The Liberal Centre Will Not Hold. Halting the Far-Right Requires a Different Social Model

by David Broder

8 May 2017

Lorie Shaull/Flickr

Last night’s French presidential results saw a huge win for liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron, beating Marine Le Pen by 66.1% to 33.9% of valid votes.  This was quite a slap in the face for the Front National, who despite their progress on previous elections failed to hegemonise either the right or the so-called ‘anti-neoliberal’ vote. Indeed, these remain far from united groups of voters.

Key to Macron’s success was the ‘republican bloc’ whereby voters of all other persuasions rallied against the Front National. Yet with Macron arrogantly insisting he wanted a vote of ‘backing’ for his project and not just an anti-Le Pen vote, there was in fact a relatively poor turnout (at 75% around five points lower than usual in the second round) plus about 4m spoilt ballots (12% of those who turned out to vote), historic in the French context or indeed any major democracy.

Aside from Macron’s victory we can also note the poor result of the far-right leader Geert Wilders in the recent Dutch election, the likely SPD or CDU win in the German vote this autumn (confirmed by the victory of Angela Merkel’s party in Sunday’s Schleswig-Holstein election) and the apparent collapse of Ukip in the run up to 8 June. With these centrist victories, a narrative is beginning to take hold that the ‘revolt’ of 2016 is now being undone, restoring things to ‘normal’ after the wobble of recent months.

Perhaps it is true that some voters are now being mobilised after their shock at the Donald Trump or Brexit victories. Nonetheless, such a narrative of restored centrist success seems highly complacent given the total lack of answers to the crisis of the euro as a currency, or the EU as a project bereft of meaningful democratic structures. Lest we forget, the French presidential vote was an election in which the historic main parties, dominant since the 1960s, came third and fifth.

Slavoj Žižek offered rare insight this week by raising the spectre of votes every five years where we all worry about the fascist threat mobilising the proles, only then to breathe a big sigh of relief when they fail to turn out and nothing changes. This is indeed now the best hope of maintaining the argument that ‘there is no alternative’ to endless Uberisation. The likes of Macron would rather have toxic racists as their opposition, the better to rally people around their own social programme.

Indeed, the last two weeks have seen an endless campaign against the French left, with many insisting that Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his France Insoumise movement should shut up their criticisms of Macron for the sake of maintaining the anti-fascist front. Yet having won almost 20% in the first round on 23 April, Mélenchon was in fact ignored whenever he did speak out against the Front National and its fake anti-establishment posture: ironically, it was only liberal attacks on his failure to endorse Macron that kept his arguments for a different social model in the media spotlight.

The big dailies scorned Mélenchon’s failure to call for a Macron vote, as well as a consultation within France Insoumise voting two-to-one against such an endorsement. Yet despite much talk of the ‘convergence of extremist populisms’, ultimately just 7% of Mélenchon voters backed Le Pen. The only overlap was their bitter contest among the most deprived: in the second round Le Pen won slight majorities among not only manual/routine workers but also among 18-24 year-olds and the unemployed – two categories where Mélenchon had triumphed in the first round.

Faced with the Le Pen-Macron clash on 7 May, many others on the left argued it necessary to vote for Macron in order to allow the space for the fight to continue. There was some sense to such a call, particularly when viewed through the angle of heightening state racism. Yet that purely defensive vote was the easy part. In France, as elsewhere, we cannot now collapse into the hope that liberals can continue to keep the far-right at bay. This is a dangerous illusion. Marine Le Pen achieved almost double the vote her father did. The Front National is still on the rise.

In 2002, with the shock breakthrough of Jean-Marie Le Pen, we saw a lot of discussion of the left-behind, the unemployed, the ‘forgotten’ emerging on the fringes of our new and globalised world. Through their vote they shocked the system, as they did during Brexit and the 2016 presidential election, thus momentarily attracting political attention. Yet that was it, once the electoral cycle was over. After lamenting their fate, we never seem to arrive at any concrete conclusions for what should be done.

The answer is the mobilisation for a different social model: not the last-minute call to arms, every five years, to defend the citadel from the bad and the dangerous, but the building of an alternative, over years and decades. That is no simple task: it is the overthrow of the whole cultural atmosphere of the last three decades. It is a process in which the France Insoumise movement has made important headway, and in which June’s parliamentary elections are one further small step.

As novelist Édouard Louis wrote, explaining the kind of despair in which chauvinism and Le Pen thrive, that means the hard work of organising the bad and the ugly, not just the already-enlightened. “It’s not enough to show that she is racist and dangerous: Everyone knows that already. It’s not enough to fight against hate or against her. We have to fight for the powerless, for a language that gives a place to the most invisible people.”

In Britain, now and after 8 June, that means building a class-based political representation against liberal dreams of diluting Labour into a centrist morass. It means resisting the proto-Macrons on the right wing of the Labour party, who would gamble everything on imitating the new French president. In 2012 the French Socialists won the presidential vote. In 2012 the Dutch Labourites entered coalition with the conservatives. In 2017 each party scored 6% at the polls. The centre did not hold.


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