The bitter pill the French left must swallow

Written By: Chris Myant
Published: March 11, 2017 Last modified: March 11, 2017

They could hardly be more different as people. The one, an incessant orator of real power, perhaps the best today in France; the other, often hesitant, diffident if serious. But the two candidates on the left for the presidential poll, Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party (pictured, right) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (pictured, left) of France in Rebellion, agree on much when it comes to fundamentals, in particular that the French political system needs root and branch reform.

In a ghastly parody of the captain on the burning ship, the Gaullist François Fillon has being doing his best to drag the established, hard-line right in France into electoral oblivion. The catastrophe of his presidential election campaign, adrift in a sea of personal and political corruption, highlights why an axe should be taken to the French constitution’s roots.

That millions in France considered electing as their autocrat President someone who has fiddled public funds, defended his actions on the basis that the law has nothing to say as MPs can do as they like in such matters (his spokesperson claimed an MP could ask their publicly paid assistant to knit if they wanted), reneged on his pledge to stand down if formally charged, called for protests in the street against the judges who ordered such charges… That such a person could be given the power to hack half a million public jobs, control public patronage, appoint ministers, hold his finger over France’s nuclear button, is a stark reminder of the tenacity of clientellism, of money, of ‘influence’, of reaction in the French body politic.

Fillon himself told us all last year that “One cannot lead France if one is not irreproachable.” But is that just a matter of keeping one’s hands clean? Like Emmanuel Macron? Who, having wallowed in the trough of the extreme inequalities of wealth that characterise France today and tasted executive power in the team of Socialist Party President François Hollande, is now asking for permission to strip the French people naked in the face of business power?

At least Macron is bluntly honest about what he intends to do, even if his audience only hears the spin about ‘new’, ‘progressive’ and ‘modern’. And caught in the intense crush of Fillon’s “I’m back from the dead” rally on Sunday, I was literally shaken and thrown about by the roars and gesticulations of approval as a speaker demanded: “Do you want lower taxes? Do you want lower public spending?”

According to polls at the moment it is one or the other of them who will oppose the racist Marine Le Pen in the final round of the poll on May 7. And the reason is two-fold: both the mainstream right and left parties have been sliding into division over the performance of their respective Presidents.

As Gaullist President up to 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy played to the racist gallery, pushed austerity and got mired in corruption scandals. In turn, Hollande has been the opposite of irreproachable when it comes to keeping campaign commitments, quite as important as keeping your sticky hands out of the public pocket. Like Fillon, he made his commitment to principle a key argument before his electors.

His final 2012 TV confrontation with Sarkozy had him intoning repeatedly: “I as President will…” Some journalists have been running a website that spells out in great detail just how much he did not. And because of that, because of the intense disillusionment, over the past five years the PS vote has dropped, abstentions have risen and the percentage for Le Pen’s FN advanced from 13.6% in the Assembly elections in 2012, to 24.9 in the European vote in 2014, 25.2 in the departmental poll in 2015 and 27.7% in the regional council vote at the end of that year. It makes her a certainty for the final round. And makes possible the fact that her opponent will either offer cuts with a scowl à la Fillon, or, much more probably, with a smile à la Macron.

Neither Fillon, the dour former Premier for Sarkozy, nor Macron, the hyper-confident former adviser and minister for Hollande, could hope to successfully present themselves as ‘new’ were it not for the divisive records of their past patrons.

So what should the two left candidates do now, both for the presidential poll and the Assembly elections a month or so later? If one of them does not claw ahead of Fillon or Macron, not only will it be someone further to the right who fills Hollande’s shoes as Pres­i­dent, but the momentum that creates could lead to an Assembly rout for the left, includ­ing for those who have spent the last five years voting, marching and striking against Hollande’s betrayals of the hopes of 2012.

In their primary, Socialist Party support­ers voted not to offer a Fillon or Macron-lite programme à la sauce Hollandaise. Hamon won because he opposed Hollande’s core programme, but his problem is his relation­ship to those who delivered it and the over­- whelming majority of PS Deputies who voted for it in the Assembly.

Some, a small minority, have left to join Macron. Many more would join him politi­cally, but it would be on his organisational terms, not theirs. He did not duck out of the government last year, frustrated that Hollande preferred perpetual manoeuvring to slashing through the Gordian Knot of public support for the French welfare state, only to let the Socialist Party right storm aboard his fragile little ship and sink its electoral chances by their association with a failed government.

So they remain as a ball and chain round Hamon’s ankles. Hollande’s ministers are ostentatiously absent from his campaign or pour cold water on his key ideas. Deputies say they cannot vote for him. Increasingly vocal in their opposition to his policies, particularly in the wake of a deal with what is left of the Greens that committed him more firmly than ever to non-nuclear energy, fully proportional elections and a basic income for all, their presence is one of the two main barriers block­ing a deal between Hamon and Mélenchon.

He is also hobbled by the Party machine which plays little role. Its secretary, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, put in place three years ago to keep things safe for Hollande, cannot be moved before a party congress timed for after the elections. That will be the scene for bloodletting over the past and a tussle over the future. A Hamon on the left, boxed into a corner as the one carrying the can for the defeat later this spring, will find it hard to hold off the right’s onslaught.

In the meantime, there is the other barrier to unity: what to do about the European Union. One can run through the list of policies shared by Hamon and Mélenchon and see quickly that fundamental points would butt up against the same problem that is still grinding Syriza’s programme in Greece into oblivion: the EU rules that enforce austerity and unprotected competition.

Hamon proposes discussions, an attempt to persuade other governments and a European parliamentary forum. Mélenchon proposes a ‘Plan B’: if he does not get Brussels to give way and let French electors experience the programme they voted for, then an early referendum would decide on whether or not France leaves the relevant EU treaties so it can put an anti-austerity programme into practice.

For both Hamon and Mélenchon deeper democracy is a key to progress in challenging the pro-business power of  the Fillons of the world and the Brussels Eurocracy. They have called for a ‘Sixth Republic’, that is to say a new constitution for France built around parliamentary supremacy, open government and strict laws against corruption backed by an authority capable of enforcing them. For the moment that is a minority demand in the French electorate. It is the economic and social ideas of both candidates that run with majority thinking. Turning them into demands with an electoral majority is another matter.

Crowding with Hamon last week into The Hive, a ‘social factory’ in central Paris, where he wanted to show what is possible in terms of incubating small, co-operative and green enterprises, one saw him at his best: modest, a good listener, caring, seeking the involvement of ordinary people. He even shook my hand as he left, thinking I was one of those who worked there.

Modesty, though, cuts little ice in the gladiatorial arena of vast and impersonal power. Referring to the Fillon soap opera he complained that “It is hard to be positive amid this noise.” And there was a telling little display in The Hive: an award for one of the tiny enterprises it shelters. The award was from the Google Impact Challenge: a pat on the back from one of those powerful enough to refuse to pay taxes, to defy governments and help crunch jobs by the bucketful.

The weekend before, Mélenchon hosted a day of debate on the green side of his prog­ramme. It finished with him at his best: a mer­- curial orator, denouncing, joking, explain­ing, but doing so for an hour and a half in a sort of post-Marxist version of The Pub Landlord. No point in having a Sixth Republic if it is over-ruled from Brussels, was his message.

Accused of leading his followers into defeat, of thinking only of himself, Mélenchon replies that one thing the polls show above all is that nearly half of the electorate has not yet decided what way to vote. Both on the left and on the right, old loyalties have been disrupted and new ones not yet cemented. And the candidate showing the highest number of supporters not certain to vote for him is Emmanuel Macron. May be there is still all to play for. That it is only ‘may be’ is a bitter pill for the left.