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France's Election Shows How the Neoliberalized Left Has Collapsed – Jacobin magazine

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France’s once mighty Socialist Party is polling at just 1 percent for today’s presidential election. With middle-class progressivism in a tailspin, only France Insoumise’s firm break with neoliberalism offers a path to recovery for the French left.
Paris mayor and Socialist Party presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo looks on during a politics show on French TV on April 5, 2022. (THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)
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For researchers Stefano Palombarini and Bruno Amable, the young liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron wasn’t lying in 2017 when he said he stood for “both Left and Right.” In their book, The Last Neoliberal, they analyze how he brought together free-marketeer and pro-EU elements of both the Parti Socialiste and the conservative Les Républicains in the name of accelerating France’s neoliberal revolution
In their book, they note that while this “bourgeois bloc” crosses the old Left-Right divide, it also has a narrow social base — carrying through its planned reforms regardless of popular support and the depletion of the old party apparatuses. The effects of such an approach are today clear, with polls ahead of today’s presidential election showing that Macron is struggling even to mobilize voters against the threat of Marine Le Pen.
But even while Macron has governed from the right, picking his key ministers from Les Républicains, the old neoliberalized left hasn’t revived. Polling scores for Parti Socialiste candidate Anne Hidalgo put her at only 1 percent — a damning indictment of a once mighty party that held the presidency only five years ago.
Ahead of the campaign, French quarterly Positions interviewed Palombarini about Macron, the collapse of the “progressive-neoliberal” center left, and the prospects of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise reversing the reactionary trend.
In an interview last year, we said it seems likely that Le Pen would make the second round of the presidential contest, with the other place up for grabs. Even apart from the polls, how do you think things are looking?
Unfortunately, the dynamics that we saw at work then have worsened.
Looking at this situation, we should first highlight the crisis of the “progressive” neoliberal strategy. Macron, who won on this line in 2017, no longer follows it at all. The campaign by Hidalgo, who could have taken over, is a wreck.
On the other hand, neoliberalism in its authoritarian and repressive version is on the rise. Macron, [Les Républicains’ candidate] Valérie Pécresse, Éric Zemmour, and Le Pen are all, albeit with different tones, in this space, so vast that it is occupied by four different candidates, each of them well-placed in the polls.
Finally, there is the Left. The new “republican front” against France Insoumise has worked full tilt over the last year. Perhaps today the Greens and the Socialists who joined in, hoping to legitimize themselves in the eyes of a hypothetical fraction of the Left of the bourgeois bloc disappointed by Macron, realize that they miscalculated. For the president’s compression of both public and private freedoms has not stopped the electorate he inherited from the Socialists from loyally following him.
The anti–France Insoumise front has contributed to dividing and weakening the entire Left. Media like Marianne and pressure groups like the Printemps républicain promised great things for a republican left capable of being firm on security, secularism, and immigration; a firmness that should be understood as a complete alignment with the ideology and policies of the Right on these themes. But with the dismal performance of the various center-left runners, we have at least had irrefutable proof that such ideas are pure (right-wing) ideology and not analysis.
Macron has shifted strongly to the right during his term, on everything from pensions and violence against migrants to the gilets jaunes. But if the center left seems to have failed, isn’t it imaginable that Zemmour’s candidacy and the Right’s efforts to outcompete each other will allow Macron to regain his place at the center of the political chessboard? With the weakness of the Greens and Socialists standing in between him and Mélenchon, are we not seeing a return to 2017?
The political balance of forces is, indeed, surprisingly similar to five years ago. On the Left, what Mélenchon is currently missing to reach his 2017 score is the votes from the Communist Party, which supported him back then but now has its own candidate. Similarly, if you add up the scores that polls predict for the Greens and Socialists, it’s the same vote as Benoît Hamon had — that is, the candidate they together supported in 2017.
The real novelty is in the extreme radicalization of a Right that has held onto the overall space it had 2017.
Is it possible that Macron will react to this by pulling back to the “progressive” socio-liberal position of the previous campaign? Everything suggests the opposite. Doubtless, should he find himself in the second round against Le Pen, the president will not shy away from playing the defender of the freedoms he has trampled on throughout his term.
But his concern today is to reach the second round, which is not yet a done deal. And Macron behaves as if he is convinced that he will not lose any voters to the Left, while he fears competition from the Right. The polls seem to validate this analysis: neither the Socialists nor Greens succeeded in winning back the “disappointed Macronists,” and not for want of trying. Macron is thus playing on the Right’s terrain, against a radicalizing right. This will lead him, and in fact has already led him, to become more radical.
Does Macron’s radicalization — as we saw before the appearance of Zemmour and Pécresse — not risk him losing his “republican right” wing, led by his own prime minister Édouard Philippe, to Pécresse? Is the bourgeois bloc still united behind Macron, or is there not a risk that it will break up and be divided between Pécresse and Macron?
For some time now, the republican frontier that separated the governmental right from the far right has no longer existed. When Charles Million accepted Front National votes to keep the presidency of the Rhône-Alpes regional council, in 1998, there was a violent shock. But much water has passed under the bridge since then.
Already, President Nicolas Sarkozy considered the far right and the Left as political adversaries between whom he refused to choose. Éric Ciotti obtained an excellent result in Les Républicains’ primary by repeatedly making nods to Zemmour. We can also see that there are no longer any barriers within the electorate itself, as right-wing voters merrily move from one party to another according to the situation without worrying at all about “republican values,” which nevertheless fill, in a totally instrumental way, the front pages of the most reactionary magazines.
The right-wing space that runs from Macron to Zemmour is relatively homogeneous, including in its radicalization, and Pécresse is no exception. However, there are still peculiarities in terms of their bases’ respective social composition. In Macron’s party, top managers and the upper classes are obviously overrepresented; the massive, still renewed support from pensioners means Les Républicains haven’t collapsed; and then there remains the specific case of the Rassemblement National, so far the only party in this space capable of rallying a significant fraction of the working classes. But all these parties, to which we must add Zemmour, now propose a very similar political offer, which we can unabashedly term authoritarian neoliberalism.
You speak of a “conservative bloc” that, aside from different nuances, is ideologically coherent, but seems much less sociologically coherent: if it gathers mostly pensioners and CPIS (managers and top professionals), there are also many blue- and white-collar workers behind Le Pen. Is a progressive bloc taking shape opposite to this? Or are the left-wing parties condemned to chase after conservative ideas to pick up some electoral crumbs?
Let’s first focus on the bloc that could be called authoritarian neoliberal. As you say, it is a sociologically composite alliance, but that’s not surprising. Social blocs aggregate different classes; the strong homogeneity of the bourgeois bloc is an exception, not the rule.
The fundamental thing is to identify the variables that allow this alliance to hold. On the one hand, the continuity of neoliberal policies and reforms directly responds to the expectations of the upper classes. However, they feel that there is a rising social revolt; the gilets jaunes sent a very strong signal, but it is not the only one — we should also look at the movements in schools and hospitals, or the enormous disappointment generated by the total government inaction on climate issues. The idea that neoliberalism can have progressive content no longer convinces many people, including those who defend it.
The upper classes have shown, under the Macron presidency, that they are really willing to do anything to control social protest and protect their dominant position. This explains the failure of strategies that aimed to recuperate a left bourgeoisie possibly disappointed by Macron. The facts show that the openness that this component of the bourgeoisie has shown in the past — its attachment to public liberties and even its readiness to support real social progress, which has actually existed — has a clear limit in its refusal to consider the slightest renunciation of its privileges.
As long as Macron is perceived as the guarantor of continuity in the relations of domination, the old left bourgeoisie will remain with him, even if the demonstrations are handled with the brutality we have seen, even if the rule of law is trampled on, even if the separation of powers is buried. But in this authoritarian neoliberal bloc we also find fractions of the working classes, and a large part of the middle classes to whom neoliberalism may offer some advantages, but whom it threatens above all with social decline.
To explain this major — counterintuitive — phenomenon, we need to get away from the vision of public policy as a simple exchange between electoral support and the satisfaction of expectations entirely inscribed in socioeconomic positions. It is because neoliberalism is hegemonic that the authoritarian neoliberal bloc manages to be so strong.
This hegemony is expressed in two main ways. On the one hand, alternatives to neoliberalism are widely perceived as unrealistic. Workers in precarious and dominated situations, students who need resources to finance their studies and pay the rent, for example, may consider “flexible” and unprotected labor relations impelled by neoliberalism to be a sad but necessary condition for their survival because they see no alternative. And the fact is that, in the neoliberal world we live in, they are often right. As long as the possibility of a major break in the orientation of public policies does not appear concrete and immediate, neoliberal hegemony will not be truly threatened.
The other dimension is the hierarchy of social expectations. You don’t have to be a keen analyst to see the enormous work done by mainstream media and the system’s intellectuals to downplay socioeconomic issues and to foreground themes such as immigration, security, and French identity. This is what makes this bloc coherent. The upper classes, as I said, now see authoritarianism as a necessary condition for the continuity of neoliberal policies that benefit them. But a significant part of the middle classes, though threatened by neoliberalism — and even fractions of the working classes — consider not only that there is no realistic alternative to neoliberalism in terms of social and economic policies, but that immigration, security, etc., are important problems that call for an authoritarian and repressive response.
This analysis of the authoritarian neoliberal bloc helps to outline a strategy for building an alternative bloc. First of all, it is not just illusory but totally counterproductive to imagine an alternative that would “take seriously” the security or identity issues as presented by the opponent. To pursue a “slightly right-wing” policy on these issues is simply to reinforce the hegemony that is being fought. A social alliance concerned with the defense of popular interests must put the social question back at the heart of the political conflict. This requires, first of all, affirming loud and clear that immigration and security, which must certainly be the object of specific and reasoned policies, are not at all the main problems of the French.
But this is not enough. We also need to convince people that there are possible, concrete solutions for purchasing power, hospitals, schools, pensions, etc., that are within reach, and which make a complete break with neoliberal logic. This is necessary not only to break up part of the middle and working classes from the authoritarian neoliberal bloc, but above all to mobilize abstentionists. The emphasis on the program is therefore decisive, as is the determination to get out of the European treaties, which is one of the factors that make such a break seem unrealistic.
The Left that stands for rupture is presented by the media as an extreme, and therefore minoritarian, component of the political landscape. But there will be no reconstruction of a left-wing bloc without putting the break with neoliberalism — also indispensable for any serious response to the ecological emergency — at the heart of the new alliance. Obviously, in a context of neoliberal hegemony, this project will encounter major obstacles, and will probably require more time than the few weeks before a presidential election. But the time for exchanging power between a “reasonable” right and a Left that also plays the same tune is over. There is no other way to build an alternative to authoritarian neoliberalism, whether it takes the form of Macron, Le Pen, Pécresse, or Zemmour.
It seems, though, that there is still a sociological base made up of the highly educated and not-so-downwardly-mobile middle classes, disappointed by the “left-wing” Macron who, they imagined in 2017, could rebuild the center left. These classes are important and have tried, through the “Popular Primary,” for example, to refound a Left that would not bring rupture and confrontation but dampen and repair the violence of crisis-ridden big capital. In 2022, it seems difficult for this kind of Left to win, but can it not kill off any prospect of building a left-wing pole of rupture? Don’t you think that this Left could eventually embody the alternative to Macron, perhaps in 2027, like Joe Biden in the United States?
The classes you are talking about certainly have a strong capacity to impact the construction of opinion. If we were to do a poll among journalists, or among influencers on social networks, we would find this “Left” that identified with Macron five years ago is looking for something else today, in very great numbers. Most of the organizers of the Popular Primary, who transported into politics the same celebration of the start-up that Macron did in 2017, have exactly this profile.
We have to be wary of optical illusions; despite its capacity to impact opinion and the media world, in which the fake left-wing primary becomes a major event because journalists decide it is, it remains a small bubble that doesn’t say much about the real underlying movements in society.
For my part, I think that for the moment there is no longer any political space to build a social bloc around what I call the gauche d’accompagnement — the Left that plays along with neoliberalism. I don’t see the left-wing bourgeoisie breaking with Macron en masse and nor do I see the working classes that once voted Socialist falling back into the trap from which they have just emerged. I say “for the moment” because, in the long term, we can’t exclude an evolution similar to the Italian one. To put it briefly, this evolution involves a complete transition to neoliberal capitalism, the disappearance of the Left, and the massive abstention of the working classes. The ideal type of this configuration corresponds to a large extent to the American political landscape before the emergence of Bernie Sanders.
If the Popular Primary generated so many hostile reactions, that was because France has not yet reached that point. The call for a single left-wing candidate in the name of fear of the far right corresponds well to the polarity between a neoliberalism that would like to be open, progressive, and also “cultured,” and another neoliberalism that is authoritarian, repressive, and generally has a more popular base. But the term “left” really doesn’t mean anything in this context, unless you consider that you can find the slightest element that would allow leaders like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, or Matteo Renzi to be qualified as left-wing.
So my answer to your question is this: today there is no possibility of rebuilding a bloc similar to the one that allowed the Parti Socialiste to govern; i.e., an alliance hegemonized by the left-wing bourgeoisie, but integrating an important popular component. In a few years’ time, there may be something in a position of strength that will continue to be called “left” out of habit and inertia, and which will in reality be a reedition of the bourgeois bloc, one of the two blocs of support for neoliberalism. But for this to happen, the neoliberal reforms must first be completed, the working classes who suffer the consequences directly must withdraw from the game of representative democracy, and the Left must disappear from the landscape. Hence also the importance of defeating the Left that does stand for rupture.
Last year when we spoke, you said, “The possibility of the government collapsing and an important space opening up for the anti-neoliberal left is to be taken seriously.” We have seen that Macron’s position, compared to 2017, has not changed much; the right-wing bloc of 2017 now has one more candidate but the same overall vote. The center left seems dead this time around, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon clearly embodies the anti-neoliberal left. Isn’t this configuration ultimately much more favorable for this Left than in 2017?
I have always considered the 2017 result as exceptional, and a political mistake not to value it immediately as such.
Mélenchon’s almost 20 percent score was an opening that gave a concrete perspective to the construction of a social alliance capable of stopping neoliberal reforms and negotiating a political shift toward solidarity, equality, and ecological responsibility. Many other European countries do not have this opportunity. The reaction of the government and its allies was predictably vigorous, and gave rise to the anti–France Insoumise front we spoke about before. To see, five years later, that the balance of forces remains around the same, is rather a relief, and a result that must be credited to a movement, France Insoumise, which, despite the attacks, has given up nothing on the social field or on the defense of public freedoms.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Mélenchon can reach 20 percent again. But I’m quite optimistic. Mélenchon’s campaign was of exceptional quality last time, and in 2022 he also got off on good footing. Back then, his main center-left competitor, Benoît Hamon, was mediocre, and I don’t have the impression that this time round they’re doing much better. And it is true that Zemmour’s presence is likely to lower the threshold for reaching the runoff.
But these considerations shouldn’t make us lose sight of the fact that the hegemony is on the Right. I dream of a second-round debate between Macron and Mélenchon — finally, real confrontation between two conflicting political visions. We can hope for this, as we have the right to, and, I would even say, for a victory in the second round, which remains highly unlikely. I say this without wanting to discourage anyone. But we should realize that the fight is not a matter of the few weeks before the vote, and neoliberal hegemony is not defeated in the space of an election campaign.
In the most optimistic hypothesis, with Mélenchon elected president, we would in any case have to prepare ourselves to counter the attempts of a power, today difficult to imagine, to block his action and delegitimize him. The presidential election is certainly a fundamental reckoning, but only a battle in a long-term confrontation. In this confrontation, neoliberalism has hegemony, but a fragile one, because it is based on the invisibilization of the social suffering that it generates.
For me, the hope is that of a victory on the hegemonic level, which will not come immediately, but which will eventually come if the Left of rupture, whether it wins or loses in 2022, sticks to the course it has charted in recent years.
Stefano Palombarini is assistant professor of economics at the University of Paris VIII. He is co-author, together with Bruno Amable, of The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the Origins of France’s Political Crisis.
Positions is a quarterly magazine based in France.
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For researchers Stefano Palombarini and Bruno Amable, the young liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron wasn’t lying in 2017 when he said he stood for “both Left and Right.” In their book, The Last Neoliberal, they analyze how he brought together free-marketeer and pro-EU elements of both the Parti Socialiste and the conservative Les Républicains in the […]
For researchers Stefano Palombarini and Bruno Amable, the young liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron wasn’t lying in 2017 when he said he stood for “both Left and Right.” In their book, The Last Neoliberal, they analyze how he brought together free-marketeer and pro-EU elements of both the Parti Socialiste and the conservative Les Républicains in the […]
For researchers Stefano Palombarini and Bruno Amable, the young liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron wasn’t lying in 2017 when he said he stood for “both Left and Right.” In their book, The Last Neoliberal, they analyze how he brought together free-marketeer and pro-EU elements of both the Parti Socialiste and the conservative Les Républicains in the […]
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