France 2017: The Establishment Strikes Back?

The far-right is on a roll in 2016. First Brexit and now Trump. Next on the list is the French Presidential election next year. The Front National have been talking up their chances. Following a disappointing term of leadership from François Hollande, who failed to live up to his initial promise, Marine Le Pen is now a serious contender to become his replacement.

There is one (seemingly) logical course that events in 2017 may follow. We saw it before in 2002, when left, and center-right combined to back Chriac against Le Pen Sr  by a huge margin in the second round. In 2012, Le Pen Jr had a similar amount of support compared to her father a decade prior and was kept out of the second round due to the stronger popularity of Hollande and Sarkozy. The difference this time is that Le Pen is polling in the high 20%/low 30% mark. She could make the second round due to popularity alone instead of the vote splitting which helped her father in 2002. While the Socialists (PS), Les Republicans (LR) and others could combine again to defeat her: (1) the trend is alarming and (2) she may have some soft support from fed-up voters who can’t bring themselves to vote for someone like “Crooked Alain”. Indeed the second round polls paint a bleak picture, with 60-40 support for prominent non-Hollande candidates against Le Pen but with swathes of voters preferring to abstain. Given the poor reliability of political polling in recent years, the actual picture could be even scarier.

How can Le Pen be kept out? Given that much of her support now comes from people who would have voted for Hollande/Sarkozy last time around, it’s not impossible to entice them back. We should consider why they chose to switch their support to the FN. It probably all stems from fear and uncertainty surrounding poor economic conditions and a series of devastating terrorist attacks. The FN’s anti-immigration, protectionist and eurosceptic rhetoric offers a perverse message of hope for disaffected voters.

In practice, reducing immigration won’t magically save France from terrorism. Especially if those carrying out terrorist attacks have lived most of their lives in France. Instead, changing French economic practices to give everybody a decent standard of living and a sense of belonging would go further towards easing fear and uncertainty. For example:

  • Reverse changes made to the retirement/pension system. Bring the retirement age back to 60 and the full pension to 65. The pension could be set to a universal payment instead of the contribution-based approach, which only serves to entrench the inequality gap  between rich and poor. Allowing for earlier retirement opens up employment opportunities for younger people and the retirees themselves are happy since they are no longer stuck in a job they might not like!
  • Full youth employment via a national service scheme. I’m not thinking of military conscription, but fixed-term work in the public sector (health, education, police, military, bureaucracy). This would eradicate youth unemployment and would improve the mindset of young people who feel like a legitimate part of society instead of an inconvenience that the free market doesn’t want to take care of. It may also help prepare teenagers for their careers afterwards. The public sector may have an improved capacity to deliver the services required from it.
  • Reduce the 35 hour working week to 30 hours and reduce VAT. In principle, the loss of wages from working fewer hours would be offset by less expensive goods and services (assuming businesses don’t change their VAT-exclusive prices). This would allow more time for people to do things that they enjoy and could help with the distribution of labour, reducing the unemployment rate.

In effect, a more protectionist approach needs to be taken to kick the legs out from under the FN’s chair. Why would a concerned French voter vote for the FN if LR/PS/other can show that they recognize the failings of the current economic paradigm and present a robust plan to change it?

It seems that the “centre”-right LR has other plans in mind. The front-runner from their first primary is François Fillon, who is campaigning on a right-wing (economic and social) platform. His policies are remarkably stupid: increasing VAT, pushing up the retirement age and firing 500,000 public sector workers (while somehow promising full employment by 2022). Were he to succeed, putting 500,000 people out of work in the name of neoliberal economic ideology would be a gift to the FN. The choice between Fillon and Le Pen would be difficult: a bigoted free-marketeer, or a bigoted protectionist? If I were French, there would be no circumstances under which I would vote for Fillon (or Le Pen). The left-right alliance that kept out Le Pen Sr could fall apart, allowing Le Pen Jr to win the presidency.

Instead a candidate such as Emmanuel Macron is much more palatable. He seems to be the Sanders-type candidate with the enthusiastic support of many young people. He doesn’t appear to be a robustly left-wing candidate, but his “pragmatism” would be ideal in order to maintain the support of those on the right hand side of the political spectrum necessary to stop Le Pen. My advice to the PS is to not bother standing a candidate this time around, thus avoid splitting the left vote to give Macron the best possible chance of making it to the second round.

I am being incredibly hopeful here, those high-up in LR/PS won’t be interested in sacrificing their economic ideology or upsetting their corporate supporters. So long as they are in front, they won’t see any need to act differently. We have learned from the USA that 24-7 critical coverage of a candidate can backfire and act as free advertising. The political establishment and the media risk making the same mistakes again. Instead of talking down the FN, talk up France and talk up positive policies that your party can offer to make French lives better. Most importantly, the winning candidate must be able to deliver on their promises to ensure that this far-right domino effect is stopped in its tracks for good.

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7 thoughts on “France 2017: The Establishment Strikes Back?

  1. Finally some constructive suggestions for progressive politics in France!

    Luckily the French system for their presidential elections is quite different from the winner-takes-all rule in many US states, and I hope that this will make it significantly harder for Marine Le Pen than for Donald Trump.

    I think that France has always followed rather left-wing economic policies and done quite well with that. Up until 2002. Suddenly many European countries shared the currency, but they still ran their own national fiscal and economic policies. This is what I consider to be the major flaw in the design of the Euro.

    Right-wing economics in neighbouring Germany have lead to salary dumping and precarious jobs. Prior to 2002, the D-Mark would have become more expensive while the Franc would have depreciated, making German procucts more/too expensive for the French and hence strengthening the French domestic economcy. Since 2002, this exchange rate mechanism has disappeared and hence Germany has flooded the European market with their now cheap products. As a result, French companies with their much higher salaries are no longer competitive, with all implications for unemployment and social disparities that are now apparent (just like in all other European countries that are suffering under Germany’s social dumping).

    Les Républicains now follow the idiotic idea to copy Germany’s seemingly successful economic policies. Leaving aside that France could never catch up in a competition with Germany for lower salaries, this would only entrench existing disparities further.

    I’d still see Emmanuel Macron as more of a Clinton-type candidate, but maybe he’d finally speak out against the disastrous economic politics of his German neighbours, who continue to suck the blood out of France and all other countries in the Euro zone. Europe urgently needs a strong alliance against German neoliberalism if it wants to survive this decade, and who else but France could become the front runner of this syndicate?

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    • I knew my analysis had a hole in it somewhere, I didn’t look into the effect of the euro in terms of creating the current situation. I originally thought that initiatives like those I suggested would fall foul of some EU regulation. It seems strange that fiscal policies are decoupled from monetary policy. A parasitical relationship among the member states seems inevitable. Even Germany will be in trouble should their euro neighbours reach such a situation where they can no longer afford cheap German products.

      One solution could be EU-wide fiscal policies (or some USA-type overarching federalism), but I think that would be quite unpopular. The Federal German Parliamentary elections next year could also be very important, although given that the SPD and the Greens were happy enough to push through Agenda 2010, they might not bring about the needed change.

      The concerns you’ve raised are important because if the LR return to power in France, then the FN will likely have an even better chance in 2022. Structural change beyond France is needed to stop the growth of the far-right in all of Europe.

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      • You’re right, there’s also the Maastricht Treaty that limits France’s scope to respond to their economic problems. The limits on national debt and the annual deficit effectively rules out any Keynesian type policies. I don’t think any of your three points would immediately violate any EU regulations, though, it could just happen that lower VAT rates and improved social services cause France to exceed the admissible deficit.

        I definitely support the move towards an ever-tighter union with the goal of a federal and social European Republic, even though I’m quite aware that this is not going to happen in the near future.

        Germany’s export-oriented strategy is probably under great threat at the moment, since (1) other European countries won’t be able to afford all these imports for much longer, (2) Germany’s second most important markets in the US and China are moving towards more protectionism and (3) Germany has long exceeded the maximum export surplus of 6% imposed by the European Commission, that is now considering sanctions against Germany.

        Realistically, I don’t think we can expect any positive surprises from the German SPD and Greens: both parties support Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of the founding fathers of the Agenda 2010, in the upcoming presidential election. Additionally, the Greens’ subservient flirts with the CDU clearly foreshadow in which political direction they’re heading.

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  2. François Fillon “plan[s] to slash half a million public sector jobs, reduce the welfare state, cut taxes for the rich and loosen business regulations […]
    ‘I’ll do everything for entrepreneurs!’ he declared at his final rally in Paris”
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/27/francois-fillon-on-course-to-win-french-primary-to-be-candidate-for-the-right

    *facepalm*

    @Parti Socialiste: you’ll surely find a more convincing candidate than François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. Please don’t mess it up, please!!!

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  3. Ha ha, I’m actually starting to wonder whether the German newspaper taz is following this blog!!! They’ve just published a comment on https://taz.de/Kommentar-Fillons-Wirtschaftsplaene/!5357678/:

    “Germany was the first Euro country that lowered its salaries, to get hold of market shares for its export goods. To catch up with Germany, Fillon would have to lower French salaries by about 20%. That is impossible.

    France is too late to help itself with lousy tricks at the cost of its neighbours. Any austerity programme is hence bound to fail–and will support the right-wing populists further.”

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    • Thanks for the translation, I’ve become quite lazy at teaching myself German. Motivation to continue always helps!

      It’s good to see some voices in the media recognize that Fillon’s candidacy is a gift to Le Pen, not a setback. He is the worst of both worlds: similar views to Le Pen on social issues and a free-market approach to the economic matters. Now I know how those who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton felt!

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