Macron may have won, but he will fail

By Jude Woodward

The French presidential elections ended with Macron sweeping into the Élysée Palace on 66 per cent of the vote, and Le Pen roundly defeated. But this is the beginning, not the end. Macron has no alternative to the politics of austerity that have destroyed the Socialist Party, and therefore he will fail. His popularity will be short-lived and the fight between the left and the far right as to which will succeed in hegemonising the increasing alienated French electorate will break out with renewed force.

The votes in the first round of the presidentials confirmed the devastating collapse of Socialist Party support under Hollande, with Hamon garnering only 6.4 per cent of the vote. The roots of this collapse lies in Hollande’s combined policy of austerity and war.

Within two months of his 2012 victory speech that ‘austerity can no longer be inevitable’, Hollande was unveiling the toughest budgetary measures ever introduced in the history of the Fifth Republic.[1] Hollande coupled austerity with a major expansion in the French military role in the Middle East. Following Sarkozy’s role in leading the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, under Hollande France has played a prominent role in Syria – one reason why it has become a particular focus for ISIS inspired terrorist attacks.

Hollande also particularly expanded French military intervention in sub-Saharan Africa, where it increasingly acts as the proxy for the US. In the last five years French troops have been active in Mali, the Central African Republic and Côte D’Ivoire.

The upshot for the French population has been GDP growth averaging less than 1 per cent a year from 2012-16, unemployment averaging 10 per cent or higher, virtually zero growth in real wages – rising only 3 per cent in real terms over four years – while income disparity has increased faster than in other countries of the EU, meaning the lowest paid have seen an overall fall in real incomes.

The political response to this has been the collapse in support for the Socialist Party, accompanied by a continuing polarisation to both the extreme right and to the left in French politics. This tendency has already been seen in the last few elections, but this time was sharply underlined by the roughly similar first round votes for the extreme right, Le Pen, and hard left, Mélenchon, with each receiving around 20 per cent of the vote (Le Pen 21.3 per cent, Mélenchon 19.6 per cent).

At this election the plurality of the votes went to candidates of the centre-right – Macron and Fillon – who scored 24 per cent and 20 per cent respectively, with their combined totals delivering 44 per cent between them in the first round. This combined vote, together with the anti-Le Pen votes accrued from Mélenchon and Hamon supporters, ensured Macron’s victory in the second round.

However, despite his rhetoric of youth – Macron is France’s youngest ever president – and a new broom, the policies that he has to offer are little different and no more effective than those of Hollande. Macron has already committed to budget savings of €60bn (£51bn) over the next five years to meet the EU’s deficit limit of 3 per cent of GDP.

While he has pledged not to raise France’s retirement age from 62, he is planning a major reform of state pension schemes to reduce their benefits to level of the less generous private schemes. And again, while formally keeping the 35-hour week, he plans to introduce legal ‘flexibility’ to allow business to negotiate localised deals on hours and pay. He has also promised to cut corporation tax from 33 per cent to 25 per cent.

Despite his pledge to make some nominal increase in investment – €50bn over five years – these policies will not turn around the stagnation in the French economy and the attacks on working class living standards will continue. This will rapidly lead to a sharp fall in popularity for Macron and whatever government emerges from the legislative elections next month.

The upshot is that the radicalisation to the left and extreme right will continue, with the only open question being the balance between the two. The outcome will be decisive not just for the future of France, but that of Europe as a whole. The left in France must put behind petty divisions – reflected in the decision by the French Communist Party and Mélenchon’s France Insoumise to run counter candidates in June’s legislative elections – and understand the stakes that now confront it. Either a broad left alternative, of the type put forward by Mélenchon in these elections, will capture the leadership of the French working class. Or a right wing populism led by Le Pen, will take that into its hands.

[1] The constitution of the Fifth Republic was introduced under de Gaulle in 1958