France unbowed?

Published July 10, 2024
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

IN the run-up to last Sunday’s second round of French parliamentary elections, opinion polls and much of the media commentary chiefly focused on whether the far right would succeed in its aim of securing an absolute majority or fall short by a couple of dozen seats. Either way, it was widely assumed that Rassemblement National (RN) leader Marine Le Pen’s youthful protégé Jordan Bardella would be the next PM.

Ice buckets with bottles of champagne lay in waiting for a cork-popping moment that never came, as exit polls on election night revealed that not only had RN failed to repeat its first-round triumph, but that it had been relegated to third place, behind the left-wing National Popular Front (NFP) and the centrist alliance of President Emmanuel Macron. One party stalwart was overheard declaring: “The French are idiots! A nation of morons!”

Her opinion wasn’t shared by the vast crowds gathered in Parisian city squares, which reacted to the projected results with rapturous applause. In the preceding week, more than 200 candidates — mostly from the left, but also from the centre — had stepped away from three-cornered contests in order to coalesce the anti-RN vote. The tactic worked, not least because voters spooked by the idea of a far right government turned out in their largest numbers since 1997.

‘Oui’ for now, but it’s more complicated.

A surge in turnout also appeared to propel the purportedly reformist Iranian presidential candidate Masoud Pezeshkian to a decisive lead over his rival in the second round. The UK, whose electoral system must be among the least democratic in Europe, propelled Keir Starmer’s Labour to a nearly two-thirds parliamentary majority with around one-third of the popular vote. The RN won an almost identical share in the French first round. We’ll never know what a second round in Britain might have thrown up.

Across the Channel once you get past the justified jubilations about thwarting the far right (for the time being, at least), what it has thrown up is a degree of incoherence and a recipe for instability. The NFP — a distant echo of the 1936 Popular Front that briefly kept France safe from fascism — combines the radical La France Insoumise with the socialists, communist and green parties. There is basic agreement on key policies, but plenty of scope for dispute on details, not to mention ructions within the LFI. The latter’s charismatic leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is invariably described as controversial in the media and smeared as antisemitic by his rivals (much as Jeremy Corbyn was, and for the same reason: a refusal to compromise on Palestinian rights).

The short-lived 1930s Popular Front under Leon Blum notched up a few significant achievements, such as annual vacations for workers, but those were based on a parliamentary majority. The NFP today, around 100 seats short of a majority, will struggle to come up with a prime ministerial candidate acceptable to the Macronists, some of whom consider the LFI more alarming than the RN (whose racism and hostility to immigrants many so-called centrists have assimilated).

RN is a rebranding of FN (Front National), the more overtly fascistic party founded by Marine’s dad Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose Holocaust-denying legacy she sought to disown with some success — to the extent that some French Jews prefer a historically antisemitic entity that today approves of the Netanyahu regime’s fascist tendencies to anyone who dares to challenge the Gaza genocide.

There is no easy answer to the question of whether Macron’s gamble in calling a snap election after the RN did exceptionally well in European elections has backfired. It would have been much worse for France had the hard right been able to build on its first-round triumph. Its failure to do so can be credited more to the left’s tactic than Macron. The president has muddled through over the past couple of years without a parliamentary majority, decreeing policies that have enraged many of his compatriots.

He might be able to cobble together some kind of a coalition with the non-RN right and the non-LFI left, but it will be inherently unstable. Besides, if the policy settings responsible for the popular antagonism to the Macron government do not shift, there’s every chance that Marine Le Pen’s dream of entering the Elysée Palace in 2027 could come true. Bardella, meanwhile, will head a far-right European parliamentary group called Patriots for Europe that includes like-minded MEPs from Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium.

It would be unfair to scoff at what French voters have achieved, but it was just one battle in a protracted pushback. The spectre of Europe’s 1930s descent into fascism still haunts the continent. There’s little excuse for complacency, but there’s cause to relish last Sunday’s reminder that resistance is never futile.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2024

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