After a longstanding stranglehold on the political system, the two major parties are quickly disintegrating. Arising from those ruins are three presidential candidates:
- A charismatic far-right candidate, originally thought to be a long shot before gaining huge support by openly espousing fascist ideals and consistently dog-whistling to racists and nationalists,
- A centrist candidate, trying desperately (but failing) to downplay various ties and allegiances to the current system,
- A leftist candidate, first thought to have no chance whatsoever, who ‘out of nowhere’ has inspired a huge movement of followers, whose sudden surge in the polls, threatens the chances of the centrist (who was thought to be a shoo-in.)
It sounds like the United States in the summer of 2016. And it is, for the most part, save for the fact that Bernie Sanders is only really a “leftist” by American standards. But what I am describing above isn’t the United States last summer, but instead what is happening in France on the eve of the first round of the 2017 French presidential elections.
The similarities between the two scenarios are striking, but what is also just as striking are the differences.
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Similar to the American system, the French political system is often referred to as a “two-party” system; unlike in the United States, the parties in France have gone through various manifestations, alliances, and name changes. But for many decades now, the winner of Presidential elections in France have come from either the Republican Party (the dominant center-right party) or the Socialist Party (the dominant center-left party).
While the American political system (both in terms of structure as well as maneuvering on the part of the corporate powers that control it) allows little to no power or voice for any other than the two major parties, France uses a parliamentary system in which power-sharing is built into the structure, allowing smaller parties with much less power to also participate.
This is evident in the composition of the legislatures in the two countries, but in light of the current presidential election cycle in France and the presidential election cycle that recently concluded in the United States, it’s also important to note how this manifests in the participation in presidential debates.
In the United States, any third-party candidate who wishes to participate in presidential debates faces many barriers. Over the years, numerous third-party candidates have been excluded from the presidential debates on account of not polling at high enough numbers to qualify. Last summer, once the major candidates were decided through the primary system, the presidential debates only included the candidates from the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Parties, despite the fact that there were nearly two dozen candidates running for President of the United States.
On the other hand, in the French presidential debate held last week, otherwise known as Le Grand Débat, there were eleven candidates on stage debating each other in front of a national audience. Of those eleven candidates, three of them were overtly anti-capitalist. The candidates were as follows:
- Emmanuel Macron, from En Marche! (On the Move), a centrist party founded by Macron which claims to represent ideas from both the Left and Right.
- Marine Le Pen, from the Front National, a far-right party founded four decades ago by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
- Benoît Hamon, from the Parti Socialiste, the center-left party of France’s current President, François Hollande.
- Jacques Cheminade, from Solidarité et Progrès, a wing of the LaRouche Movement.
- Philippe Pouton, of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), a far-left party founded in 2009.
- François Fillon, from Force Republicaine, a center-right party that is a newer manifestation of the former Union for Popular Movement, founded in the early 2000s by former French president Jacques Chirac.
- Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from La France Insourmise (Unsubmissive France), a new left party founded by Mélenchon last year, formerly of the Parti de Gauche, which was also founded by Mélenchon nearly a decade earlier.
- Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, from Debout la France (Arise France), a right-wing party which he founded in 1999.
- Nathalie Arthaud, of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), a Trotskyist party that traces its roots back to 1939.
- François Asselineau, of the Union Populaire Républicaine, a right-wing nationalist party that advocates a strong anti-EU stance and was founded by Asselineau in 2009.
- Jean Lassalle, of Resistons!, a centrist party that he founded last year which concentrates on rural issues.
As an American, it is inconceivable to me that we would ever witness a presidential debate in which not only one, but three separate candidates were not only avowed anti-capitalists but openly identified as Marxists or Communists. And yet, in France, such a scenario is de rigueur.
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Unlike American elections, there are potentially two rounds of voting in the French presidential elections. In the first round, voters have a choice between all listed candidates. Assuming that no single candidate accumulates more than 50% of the total vote, the top two candidates then face off in a second round of voting a few weeks later. This year, the first round of elections is being held on April 23rd, and the second round will take place on May 7.
Under this structure, voters are free to vote for the candidate that they actually prefer, as opposed to being stuck in the ethical quandary that so many American voters find themselves in, such as in the last election where “a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Trump.” And historically, once the first round is over, the supporters as well as the parties of the candidates that do not advance align with each other as a coalition in order to defeat the candidate which poses the greatest threat to their beliefs and positions.
While political commentators and the public alike have assumed for months that no candidate would amass 50% of the vote and that the runoff would consist of Marine Le Pen versus either François Fillon or Emmanuel Macron, in the past few weeks the popularity and accompanying polling numbers of Jean-Luc Mélenchon have surged. This is in large part to the effects of Le Grand Débat, where Mélenchon arguably outperformed all of the other candidates while Le Pen, Fillon, and Macron were seen as performing poorly.
Similar to the rise of Bernie Sanders in the American primaries during the summer of 2016, the supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon are quickly mobilizing with the realization that their candidate has a chance to pull an upset. But unlike in the American system, the major parties in France do not have the opportunity or ability to suppress that surge.
Adding to the chances of Mélenchon’s success is the fact that France has strict broadcast rules requiring that equal time be given to all candidates and all views. While such laws exist in theory in the United States, in reality there are so many exceptions that the law holds no real strength. However, in France, where the law is strictly enforced to the point where dozens of government employees monitor all television stations and measure the amount of time given to each candidate to the second, the equal time law has allowed Mélenchon to reach a national audience in a manner that a candidate like Bernie Sanders could have only dreamed of.
Marine Le Pen
The candidate that has gotten the most attention by far, both in France as well as internationally, is Marine Le Pen, who within the course of a few years has transformed the Front National from a formerly fringe party into a mainstream contender.
The Front National (FN), founded in 1972 by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is rooted mainly in a rejection in the values of the French Revolution and a deep anger over Charles de Gaulle granting independence to Algeria after the conclusion of the Algerian War, in which Le Pen was directly involved. Throughout most of its history, the FN has been openly anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, fascist, anti-immigrant, and isolationist. In the nearly forty years in which Jean-Marie Le Pen ran the FN, he was prosecuted several times by both French and German courts for Holocaust denial, incitement of hatred against Muslims, and a physical assault against Socialist presidential candidate Annette Peulvast-Bergeal in 1997.
When Le Pen stepped down from FN leadership in 2011, his daughter Marine was elected as FN’s new leader. Marine Le Pen quickly began to soften the image of the FN, obscuring the far-right views that were a hallmark of the FN in more neutral rhetoric in order to garner greater public support. This strategy culminated in her expelling her own father from the party in the fall of 2015 after further controversial statements regarding WWII. Since the expulsion of her father, Marine Le Pen’s popularity and her public profile has greatly increased.
Marine Le Pen’s strategy closely echoed the same strategy that the Republican Party of the United States embarked upon four decades earlier, cloaking its formerly overt racist rhetoric and reframing those views into policy positions that had the same effect in practice but on the surface were racially neutral. And the effects of those strategies mirror each other in the present day, where the mainstream success and support of such positions is in large part dependent on the ability to deny the inherent racism.
Le Pen’s FN is also quickly filling a vacuum created by the simultaneous crises that have befallen the mainstream political parties. France’s current president, François Hollande of the Socialist Party, is the first president in the history of the Fifth Republic to not seek a second term. Hollande’s popularity has plummeted in the past few years, in part due to the fallout from the intensely unpopular labor reforms (Loi travail) that he attempted to push through the French legislature last year, which was perceived as a massive betrayal of the leftist base that was responsible for his victory in 2012. By the end of 2016, with an approval rating hovering around 4%, he announced that he would not seek re-election, and Benoît Hamon nabbed the nomination a few months later after defeating current Prime Minister Manuel Valls in the primaries, whose popularity also greatly suffered in the aftermath of the Loi travail.
Even by French standards, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s platform and proposals are somewhat radical. He is calling for a 100% income tax on those who make more than 360,000€ a year, an expansion of the already generous French welfare state, a reduction of the work-week to 32 hours from its current 35 hours, a withdrawal from NATO, and a voter referendum on France’s membership in the European Union.
And perhaps his most radical proposal of them all, Mélenchon is calling to abolish the Fifth Republic altogether, on the grounds that it is inherently corrupt beyond repair, and to start anew with a Sixth Republic founded on principals much more reflective of Marxism and direct democracy.
Another of Mélenchon’s more striking proposals is a proposition to establish a maximum wage scenario. From Mélenchon’s website (translated):
“I propose to do away with these indecent “rewards”! For this, I propose to act and not just wait for self-limitation and other well-known ethical codes! How? By fixing by law a maximum wage. That is to say, a maximum difference between the lowest wage and the highest wage in a company. I propose to fix this maximum difference at twenty times the lowest salary. This measure was implemented in Ecuador by President Correa. I mention that in France, in the social and solidarity economy, such a principle already exists and allows only a gap of one to seven. But note the arrogance of the caste which overwhelms those who demand a raise of the SMIC (minimum wage) while defending its own. For the powerful, the wages of the young are always too high.
So I suggest beating them at their own game and returning the argument to them. With my proposal for a maximum salary, if Carlos Ghosn wants to earn 7.2 million euros for his role as CEO of Renault, he will be able to. But on one condition: he must increase the employees of Renault so that the least paid makes 360,000 euros per year or 30,000 euros per month! If Carlos Tavares wants to earn 5.2 million euros a year, the board of directors will be able to decide this way. Provided that the lowest paid employee of PSA is paid 260,000 euros per year or 21,000 euros per month!”
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While Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged post-debates, the mainstream candidates have stumbled. Marine Le Pen found herself the subject of great controversy last week after publicly stating that the French were “not responsible” for the infamous ‘Velodrome d’Hiver’ deportation of 1942 in which French police rounded up approximately 13,000 Jews in and around Paris, the vast majority of whom were then sent to Auschwitz and murdered in the camp. The comments were widely interpreted as echoes of the FN’s stance during her father’s reign, and signaled to many that the FN has not distanced itself from such beliefs nearly as much as Le Pen has tried to portray.
Meanwhile, François Fillon has been mired in controversy over multiple financial scandals, both allegedly misusing public funds to pay his wife and daughter as government employees, as well as for failing to disclose a 50,000€ loan in violation of French law. And last month, Emmanuel Macron, who has been trying desperately to appeal to both the left and right as a centrist candidate, managed to alienate many supporters on both sides within a matter of days. He infuriated much of his right-wing base by publicly proclaiming that he believed France’s colonial rule in Algeria to be a “crime against humanity,” and then offended many on the left after voicing support for those opposed to gay marriage.
As it stands at this moment, it’s truly anyone’s election. And regardless of how it plays out in the end, the results will likely shake up France to the core and reverberate for years to come.