Emmanuel Macron, former investment banker and economy minister, easily won the second round of France’s presidential elections; by 66.1 percent to Marine Le Pen’s 33.9. This was well above the 20 or so percentage points most opinion polls had predicted. Macron’s programme is that of the French bosses; “the reform of the labour market” to make French capital more competitive with its European and global rivals and to recover the country’s leading role, alongside Germany, within the European Union.
Angela Merkel has hailed Macron’s victory and EU leaders Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk said they were “rejoicing” at the result. They see it as breaking what seemed a rising tide of anti-EU populism, unleashed by the Brexit decision. They have talked about collaborating with Macron to reform the EU but also urged him to press ahead with his “freeing up” of the labour market and cutting of budgetary deficits in France.
All this talk of reform, wrapped up in deceitful words about finding jobs for France’s unemployed, actually means breaking union strength in the workplace, weakening protective legislation, privatising publicly owned industries and reducing the purchasing power of wages. In short, it means completing the work of the “Loi Macron” and the “loi El Khomri”, started under President François Hollande.
These reforms are “justified” by the 9.9 percent unemployment level (over twice that of Germany and the UK) and an even more staggering rate, 23.7 per cent, for young people. France’s bosses, organised in the “Movement of the Enterprises of France”, MEDEF, have long been pressing to get rid of better paid “jobs for life” and replace them with precarious low-paid ones.
Demolishing workers’ legal rights and breaking the power of the unions have been the goals of all Presidents for the last 20 years. Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande all tried, but failed to make a strategic breakthrough. That is why French history over these decades was punctuated by a series of strike waves, social struggles and youth uprisings, from that of November-December 1995 to the strikes of May-June 2016.
Macron has already pledged himself to enact further “reforms” to France’s labour legislation. Given his margin of victory, he will, if necessary, force them through by presidential decree. But, before he opens too many bottles of champagne, he might reflect that voters chose him primarily to stop Le Pen. According to a poll of nearly 7,000 voters on Sunday by Harris Interactive, this was the motivation of some 59 percent. Another poll (Ipsos) found that 61 per cent of voters did not want him to have a majority in the National Assembly.
This lack of enthusiasm is reflected in the level of abstention. At 25.4 per cent, it was the highest since 1969. Nor can this be explained away as “voter apathy”; 11.5 per cent of voters, 4.2 million people, voted blank or spoiled their ballots. Around one third of blue-collar workers, and over one third of young people between 18 and 24, and the unemployed, fell into these categories.
Nonetheless, even in defeat, Marine Le Pen and the Front National, FN, remain a severe danger to the French working class, poisoning it with racism against migrants and refugees and French Muslim citizens as well as anti-German chauvinism.
The FN has its origins in the French far right, reactionary populist and military elements from the time of the French colonial wars, and still has numbers of consciously fascist cadres within its ranks today. It was constructed by Jean Marie Le Pen as a “respectable racist” front for fascism, though without a street fighting militia or a strategy of systematic attacks on the labour movement.
Such an organisation is perfectly capable of rebuilding a mass fascist movement in conditions favourable to it, that is, a major economic collapse that ruins and radicalises the lower middle class and sections of white and blue collar workers but where the working class movement fails to present a viable revolutionary alternative.
Marine Le Pen has tried to “de-toxify” the FN even further than her father so that it can gain local regional and national political representation. Three years ago, it won a slew of local councillors, although their numbers have been heavily eroded by resignations and corruption scandals. It is notable that, hitherto, the bourgeois parties and the reformists have always collaborated at elections to exclude the FN. That is why it currently has only two members in the National Assembly. However, this strategy has the effect of confirming its anti-establishment credentials and, in the long term, does it no harm.
Marine Le Pen has also abandoned the old neoliberal policies of the FN from the 1980s and 1990s in order to attract former Socialist and Communist Party voters in the run-down industrial areas of France. Now, she presents herself as the anti-globalisation and anti-neoliberal candidate. Thus, as well as declaring her opposition to Macron’s reforms, she pledged herself either to renegotiate or leave the euro and even the EU itself, which she accuses of being dominated by Germany and systematically violating French sovereignty. Of course, all this is still allied to a major clamp down on immigration. In short, she stood on a platform of state racism and economic protectionism.
Le Pen’s pledge to become the main opposition to Macron is no empty boast; it is a serious danger. If the main parties of the labour movement extend their “lesser evil” vote for Macron into restricting resistance to his “reforms”, that will leave the field wide open for the FN to pose as the real enemy of the establishment. That, after all, is how Marine Le Pen has been able to double her father’s score, 17.79 percent, against Jacques Chirac in 2002.
The next month will witness a struggle by Macron to win a majority in the National Assembly, without which he could end up as a lame duck president. His new party, La République En Marche!, Forward the Republic!, will stand a full list on candidates in an alliance with the centrist François Bayrou of the Democratic Movement. He could also win significant figures and their followings from the right wing of the Socialist Party.
Though the threat posed by Macron to French workers is different from that posed by Le Pen, the argument that he was, or is, a lesser evil remains a dangerous one. The Socialist Party, PS, and French Communist Party, PCF, who supported Macron to stop Le Pen, will be tempted to limit resistance to his policies to levels that would not bring him down and open the road to the FN in future elections.
We can be sure that Macron’s attacks on the gains of French workers will be demagogically opposed by the FN, and the more it grows in influence, the stronger will be the argument to soften the opposition to Macron, or even to continue to support him. This policy of lesser evilism and class collaboration is the worst preparation for the fight needed now against Macron and the bosses’ assault on working conditions, wage levels and workplace rights.
In the first round of the legislative elections, in June, the working class, young people and France’s citizens of immigrant origin should vote for candidates who are completely independent of Macron and promote a fight against both him and Le Pen. This means starting with the far left candidates, the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste, NPA, or Lutte Ouvriere, LO, but also voting critically for candidates of the reformist workers’ parties, that is, the PCF, the PS or France Insoumise, Unsubmissive France, if they stand independently of all bourgeois parties or figures.
The most important task now is to use the legislative elections as a tribune from which the call for building a workers’ united front of resistance can be raised. Resistance to Macron’s reforms, to the continued state of emergency, to state racist harassment of the youth of the banlieues, as well as to the FN’s agitation against Muslim communities, the Roma and other minorities, that must be the rallying cry in the election camaign.
The huge abstention and blank vote indicated that millions are not fooled by Macron or Le Pen. To provide a positive alternative for them, however, a new political party is necessary. Car worker Philippe Poutou, presidential candidate of the NPA, has already called for the building of a new party of the French working class and the socially and racially oppressed. We agree. The NPA’s latest statement on Macron’s victory concludes:
“To prepare for this confrontation (against Macron’s reforms – ed), we need a political force to represent us, to organise our social camp, opposed to the bosses and the owners. A fighting party, anchored in daily struggles, one that is not afraid of attacking capitalist private property, which defends a break with both national and European state institutions. A feminist, ecologist, internationalist party for the revolutionary transformation of society. It’s an urgent task.”
This call needs to be addressed to all the fighting forces against Macron and Le Pen and to be focussed on a programme for this battle.
However, if the problems that have dogged the NPA since its early and promising years are not tackled, this project will fail once again. These problems include an inconsistent and unfocussed politics, arising from its institutionalised public factions, the failure to develop an action programme that all fight for and the failure to criticise the union bureaucrats when they sell out the mass social movements. With the deep crisis of French reformism there is a real opening for building a programmatically defined, centralised and disciplined party rooted in mass struggle. That is, indeed, an urgent task.