Sunday 10 April 2022

The Warning from France

According to the exit polls from the first round of the French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron has come out top with around 28-29% of the vote. Marine Le Pen is on 23%-24% and the left's candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon stuck at the 20-21% mark. Like 2017 we're looking forward to a face off between the authoritarian centre and the authoritarian, populist, and "post-fascist" right. Opinion polling for the second round is uncomfortably close, with Ipsos MORI forecasting 54% to 46% in Macron's favour, while another has it almost level pegging at 51% to 49%. Even if Macron squeaks back in, this is disastrous. And the responsibility lies squarely on his shoulders.

We await more crunching and the outcomes of the count, but there is something very concerning about the numbers supporting Le Pen. When it comes to the voting habits of working age people and the young, they're at cross purposes with nearly everywhere else in Europe. According to YouGov numbers, the younger one is the greater the propensity to vote for Le Pen. They suggest the over 55s would support Macron 55%-45%. This is the only age cohort that shows a majority for the centrist candidate over the far right. Moving down the age ranges, it's 51%-49% for Le Pen in the 45s-54s, 53%-47% in the 25s-44s, and the 18s to 24s? 56%-44%. Is it really the case the younger one is, the more fascist-adjacent they are?

This data poses the theory often pushed here a challenge. That is the structural transformations of the character of work in advanced capitalist societies are seeing it configured around immaterial labour: the replacement of material production increasingly by service provision, knowledge, and care. The consequences of this are new patterns of exploitation, new precarities, and a multiplication of identity politics. But it also propagates a new common sense: social liberalism. Less an ideology and more a diffuse common sense, it is a decisive shift in popular attitudes and values that reflects the greater stress on sociality demanded by capital of labour power in the 21st century. Everyday spontaneous anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, and low-level internationalism are rooted in tolerance and the ability to get along. This stands in marked contrast to older layers, and particularly the retired, whose social conservatism (which is not unrelated to their relationship to property) sits awkwardly at odds with the attitudes of their children and grandchildren. Therefore, assuming values are the primary driver of voter behaviour, social conservatives vote right for conservatives. And social liberals vote liberal or left. Hence in the United States, the young being the dynamo of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Here in the UK, their powering of Corbynism and, if the polls are to be believed, disproportionate backing for Keir Starmer's Labour. And in Germany, the good showing for the Free Democrats and the Greens in the last election. Why then is France the outlier?

In 2017, Melanchon was the lead candidate among 18-24s, while Le Pen came second. But according to YouGov's numbers the leader among the young going into this election was the even-more-racist Nigel Farage equivalent, Éric Zemmour. This might have been cancelled out by the late surge for the left in recent days, but combined with Le Pen's support we're looking at 49% of France's most socially liberal generation willing to support a far right candidate. How can this be?

It's the interests, stupid.

When Macron was elected in 2017, his "liberal" administration was all set to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors in the Socialist Party. Who, incidentally, have gone from holding the presidency five years ago to winning a projected two per cent today. For his pains, Macron has presided over France's persistent youth unemployment problem. Even with a plan to massage the figures by giving youngsters €500/month for completing a series of training courses, it jumped from 14.8.% to 16.4% between January and April this year. He has also tightened the conditionalities on unemployment support, disproportionately impacting the young, and, like here, the cost of living is outstripping wage rises. Similarly, while not at UK-levels house price inflation is rising faster than pay, and Macron pushed through pension reforms that will lead to lower incomes for workers in retirement. Other factors include high-handed, authoritarian government, a retrenchment of the over-centralised French state at the expense of the regions, and poor public road infrastructure have played their parts. Many of France's problems precede Macron, but has hasn't done much about them.

And there is the disastrous re-election campaign. Macron thought now would be a good time to affect elite disinterestedness. He announced his campaign late, refused to debate other candidates, and has kept away from meeting the public. Contrast this with Le Pen who's not only done her woman-of-the-people shtick, but has made cost-of-living issues the centrepiece of her campaign. For many people of working age and particularly the young, the final round choice will be between a candidate offering more of the same and another talking about jobs, wages, housing, and prices. People prepared to support Le Pen over Macron, including Melanchon supporters, are making a rational choice calculation. She might be authoritarian, racist, and wants to go out her way to bash Muslims. But then, for all his Blair-lite impostures about social justice and "radicalism", Macron appears to be little different. Political science isn't rocket science. If politicians speak to popular interests, they will attract support from across the spectrum. Especially when up against a cloth-eared incumbent.

France therefore is a warning. Macron is going to have a great deal of difficulty converting younger voters in the second round because of his record. It's not enough to expect voters to follow Melanchon's advice and not transfer their support to Le Pen, he's got to offer something by making the left a comprehensive offer. It might work and keep him in office. But it's a reminder for us too. Values broadly align with politics, but when a formally socially liberal government reneges on its values and puts capital before labour, voters who, on paper, should be their supporters will gravitate to parties and candidates who offer them something. As France is demonstrating, arguing Le Pen is beyond the pail is very definitely not enough - especially while you're kicking those whose votes you want in the teeth.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

I think if you dig into those stats re youth deeper, you will find that it does not map as neatly as you believe: it is not unemployed young people on the whole voting for Le Pen but employed ones, not least because they are among the more affluent groups - unemployment disproportionately hits black people and Muslims.

Le Pen has long had a vast amount of LGBT support due to fears of homophobia among immigrant communities - in France, the left has failed to square the circle of marrying equality with multiculturalism. You look at a nation just 20 miles away, but its culture and history are hugely different to the Anglosphere, or Germany.

As an ideological culture, to be French is to buy into Frenchness, and this is a particular post-Revolutionary brand of secularism, which Le Pen has little trouble tapping - it is a simple, optimistic idea that one can sell easily to the young. The fact that it is no longer fit for purpose in a state with mass immigrant communities and underlying racism is neither here or there, to her voters. The young also have no hang-ups about the second world war or whatnot.

Macron meanwhile represents messy compromise with corporatism - far closer to the truth, but far less attractive.

So, while I agree that the structural inequalities play a part, it is more likely the white young are voting for rather than against something. Macron will win, of course, because the young don't on the whole vote!

Blissex said...

«Therefore, assuming values are the primary driver of voter behaviour [...] we're looking at 49% of France's most socially liberal generation willing to support a far right candidate. How can this be? It's the interests, stupid.»

My usual quote as to the central axis of UK politics and economics, from a commenter on "The Guardian" site:

I will put it bluntly I don't want to see my home lose £100 000 in value just so someone else can afford to have a home and neither will most other people if they are honest with themselves

That is pretty much the real definition of "centrism".

I wonder just how big is the percentage of the senior layers of New Labour (and most labor unions) nationally or locally are in the same situation.
Keith Vaz: [...] The former Europe Minister and his wife Maria own seven properties between them. They jointly own a family home thought to be worth about £2.1million

Phil said...

Emmanuel Macron has come out top with around 28-29% of the vote. Marine Le Pen is on 23%-24% and the left's candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon stuck at the 20-21% mark

Actually - as you will have seen - the final-ish scores give Macron 27.6%, MLP 23.41% and Mélenchon (sp.) 21.95%, less than 1.5% behind Le Pen. And it won't really do to call Mélenchon "the left's candidate" in an election that also featured candidates from Lutte Ouvrière and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, not to mention Mélenchon's old comrades the PCF. (The votes for LO and NPA combined wouldn't have closed the gap between Mélenchon and Le Pen, though, which is just as well in the context of post-vote recriminations.) I wouldn't really characterise Mélenchon's line on Le Pen as "advice", either - he actually said “Il ne faut pas donner une seule voix à madame Le Pen”, i.e. "not one vote to Le Pen".

But it's certainly true that, looking to the second round, the far Right are starting much too far ahead for comfort, and with much too great a potential appeal to Left voters. On the first point, leaving the Greens and the populist one-man band Résistons out of the equation, the three virtual blocs in the election line up as

Left: 25.6%
Right: 32.5%
Corporate neo-liberal "centre": 34.1%

Which is to say, if Mélenchon's voters abstained en masse Macron would need everyone who voted for him or for the Republicans and Socialists in order to scrape home. And if the Left vote split three ways between Macron, abstention and Le Pen, that could easily be enough to give Le Pen the edge. (I'd emphasise that this is a nightmare scenario, not endorsed in any way by Mélenchon; it shouldn't need saying, but the horseshoe theory takes are already coming in.)

As for the far Right's appeal to Left voters, I think you're right about the relative "respectability" of Islamophobia in France (the political culture of secular republicanism has a lot to do with this). Another factor, which you don't mention, is summed up in the phrase gilets jaunes. France has a substantial movement of people who don't like unemployment or a rising cost of living and don't mind getting out on the streets to say so, even if Monsieur Plod would prefer that they didn't - and, with the decline of union density, this kind of working-class self-activity is no longer channelled through a left-wing political culture, or any political culture. The result is an emergent and unformed political culture which is not so much "unreconstructed" as "never constructed in the first place", and which has no preconceptions about this thing we laughingly call the political spectrum (a spectrum which in France, as you say, now has holes where the centre-left and centre-right ought to be). The question becomes, simply, "which side are you on?" as between the gilets jaunes and the CRS - and both Macron and Le Pen have been fairly clear about that. As, indeed, has Mélenchon, which is why a Macron/Mélenchon second round is such a missed opportunity.

Oh well - "vote for the cop, not the fascist".