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France’s election result should serve as a wake-up call for Keir Starmer

The Labour leader and Emmanuel Macron both fail to grasp that aping the far Right won’t lead to its demise

Michael Chessum
26 April 2022, 9.30am

Macron and Starmer must stop aping the far Right

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Composite by openDemocracy. Alamy via Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images/Sipa USA and François Loock

Like all of the worst nightmares, we have awoken only to find that we are still dreaming. Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election is not the end of anything. If Remain had won in 2016, that would not have signalled the end of the Brexit project either.

In France, as across Europe, the centre and the centre Left appear to think they can repel the far Right by giving it ground and aping its rhetoric. The result is a ‘new normal’, in which the far Right has become entrenched as the main opposition to the status quo. Defeating them will take an altogether different strategy, which has yet to be tried.

Five years ago, in the spring of 2017, Le Pen stood on the brink of the French presidency and Europe stood on the brink of disintegration. As the French centre-Left collapsed, opponents of the far Right were forced to rally around centrist newcomer Macron, whose platform married unapologetic pro-Europeanism with an open determination to confront the unions and ‘modernise’ (i.e. deregulate) the French economy. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leading an insurgent campaign from the ‘sovereigntist’ Left, failed to break through to the final round and remained in third.

On Sunday, French voters faced exactly the same choice, after an almost identical first-round result. The turmoil and trauma of the pandemic, and a major war on Europe’s borders, did no more than rearrange the terms on which Le Pen and Macron met. Le Pen’s financial connections to Russia, and her political connection to Vladimir Putin, did not dent her popularity. Instead, the far Right achieved its best-ever election result, securing more than 40% of the vote. Le Pen, a candidate who promised to ban the hijab in public spaces and strip non-citizens of access to welfare, won almost three million more votes than in 2017, including a high vote among the young and a clear majority of French workers.

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It is a result that will embolden racists across the Western world and that ought to serve as a wake-up call to progressives across the globe – and to our whole political class. Yet, for many, it will be a sleeping pill. The rise of Macronism is a crucial support-pillar of the self-confidence of much of Europe’s political leadership, whose position relies on them believing that the old technocratic political model can hold. For this narrative, Macron’s initial victory in 2017, alongside the defeat of Donald Trump in 2020, marked the moment at which the new global far Right went into retreat.

The problem with this view of history is that it relies on a selective reading of reality. Yes, liberal progressives have just won in Slovenia. But in Hungary, Orbán has just won a thumping re-election. The populist right-wing Sweden Democrats look set to hold onto third place in September. La Lega is no longer in power in Italy, but it is within touching distance of it. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the Dutch Party for Freedom and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) are all here to stay. In Spain, the far-Right Vox party has broken through, albeit in a much more limited way.

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Meanwhile, in the UK, where the electoral system forces political developments in the old institutions, the Conservative Party is playing its historic role of both containing and promoting the new far Right. Our government may not be run by the direct inheritors of the Vichy tradition, but it is run by the champions of a right-wing nationalist project – Brexit – who want to ship refugees to offshore processing camps (a policy that, incidentally, was praised openly by Le Pen).

Far from halting the advance of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, the brand of bold and economically orthodox centrism embodied by the French president has delivered nothing more than a precarious kind of stasis, in which the far Right is gaining ground both politically and ideologically. This is not the result of poor electoral tactics, or a lack of campaigning energy, but because the political project represented by Macron is incapable of dealing effectively with the realities of the 2020s. The torch-bearer of the centrist renewal is a former investment banker – less a French Blair than a French Thatcher – whose ambition to befriend big business, raise the pension age and force unemployed people to work for free for 20 hours a week jarred horribly with the popular mood and was a liability on the campaign trail.

The rise of France’s new far Right is underpinned by the legacy of neoliberalism and then austerity: falling wages, precarity, identity loss and living standards that are at best stagnant. Incapable of addressing these social roots and, in fact, promising to exacerbate the problem in economic policy terms, Macron has instead undertaken a strategy of triangulating towards Le Pen on issues of identity and authoritarianism.

The ‘anti-separatism’ bill, passed last year, goes further than any previous law in restricting the freedom of expression and religious practice. France’s new security legislation prompted Amnesty International in March last year to warn of a slide towards a “dystopian surveillance state”. And Macron’s rhetoric on migration has become more and more indistinguishable from that of the far Right, leading calls for an even more brutal border regime on Europe’s external frontiers. His interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, even accused Le Pen of being “too soft” on Islam in a televised debate last year.

Macron and Starmer fail to recognise that defeating the far Right is an ideological task

Unfortunately, it is not just the centre that has compromised under pressure. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left candidate, has sounded much more progressive in this campaign, but has in the past been a staunch advocate of bans on the burqa, and famously once spoke of migrants “stealing the bread” of French workers. This is not just the case in France: ahead of the 2017 British general election, the Labour Party, despite being led by Jeremy Corbyn, a proud advocate of migrants’ rights, abandoned free movement. Across Europe, the far Right’s opponents are seemingly addicted to giving it ground, and the narrative that foreigners (either those living next door or sitting in Brussels) are to blame for falling living standards has seeped so far into our collective political psyche that its effects may be terminal. Even without coming to power – and they may yet come to power – the likes of Le Pen and Nigel Farage are seeing their policy agenda realised.

In the UK, either incapable or unwilling to offer a radical economic alternative to counter the allure of right-wing identity politics, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is engaging in a strategy of triangulation that would feel familiar to French Left wingers who have just reluctantly elected Macron. In an attempt to reach out to a caricature of working-class voters in the ‘red wall’, Starmer has called for tougher sentences for environmental protesters, criticised the government for failing to stop Channel crossings and jettisoned much of his progressive offering on migration and the economy.

At its heart, Starmer’s is a narrow, minoritarian political strategy, which hopes to mobilise only a hard core of centre-Left voters and to piece together a winning coalition via a mixture of tough rhetoric on crime and immigration and tactical voting to defeat the Tories. It may, given exactly the right conditions, succeed on its own terms. But what the short-term political strategies of Macron and Starmer fail to recognise is that defeating the new far Right is an ideological task, not just a psephological one.

Until a new Left can become mainstream – one that combines a radical economic policy that can address the legacy of neoliberalism and austerity with an unapologetic rebuttal of the politics of barbed wire and ethno-nationalism – the slide will continue.

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