The Way Forward in France

In France, there is a distinct, almost literary pleasure in watching the unlikely rise of a handsome, ambitious young man from the provinces and charting his skillful navigation of the treacherous corridors of power, vanity, and ambition. But as Balzac and Stendhal knew well, the motif is also useful as a means of exposing the surprisingly shoddy scaffolding of government—the remarkable extent to which the majesty of state power, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be a delicate facade masking ugly, unprincipled, and chaotic struggles for domination.

The triumph of Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 French presidential election is undoubtedly novelistic in this sense. At the tender age of 39, Macron is the youngest man ever to become the head of the French republic. Born in Amiens, historically the provincial capital of the northern region of Picardie, he grew up in a solidly bourgeois household. Both of his parents are doctors, and he attended Jesuit schools in the region before going to Paris to enter the Lycée Henri IV, one of the country’s most prestigious high schools. A precocious and gifted student, he evinced a passion and a flair for the dramatic arts—skills that have transferred well to his political role and influenced his personal life. In 2007, he married his theater teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, 24 years his elder and the daughter of a prominent family of chocolatiers known for their macaroons and their right-leaning politics. With a stellar résumé, he passed through the nation’s business and administrative grandes écoles, institutions that have become rites of passage for those seeking to enter the upper branches of state power. His trajectory, in short, has been that of an impeccable golden boy who is more acquainted with success than failure, who has enjoyed the fruits of being born into comfortable circumstances, and who possesses exquisite social-climbing skills and an unerring sense of good timing.

On the evening of his election victory, Macron strode out alone in a long, dark coat, under dramatic lighting, and into the main square in front of the Louvre. He faced I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid as loudspeakers played the official hymn of the European Union, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It was a pointed musical choice, reflecting the view, at home and abroad, that Macron’s victory was a make-or-break moment for the European project, which has recently been imperiled by Brexit, the turmoil in Greece, and the contempt of the Trump administration. More subtly, local political observers also interpreted it as a nod to François Mitterrand and the 1981 election that brought the Socialist Party to power for the first time since World War II: The Louvre’s glass pyramid was one of Mitterrand’s iconic grand projects, and he also chose the “Ode to Joy” as the musical accompaniment for his victory lap.

Don’t expect Macron to lead a return to socialism, however. In fact, his rise to power, and the hope that it has understandably brought to a portion of the French people, actually embodies, and even magnifies, the extent to which the political foundations of the French republic are rotten. Macron’s story symbolizes, for many, not the potential to rise from lowly beginnings to the highest office in the land, but rather the entrenchment of social inequality that protects a culturally liberal, bourgeois class with anti-labor economic priorities. Macron represents a class of French citizens that has flourished under left- and right-wing governments alike, has refused to make any concessions to those who have been left out, and has become increasingly insulated from popular demands to end tax evasion by the wealthy, nepotism in government, and a eurozone monetary policy dictated from Berlin.

Sixty-six percent of voters selected Macron, compared with the 34 percent who voted for Marine Le Pen. Although it was by no means the crushing defeat that her father had experienced in 2002, it was still a decisive rejection of a candidate who seemed incapable of holding back her reserves of pent-up rage and hatred. We can be grateful that Le Pen is not the president, but beyond that there are few encouraging signs in the election results. The abstention rate among voters was 25 percent, the highest since 1969. Young people (18- to 24-year-olds) and the unemployed were the two largest groups of abstainers, with about 35 percent of each failing to show up to vote. Another 9 percent of the electorate (some 4 million people)  left their presidential ballot blank—an unprecedented figure for an election in the Fifth Republic. Macron’s 66 percent reflects his share of the votes actually cast; when one factors in those who didn’t vote, those who left their ballot blank, and those who voted for Le Pen, it becomes clear that he won with only 44 percent of registered voters. In short, more than 50 percent of French voters were either unconvinced by Macron or against him. And in his victory speech, Macron himself acknowledged that an enormous number of people—perhaps nearly half—voted for him out of a duty to oppose Le Pen. On the morning after the election, Régis Debray, a veteran of the French literary left, quipped, “One shouldn’t confuse a lifeboat for an admiral’s ship.”

And yet, liberal elites across Europe and in the United States gloated over their man’s win. The stock markets rallied (if only momentarily), and liberal pundits, still licking their wounds after the Trump dump on America, rushed to proclaim a victory. Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times, declared that Macron’s victory “raised the possibility that France and Germany will conjure a revival of European idealism,” even as it “rebuked the little Englanders who voted to take Britain of out the Union” and “erected a much-needed barrier to the crassness and incivility, the ignorance and the closed-mindedness that seeps from Trump’s Oval Office.” While these goals are laudable, the enthusiasm for Macron fails to appreciate the potentially catastrophic weaknesses of a man who is the definition par excellence of a politician with far more style than substance—one who has assumed power in a moment of heightened populist reaction, when electorates have repeatedly voiced a desire for authenticity.

Certainly, style is not something the man is short on, at least in the sense of slickness. Despite repeated complaints that his campaign was all show, Macron skillfully brushed off such criticism. In an interview in February with the weekly news magazine L’Obs, Macron said that he would propose a political program only because he was obliged to “feed the media-politico Moloch.” He suggested that he saw his role as embodying “a moral contract with the nation” and confessed to having dreamed, as an adolescent, of becoming a writer. “Being a presidential candidate is having a certain outlook and style,” he added, “just as any writer must have a look and a style.” As Macron crisscrossed the country basking in the glow of his televised rallies, I was reminded of Stendhal’s words describing his hero Lucien Leuwen (from the unfinished novel of the same name) as he comes into a cynical awareness of his own political talents: “It was through no effort of will that he had suddenly assumed a tone so favorable to his aspirations; he sincerely thought what this tone seemed to say, and thus, for reasons by no means flattering to his powers of diplomacy, his manner of expressing it was perfect.”

But what is the stylish Macron’s actual record? What can be gleaned from the permanent traces he has left so far? One critique of the man—an occasionally foul-smelling one—likes to focus on his earlier career as a banker, a point that occludes the real significance of his elevation into the power circle around François Hollande at the beginning of his presidency. Macron was deputy secretary general to Hollande between 2012 and 2014. He then entered the cabinet of Prime Minister Manuel Valls as a minister of economy and finance, where he embodied the hopes that a fresh face might mitigate the blowback that would come with the government’s imposition of a wildly unpopular so-called labor-reform package known as “the law for growth and purchasing power.” Upon taking up his post, Macron renamed the package “the law for growth, activity and equality of economic opportunities.” In 2015, the government used a technical loophole to ram it through the National Assembly without a vote. An unwieldy and intensely bureaucratic piece of legislation that principally promotes deregulation across the French economy, including the controversial issue of working on Sundays, it is now known as the “Loi Macron.”

By forcing these policy measures on the country—measures that, despite their touted urgency and efficiency, produced virtually no growth—the Socialists managed to alienate voters across the political spectrum. By the end of his term, Hollande—who had casually abandoned his campaign promises to take on the world of finance once he got into office; who had made a career out of consistently promoting a business-friendly, liberalized Socialist Party; and who, it was revealed, was paying $10,000 a month for his haircuts—had an approval rating of just 4 percent, the worst in French history.

They have forgotten nothing and learned nothing” is the old chestnut about the Bourbons attributed to the 19th-century diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, and it may end up a fitting coda to the party whose infighting and bungling of Lionel Jospin’s campaign brought Le Pen père to the second-round election for the first time in 2002, and whose assumed candidate in 2012, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had to be replaced after he was accused of sexually assaulting a maid at the Hotel Sofitel in New York City. Is it any wonder, given the dismal record of presidents since Jacques Chirac, that wide swaths of the young, the working class, and the precariously employed in France have drawn the conclusion that the traditional parties are too deeply connected to the financial and corporate actors whose interests in lowered wages, compliant labor, and unrestricted capital are antagonistic to their own?

This year’s presidential campaign did offer a leftist candidate with more substance than Macron, and maybe as much style: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But the Socialist Party undermined its own interests by opposing Mélenchon, the only potentially successful presidential contender from the left. Throughout the campaign, he spoke movingly about his vision for reviving a responsible social democracy in France. Apart from Socialist Party hopeful Benoît Hamon, Mélenchon was the only candidate to place ecology at the center of his campaign, and he stood out for his passion on the issues and his defense of solutions—like geothermal energy—that can create economic growth and address France’s key strategic quandaries. And just before the election’s first round , it was working: No other candidate in the race, including Le Pen, had comparably sized rallies. In Paris on March 18—the anniversary of the uprising that led to the Paris Commune—Mélenchon spoke for over an hour to an estimated crowd of between 100,000 and 130,000 people. He drew 70,000 people in Marseille. Onstage, in interviews, on the fly, he spoke in a workingman’s vernacular but with the vocabulary and high locution of the Old Left, peppering his lengthy exegesis of “the program”  with learned quotes from Étienne de La Boétie and Victor Hugo. Mélenchon is serious, but witty and light on his feet, and while he likes a good Fidel-length peroration, he can improvise and speak knowledgeably on many subjects at the drop of a hat. The symbol for his campaign was the Greek letter phi, a play on the initials of La France Insoumise, the name and slogan of his recently created party, but more importantly the root—as Mélenchon never tired of reminding the crowds—of the Greek word for “love,” as in philosophia, the love of knowledge and wisdom.

At Champagney, a tiny town in the north of France, deep in Le Pen territory, Mélenchon gave arguably the best speech on slavery by a French politician in living memory, fearlessly quoting Fanon and Césaire and celebrating Toussaint Louverture and the Haitians who fought with him as the truest of French republicans. In the same speech, he paid homage to the all-white inhabitants of the town, who in 1789 sent, as part of their Cahiers de doléance to the Estates General, a petition demanding the abolition of slavery in the colonies. In the United States, this kind of high humanist/leftist discourse is all but extinct and, worse, seldom mourned; but in France, it retains its currency and stirs up memories. Young voters flocked to Mélenchon, drawn in part by the most tech-savvy offerings in the campaign (a feat for an outsider party).

In contrast, Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, polled terribly from the moment he entered the race, and his chances at winning only went south from there. In fact, there doesn’t even seem to have been genuine support within the party for his campaign, and he had a terrible social-media presence to boot (a remarkable oversight for a candidate obsessed with the future of robotic labor and his own scheme to save us from it with a universal income). It was a sign of Hamon’s deep unpopularity as a candidate that his signature proposal was simply to give people money every year, and he still couldn’t get even 7 percent of the electorate to support him.

As Election Day neared and Hamon’s chances showed no signs of improvement, commentators and observers repeatedly asked him the obvious question: Why not support Mélenchon, either by endorsing him or stepping aside? Hamon’s fatuous claim was that their programs were different: He wanted a strong European Union, and Mélenchon was willing to leave the EU if Germany’s Angela Merkel wouldn’t concede to a better deal for France. This was the unbridgeable gulf.

And what were the results? Mélenchon failed to make the runoff, clearing the way for Macron to face Le Pen. A closer look at the numbers remains instructive for the future of leftist politics in France. The spread between the leading candidates was very thin: Macron won 24 percent, Le Pen 21 percent, the Republican François Fillon 20 percent, and Mélenchon 19.5 percent. Hamon, whom the Socialist Party backed, garnered only 6 percent of the vote. There were also Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party and Nathalie Arthaud of the Workers’ Struggle Party, both running to the left of Mélenchon, who grabbed about 1.5 percent between them. Altogether, 27 percent of the French electorate voted for serious social-left policies and programs, representing the largest bloc of voters—larger even than the centrist liberals supporting Macron—but their votes were split among four candidates.

Look also at where Mélenchon won. In Paris, Fillon and Macron handily won the wealthy beaux quartiers, but it was Mélenchon who carried the impoverished and ghettoized suburbs that are the source of fracture in French society. He won Marseille, the second-largest city in France and one deeply divided by cultural and social strains. He won Lille, the largest provincial city in the depressed industrial north. He won Toulouse and Montpellier, where young and engaged students likely helped put him over the top. In fact, Mélenchon was arguably supported by the biggest cross-section of social classes and demographics—the citizens who must find a way to unite if France is going to move past its current impasses. Indeed, if the Socialist Party had wanted the left to come to power in this election, it could have facilitated, if not ensured, a path for that to happen. The candidacy of the young and ambitious Hamon was useful only insofar as it crippled Mélenchon’s.

But this week’s legislative elections in France offer another opportunity: If what remains of the Socialist Party can finally let go of its neoliberal Svengalis and rally to the popular wave that Mélenchon has so painstakingly cultivated, there is a chance for social democracy to form a principled opposition and to steer Macron in the direction of justice and away from a moneyed autocracy. The left still has an opportunity to channel the growing tide of resistance into productive and pragmatic political form. It must do so by clearly rejecting the oligarchization of social relations, and by supporting those who ground that opposition in the universal principles of justice and solidarity, the rejection of fanaticism, the striving for peace, the embrace of sensible ecological reform, and, yes, the cultivation of the human spirit with the love of wisdom, humor, and poetry.

“Only decaying classes are afraid of the truth,” wrote Jean Jaurès in the inaugural 1904 editorial of L’Humanité, France’s flagship paper of the left. There is still room for France to find a path out of its political decay, but it must come with a popular wind from below.