Since Sunday, when Emmanuel Macron saw off the far-right populist Marine Le Pen to win the French presidency, the streets of Paris and the headlines of liberal newspapers have been full of relief. In a matter of months, there will be riots. The left is, of course, right to celebrate the defeat of Le Pen, whose presidency would have torn the EU apart, persecuted minorities and made the insurgent far right mainstream across Europe. But the temptation to view Macron as a saviour of liberal or inclusive politics, or of the European project, must be resisted. If anything, both the results of the election and the likely realities of a Macron presidency are markers of one of the most dangerous moments in recent European history.
Almost 11 million people have now voted for Marine Le Pen – about the same number as voted Conservative at the last general election, and roughly double the number that voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential run-off. In France, as across the western world, the electoral success of the far right has been made possible by reflecting deeply felt economic insecurity and declining living standards, and offering solutions which involve both ending neoliberal economics and attacking immigrants and minorities. The new far right operates as an anti-establishment insurgency.
During the final heated TV debate of the campaign, Macron confronted Le Pen with the reality that she was “a parasite” – “a product of the system you condemn”. The point was well made, but Macron is the living embodiment of that system – and not just because he is a former banker and senior civil servant who went through France’s elite education institutions and has never been elected to anything before.
François Hollande’s descent from enjoying electoral victory in 2012 to being one of the most unpopular Presidents in France’s history was marked by a series of austerity measures which stripped away workers’ rights. Among the most significant of these is literally called the “Macron Law“. In government, Macron now plans to sack 120,000 civil servants and to cut public spending by €60bn. While promising more deregulation of the labour market, he will cut corporation tax from 33 per cent to 25 per cent and actively promote trade deals like TTIP and Ceta.
Macron’s programme is centred around a straightforwardly neoliberal economic policy which will lead to further economic insecurity for many. It will most likely be delivered by a government comprised not of one party but of figures from all of the big establishment parties – centre-left Socialists, centre-right Republicans and an assortment of centrist forces. As it stands, when Marine Le Pen runs again in 2022, she will be running against a political establishment that has huddled together and delivered a slightly nastier version of an already unpopular economic model.
And there is another danger at play – that the left in Britain and elsewhere will learn all the wrong lessons. For a generation of pundits and aspiring politicians on the modernising right wings of Europe’s social democratic parties, Macron’s decisive second round victory will look like a way out of the polarisation that is demolishing the certainties that held together the political universe of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. Macron ran on an unapologetic economically and socially liberal platform, and seems to have carried with him a wave of popularity.
This idea is a fantasy. Macron managed just over 23 per cent of the vote in the first round of the election, following the friendly withdrawal of veteran centrist François Bayrou and the defection of many of the Socialist Party’s leading lights whose party selected a candidate they didn’t like. An overwhelming portion of the votes which came to Macron in the second round came to him simply because he was not Le Pen, with just 16 per cent backing him because of his programme.
As Stephen Bush points out, the fact that Macron has managed to win by fighting, rhetorically at least, toe-to-toe with the nativist right rather than adopting their policies like so many other centrists have, is cause for hope. But it is difficult to imagine a more toxic set of standard-bearers for tolerance and globalism than the very same politicians whose policies created the social conditions for the far right. Another five years of the European elite continuing with the status quo while waxing lyrical about the values of integration is not a strategy for saving the EU – it is laying yet more dynamite under its foundations.
There is, of course, an alternative. To beat the far right, progressives must match a principled defence of free movement and social progress with a transformative, insurgent economic programme that redistributes wealth, restores jobs and public services, and democratises the economy and the state. Despite his Euroscepticism, a radical left Jean-Luc Melanchon presidency would have held far greater prospects for revitalising the European project and beating back the far right. On this side of the channel, however improbable and precarious is may seem, the Jeremy Corbyn project provides the best hope of providing that alternative.