Yves here. Yours truly is not in a position to say much about the coming French elections, except to make a few pedestrian observations: Macron’s reelection bid look hopeless until the Ukraine war rescued him. The left goes from bad to worse for reasons I cannot fathom, except from afar that it seems as if there are strong enough doctrinal splits to prevent them from coalescing around a single candidate. Plus social democrats across Europe, and those even further left, have been struggling for a while to come up with compelling messages. Which seems really odd, given how ordinary workers have been taking it on the chin.
And the big story is that Marine Le Pen is actually within striking distance of winning the elections, even though Macron is still ahead and the favorite.
That’s a long-winded way of saying I find it odd that this piece makes no mention whatsoever of economic issues. How can those be totally absent in the election calculus? Let’s start with the fact the political scientists have documented that voters move to the right in the wake of financial crises (with America in the New Deal a noteworthy exception, due mainly to muscular labor unions flanked by a rising Communist movement). So it’s powerful secretive billionaires that are the cause of France’s move to the right, as opposed to them being able to take advantage of the response to the crisis clearly favoring banks and the wealthy, leaving plenty of resentment among the lower orders?
By Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy’s main site editor, a member of the Scottish Green Party, a board member of Voices for Scotland and an advisory committee member for the Economic Change Unit and the journal Soundings. You can follow him at @adamramsay. Originally published at openDemocracy
To understand the coming French election, we need to start not with the incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, nor with any of his rival candidates, but with a billionaire called Vincent Bolloré.
Like many oligarchs, he started out by inheriting a family business founded by his ancestors – in this case, in the 1820s. These days, the eponymous Bolloré is one of the 500 biggest companies in the world, and has a stranglehold on West African trade, controlling 16 major ports down the coast from Mauritania to Congo-Brazzaville.
The firm doesn’t just have its claws in France’s old colonies. In 2015, Bolloré took control of the French media giant Canal Plus, with Vincent himself taking over as chair. In 2017, the company relaunched its 24-hour news channel as a sort of French equivalent of Fox News, now called C+.
Often leading its headlines with law and order stories and moral panics about migrants, it became famous for its raging debates between far-Right regulars. With its new, controversialist format, it doubled its audience, and it is now the second most watched news channel in the country.
Its star commentator, editing and appearing on its daily panel show France à l’Info, was the writer and now presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, who became prominent through his column in the tabloid Le Figaro. Which connects him to a second oligarch.
Le Figaro is owned by the Dassault group, plaything of the billionaireLaurent Dassault, who inherited it from his grandfather. The main thing the Dassault Group does is manufacture military jets, selling them around the world.
Historically, these oligarch families have been linked to the traditional Right-wing party Les Républicains – Laurent Dassault’s brother Olivier was a Republicans MP until he died in a helicopter crash last year. Vincent Bolloré is good friends with the disgraced former Republicans president Nicholas Sarkozy, who was sentenced to jail late last year for illegal campaign financing.
But with France’s old parties floundering, there is space for political entrepreneurs – as Emmanuel Macron demonstrated last time round.
Now Zemmour has stepped into that space, announcing his candidacy last year.
Zemmour is famous for pushing the racist ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, which claims that France’s elite is trying to replace the white population with people of colour, and which has motivated white nationalist terrorism in New Zealand and the US. He has also argued that women’s and LGBTQ rights have ‘feminised’ France, leading to its decline; and been convicted of incitement to racial or religious hatred three times.
But Zemmour is merely a product of his patrons – without them, he would just be another angry bigot raving in some bar. And they are merely products of their ancestors – with success built on wealth inherited from a previous era of French history.
As with Britain, mountains of capital left lying around from the age of empire gravitationally warp French politics. Zemmour won’t win the election. But he – and, more significantly, the oligarch-owned networks that promoted him and his ideas – have already dragged France into their poisonous wasteland. They have conjured a sense of French decline, the memory of a time when the country got rich from the plunder of its colonies, to sell a retrograde vision of a more racist, chauvinist, and bigoted age. And those ideas are like noxious fumes.
In the first round of their candidate selection, members of Les Républicains put Éric Ciotti at the top of their ballot. Ciotti is from the far Right of the party, and is described by academic Philippe Marlière as a ‘carbon copy’ of Zemmour on immigration and Islam. Ultimately, the party selected former minister Valérie Pécresse as its candidate. Supposedly more reasonable, even she has used the words ‘Great Replacement’, and has attacked migrants and Muslims in her speeches. She has criticised those who are French ‘on paper’ but not ‘in their hearts’ – following the billionaires’ bully boy down the path of bigotry.
The biggest beneficiary of France’s rush to the Right, though, has been the royal family of French fascism, represented for the last decade by Marine Le Pen. With the debate tipping onto her turf – she has vilified Muslims, called for a ban on the veil, and pushed for a referendum on migration – she has thrived. When Russia invaded Ukraine, she had to quickly shred a million leaflets showing a photo of her with Putin calling her “a woman of conviction”, but she’s managed to benefit from the war and its impact on the French economy. Mixing her hardline xenophobia with a gentler note of economic nationalism at a time when energy costs are rising, she has soared in the polls.
Not only is she currently looking like she’ll easily make it to the second round, but some have her running Macron close when she gets there.
Just as a leech’s veins are filled with the blood of whatever species it suckles, this is the era of French politics on which Emmanuel Macron has come to parasite.
In 2018, he sought to placate France’s fascists by praising the First World War bravery of Philippe Pétain, the leader of the Nazi-collaborating regime during the Second World War. In 2019, he gave an interview to the far-Right magazine Valeurs Actuelle.
Along with his ministers, M. Le President has spent much of this presidency giving speeches and making public statements denouncing Islam and trying to attack the French Left for not being anti-Muslim enough. Last year, Macron’s higher education minister demanded an investigation into so-called ‘Islamo-Leftists’ at French universities, a direct threat to academic freedom and an assault on the world’s second-biggest religion.
After French teacher Samuel Petty was murdered by a Chechen Muslim for showing his class cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed, the French president went further, reaching out to Vladimir Putin in an attempt to build an Islamophobic alliance with the Kremlin.
In an election debate last year, Macron’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin even accused far-Right leader Le Pen of being ‘too soft’ on Muslims.
These capitulations to the far Right have only aided Macron’s opponents. After all, if he means what he says about Islam, why not support mass deportations of Muslims, with a candidate like Zemmour? When politics becomes an argument about the boundaries of national identity rather than a discussion about how to live together, the far-Right always thrives.
But Macron has also suckled from the Left. Most of his vote in the 2017 election came because the traditional social-democratic party, the Parti Socialiste, collapsed – going from winning the 2012 election with François Hollande to coming fifth, with just over 6% of the votes.
“We had a [Parti Socialiste] government from 2012 to 2017 and it was pathetic,” says French activist Arthur Vincent, who organises in migrant communities in the northern suburbs of Paris. “It was a social democrat lie of pretending they’re Left-wing during the campaign and basically having Right-wing policies all along. It was totally pathetic – it destroyed the Left.
“[Parti Socialiste’s] lead on the Left was made a thing of the past, and the centre-Left all went for Macron,” he adds.