The end of Europe’s right-wing winter?
For those who hoped the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s would lead to a new wave of left-wing politics, the three-and-a-half years since Lehman Brothers went under have been a depressing experience. The right dominate Europe. Neo-liberalism should have been left on the ropes by the financial catastrophe: instead, it was handed its greatest opportunity yet. I was in Portugal last November, and leading businesspeople and economists were entirely candid that the crisis made it possible to introduce policies – such as privatisation, the slashing of taxes on the wealthy, and the repealing of workers’ rights – that were not possible in normal times.
In hindsight, expecting an automatic boost for the left was always a bit optimistic. As the global economy tanked, there was no coherent left with a mass base that could have benefited from the aftermath. The ‘left’ – as traditionally understood – had been all but wiped out as a significant political force on a global scale: largely, because of the rise of the New Right, the acceleration of globalisation, and the triumphalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Even leftists who abhorred Stalinist totalitarianism appeared discredited: after all, it was ‘The End of History’, as Francis Fukuyama put it. ‘It’s time to say: We’ve won, goodbye,’ as US neo-conservative Midge Decter put it in 1990, summing up the mood of the time.
But has the first round of France’s presidential election finally punctured the European right’s hegemony, bolstering the confidence of an embattled left? It’s an answer that needs a hell of a lot of caveats, that’s for sure. The candidate of the radical left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, did not do as well as many polls predicted he would. Winning less than 12% is disappointing, largely because he ran an excellent campaign that even mainstream media commentators argued brought the contest alive. That said, the polls originally placed him around the 5% mark, so his radical brand of socialism did win new recruits.
Even the once-mighty French Communist Party – the remaining rump of which backed his candidacy – had limits to its success: at its peak, it won 21.5% of the vote in the 1969 presidential election, and its colourless Stalinist leadership lacked Mélenchon’s radicalism. By 1988, the combined far left vote was around 10.85%; although, in the exceptional year of 2002 – when the far-right National Front knocked the Socialist Party out the first round – radical left forces amassed nearly 19% of the vote.
The real crushing disappointment was Mélenchon’s failure to beat the National Front’s Marine Le Pen for third place. If he had done so, Socialist candidate François Hollande could have been forced to tack to the left to ensure Mélenchon’s supporters returned to the ballot box to stop French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Instead, France’s immigrant community face a bleak two weeks as Sarkozy and Hollande attempt to woo Le Pen’s voters.
How alarming is the National Front’s showing? It’s certainly a boost for other xenophobic and racist formations across Europe. Indeed, the NF staged the first major breakthrough of the modern European far right back in 1984, when it won over 10% of the vote. To begin with, it did not have quite the same emphasis on immigration it would later develop. Above all, it represented a right-wing backlash against France’s then-resurgent left: the Socialists under François Mitterand had captured the Presidency for the first time since World War II, and had, with their allies, had also swept the National Assembly. FN voters were originally pretty similar to the traditional base of the far-right: lower-middle-class voters, such as shopkeepers and small businesspeople, as well as the pieds noirs, the French settlers who had fled Algeria after France lost its brutal colonial war there.
But, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the FN expanded its roots in working-class France. In the 1988 presidential election, the FN – then led by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – was estimated to have won a fifth of the working-class vote; and in 1995, that had risen to 30%, more than any other candidate. In the 1997 legislative elections, nearly half of unskilled young workers were thought to have plumped for the FN.
Jean-Marie Le Pen originally expressed views on social inequality that bordered on Social Darwinism. But, by the 2002 presidential election – when he stunningly romped into the second round against Gaullist Jacques Chirac – he had (falsely, of course) repositioned his party as one championing working-class and dispossessed French voters. In her triumphalist speech yesterday, Marine Le Pen declared that the FN had ‘exploded the monopoly of the two parties of banks, finance, of multinationals, of resignation and abandonment.’ Here was a direct, audacious raid on the language of the left.
The FN vacuumed up voters who once may have opted for the Communists: indeed, Le Pen’s far-right movement did particularly well in what were previously so-called ‘red-belts’ where the French Communist Party once thrived, and in industrial and ex-industrial areas in the North and East of the country. The French political scientist Pascal Perrineau has written of ‘gaucho-lepenisme’ to describe FN inroads into a working-class, potentially leftist electorate. On economic issues, such as wages, working conditions and privatisation, they are decidedly on the left, but are won over by FN ideas on immigration and law-and-order. Pollsters suggest that three out of ten working-class voters went for Le Pen. Mélenchon’s campaign clearly failed to win these voters to the radical left camp. In the agonising that must surely have to take place, the French left must develop a strategy of challenging the FN’s hold over a significant chunk of the working-class.
Le Pen’s success is a jolt for the left. But, nonetheless, Sunday was bad news for the right. According to exit polls, Sarkozy faces defeat by up to ten percentage points in the next round – and, in previous presidential elections, pollsters’ second-round predictions have been accurate. For the most zealous French neo-liberals, Sarkozy was something of a disappointment: he was hailed as a French Thatcher who would sweep away the country’s ‘statism’, just as his predecessor Jacques Chirac was described when elected in the late 1980s.
But although Sarkozy did not go as far as ardent neo-liberals would have liked – even indulging in anti-finance rhetoric after the crash, including speculating that he was a socialist – he is the French representative of European austerity: increasing the retirement age to 62 from 60, loosening the 35-hour week, and pledging sweeping cuts if he is re-elected. In his efforts to save his political career, he has indulged in anti-immigration rhetoric that has undoubtedly helped boost the FN’s fortunes. His defeat would be a step forward indeed.
But what challenge does François Hollande represent to austerity? Like the rest of European social democracy, the French Socialists have certainly shifted from where they once were. When they took the Elycée Palace in the early 1980s, they introduced a sweeping radical programme: a 39-hour week; fifth week’s paid holiday; an increase in benefits and pensions; and nationalisation of industries and finance, leaving the state holding 90% shares in the country’s banks. Ministers spoke openly about a ‘break with capitalism’. Yet this expansionary plan was out of kilter with the neo-liberal shift taking place in the aftermath of the 1970s economic crisis. By the mid-1980s, the Socialist government was slashing income tax, emphasising business investment and introducing one of the most austere budgets since World War II. When the then-Prime Minister Laurent Fabius – who, in the mid-noughties, became the de facto leader of the French Socialists’ left-wing – was asked in 1985 if he still believed in the Socialists’ commitment to a complete break with capitalism, he responded: ‘Well, it must be very, very, very progressive.’
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, all such pretences were completely abandoned. When Lionel Jospin’s government took power in the late 1990s, it privatised more than all the six previous governments put together, ending state involvement in the banks. ‘Never had the sales of public companies generated so little controversy’, said French newspaper Le Monde at the time. It has come back to haunt them: Marine Le Pen used this legacy to slam the Socialists’ role in the financial crisis.
François Hollande – a former backroom political operator – is clearly rooted in the mainstream faction of the Socialists that embraced elements of neo-liberalism. But he has been forced to shift his position as a result of the economic crisis. ‘My true enemy has no name, no face, no party,’ he began the campaign by saying. ‘It is the world of finance.’ He has pledged to slap a 75% tax on annual earnings that exceed 1 million euros: it will impact only a small proportion of the super-rich, but it reverses the decades-long trend of bolstering the position of the wealthy. He has promised to return the retirement age to 60 and create 60,000 jobs in state education, much to the chagrin of the right.
On the other hand, he has given a commitment to eliminate the public deficit by 2017, and although he has not outlined a programme of deep spending cuts, something approaching that description surely follow. That said, he has made the case that Greek-style austerity is self-defeating and that last year’s EU fiscal discipline pact must contain policies of growth. That would have to challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who has been at the heart of European austerity.
Even if – as is likely – Hollande is elected, there are no guarantees that the post-Lehman Brothers austerity offensive can be sent into reverse. But it does represent a rupture to the consensus: by defeating a senior representative of Europe’s right, and by boosting the confidence of Europe’s left. How big that rupture surely depends on building a movement from below that can hold Hollande to account. It could have real consequences here in Britain, challenging the sense that ‘There is no alternative’, and even putting Ed Miliband under pressure to have a firmer opposition to austerity, and to commit to far more progressive taxation.
Europe is at a crucial juncture in its history, and it is difficult to know whether its current direction can be changed. But for those who want an alternative to the cuts consensus, an opening has emerged. Whether the left can get its act together to exploit it remains to be seen.
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