Unfortunately, the shiny new president is clueless and uninterested in the dynamics driving Le Pen's support. While a Macron win was and would always be preferable to a fascist victory, he will not solve France's problems. He's hell bent on exacerbating them. As we have seen with the collapse of the Socialists and the abysmal performance of Francois Hollande, their humiliation in this election and likely wipe out in the parliamentary elections next month is a calamity of their own making. Centre left parties across Europe have had a battering, from outright collapse like France and The Netherlands to parties hampered by splits and social dislocation, like Germany and, yes, Britain. Populism of the left and right have welled up through the fissures and caused all manner of complications, but the underlying problem in almost every case is the extent to which social democratic and labour parties have overseen attacks on their own constituencies.
The consequences of this is more complex than just economic anxiety, which is often lampooned by liberals hostile to understanding their complicity in the processes driving populism. All too often, this blog has visited how the breaking up of the post-war social order and the administration of neoliberal capitalism has seen many centre left parties pursue suicidal policies that break up their coalition of voters. Consider the case of New Labour. Sure, the sharper edges were blunted and investment - albeit sourced from the private sector at rip off rates - helped rebuild public infrastructure. But crucially Blair and Brown's drive to open more and more areas of the state to marketisation introduced uncertainty, varying standards, and a fundamental lack of accountability in service provision. Meanwhile their failure to roll back the attacks the Tories made on workplace rights, save for the enhancement of individual at the expense of collective rights, meant that impermanence and fluidity - a sense of a loss of control - deepened a diffuse sense of uncertainty that had more or less reigned unchecked since Keynesian capitalism was broken by crisis in the 1970s.
As this was going on, neoliberalism as a mode of governance continued to be normalised. This supposes and actively inculcates a default state of being human as an atomised individual. Society may exist, but how you travel through it and where you end up is entirely the result of your efforts and your choices. This cultural assumption assiduously cultivated by Thatcher, Major, and Blair at the level of policy was the default mode informing public institutions and their relations with the public. Citizens accessing council services were customers. Parents choosing schools for their kids were customers. Students looking for a place in Higher Education were customers. Patients entering the NHS were customers. They had the right to choose, but once inside these systems customers became something else: they were the carriers of social obligations. Nothing highlights this more than the social security system in which, in return for dole money, the unemployed - long re-branded jobseekers - are expected to attend training sessions, engage in job hunting full-time (how?), and latterly work for their dole. This is no different in kind from the workhouse, where inmates were set jobs to "morally improve" them. In our neoliberal times, nothing says virtuous quite like getting up in the morning and spending x number of hours under an employer's direction.
France differs from Britain in that market fundamentalism has not penetrated society to the same extent, much to the chagrin of capital and those who would like to see the rebelliousness for which the French are famous expunged from the body politic. In terms of France's political economy, its post war period - that of dirigisme - saw an active state drive reconstruction and development in a much more hands-on way than Britain. This meant nationalised industry and state supervision of large areas of the economy, though this direction was indicative (through market incentives) rather than bureaucratic command as per the Soviet Union. And it worked. Between 1945 and 1975 economic growth averaged out at 4.5%/year, numbers totally unthinkable today in a mature economy. This was largely abandoned in the mid-1980s by Francois Mitterand's Socialists as the price paid for remaining in the European Monetary System - a relatively fixed currency exchange rate - that aided economic integration, particularly between the economies of France, the low countries, and West Germany. The period that followed saw a number of state enterprises transformed into corporations. Ostensibly private businesses, the French state in the main kept hold of a controlling share of stock (unlike the get-rich-quick privatisations across the Channel) but simultaneously pulled back from indicative planning. However, despite attempts at trying to dump them, strong worker protections persist even though the trade union participation rate has historically been lower than Britain's - proof that there isn't a necessary correspondence between union density and militancy.
Overt neoliberalism hasn't made inroads, but it certainly has as a mode of governance. As with all Western European societies, France became a consumption-oriented society during dirigisme. Meanwhile the expansion of French technocracy in the state-directed enterprises ensured that managerialism worked with this consumerism to promote a particular type of individuality: what we now understand as neoliberal individuality. Choice and responsibility were its key attributes and, of course, moral rectitude and self-worth found expression in the usual trappings of success. This cultural shift, remember, occurred independently of any neoliberal attempt at restructuring of France's political economy. Quite the contrary, this was a mode of governance promoted by social democratic capitalism's workplace and leisure cultures. Hence on the surface of economics, France looks different to the US and UK but down at the cellular level, the mode of governance, of how institutions deal with citizens and how they are expected to interact (transact) with one another is qualitatively the same. No surprises that the same problems - existential anxiety, ontological insecurity - stalk the land, and the same extremists, in this case the "post"-fascist National Front, are happy to play the blame game and offer up the certainties (and simplicity) of nationalism and nationality in response.
And this is why Emmanuel Macron's defeat of Le Pen should be more a sigh of relief than an enthusiastic celebration. His candidacy and incipient political party was enabled by the collapse of the Socialists but the precipitating factor was Hollande's programme. A loosening of workers' rights, including giving employers carte blanche to cut wages and salaries "when times are tough" (whatever that means), pensions reform with increased contributions, and political paralysis as opposition to these measures mounted - what a shower. Scenes from the presidential campaign when we saw Le Pen welcomed by factory workers as Macron was barracked should set the alarm bells ringing, but they haven't. Effectively, Macron takes office as the new Socialist president in all but name and with the same discredited programme, and the same liberal tin ear to the aspirations and interests of working people exhibited by all centrist heroes. Without a hint of understanding what happened to the government in which he was a minister, his aim is to curb the power of labour, liberalise the economy further, and wants to start by throwing 100,000 civil servants out of work. At the very moment capitalism requires stronger management similar to the dirigisme of the past, he wants to take France in the opposite direction, of, effectively, restructuring its economy so it better corresponds to neoliberal governance. It's a recipe for more social conflict, more anxiety and doubt, more alienation and anomie, and more fuel for the extremist fire. If Macron wants to prepare the ground for future fascist success, he's going the right way about it.