The end of the European left—in France and beyond?
Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University, is an expert in European politics and the author of the book, Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Cultures, Security and Populism in a New Europe. In this commentary, she reflects on the lessons learned from the recent French elections.
The second roundof France’s departmental elections occurred at the end of March. Political scientists and diehard students ofnational politics scrutinize these local elections of members to France’s hundred department councils. But these elections are so small that they usually attract fleeting attention in national media and are virtually ignored in international media. The March elections were different. They resulted in a triumph for former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center right coalition and signaled that Marine Le Pen as President of the National Front had finally succeeded in making the party a viable third political force in French national politics. And the whole world, or at least the European world, was watching.
There are two takeaways from this French election—first, a cautious but reasonable prediction; and second, an evaluation. First, the second round 2017 French presidential election will likely be a contest between Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy will likely win because it is hard to imagine France and the French changing so much that they would want a National Front politician, no matter how charismatic, as president. But, the final round will be closer than it was in 2002 when Marine Le Pen’s father made it into the second round.
Second, Marine Le Pen has political talent. She and her party have advanced this far because from 2011,when she assumed its leadership, she has made it her party’s job to address the claims of the disenfranchised and unemployed French workers. She has been willing to incorporate all comers into the party. Le Pen’s chief strategist and public communications person Florian Philippot is gay. More notably, Philippot is a graduate of a French grande ecole and of the prestigious ENA. The media continues to describe Marine Le Pen’s National Front as extreme right but this is something of a label of habit and convenience. Her “new” National Front is closer to Sarkozy’s coalition than the “old” National Front of her father’s leadership.
The real question that emerges from the March election is why did the parliamentary left perform so poorly—not why did the right do so well. The institutionalized left of the French Socialist Party is often not all that different on economic policies from Sarkozy’s center right coalition. Both the center left and the Socialist party are firmly aligned with Europe and the euro. That means that they have to give more than lip service to austerity policies. France has no anti-austerity left to act as Syriza did in Greece. Marine Le Pen’s right has taken the anti-austerity position and acted vis a vis the French as the left used to act. She has managed to suck the air out of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s extreme left coalition. François Hollande has even lower approval ratings than Nicolas Sarkozy had during his decidedly unpopular presidency. Hollande’s brief post-Charlie bump in the polls has already faded. During the departmental campaign, Manuel Valls the French Minister visited many departments and his principle message was emotional. Campaigning on fear earned the Socialist party a third place finish with a mere 16% of the vote in the second round compared to the combined UMP and National Front 50%. It is hard to imagine Hollande as a viable presidential candidate in 2017.
But the decline of the left in France has parallels across Europe. Too many parliamentary left parties are closely aligned with the fate of Europe and European Central Bank austerity policies. These parties are less aligned with the travails of ordinary citizens struggling under the financial weight of the European debt crisis and a close to stagnant economy. The European post-war commitment to social welfare for all has been on wobbly terrain at least since the 1980s when welfare state retrenchment first emerged in different degrees across the continent. EU and EMU have pursued no policies that restore the “social Europe” of the post-war period.
Given this scenario, it is not surprising that extreme parties of left and right are gaining ground. These parties are the new avatars of national, as opposed to a universalized social, solidarity. As such, they look towards the past rather than the present. What France in particular, and Europe more generally, lacks is a viable social democratic left party that is pragmatic, imaginative, future oriented and genuinely inclusive across socio-economic boundaries. Unless such a political coalition emerges soon, Europe is in danger of returning to an aristrocracy, composed this time of global 1 per centers, not feudal lords, and disgruntled and economically marginal nationalists. If even an approximation of this dystopic scenario were to occur, Europe as a region could become irrelevant at best; nasty and xenophobic at worst—not a hopeful future in any case.