Cole Stangler – France’s Culture War Election

For those of you who think French politics is important but is too arcane, here is an excellent primer.

Cole Stangler is a Paris-based journalist. A TV news editor, Cole also covers French politics in print for several different English-language outlets.

Cross-posted from the website of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation

You don’t have to be living in France to understand there’s a lot at stake in the upcoming presidential election: The global climate crisis is deepening, the country’s role on the international stage under question, its welfare model under pressure, and the shifting political winds in Berlin suggest there may even be a window of opportunity to nudge the European Union in a more progressive direction. Looming over it all, by the way, is a pandemic.

In an alternative timeline, the 2022 presidential campaign would be focusing on some of these issues. How does France aim to rein in the fossil fuel industry? How should it position itself as the New Cold War heats up? How can the state protect the safety net and redistribute wealth as Europe’s austerity hawks begin to circle?

That is not the campaign underway.

Four months out from the first round of the vote, the election is instead being driven by an array of inflammatory culture war issues animating an emboldened far-right. Debates over Islam, immigration, national identity and crime have all dominated the early stages of the race, fuelling a campaign that feels cruelly detached from the material interests of the French public and the planet at large. It’s still early and a lot can happen between now and April—but it’s not looking pretty.

The leading contenders span the spectrum from far-right to centre-right: a pair of revanchists who more or less dictate the news cycle; a neoliberal incumbent offering stability and a defence of basic liberal values at a time of uncertainty; finally, a representative of old-guard conservatives who have struggled to find a raison d’être in recent years but who may well be able to muster the broad coalition needed to win the run-off round. On the outside looking in are a series of left-wing parties that are badly divided, lacking in credibility, and deeply detached from their old working-class base.

The Far-Right

The far-right has largely set the tone for the campaign, shaping the exchanges between various candidates and weighing heavily on press coverage. To some degree, this was to be expected. In the 2017 race, Marine Le Pen received the strongest-ever presidential result for the National Front, earning 34 percent of the vote in the run-off round against Emmanuel Macron. While her final score was something of a disappointment for the RN—many anticipated an even better performance—it underlined just how mainstream the party had become.

Now known as the National Rally, the party has held on to its base in the Macron era. And while its electoral performance has been underwhelming—the RN notably failed to win a single one of the 17 presidencies up for grabs in this year’s staggeringly low-turnout regional elections—it continues to win the battle of ideas. A glance at the national press reveals a debate colored by what were once the party’s pet causes, confined to the margins of political life: calls to end immigration, deport the undocumented, cut off foreigners’ access to state aid, clamp down on public displays of Islam, and tackle crime—no matter the costs.

This type of politics is in demand. One cannot deny the fact that a large chunk of French voters is attracted to the party’s message, including a significant share of the working-class. (The decline of organized labour and the traditional political parties of the Left has wrought havoc in ways that should not be underestimated.) Still, the far-right has gotten extra help in recent years thanks to a more favourable media landscape—and particularly from the rise of a TV network often dubbed the “French Fox News.” Created by conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré in 2017, CNews has quickly become one of the country’s most-watched news networks. It pumps out a relentless stream of punditry over things like drug-related violence in public housing projects, the Islamic veil, and the excesses of politically-correct college students—transforming the larger national news cycle in the process.

In the meantime, Macron’s strategy of triangulation has resulted in his government offering de facto legitimization of far-right concerns. While he portrays himself as a staunch opponent of the RN, his government has tightened immigration restrictions, launched a crackdown on Islamist “separatism” and pushed through a national security bill that featured a measure criminalizing the filming of police officers—a legislative passage that was ultimately struck down by France’s Constitutional Council. At the same time, leading members of Macron’s cabinet have embraced a new set of culture wars, lamenting the spread of an Anglo-American inspired “cancel culture,” the supposed plague of “wokeness” and the alleged threat of “Islamo-leftism.” These battles have reinforced the belief that France’s eternal national identity is under siege—a target for enemies both outside and within the country’s borders, particularly those of the Muslim confession.

All of this explains why Marine Le Pen remains the top first-round challenger to Macron. Polls in early December give her around 15 to 20 percent of the vote, while placing her 10 to 15 percent percentage points behind the incumbent in the run-off. But it’s also why the space exists for a candidate even further on the right—something that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Fittingly, the man outflanking Le Pen is a former star panellist for CNews, someone who has been at the driver’s seat of the rightward lurch in French media and politics.

Despite their obvious ideological affinities, Éric Zemmour has a very different style than the boss of the RN. The latter aims to paint herself as reasonable and ready-to-govern; the former relishes his ability to repulse and transgress. In the Zemmourian universe, provocation is to be embraced—like Trump, there is a certain glee in crossing the line and seeing where the dust settles, over and over again. (Before officially declaring his candidacy, he doubled down on the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which alleges a demographic takeover of Europe by people from Africa and the Middle East, and called to ban names of non-French origin.) But who can blame him for applying a formula that works? A polemicist-turned-TV personality who understands the inner workings of the press perhaps better than any other candidate, Zemmour has effectively stolen the spotlight from his rivals. Against this backdrop, he’s built an impressive amount of support from conservatives and RN supporters put off by Le Pen’s relative moderation.

A familiar aphorism in French politics criticizes right-wingers who tread too far onto the RN’s territory. “Voters prefer the original to the copy,” goes the refrain, originally used by Jean-Marie Le Pen to criticize attempts from the mainstream right to swipe his talking points in the early 1990s. More than a decade later, in a political universe drifting ever more to the right, Zemmour is essentially turning this logic against the RN itself. Why vote for a watered-down version of the far-right when you can vote for the real thing? Why settle for the daughter when you can have the father?

All that said, Zemmour has yet to prove he can attract beyond a limited base of conservatives. As of early December, he was earning around 13 percent in the polls, trailing Marine Le Pen and outside of striking distance from Macron. His dream of uniting a “patriotic bourgeoisie” and the working-class still seems far-fetched, at least for now. 

The Bourgeois Right

The post-Macron reshuffle has left France’s historic right-wing party, Les Républicains (LR), in a bind. With its electorate courted on both sides—from the centre and extreme right—it hasn’t been clear what direction LR’s presidential ticket will take. In early December, the party’s internal primary put this uncertainty on display: hard-right Eric Ciotti, an MP from Nice who vowed to inscribe the nation’s “Judeo-Christian” values into the Constitution and open a “French Guantanamo,” unexpectedly qualified for the second round—only to be dealt a resounding defeat by the relatively moderate Valérie Pécresse, current president of the Paris region.

A seasoned politician with stints in Parliament and the cabinet of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Pécresse faces a difficult balancing act. She’ll have to oversee the fraught marriage between LR’s identitarian and moderate elements at a time when both factions are being tempted by alternatives. While Pécresse is far from the most inspiring candidate, France’s unconventional electoral system could play to her advantage. If she were to qualify for the second-round, she’d be well-positioned against an array of potential rivals—including Macron. In that scenario, low turnout from left-wing voters coupled with the hard right’s burning desire to unseat the president could help push her into the Elysée Palace. It’s a tricky path full of hypotheticals, but it’s arguably more favourable than the one faced by Zemmour or Le Pen. (Following her recent primary victory, one bombshell poll even had Pécresse beating Macron by 4 percentage points.)

While he has yet to declare his candidacy, President Emmanuel Macron still remains the hands-on favourite. Derided as out-of-touch by his foes across the political spectrum, Macron has the benefit of incumbency. At a time of deep uncertainty—the climate crisis, the pandemic, mounting geopolitical tensions, and a rising far-right—he can offer battle-tested experience and stability. In addition to a solid base of middle-class and wealthy supporters, he has the proven ability to mobilize a large bloc of support against the far-right in the run-off round.

He can also count on strong support from French business elites (even if they’d have no problem shifting loyalties to Pécresse if necessary). And while left-wing electors are increasingly sick of holding their nose and voting for the least-worst option in the run-off round, Macron’s team is banking on the fact that a whiff of proto-fascism in the air will probably be enough to mobilize them again. But there is an obvious vulnerability here. If Macron goes up against Pécresse, re-election becomes much trickier. It also sets up the tragi-comic scenario of the president having to beg for support from left-wing voters after ignoring throughout his five years in office.

The Divided Left

To put it bluntly, left-wing parties are basically non-competitive at this stage. As of early December, polls regularly show that not a single candidate of the Left is among the top four candidates, and it’s not for a lack of options.

The usual suspects are polling around one percent: Nathalie Arthaud of the Trotskyist Workers’ Struggle and Philippe Poutou, an autoworker representing the New Anticapitalist Party. Also in the running is Anasse Kazib, a railworker from Permanent Revolution, a splinter group from the NPA. 

Joining the predictable protest candidates are a couple of more high-profile names: Fabien Roussel is running a campaign whose chief goal appears to be to rejuvenate activists in and around the French Communist Party, a fallen giant that still counts hundreds of local elected officials but is struggling for relevance on the national stage. After two consecutive presidential endorsements of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the party is presenting its own ticket this year—and it’s failing to gain traction. François Hollande’s former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg has similarly struggled to gain momentum. Promising a great patriotic remontada (his campaign inexplicably chose the term in its original Spanish) his bid has stalled below 2 percent.

The more serious tickets on the table aren’t doing much better. Backed by the Socialist Party (PS), Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has failed to take off in the polls. At this stage, she has just around 5 percent of the vote, just below candidate Benoît Hamon’s abysmal 2017 score. Competing over a similar swath of the electorate is Yannick Jadot of Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV). He outperforms Hidalgo for now, though he remains in single digits himself. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise polls slightly higher than both at around 10 percent—but still well below his 2017 score of nearly 20 percent.

The Problem with Left Unity

It’s amidst this sorry state of affairs that Anne Hidalgo put out a call for left-wing unity and encouraged candidates to take part in an open primary—a gesture welcomed by Montebourg but rejected so far by Jadot, Roussel and Mélenchon. The call has also opened the door for a surprise candidacy from Cristiane Taubira, a former justice minister under Hollande who has a broadly positive image among progressive voters but has given little indication about what her platform would look like. (After announcing her intentions to run for the presidency and underlining her support for Left unity, Taubira says she plans to share more details about her campaign in mid-January.) In any case, a recent poll suggested broad support for the idea of a progressive alliance, with three-quarters of self-described left-wing voters saying they favoured an open primary.

Supporters of left unity say it’s essential at a time when parties are too weak to compete on their own and the national political debate has skewed so far to the right. Detractors say it’s an opportunistic ploy from the PS and its allies—an invitation on the table only because Hidalgo has accepted the fact that her own campaign is doomed—and that unity is not a silver bullet for 2022.

Both sides make valid points.

The current number of candidacies makes it mathematically near-impossible for any one candidate to compete for the presidency. The presence of two candidates with real ideological differences would be one challenge, but today’s plethora of tickets is another entirely—a scenario of mutually-assured destruction recognized by just about everyone involved. And yet, the problems go much deeper than that. As recent polls and election results have illustrated, left-wing parties lack credibility beyond a chunk of centre-left electors who regularly show up at the polls while their historic ties to working-class voters have largely evaporated. These are deep deficiencies that can’t be papered over by simply adding up the individual vote shares of every party in the running and hoping for the best. Even if she managed the difficult task of uniting parties behind her, Taubira would be up against these daunting challenges.

Uninterested in compromising over his platform or strategy, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is sticking to his original plan for now, encouraging others to get behind his candidacy. It’s not all driven by ego, as his many critics suggest. Real programmatic differences exist between La France Insoumise, the PS, and the Greens—over wealth redistribution, the European Union, proposals to bring back a parliamentary system under a Sixth Republic, and how to deal with growing racism and discrimination against Muslims. Moreover, the Insoumis are running a campaign aimed at low-income voters and those who tend not to turn out at the polls—much like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, not to mention Mélenchon himself in 2017. The 70-year-old’s image has declined since then, but as the MP from Marseille told me over Skype in October, he still believes he has a narrow path to victory this time around. With Zemmour’s candidacy splitting the far-right vote, Mélenchon’s team believes a lower threshold for second-round qualification gives him a shot.

While it’s unlikely to include Mélenchon, left unity isn’t entirely off the table. An alliance does seem likely at some point between the Greens and the Socialists, whether it takes shape behind the winner of an open primary—something that leaves the door open for the wild-card Christiane Taubira to unite them both—or in a different form later on in the campaign.

Even before Hidalgo’s public call for unity, the parties had expressed interest in an electoral pact of some kind, preferably one that covers the legislative elections in June. It’s just been tricky sealing the deal: PS bigwigs believed—mistakenly—that Hidalgo’s campaign would reposition their party as the dominant center of gravity on the left, while many Green leaders have maintained it’s their turn to lead a left electoral alliance. (They point to a string of positive election results in recent years, including the 2019 European elections and 2020 local elections, which put them at the head of Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux, among other cities.) Many within EELV also want to avoid a repeat of 2017, when Jadot’s endorsement of Hamon failed to produce real benefits for the party. This explains the rather tepid reaction among certain Greens to renewed talk of Left unity: if the Socialists and their allies have any doubts, why don’t they just get behind Jadot and get to work building an alliance today?

Meanwhile, Fabien Roussel of the Communist Party will likely start feeling the heat soon. Unless his campaign takes off, he’ll face pressure to make a choice between the two emerging centres of gravity—the Green-Socialist pole, or the more familiar camp of Les Insoumis—knowing that a deal with one or the other could determine the PCF’s fate in the parliamentary elections. At the same time, French presidential campaigns are partially reimbursed by the state if they earn at least 5 percent of the vote—an incentive for Roussel and others to simply embrace the train-wreck taking shape.

Time Is Running Out

All that said, the longer the current morass drags on, the more pressure the parties will face to make deals—and that includes Mélenchon. At the end of the day, left-wing voters want a say in the elections. The vast majority of them are disgusted by today’s political climate and could not care less about how the results affect the balance of power or parties’ organizational futures.

A campaign that doesn’t shy away from confronting the far-right and defending a basic redistributive economic program could have a shot at victory. But given the mix of structural weaknesses and competing short-term interests at play, it’s not clear the current parties are equipped for the immensity of the challenge before them. Recent French presidential elections have been prone to surprises, but the time is running out on this one.

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