Elections · European Politics · La Vie en bleu

The Establishment vs. The Nationalists Round 2: Europe’s fate balances on a knife’s edge

And so we come to the great battle of our time – again. Déjà vu, as the French say; we have been here before, and the results last time were rather disconcerting. Britain’s establishment was defeated on Brexit; Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump. Of course, in every election we can’t make exact comparisons. In Britain for example, the establishment itself was divided on the subject of EU membership. In Italy last December, many people from across the social and political spectrum were severely critical of the constitutional amendments Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Government was proposing. But I have always thought that comparisons are most useful in highlighting differences as well as similarities in any case.

There is a common thread in these votes, even if when we get into the details we find several differences. It is that there are strong forces across Europe pushing highly disruptive anti-establishment messages and ideas. Whatever people have voted for in causing these establishment upsets, there are actors in the European political scene which, over the past year, have become very effective at causing trouble for established politics, and rocking their boat. Since the beginning of 2016, Prime Ministers from two of Europe’s largest states have been unseated, a third struggled to resume his office after 2 elections and finally the French President found himself so unpopular that he decided not to run again – breaking decades of precedent since the founding of the Fifth French Republic. Tonight, we see François Hollande’s legacy, with the routing of the Parti Socialiste, despite its decision to elect the relative insurgent, Benoît Hamon.

The PS came in at a meagre 6.4%; whether we can officially declare the French Socialists Pasokified yet or not, we will have to wait and see. Perhaps we’ll gain a clearer picture in the parliamentary elections in June, as to whether the left continues to back Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s movement, La France insoumise, and the coalition of parties which support it, or the Socialists hold their ground in the Assemblée Nationale. Given the success of Mélenchon on Sunday in being able to finish fourth, only 0.4% behind Republican candidate François Fillon and above Hamon, it seems the French left might reconsider where its loyalties lie. We’ve seen this happen in Greece, though those are perhaps extreme circumstances. We’ve seen the beginnings of this in Spain, though it appears the Spanish Socialists have managed to hold off Podemos for now. Regardless, despite all his efforts, Mélenchon was not able to break through enough on Sunday to end up in the runoff; that will be the privilege of Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.

And so here we are, arriving at the same place that we saw in Britain and the US last year. We saw it in the Netherlands too in March. In the Netherlands, the establishment succeeded in turning away the challenge of the far-right. In Britain, we were less lucky. There’s something to say about the Dutch parliamentary and electoral system, where no party managed to get over 21% of the vote and thus seats in the Binnenhof’s Tweede Kamer, and coalitions can involve 4 or 5 parties to make them work, to suggest why Geert Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid did not see as strong a result as the Brexiteers did last June. However, we can pick apart the Dutch case as well. Ultimately, the parties of the last coalition – Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, and the Partij van de Arbeid – were the only parties to lose any seats, whilst the liberal D66, leftist Groenlinks and Wilders’ PVV all gained. Rutte now only commands a fifth of the chamber and cannot say his vision of the world is anything like the majority view in the Netherlands. Of course, this is the way things have been in Dutch politics for a while now, but is such a fracturing of politics what we have to look forward to? The Dutch still don’t have a new government.

In France, things are more simple. With the run-off system, French voters now face a clear choice between the far-right and the centre; Macron and Le Pen. Le Pen says she isn’t running a Front National campaign but of course by now, who could disassociate the two entities. Macron is running with his movement ‘En Marche’, or ‘Forward’. Naturally, we can see all the hallmarks of the right-wing, anti-establishment nationalism we have become used to in Europe peppering Le Pen’s campaign. However, for me the media’s approach to Macron is troubling. Of course, it is natural that they would love him; he’s a centrist (despite rejecting the left-right spectrum, the go-to move for those of the extreme centre), pro-European, internationalist, pro-markets, pro-free trade, pro-deregulation. In other words, everything the European establishment has been hoping to find in a French politician for a few decades now. More exciting than Hollande, more reasonable than Sarkozy, at last they have found a man who will take France out of its strange separate category in Europe and place it firmly in the Germanic core; the language might be vulgar Latin, but it is Franks who have occupied the lands west of the Rhine since Rome.

This is much of the media’s stance, and like I said, unsurprising. What is strange is the fact they have taken to calling Macron an ‘anti-establishment’ candidate. Really? What name so? The man from bourgeois Amiens, who studied as Sciences Po Paris, ENA and then worked for the French Civil Service before joining Rothschild & Cie Banque as an investment banker? This is your challenge to the French establishment?

What are these anti-establishment credentials that Macron supposedly has? Unlike some of my friends on the left, I will give him his position on Europe as being quite far outside the mainstream, institutionally at least. Few speak of Europe the way Macron does, with reference to ‘European sovereignty’ rather than national. However, this seems to be the end of it. He is pro-flexible labour markets, pro-deregulation, pro-big business. A neoliberal in other words. He is also pro-fiscal prudence; once again, Sparpolitik raises its ugly head. Martin Schulz has made the same choice in Germany. If there’s one pillar of establishment politics in Europe that no mainstream party seems willing to go against today, it is austerity. One would have thought Greece would have taught us enough by now. In fact, Macron’s pro-German position is often touted as among his anti-establishment credentials. Who is in favour of Germany right now? But of course, this is in effect saying he’s outside the mainstream because he supports the establishment – Roosevelt was a rebel because he was actually willing to do whatever it takes to pull America out of depression. This didn’t make Roosevelt, the elder patrician, a rebel. Neither does it make Macron – and what’s worse, Macron isn’t even proposing anything as radical as Roosevelt did.

So then, despite all this talk of France’s establishment being swept aside by this election, we are in a similar place to where we’ve been for the past few years. Of course, it is true that neither the centre-right Republicans nor the centre-left socialists are in this election, unlike any vote in the history of the Fifth Republic. But, really, how different is Macron? Yes, he’s a novice, yes, he has no real party yet. He will have a lot of work ahead of him mobilising a coalition behind him in Parliament – which may not materialise. Especially considering that his manifesto includes several policies designed to make the French workplace more precarious, cut the size of the civil service, reduce public spending etc., would any party want to put their name to these reforms? On the one hand, I can see Macron wanting to act as the pragmatic statesman, sitting above politics and yet plowing on with his agenda, working out compromises and yet maintaining all the substance, representing France as an equal to Germany. On the other hand, I wonder whether any of this will happen. Macron says that France must match German economic prowess in order to match its political weight in the Union. To do that, France will need some Hartz Reforms of its own. In my estimation, this will mean Le Pen, or someone similar, will be back by 2022. France will never equal German economic strength, so all of this pain, if legislated, would be for nothing. Worse, it will surrender the possibility of an alternative Europe; with both Paris and Berlin fully on-board the neoliberal, ordo-liberal Sparpolitik train, I find it difficult to see where to look for the champion of Another Europe.

Despite this, I still urge people to vote for Macron. I saw something on Facebook recently suggesting Macron now will mean Le Pen in 5 years. Well, not Macron now will mean Le Pen now, which clearly is no better and I’d even say worse. The radicals lost this round. The only alternative left this time is the nationalists, which is no alternative. The French, the Children of the Revolution, are stronger than turning inwards, giving up internationalism; in effect, giving up hope. With Macron, it will be painful, but it will enable the left to regroup and prepare for next time. We saw 19.6% of the French people vote for a man who proposed a 100% tax-rate on France’s richest, so with a bit of moderation here, and perhaps the socialists stepping aside, whose to say things won’t go better in 2022? I unabashedly agree with Yanis Varoufakis’ maxim that the Nationalist International and the Establishment ultimately reinforce each other; they are both our enemies, and we can’t give into nationalism as an escape from the place we are now. The renegades must continue the fight, and they can, but not by ‘sounding the retreat behind the Maginot line of national sovereignty’. As in history, this was no real line of defence. It is not an alternative. Macron may be the last hurrah for the establishment, in all their hubris, but after hubris comes nemesis. That is what we must be now, for the next 5 years, and after.


Image credits: Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, 1830


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