from the system, taking care to ensure non-Communist names were prominent on his support committee. Like Mélenchon in 2017, Duclos successfully managed to tone down some of the more extreme implications of his political positioning in order to reach a wider audience: just as commentators have suggested the Mélenchon of 2017 felt more relaxed and reassuring than the fiery Mélenchon of 2012, so Duclos in 1969 hardly used the work ‘communism’: he was all ‘peaceful transition to socialism’, ‘respect for private property’, and so on. The results were impressive: one of the main surprises of the entire election was Duclos unexpectedly finishing only 2% short of a place in the second ballot, just as Mélenchon has done in 2017. Indeed, although partly based on hoovering up votes from disillusioned former Hollande voters in traditional urban Socialist bastions like Lille, Toulouse, or Montpellier, Mélenchon’s relative success was also based on a partial recreation of the Communist vote from Duclos’ time in a way that has eluded the ‘Left of the Left’ since the PCF’s 1980s decline. It is telling that amongst the few departments where Mélenchon managed to beat overall Le Pen, Macron and Fillon alike to top the poll were the Seine-Saint-Denis, the Dordogne and Martinique. On the face of it the northern banlieue of Paris, the rural southwest and the Caribbean are places that have little in common with each other apart from high levels of poverty, but it seems no coincidence that all three are traditional bastions of the Communist Party: Duclos himself represented the Seine-Saint-Denis. Around St Denis town centre today, there seem to be more posters for the Algerian elections than for any candidate in the French elections to the Right of Mélenchon.
That said, the fit is less good (their scores aside) between Defferre and Hamon. Certainly both were men from within the Socialist party apparatus with, nevertheless, a stubborn streak of independent bloody-mindedness: Defferre’s bizarre sword duel with a Gaullist deputy he insulted in the National Assembly in 1967 perhaps mirrors Hamon’s own hobby of boxing. And it would seem that in both cases their defeat was both a consequence and cause of moments of instability and reshuffling of the deck of cards of the French centre-left. For if 1969 marked the funeral rites of the old SFIO and the beginnings of the emergence of the modern PS, then many are speculating that 2017 marks the end of the PS as we know it. Indeed, while the recent innovation of open primaries has been much criticised for producing candidates like Hamon or Francois Fillon – who enthuse their party’s core supporters but fail to reach a wider electorate – parties washing their dirty laundry in public too close to an election, giving voters the perception of hopelessly split parties, is hardly a new phenomenon. One of Defferre’s major weaknesses was that he received little support from rivals like Guy Mollet and François Mitterrand, following disputes about the outcome of the Alfortville Congress of May 1969 which, less than a month before polling day, had both formally founded the Nouveau parti socialiste and designated Deferre as its presidential candidate – just as Hamon received little support from PS heavyweights who were either openly supporting Macron or covertly undermining Hamon’s campaign. Deferre was therefore perceived, like Hamon, as a mere candidate of a part of a party. It is ironic that in 1969 that kind of jostling for position between members of the same political camp was seen as a relic of the Fourth Republic. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The background to the refusal of the PS apparatus to back the winner of their own primary was Hamon’s red-green-libertarian-socialist-feminist-anti-racist platform, which in ideological terms bears little resemblance to Deferre’s (whose penchant for immigrant-bashing as Interior Minister in the early 80s was in today’s terms more Valls than Hamon). In many respects Hamon resembles more closely another 1969 candidate – the young Michel Rocard, then of the Parti socialiste unifié. In his 19 April speech, Hamon claimed that he ‘loves the whole of the Left’, both the ‘Left which governs’ and the ‘Left which protests’, reeling off a long list of names and movements, from Jean Jaurès to Bernie Sanders. This is today an unfashionable combination of positions to seek to straddle, because opinion has become so polarised between that ‘Left which governs’ and ‘Left which protests’, represented in almost caricatural form by Macron on the one hand and Mélenchon on the other. But as a political aspiration, Hamon’s mirrors quite closely the aim of the PSU and its notion of ‘revolutionary reformism’ in the 1960s and 1970s, with one foot inside the system and one outside. As has been acknowledged by some commentators, some of the more striking elements of Hamon’s programme, including a universal basic income and a tax on automation, originate in precisely the kind of New Left thinking espoused by the PSU, that was arguably decades ahead of its time in conceptualising Left policies addressed to the complex problems of modern society. Not for nothing were books by André Gorz, one of the key figures in that strand of thought, on sale at Hamon’s last stand in the Place de la République, alongside works by, amongst others, Pierre Rosanvallon and Antonio Gramsci. Talking of which, Hamon supporters could probably do with some optimism of the will right now, for the result shows how hard, even today, are innovative ideas of social transformation to sell to the electorate in the context of a Fifth Republic presidential election campaign which, as people were already complaining in 1969, lends itself to demagogy and oversimplification. In 1969, Rocard achieved a result of nearly 4% that was good for a small party of dissidents, but would be disastrous for a party aspiring to government. Yet the same month, Rocard even managed to win a by election against the outgoing Gaullist prime minister in the Yvelines – the same outer suburban department in which Hamon’s constituency lies today, and where themes around ‘quality of life’ dear to both have a certain distinct relevance.
Moving further to the Right, the obvious parallel would be that Macron is not the first centrist to reach the second ballot in a Fifth Republic presidential election: that honour fell to Alain Poher, the President of the Senate – and therefore interim President of the Republic after De Gaulle’s resignation – whose score at the first ballot of the 1969 election was very similar to Macron: 23%, despite facing criticisms, again like Macron, that he lacked a clear programme. But what if Macron were neither Giscard nor Poher, but Pompidou? Again the comparison may seem outlandish, both because Macron’s market liberalism is closer to Giscardism than Gaullism, and because of the nature of the epoch: Pompidou never felt the need to append an exclamation mark to the name of his party (the ‘Union des Démocrates pour la Ve République!’, anyone?). But if Macron wins, his election will represent a remarkable continuity with the previous regime for what is supposedly a time of total rupture and upheaval – just as Pompidou’s did. The metaphor of father and son has come to attach itself to the strange relationship between Hollande and the boy wonder Macron, just as it did to that between De Gaulle and his dauphin, Pompidou. To prove himself worthy of his inheritance, the son must at different times obediently follow, rebel against and then reconcile with the father. As Marine Le Pen has noticed, Macron’s weakness is his sense of entitlement to office, and the resentment it widely arouses outside the charmed circle of Parisian elites.
Yet the manner of Macron’s rise to power bears some uncanny resemblances to that of Pompidou. Like Macron, Pompidou seemed to emerge seemly straight from nowhere into the summits of political power by a kind of effortless superiority that sidestepped many of the usual rungs on the political ladder. Just as the presidential election is Macron’s first ever election campaign as a candidate (and it shows), so Pompidou had never been elected to anything so much as a local council until 1965, by which time he had been Prime Minister for three years, having been as unheard of to a wider public when appointed PM in 1962 as Macron was prior to his appointment as Economics Minister in 2014. Yet both men could point, as evidence of their not being quite as elite as their critics claimed, to relatively modest provincial backgrounds as the children of middle-class professionals whose own parents had benefitted from the upward mobility of the republican education system. Like Macron, Pompidou had a passion for French literature: although this did not lead to him marrying his French teacher, it did lead him to become one himself, having – unlike Macron – passed the entrance exam to the Ecole Normale Superieure. Like Macron, Pompidou spent a period working for Rothschilds’ Bank, a fact sufficient in both cases to arouse furies of indignation from extreme Left and extreme Right alike. With both men, discussion of this element on their CV has not always been free from antisemitic overtones. Indeed Pompidou was also the victim of the 1969 equivalent of ‘fake news’, namely the false rumours that circulated attempting to implicate his wife in the murder of the Yugoslav bodyguard of the film star Alain Delon.
Mélenchon’s refusal to issue a consigne de vote to his supporters for the second ballot is superficially reminiscent of Duclos’ famous declaration that the choice between Pompidou and Poher consisted of a choice between ‘bonnet blanc‘ and ‘blanc bonnet’, organising an active campaign for abstention at the second ballot. Yet surely the difference, one which brings us to the central, glaring, difference between 1969 and 2017, is that the second ballot of this election is taking place between a centrist and the Front National. The utter transformation in the fortunes of the extreme Right between those two dates can scarcely be overstated. It is even more stark than the troubles of the mainstream Right (though the contrast between Pompidou’s first-ballot score in 1969 to Fillon’s today is itself stark). In 1969 the candidacy of Pierre Sidos, founder of the 1960s neo-fascist student movement Occident – whose modus operandi was to roam around university campuses beating leftist students with iron bars – was rejected by the Conseil constitutionnel on the grounds of irregularities in some of his signatures. When Le Pen père did first manage to stand in 1974, he could not even get 1% of the vote. Today, a member of the same political family, the candidate of a party whose raison d’être, according to its founding ideologue François Duprat, was to disguise fascism as a normal political party, the candidate of a party whose founding congress in 1972 was attended by former OAS members and even by men who had served in SS uniform, stands on the brink of a share of the vote that would have been utterly unimaginable in 1969.
So whereas it was understandable that a Communist should have seen little difference between two candidates whose political instincts were both located somewhere on the Centre-Right, what is from an external perspective shocking about today’s current crisis of faith in the Fifth Republic is that so many people on the Left genuinely do not see a difference worth voting for between a centrist and the Front National. Tell this to the average leftwing person in the UK and they will gasp in astonishment. Yet talk to a French left-abstentionist (by which I also include those planning to cast a vote blanc), and the explanation starts to become apparent. I first realised that something strange was happening on the French Left when I spoke to a group from the youth wing of Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts at the European and Global Greens Conference in Liverpool at the beginning of April. When asked what I thought about the French election, I replied that I was worried by the strength of the FN, and by the likelihood that the outcome would be, at best, Macron, and at worst, Le Pen. The response that they were not sure that Macron would be the better outcome, because it is people like Macron who are the cause of the FN’s rise. I was not expecting them to like Macron (I don’t either), but I really was not expecting them to suggest he could be equated with Le Pen. Yet since then I have heard a similar version of this argument from people on other political tendencies on the French Left. The moment when it really sunk in for me came on the night of 23 April, when I saw a small group of youth protesting in chaotic fashion in the Place de la République. Having witnessed comparable scenes, on a larger scale, in the Place Masséna in Nice on 21 April 2002, I assumed that they were there to protest against Le Pen. But, no, I realised to my horror that they were there to protest against Macron and Le Pen equally, as they chanted, ‘Le Pen, Macron, même combat!’.
If you ask a left-abstentionist (by which I also include those planning to cast a vote blanc), why they are planning to do this, they will generally orient the bulk of the conversation towards what is wrong with Macron. This element of the argument is the part that is predictable from their political perspective, and relatively well grounded factually: Macron intends to rip up the code de travail, is the candidate of big capital, etc, etc. But what seems significant is that the entire issue of the FN appears, if at all, only as a relatively secondary afterthought. The assumption appears to be: Macron is ahead in the polls and will therefore win anyway even without my vote – an argument which rests on a philosophical paradox. The left-abstentionist who genuinely does not want the FN to win is implicitly hoping that not too many people will agree with their own position, for if they do then Le Pen wins. As none other than Mélenchon himself pointed out back in 2002, left-abstentionists are therefore tacitly relying on someone else to do their devoir citoyen for them. As a political strategy, this seems somewhat akin to a game of Russian roulette.
However where things become really worrying is the assumption, sometimes implicit, sometimes even explicit, that risking an FN victory is justified because the FN is no longer what it was. The argument therefore becomes: yes the FN is awful, but no worse than what is awful about mainstream republicanism. Older readers may remember there used to be a theoretical debate about whether the FN is fascist or populist. What is striking today is that there is barely even a debate about this: the possibility the FN might still be fascist is today considered hopelessly old-fashioned. There is no question of the defence of democracy against fascism because Le Pen won’t really set up a dictatorship: Marine is républicain, social, etc, the institutions of the 5th Republic suit her perfectly well and anyway she lacks the paramilitary means to install a dictatorship. And anyway, under Hollande there is already a state of emergency and Macron used Article 49.3, therefore there is no real democracy. To see what is wrong with this argument, it is only necessary to consider what the historical equivalent would be under the late Weimar Republic: the centrist Heinrich Brüning has a tendency to rule by decree under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, therefore it is a matter of indifference to me whether Brüning or Hitler is Chancellor. Parts of the extreme Left today seem to be walking into a trap worthy of the Comintern’s Third Period. (By contrast, what remains of the actual French Communist Party today is calling for a vote for Macron on Sunday, then to oppose him afterwards. When I chanced upon a PCF stall on May Day leafletting with this message selling flowers, and I said I agreed with them, I was surprised to find an older PCF militant so happy with this that she actually crossed herself. She is, she explained, from Lourdes…). But trying to make those kind of parallels today makes one feel like a walking outdated history textbook. Somehow all those lessons from the past are not supposed to be relevant because Marine Le Pen is not a real fascist. I would conclude that even among the FN’s most implacable opponents, all Marine Le Pen’s dédiabolisation stuff – all the grotesque lies that the FN is secular, is republican, is Gaullist, etc, etc, has worked. It is not only the cod-Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan who has been deceived. Truly, Marine has completed Duprat’s dirty work.
But what I think has also exacerbated the climate of abstentionism, of a bizarre insouciance towards the idea of the FN in power, is the confirmation of a pre-existing tradition on some parts of the Left of extreme suspicion towards what used to be called bourgeois democracy, a suspicion which can today find a wider echo among a deeply disillusioned public than it has for a long time. There has long been a nihilistic mode of thinking in parts of the extreme Left that would, to put it crudely, rather let Le Pen win and watch everything burn than sully its moral purity by voting for an evil capitalist like Macron – or in some cases, rather than vote for anyone at all. At its most extreme, Alain Badiou has in the past boasted of not having voted in any election since 1968. Before the first ballot, posters from one Marxist-Leninist groupuscule calling for a total boycott of the elections could be found around the northernmost fringes of Paris and in the Seine-Saint-Denis. Even those tendencies on the extreme Left that do have a long tradition of participation in elections are often quite explicit in their belief that elections change nothing. On 21 April I heard the last person alive to have stood for president in 1969, Alain Krivine, address a small meeting in a housing estate in Cergy-Pontoise (an audience consisting literally of 25 people and a dog) in support of the candidacy of Phillippe Poutou of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste, who would, it turns out, get the same 1% of the vote as Krivine had 48 years before as the candidate of the NPA’s predecessor the Ligue communiste. Krivine’s urbane, cultured tone contrasted to the rapid delivery of the Bordeaux Ford factory worker Poutou, in the now famous TV debate clip in which Poutou accused both Fillon and Le Pen of theft. In his memoirs Krivine has said that, looking back, he is surprised he managed to get as much as 1%, because at the time he spoke in such an abstruse intellectual language. But what was striking to me about the Cergy-Pontoise meeting was that the underlying message was barely changed from 1969. Krivine argued that the real struggle is in the streets and workplaces, and that the presidential election is simply a useful means of propaganda for social struggles, a message echoed in the pages of Poutou’s campaign manifesto. In other words, the NPA is still in a rejection of representative democracy as total as any pre-1914 anarcho-syndicalist.
Compared to this, Mélenchon – an admirer, it is sometimes forgotten, of Mitterrand and Lionel Jospin – is a relative moderate. But it is hard not to see Mélenchon’s refusal to call for a vote for Macron as both consistent with his populist strategy and a bid to keep La France Insoumise together long enough to win as many seats as possible in the parliamentary elections. If this election has taught us anything it is that these days, to get your place inside the system, you have to turn up the volume to maximum on your anti-system credentials. What this holds for the future of French democracy remains to be seen.
All opinions are those of the author.