This week, the French people rejoice at the fact that 11 million of their countrymen and women decided that they wanted their nation to be ruled by a fascist.
That may sound glib.
Look: The defeat of an openly racist and reactionary presidential campaign in one of the major European powers is something to be toasted and celebrated.
Of course it is.
But it must also be tempered with a harsh shot of reality and a chaser of forward thinking.
First things first the nature of Emmanuel Macron’s victory against Marine Le Pen must be understood. In France, this was an election that saw the lowest voter turnout in nearly four decades. 65.3% of the voting public went to the polls to have their say. In 2012 it was 72%; in 2007—75.1%. The crisis of democratic disengagement seen throughout the Western world, engineered by a political class deliberately aligning its interest with those of supranational capital and in direct opposition to the majority of its national populations (or perhaps arrived at by chance because of it, depending on your affinity for tinfoil) has not bypassed the traditionally enthusiastic French voting public. One third of all voters chose neither Macron nor Le Pen. There were 12 million abstentions. 4.2 million spoiled ballots.
These are not insignificant numbers, and they speak to some very potent truths. Namely that the teeming mass of people that make up the governed can only be herded successfully for a limited amount of time. Sooner or later, they will feel something is wrong, and then they will know it, and then they will articulate it, and then they will act on it. They will demand solutions to problems. They will look for them, and dangerous elements within society will pretend to offer them—sometimes via inflammatory rhetoric and the promise of revolutionary change, and sometimes with a soothing tone and a reassuring smile.
We have seen both these in evidence in the French election.
Over the last few weeks, now-soon-to-be-president Emmanuel Macron said some things that rang very true. He called Marine Le Pen a high priestess of fear; he described her as a parasite that feeds off, and exists solely because of, the very system that she is critiquing.
Ain’t nobody gonna argue with that. Marine Le Pen’s campaigning provided no surprises for anyone familiar with her, her family, or her party. All that was seen was familiar.
The trouble, as ever, boils under the surface.
There were loud echoes of Donald Trump in Le Pen’s campaign. The same cocktail of nationalist fear and economic rhetoric co-opted from the left was used by both. This is of course are not a new tactic. In times of economic uncertainty the right flourishes by demonizing the alien element in society, however that may be defined at the time, and by—cruel irony of ironies—adopting anti-establishment language of the ilk most often used by the traditional Left. Workers left behind by the onward march of progress are easy pickings for right wing demagogues. History knows this phenomenon all too well. Europe still carries the scars of it.
While they did not ascend to power this time, Marine Le Pen and her Front National delivered the most significant result yet for the far right in France this year, and there is every reason to fear that Macron’s victory in 2017, necessary though it was considering the choices on offer, may well lead to a very ugly result in 2022. Unless Emmanuel Macron’s administration succeeds in ameliorating the conditions that have allowed the Front National to rise; unless it can reverse the course that has led to the far right’s current position of gaining millions of votes and, perhaps even more dangerously, being able to influence political discourse as much as it has—unless, in short, it can reduce Le Pen’s presence and message into irrelevancy then this election has just granted us, at best, a half-decade reprieve from the creeping spectre of fascism. Racism and blind hatred can only ever achieve so much by itself, its lame duck foundations and incoherence often crippling itself. Harnessed onto the powerhouse that is economic anxiety and material need, however, it can become a frighteningly potent beast.
Emmanuel Macron, like so many other phenomena visible on the global political map today, represents a dissatisfaction with business-as-usual politics. The much-touted ‘consensus’ sold to the public over the past decades is being seen as a sham that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and the electorate is demanding a break from the status quo. The cruel joke here is that in this French election, its terms having been dictated in so many ways by a fiery hate-speaker describing her own (horrible, dangerous) vision of the break, it is Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who—judging by his history—represents no break at all, who has emerged the victor. For Macron is no radical of course. He was a prominent member of the outgoing Hollande administration as well as a key driver behind its unprecedented attack on labor and its final breaking with the left, but nevertheless, purely by virtue of being seen to be coming from outside of the established two-party system, he embodies something, if only symbolically, that voters of all stripes are hungry for: change. There is no reason to suspect that Emmanuel Macron—market-friendly, free enterprise loving, and EU-wedded Macron—will be the person to deliver that change.
He might. He might.
Stranger things have happened.
But if he does not a storm will brew.
As per The Guardian:
“The Front National is not finished,” said Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean-Jaurès foundation in Paris. “We have no reason to believe that the job market will change for the better in the next few years. We have no reason to believe that the negative impact of globalisation will stop during the years to come. So there might be a drop in the Front National vote, but if the situation is bad in 2022 [at the time of the next presidential election], they could rise again.”
Since Marine Le Pen took over the Front National leadership from her father six years ago, the party has steadily increased its electoral fortunes, making gains in every local, European and regional election. It has built up a grassroots presence of local officials and increased membership. Its rhetoric and chief concerns - including immigration and Islam’s place in France - have taken up more and more space in French national debate and have been appropriated by the mainstream right and even the left.
As the clock ticks and the seasons wear on the momentarily embarrassed far right will bide its time and build its base, promising salvation with a snake’s tongue as always. If real, substantive alternatives are not provided by the incoming administration, disaster awaits France in the next decade.