Not back to normal
The centre-right and the centre-left suffered defeat, but the markets are no longer in a panic. Yassamine Mather looks at the French ... and the Iranian presidential elections
The sense of relief in the official media and financial markets was tangible on Monday April 24. A pro-EU former investment banker who wants to reduce taxes and increase working hours had secured his position for the next round of French presidential elections. Reporters and analysts were telling us the populist trends of late 2015 and 2016 - Brexit and the election of Donald Trump - were over, the world was back to normal. Of course nothing is further from the truth. The populist extreme right Front National had secured 21 percent of the vote, while the candidates considered to be radical left - Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud - had managed to gain a similar percentage of the vote, but divided between them. The two parties which have hitherto dominated the 5th Republic1, the centre-right Republican Party and the centre-left Socialist Party will not be part of the second and final round of voting, and although Emmanuel Macron is very likely to win on May 7, two weeks is a long time in politics and the final result should not be taken for granted.
Iranians, who are comparing presidential elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran with those in France, praise the absence of vetting of candidates by the Council of Guardians, and the fact that there is no interference by an unelected religious supreme leader in elections in Western Europe. On the face of it Iran’s presidential elections are less democratic than those in France, or, for that matter, the coming general election in the United Kingdom. However, for those blinded by the merits of bourgeois democracy, it is worth quoting Alain Badiou in how capital intervenes directly and openly in elections held in Western Europe (not to forget the enormous role of money and electoral funds in US presidential elections).
Writing in March 2017, Badiou writes:
Emmanuel Macron, for his part, is a creature brought out of nothing by our true masters, the latest capitalists, those who have bought up all the papers as a precaution. If he believes and says that Guiana is an island or that Piraeus is a man, it is because he knows that no one in his camp has ever been committed by what they said.2
It is certainly true that capital’s control of the mass media determines the news agenda, making elections remarkably biased towards the right:
The conservative and reformist orientations constitute the central parliamentarist bloc in the advanced capitalist societies:
the left and right in France, the Republicans and Democrats in the USA, etc ... conservatives and reformists a shared hegemony - mediated by the electoral machinery, the parties and their clientele - that everywhere eliminates any serious prospect of the fascists or communists holding state power. This is the dominant form of the state in what we call “the west”. This itself requires a third term, a powerful common contractual base at once both external and internal to the two main orientations. Clearly, in our societies, neoliberal capitalism is this base. Unlimited freedom of enterprise and self-enrichment, absolute respect for private property - guaranteed by the judicial system and heavy policing - confidence in the banks, youth education, competition under the cover of “democracy”, appetite for “success”, repeated assertions of the harmful and utopian character of equality: such is the matrix of the consensually agreed-upon “freedoms”.3
It is worth debating whether this form of ‘democracy’ is really superior to the one exercised in Iran’s Islamic Republic, where we also witness a matrix of consensually agreed-upon “freedoms”, albeit within the confines of a Shia version of neoliberal capital.
Going back to the French elections, who is Emmanuel Macron - this latest darling of the markets and therefore the media. Trained in the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), Macron joined the French civil service in 2004, only to leave (paying the severance fee to buy himself out of the civil service contract) in order to join the Rothschild bank as an investment banker, where he managed to make his own fortune. A member of the Socialist Party from 2006 to 2009, rising to deputy secretary-general. By 2014, no longer in the SP, he was nevertheless minister of economics in the Manuel Valls government (2014-16). Always to the right of the SP, his role was clear: he had responsibility for deregulating the French economy, showing great promise in that role, mocking his SP colleagues for ‘taxing the rich’.
By August 2016 the former ‘socialist’ economics minister was setting up his own political movement, En Marche! (Let’s Go!), “open to everyone of progressive views” and “aimed at younger voters”. Given Hollande’s poll rating in the autumn of 2016, falling to as low as 11% to 15% of the vote, Macron decided it was time to test his chances, and the press and media in France and indeed throughout Europe have given him their full backing.
Although it is likely that Macron will defeat Marine Le Pen to win the presidency, it is difficult to envisage how this victory will affect the parliamentary elections on June 11 and 18. En Marche! has no party organisation in the country’s 577 constituencies, although his ‘movement’ intends to contest many of these National Assembly seats. Macron will be faced with the unenviable task of selecting candidates from the volunteers of En Marche! He might have defeated Francois Fillon (Republican Party) and Benoit Hamon (Socialist Party) in the first round of the presidential elections, but he is unlikely to achieve a deal with either party before June.
It is amazing that the same media which assures us every day that major political figures, party leaders and heads of state must be charismatic, is so full of praise for Macron. This boring non-entity lacks any personality, clearly has no views of his own, borrows ideas from the two centre parties, Republican and Socialist, and yet is feted as the saviour of globalisation and EU, for the sole reason that the opponent, Marine Le Pen, is worse.
Of course, like the conservative extreme rightwing clerics in Iran, Marine Le Pen is worse. She represents everything we abhor: intolerance of other religions and races; narrow reactionary nationalism. In the words of Badiou: “Marine Le Pen is the modernised - and thus feminised - version of what the French far right has always been. A tireless Pétainism.” Someone who inherited the leadership of the Front National from her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, a man who believes that the “gas chambers used to kill Jews in the holocaust were only a ‘detail’ of history.” Despite her attempts to distance herself from her father, Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic language is no better than his. Yet the leader of the ‘free world’, Donald Trump, and the reactionary dictator in Moscow, Vladimir Putin, are united in supporting her candidacy in both rounds of the presidential elections, and the wonderful press and media we have don’t seem to bat an eyelid at this rather bizarre turn of events.
So, to sum up, even without a religious leader to ‘advise’ candidates if they can or cannot stand, without a guardian council vetting candidates, the next round of presidential elections in France is, even by the standards of bourgeois democracy, a very poor exercise, giving limited choice to the electorate and in many ways no better than presidential elections in Iran’s Islamic Republic. As in the May presidential elections in Iran, voters are left with a choice between bad and worse: a neoliberal capitalist candidate promising reform (Macron in France, Hassan Rouhani in Iran) and xenophobic, protectionist nationalists (Marine Le Pen in France, a range of conservative reactionaries in Iran).
We clearly need a different kind of politics if we are to rescue ourselves from the current quagmire.
1. France’s current republican system of government, established by Charles de Gaulle on 4 October 1958.