23rd April 2022
Macron or Le Pen? French voters between a rock and a hard place
The French presidential elections to be held tomorrow (24th April) are in many ways a more significant referendum on the future of the European Union than the Brexit debate in Britain ever was. For a long time Britain had no truck with Europe, hoping to hang onto the last vestiges of Empire, even when the writing was in bold letters on the wall, and the initial six members of the EEC were as happy to keep Britain out, the French being the most vociferous in that respect.
The ruling class in Britain has always been split over the question, hence the divisions which are played out in the Tory Party over the issue. The Tories’ most ideologically driven Prime Minister of the post war period, Margaret Thatcher was, with some reservations, pro British involvement in Europe as it gave British capital access to a wider market, the City of London a key financial role and, increasingly important as the EU developed, a pool of cheap East European labour.
The economics of the EU has essentially been Thatcherism on a Europe wide scale, with the richer European nations benefitting at the expense of the poorer, that disparity becoming more evident as the EU has expanded.
It has been clear to workers across the European continent for many years that the EU has done nothing to enhance their wages, rights or working conditions. On the contrary the expansion of the gig economy, short term contracts and job insecurity has flourished under the EU. Payments, pensions and prosperity cannot be guaranteed under a system which continues to be run for the benefit of the banks and the corporations, rather than in the interests of the people of Europe.
This level of dissatisfaction and uncertainty are historic breeding grounds for social unrest, often exploited by the far right through racist and xenophobic slogans, while mobilisation on the Left seeks to unite the working class and break down the barriers of race, ability and gender, in the face of the real enemy in the form of the capitalist class.
The break down of the established order of Socialist and Republican Party domination at the last French presidential election in 2017 was hailed by the benefactor, President Emmanuel Macron, as a victory for a new politics of the Centre, which would overcome the old divisions and allow for rule in the interests of all of the French people.
Warm words, but the reality of Macron’s period in office has been that this self styled Centrist has behaved exactly as the former establishment parties did and sought to secure the best deal for French capital and capitalists, whatever the cost to French workers. Since the Covid pandemic between 5 and 7 million people in France, 10% of the population, have had to ask for help at a food bank.
Alternatively, Marine Le Pen, darling of the far right, has been making every effort to restyle herself and her National Rally (formerly National Front) party as the voice of the French people. Le Pen has built a populist platform around French jobs for French workers, opposing an increase in the retirement age to 65, as proposed by Macron, and promised to tackle the cost of living crisis faced by French workers, by limiting the jobs and welfare benefits open to non-nationals living in France. The issue of immigration has not featured as prominently in Le Pen’s campaign but her job proposals, along with that to ban Muslim women wearing the hijab in public, indicate that Le Pen has not strayed far from her Fascist roots.
Le Pen has been coy about proposing a referendum on France leaving the EU but has described the choice facing French voters as,
“…fundamental. It is in the hands of the French people. It is Macron or France.”
suggesting that a Le Pen presidency, given the clear backing of the EU by Macron, would make the question of EU membership an open one.
Other EU leaders have been quick to express support for Macron with leaders from Germany, Spain and Portugal rallying to urge French voters to support “freedom, democracy and a stronger Europe”, oblivious to the irony in that contradiction.
The untold story of the French election however is that 7.7 million voters cast their ballots for Left wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who was only beaten for second place by Le Pen by two percentage points, and was only five percentage points behind Macron’s first round vote.
Melenchon’s programme to lower the prices of basic necessities such as food, fuel and energy; reinstate the retirement age at 60; pursue an organic farming and food production agenda; initiate a programme to rebuild public hospitals; and to increase the national minimum wage; all found resonance with large sections of the electorate.
Inevitably, as the far right often do, Le Pen has stolen some of Melenchon’s policy ideas but mixed them with a toxic cocktail of racism and xenophobia.
Whatever the outcome of the vote in France the issues facing the French people, in particular those in its poor areas, will not go away. In facing a choice between the right wing extreme of Le Pen and the corporatist bureaucrat Macron, many voters will feel that they are between a rock and a hard place. Abstention rates in many French neighbourhoods are expected to be 30%+ making the outcome as to who will become President too close to call.
Unfortunately, the outcome for the French working class is all too predictable. The divisions between rich and poor in France run too deep for social unrest not to be a continuing feature for some time to come. Those backing Melechon campaigned around the slogan “A better world is possible”; that is true in France as it is elsewhere. The struggle continues to achieve it.