Will France be next?

As the ruling circles take in the election of a right-populist US president, Paul Demarty looks at the rightwing threat within Europe

A journalist holds up a poster of Putin, Le Pen and Trump before the Russian president’s news conference

The history of the United States of America is more linked to that of France than any other country apart from England.

It was, after all, French military assistance that proved so indispensable to the US Patriots, as they fought their first revolutionary war; and the same Patriots’ example was of no small significance in France’s own revolution a couple of decades later. French radicals maintained a trans-Atlantic interest, and it was upon the urge to celebrate the Union’s victory over the slave south in 1865 that the USA gained its great icon, the statue of Lady Liberty that lifts her lamp by the golden door in New York harbour. Proving that history rhymes, it was only six years after that that the Parisian workers gave the world its first, doomed, desperate glimpse of proletarian power.

To highlight, as we do above, the revolutionary aspect of this conjoined history is a little ironic, of course. If a French Americophile (or an American Jacobin) had been cryogenically frozen in 1870 and woken yesterday, more than the technological changes would present a shocking aspect, for it seems that, far from egging each other on to heroic sacrifices in the service of human progress, the Americans and French are presently engaged in chasing each other into the arms of nihilistic reaction.

As is traditional, America has won the race, delivering Donald Trump to the Oval Office - the toupéed tribune of the huddled masses of white America. The outstanding question is whether France will follow suit directly: this spring, Marine le Pen of the Front National will be among many contenders for the presidency, and the question is not so much if she will make it to the run-off vote, but who will be her opponent - and, consequently, whether that opponent will save the establishment’s blushes.

The odds are, in theory, against her. The run-off system tends to favour candidates in the political mainstream; the great recent demonstration of this was Jacques Chirac’s victory against le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in 2002; the latter snuck into the second round to general horror, and the French left resolved to “vote for the crook, not the fascist”. Things are a little different this time; Marine is not her father, and has completed the long-term project of transforming the FN from its fascist roots to a right-populist outlook, shedding le Pen père along the way. The socialists are in disarray in the run-up, and not the aftermath, of the vote, with incumbent president François Hollande roughly as popular as he leaves office as Nicolae Ceaușescu was in Romania in 1989.

The stage might be set for a much closer-run version of 2002, then - except that the candidate of the ‘official’ French right, François Fillon, has suddenly been cast into intense scandal, with allegations that he illegally paid salaries to his family members for jobs they were not actually doing (and then that he found his wife a job at the Revue des Deux Mondes by offering the latter journal’s proprietor the légion d’honneur). Chirac may have been a crook preferable to a fascist, but his known misdeeds were long behind him, as he sought his second term in the Elysée Palace; only the most inveterate muckrakers would have borne them in mind then. Fillon’s impropriety is new, his response has been abysmal, and it is all just about the worst look possible in the age of anti-establishment populism.

So the great white hope for the French establishment is now the plasticky technocrat, Emmanuel Macron, who served a bloodthirsty couple of years as Hollande’s finance minister before launching his own political party and bid for power. Strikingly, Macron has never faced election to anything before now; his CV shows him not paying his dues in some municipal administration, but collecting fat cheques from Rothschilds. The polls currently have him on course to defeat le Pen in the second round; unfortunately for him, life is so damnably full of surprises.

What his candidacy tells us, such as it is, is that the capitalist establishment is starting to fight back in response to the dramatic setbacks it faced at the hands of nationalism last year. It may seem unimaginably daft for someone like Macron, whose economic reforms were unpopular enough to be forced through by way of presidential decree, to pose as a populist - him, of all people! Yet he is doing his best to make it work, casting the two François as representatives of a complacent elite, and himself as an outsider. He has managed to get large crowds to listen to him, after the fashion of Donald Trump, with whom he shares a relative paucity of political experience, a Bonapartist approach to supporters and little else.

Such a thing becomes explicable when we consider that there is a difference between a political establishment at the nadir of its complacency and that same establishment under grave threat. The French case is exemplary, when we take a wider view of the European Union. This time last year, things really were not looking too bad. The worst of the euro zone crisis was (hopefully) over; the Greek left had been crushed; Brexit was unlikely, but in any case survivable. The British vote rocked the boat, but the American one holed it beneath the waterline; Trump is a representative of that lunatic fringe of the American right that considers Europe a not a bulwark of American power, but a fetter on it.

Le Pen’s victory this year would have been an existential crisis for the EU, whatever had happened last year; but last year has made the thing far more likely. So it is that, while the core capitalist countries have spent the years since the acute phase of the financial crisis ended sleepwalking smugly from one week to the next, they are now ready to take their stand: Eurocrats and mainstream politicians now denounce Trump, excoriate those like him in their own backyards, and pose as the last bastion of civilisation against the hordes of irrationalist hatemongers, barely distinguishable from the ‘radical Islamic terrorists’ they so despise. So it is that the masters of the universe may reinvent themselves, however temporarily, as underdogs. So it is that some popular elements may be found to join them.

Benefiting

Conspicuously absent from this spirited fightback is, of course, our own Theresa May, who came under intense pressure over her government’s decision to invite Trump for a state visit when the juicier parts of the new president’s policy started to come into effect. May reacted swiftly to the Brexit vote, positioning herself as a ruthless implementer of the supposed popular will; her longer-term history as a prototype-Cameroon, a liberal reform Tory, was already pretty distant from her approach at the home office, and now barely a trace remains.

In a generally reasonable article in last week’s Socialist Worker, Alex Callinicos makes the rather eyebrow-raising claim that “Theresa May must have thought it was a smart move to become the first foreign leader to meet Donald Trump in the White House ... But it doesn’t look like such a smart move now” (January 31). Now that ... what? Why, now that there are substantial mass protests against Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

On that exact point, we shall wait and see. In a wider sense, of course, there is a truth to it. A friendly attitude to Trump is certainly not without risks. Suppose that le Pen is indeed defeated by Macron; that parliamentary arithmetic contrives to keep Geert Wilders out of the top spot in Holland; that Europe, in short, restabilises; and suppose that the American state core succeeds in bringing Trump to heel or impeaching him. Under those circumstances, May’s decision to stake everything on cordial Atlantic relations will leave her dangerously exposed, as Brexit negotiations pick up speed.

Yet it is difficult to see what else she might have done. Comrade Callinicos makes great play of the Churchillian “kitsch” on display at May’s meeting with Trump, and in honour of the reactionary old bastard, we might say that May took the riskiest path, except for all the others she might have tried. Sharply flipping back into the socially liberal Toryism she briefly espoused in the middle of the last decade now would be political suicide. Maintaining a hard Brexit position, while condemning Trump’s travel ban, will make her no friends on the continent, may make her powerful enemies in Washington, and would require absurd leaps in logic. If the nationalist tide is turned back for a time, she is in a tough spot, but no more screwed than she would be otherwise.

If things go the other way, of course, May stands to benefit considerably. If the rise of le Pen, Wilders and co destroys the EU and sets European unity back by decades - as it genuinely could - Britain will be in the enviable position at the front of the queue in bilateral negotiations with the global hegemon, as economic chaos reigns across the channel. In its ropier periods, global capitalism is a negative-sum game - to use a term of Macronian delicacy for mass unemployment and war. If you are going to have to climb to safety over the bodies of others, the earlier you start making for the higher ground, the easier things will be later on.

If there is one organisation which will not be benefiting from all this chaos, it is the Socialist Workers Party. Callinicos’s argument is tediously familiar stuff, with street demonstrations fetishised almost to the level of self-parody in the SWP’s contemporary political outlook. In the same issue of Socialist Worker, Simon Basketter provides a lengthy paean to the protest march:

Collectively standing up for ourselves and others breaks down the atomised grind of life under capitalism. Those at the top want us to be passive observers of politics - but when we march we are putting ourselves at the centre. Protest pushes against the habit of subordination that capitalist society puts upon us ...

People can suddenly find they cannot go on living in the old way. They are repeatedly faced with a choice between enduring a terrible worsening of their lives or fighting back. The fightback does not always occur, nor is it guaranteed success. But when it does it throws the whole of society into crisis. Unable to solve its problems at our expense, the ruling class can split down the middle.

The logical result is that the only thing that matters is that people register their discontent in this particular, well-defined way. There are no explicit political criteria for the value of a protest at all. Which is not to say there are no implicit criteria (Socialist Worker did not support the marches of Pegida in Germany, after all); merely that they are not subject to serious argument, but rather merely ‘obvious’, and thus rely on pre-existing leftwing common sense, some of which is inherited directly from official state social liberalism.

The SWP is cock-a-hoop at the size of anti-Trump protests, and considers it the most important thing since the last million important things. When, months or years from now, it shows itself unable to distinguish itself from the wider neoliberal rearguard action, will Alex Callinicos acknowledge that it was not such a smart move?