Can Europe Make It?

France and the European balance of power

Hollande holds historic responsibility as the French president who, for lack of political courage, marked the end of the balance that has governed Europe for sixty years. And maybe even for being the gravedigger of the Parti Socialiste and French social democracy.

Giorgio Griziotti Elicio Pantaleo
24 January 2014

Suffrage universal dédié à Ledru-Rollin by Frédéric Sorrieu. Wikipedia. Public domain work.

Since the Second World War, France has traditionally held a central position in Europe’s balance of power as the mediating nation between the north and south of the continent. This balance is based on its partnership with Germany (‘le couple Franco-Allemand’ in the words of their mainstream media). After the Nazi tragedy, occupied Germany had no political influence in Europe whatsoever while her economy returned quickly to strength. France, victorious power, in the privileged position of a great European bridge between north and south, therefore assumed political leadership.

France’s distinctive traits, being both Latin and hybrid at one and the same time in many of its aspects - culturally, ethnically, etc – pushed the country towards assuming this leading position in the nascent European community. At that time France’s president, Charles de Gaulle, could even adopt an independent posture in the teeth of big brother USA, light years away from Italy’s position as an American vassal. Suffice it to say that France didn’t adopt NATO’s command structure until Sarkozy’s recent and significant decision to do so. The balance of power started to shift with German reunification and EU expansion, and after that the financial earthquake of 2008, that has sent a ruinous tsunami across the continent.

The current situation

Some time ago French prefects of the regions handed Interior Minister Manuel Valls an alarming document that was leaked to the press. Among other things, the prefects pointed to a general climate of social tension, signifying an interrelation between various incidents that occurred on a weekly basis. The first signs became evident during the debate on the  mariage pour tous law, introducing same-sex marriages, that was later approved and is currently in force.           

The mobilization against this law is stupendous. Certain demonstrations have managed to bring 70,000 - 100,000 people to Paris in a couple of hours. Obviously this wasn’t just Catholic middle class people from the old quarters, but the demonstrations extended far further to the banlieues, largely under Islamic influence.

This is also a consequence of the disintegration of the social fabric in those places where the dissolution of families has resulted in a lack of communication between generations and the accelerated rupture of interpersonal relationships. Hence the primitive reaction of one part of the French population, longing for a return to tradition and archaic religious mores as a response to the spread of individualistic behaviour and cynicism conveyed by the subcultures of cognitive capitalism.

This behaviour often reaches these areas via the criminal economy of drugs, one of the few serious sources of income in these areas. After the big revolts in the banlieues in 2005, especially during Sarkozy’s term as president, the authorities chose a policy that pushed part of these educated youngsters toward crime, while trying to destroy their anti-systemic potential.

Today the signs indicating a populist revolt are multiplying, the loudest being that of the bonnets rouges (red caps), inspired by a 1675 Breton revolt against a tax imposed by Louis XIV. This movement originated in Brittany in the back rooms of employer unions (MEDEF and CGPME; Movement of the Enterprises of France and General Confederation of Small and Medium Companies, ed.) and of the majority agricultural union (FNSEA, National Federation of Agricultural Holders' Unions). The latter represents medium to large sized agricultural companies that practice intensive and very polluting low quality production.

After being fattened up for decades by the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies, the owners of these companies simply decided to close their businesses, laying off thousands, when Brussels cut the subsidies as part of their neo-liberal austerity push; also, to rid themselves of any responsibility, they fomented revolt amongst workers, aided by the FNSEA, which has a long tradition and considerable know-how in how to provoke riots and other forms of violent revolt.

The movement quickly gained the support of farmers and small businesses like transport workers, traders and retailers (who decided to stop supplying supermarkets) by protesting against an eco-tax, a tax imposed on road transport to be applied throughout France from 2014 that is already in effect in certain European countries like Austria and Germany.

Dozens of arches built for automatic collection of these taxes as a part of this project, worth 80 million euros in public money, were destroyed before the government decided to postpone the taxes to a ‘better’ time, which by the way didn’t diminish the protests. The rebels stormed into Paris several times with tractors and trucks blocking the entrance to the capital (resulting in one death).

The movement has some things in common with that of the Sicilian ‘pitchforks’, if only because it also originated in a region, Brittany, considered far away and disadvantaged by the central authorities, with the same right-wing populist character.

Alongside the bonnets rouges, a host of other protests have emerged in a continuous flow. All have been related to the closing of large and medium-sized enterprises, the closing of factories in a France where deindustrialisation has the wind in its sails. There is the movement against the reform of school timetables, a joint effort of temporary workers, contractors, and customers (yes, you read that correctly) to have supermarkets and DIY shops open their doors on Sundays, and also the resistance of many professional groups against VAT increases that came into effect on January 1:  another example is construction workers and, last on the list and most picturesque, the protest of thousands of equestrian centre workers parading on horseback in downtown Paris and along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.

However, the protest by high school students against the expulsion of the Kosovar student Leonarda, resulting in president Hollande’s tragicomic and ridiculous decision “Leonarda yes, her family no” doesn’t belong in this category.

Marine Le Pen and the Front National

Marine Le Pen and her staff are trying to turn the old-fashioned neo-fascist Front National into a political movement that can tweak the tiger’s tail. For the last couple of years the FN has been shedding its fascist feathers. This means an abandonment of the old historical and political fascist references much loved by Jean Marie Le Pen, accused of being a torturer in the Algerian War – beginning with anti-Semitism, while clinging to the Reichian definition of fascism as a far-right political movement with a large popular following.

And the strategy is working: the Front National is undergoing a spectacular development. In addition to its old bastions in the PACA region (Provence, Alpes Maritimes, Cote d’Azur) and in the cities of Nice and Marseille, as well as its conquest of old working class communist strongholds in the northern provinces plagued by unemployment, it has now penetrated the vast social strata of the traditional right, left and centre.

Having gained the support of the remnants of the workers of industries in decline, thus becoming the prime party of labour, the FN is now focusing on medium to low wage earners and single-person businesses with small or medium-low added value.

Its social base reflects that of the many populist or unionist demonstrations: under-qualified workers who might be threatened with the sack, or have already been expelled from the chain of production; shopkeepers, small business owners, craftsmen, farmers and retirees who live in hardship; in addition to sections of the middle class in decline. Together they form a hotchpotch band increasingly characterised by a fascist posture, like the mazzieri of the Bloc Identitaire or the group of skinheads capable of murdering ant-fascist militant Clément Meric, a student of Sciences Po University, in the middle of Paris on June 6, 2013.

Based on all this, the FN attempts to organise the discontented, taking to the streets and trying to infiltrate and stir up populist movements that emerge here and there in the face of an economic situation that is visibly deteriorating. For example, the Front National is behind the small group le Printemps Français that was born out of the movements against the law allowing same-sex marriages, who led disruptive actions and riots during the last public appearances of Hollande.

Marine Le Pen and the FN management exploit in full, and with much greater effectiveness than the traditional right wing party UMP, the inherent weakness of a government unable from the start to formulate a policy of development and innovation, but sticking to austerity to the letter. She succeeds in directing general discontent about the economic crisis towards the themes of immigration and security.

While being and remaining nothing if not a fully capitalist party, the Front National is seen as a force against globalisation and against Brussels. Marine’s own affluent backlground does not prevent her from castigating the elites on behalf of the weaker class of petits blancs, whilst proclaiming to have risen above notions of left and right. Of course this positioning is made much easier by the fact that today ten European countries, including Italy for example, are governed by a ‘broad coalition’ only dedicated to servicing financial institutions.

The medium-term strategy is to form a focal point for the extreme right, taking chunks out of the electorate and enthusiasts of the UMP. It wasn’t a coincidence that in the final phase of the presidential campaign, Sarkozy emphasized classic right-wing themes, sometimes bordering on the xenophobic, in a desperate attempt to catch up with this through working a similar kind of miracle. It is also no coincidence that the architect of this attempt was one Patrick Buisson, influential PR professional who has defected from the extreme right.

Even Jean-Luc Melanchon of the Parti Socialiste (PS) made a populist-inspired attempt to construct a Front de Gauche with the decrepit French Communist Party (PCF), (but a mummy doesn’t usually bristle with life… ).The PCF, barely hanging on thanks to an old feudal network of favours, only survived because of the electoral alliance with the PS. Melanchon, nevertheless, is the only one attacking the strict policy of debt reduction from the radical left in Parliament. It should be noted that on some occasions, such as during the elections, the Front de Gauche, thanks to the verve of its champion, did manage to take to the streets in large numbers, mainly supported by civil servants and teachers and the remnants of the 2011 movements like the indignados.

The Front National is furthermore trying to form a non-fascist right wing block in the European Parliament, looking north to start with. Marine’s first target was Geert Wilders, head of the nationalist Dutch PVV, before moving onto the anti-immigration parties of Denmark and Sweden, at the same time dissolving the neo-fascist alliances that her father used to lead (with the Italian Fiamma Tricolore for example) and breaking every tie with Golden Dawn and the likes. Tomorrow she might find valuable allies in the south, for example Forza Italia or the Spanish conservative Partido Popular.

FN’s advance into the disrupted working-class areas of French society has survived the attempt to reclaim social criticism by the left, as was the case in the debate between Le Pen and leftist intellectual Emmanuel Todd, who remained short of arguments in trying to differentiate between himself and the FN on most issues other than immigration.

In regions in decline, such as the areas of the old steel manufactories in Alsace-Lorraine, only the right addresses the difficulties and malaise that drown the population. They seek to control the fears of the isolated individual, one of the classic methods of reactionary politics, yesterday and today.

Of course the FN, without some major crises, can’t hope to come into power on its own. Its economic programme, based on abandoning the euro, is criticised as a reactionary and inward-turned move, an attempt to magically return to the golden days of industrial capitalism. It’s a programme full of outdated notions, such as the restoration of the sovereignty of the Banque de France over the franc, the creation of protective trade barriers, border closings, but also the massive social measures that favour the FNs electoral base.

Curiously their monetary ideas seem to be partly inspired, at least on a technical level, by the recent proposals of the well-known left-wing economist Frédéric Lordon in Le Monde Diplomatique for regulating the erratic course of the euro[1]: abandoning the euro as the only currency, but keeping it as a common currency whilst reintroducing the old national currencies. This is a nationalist project that looks a lot like the good old ‘snake in the tunnel’ attempts of the 1970s to regulate European currency fluctuations. Its logic is unsustainable and it is destined to crumble under the first real speculative waves.

Perhaps by making concessions the Front National is trying to escape from the ghetto where it has always dwelt, trying to find openings to forge alliances with other parties of the political right, just at a time when the establishment parties, whether they are from the right or the social democratic left, seem over the hill and are quickly losing their legitimacy.

Another one of Front National’s weak spots is the quality of the political personnel that forms its structure, weak in general and isolated from mainstream economic, political and intellectual elites. In the capital the party has virtually no political base and, of course, one can’t rule France without taking Paris, one way or another.

The FN moreover has the image of defender of ‘ancient forms of production’ and of enemy of globalisation, which at first sight seems incompatible with the supremacy of the cognitive-cultural economy or ‘knowledge economy’. But with things on a collision course that could lead to the end of the euro, there still is a chance of a far right non-fascist claim to power after a predictable social democratic electoral debacle.

Hollande and the PS: accelerated decline of French social democracy

It is difficult to imagine a policy more disastrous than that of Hollande’s administration, an administration elected for two main reasons: the obnoxious and overwhelming arrogance of his predecessor that generated widespread alienation and frustration, and his stance against the power of financial institutions in the initial rallies of the campaign, with the slogan “le changement c’est maintenant”.

This slogan was blatantly denied a week after its initiation when Hollande put his signature, without flinching, on the Stability Pact prepared by his predecessor Sarkozy: the subjection to Germany was thus endorsed.

By thus adopting a vassal position to Germany’s ‘ordoliberalist’ financial policy, the ‘socialist’ government walked into a death trap, where it needs to increase revenues to prevent the collapse of an expansive but high-level welfare system, while hoping for an economic recovery that would halt the continuous rise of unemployment since 2008. It is all too clear that the French Government is failing on all levels.

This is a breakdown directly caused by the socialists’ failure to seize the historic opportunity presented to them when they came to power: to lead the southern European countries to a renegotiation of the repayment of ‘debt’ and of the absurd Stability Pact. Instead of trying to restore a European balance, the Hollande government accepted a continuation of Sarkozy’s policies of curbing public spending, freezing civil servants’ wages and the minimum wage, whilst increasing taxes.

Hollande holds historic responsibility as the French president who, for lack of political courage, marked the end of the balance that has governed Europe for sixty years. And maybe even for being the gravedigger of the PS and French social democracy.

It is rumoured that the PS leadership, aware of the current debacle, is hoping that their candidate, which could well be Manuel Valls (the socialist with nationalist tendencies, who is so popular according to recent polls because of his anti-immigration policy, which speaks volumes about the success of FN themes in French society) will reach the second round in the next elections, taking on Marine Le Pen.

This is a dangerous tactic, trying to divide their right wing opponents and painting them as the bogeyman. It might have worked well for Mitterrand and Chirac, but will likely fail this time. Indeed one must not think of the threshold that FN encounters at the doors of major political parties, but of the attraction it has for a traditional political right without leaders, or rather three false leaders and one true leader (Sarkozy) caught between judicial purgatory and hell.

If we do a little fictional political projection and no major event occurs in France before the next presidential election it would not impossible for a recomposed Front National, with the added fringes of the UMP, to gain, if not the presidency, at least seats in government. In this way the FN could compromisingly drop its ideas of leaving the euro, if the currency hasn’t already disappeared by then in a ‘natural’ way. Of course a big problem for Front National in government would be Paris, which had already rebelled against that perspective when Marine Le Pen’s father reached the second round of the presidential elections against Chirac. But this is not 2002 anymore and Marine Le Pen has cannily adopted certain ‘postmodern’ ideas as a strategy to win over alternative and different communities.

France with a PS reduced to a mere political party of the centre may seem impossible considering the country’s history, but isn’t this happening to other social democratic parties in Europe as well: the German SPD, the Spanish PSOE, not to mention the Italian Democratic Party (PD)? And doesn’t this correspond to the trajectory long ago anticipated by ‘socialism’? After having pulled the chestnuts from the fire for the political right for decades, going through the harshest correction measures of industrial capitalism, like for example the liquidation of steel production in the east by Mitterrand in the 80s, European social democracy, in a fullblown legitimacy crisis, seems to want to squeeze in one final liquidation, that of the social welfare system, before making its last bow.

When will change come?

Several factors contribute to the near silence of intellectual movements in France, while in 2011 they were still inspired by Spain’s Democracia Real Ya  (DRY) movement. This was nipped in the bud with great force by Sarkozy’s police and has become even worse now that Valls is in charge, who innovates and experiments with the practice of kettling, the northern European tactic of containing and frightening protesters. By contrast, today’s populist manifestations can indulge in expensive vandalising of public goods, the perpetrators getting away largely unpunished.

Despite the crisis and reduction in welfare for the time being, certain basic forms of social income are preserved, if small and continually threatened. Hollande’s famous promise to stop ever-increasing unemployment (officially at 3.3 million, that is 11.2 % of the working population) was artificially and temporarily upheld in late October with the creation of a hundred thousand future emploi d’avenir. These are heavily subsidised working contracts, created for young unemployed workers, who are distributed thereby to local companies and organisations.

It is also likely that the election of a ‘leftist’ president has, despite everything, muffled massive popular movements, leaving space for the emergence of populist tendencies, in a situation of relative tension combined with a power vacuum.

In any case we are walking on thin ice, but at the same time we need to think about the near future. In the big cities, increasingly dense layers of young knowledge workers emerge who appear politically inert or indifferent, but they are not. They manifest a cultural vibrancy and can turn to action when the situation demands it. We don’t know if and when this will happen, though the chances are high.

What remains to be seen is the manner and scale of organisation that will emerge after the failure of international pirate parties to combat the ‘techno-biological’ financial powers, which will make the associated abovementioned politicians look like the subjected cyborg characters of make-belief.

Thanks go to Ties Ramekers for translation of this article from the original Italian.


[1] Lordon subscribes to the system of a common European currency, but adds to it a set of adjusting mechanisms similar to those Keynes placed at the centre of his proposal during the Bretton Woods negotiations in 1944, including the ‘Bancor’ as an alternative to the dollar as main international currency.

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