French presidential election 2017: The far right is down but not out

Dhaka,  Fri,  22 September 2017
Published : 13 May 2017, 19:05:08

French presidential election 2017: The far right is down but not out

Muhammad Mahmood
There is a great sigh of relief on the part of the French establishment at the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election.  Mr Macron secured 66 per cent of votes giving him a clear victory over his rival Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN), the ultra-right nationalist party. Such a clear victory has given his supporters to claim that the tide of populism in the wake Brexit next door and Donald Trump across the Atlantic has been brought to a halt. But Mr. Macron's victory speech was very subdued. He vowed to unite a divided France and said that the world was watching and "waiting for us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places". In the usual fashion world leaders, including Donald Trump who just last month described Marine Le Pen as the strongest candidate giving her covert support, have congratulated Mr Macron.

Mr Macron has a very strong pro-Europe and business-friendly profile. His professional career as a merchant banker with Rothschild gives credence to such a public image. He definitely stands for a France not only globally open but also globally engaged for which some describe him as a globalist, more precisely, as a defender of globalisation. He will likely actively pursue a more open economic engagement with the rest of the world to enhance France's national interests and to enhance Europe's standing in the world. In his victory speech he further urged his people to embrace globalisation and vowed to work with Germany to reinvigorate the European Union (EU).

However, political analysts are pointing out his newly established party En Marche must have to win a parliamentary majority in next month's legislative election to enable him to carry out his manifesto promises. But that prospect does not look very promising, even if his party can field candidates for all seats in the National Assembly. His elevation to the Elysee Palace was the easier task, but fulfilling his election promises will prove to be far more difficult task ahead and for that he will need the support of the National Assembly.  How he will muster that support still remains very conjectural. But France has developed a system of government called "La Cohabitation''. In a semi-presidential system such as in France, this is an institutional arrangement where the president and the prime minister from two opposing political parties coexist. Such coexistence prevailed during the tenures of President Mitterrand and President Chirac.

 Marine Le Pen secured 34 per cent vote (11 million votes) but remains undaunted by the defeat as she almost doubled her votes from what her father Jean-Marie secured in 2002. She secured 56 per cent of the workers' vote. This is a historical high point for her party.  It attracted record support and that clearly underlines the deep division that exists within the society.  

An opinion poll found that 39 per cent of French voters want Le Pen to win a majority in the National Assembly. While she congratulated the president-elect Macron, she remained defiant by declaring that she remained the leader of "the biggest opposition force'' in France and vowed to radically overhaul the party. She told her supporters their fight was not over yet and describing it as a fight between patriots and globalists and calling on them to be on her side to fight for the patriotic cause. She even got a congratulatory message in her defeat from Geert Wilders, leader of the ultra-right party in Netherlands, wishing her success in the next time and he wished the same for himself in the next Dutch election. The election result was a new high water mark for far-right politics in France.

There is not a great sense of jubilation for the establishment political elite in France rather they are deeply worried. Mr Macron ended the dominance of France's two mainstream political parties. A very large proportion of votes cast in favour of Mr. Macron were against Le Pen than for him. He received 20.7 million votes out of 47.5 million registered voters - not a majority of the registered voters. Voter turnout was the lowest in 40 years. Le Pen garnered one-third of the votes making her and her party still a formidable challenge to their power base. She  now has  managed to bring her party  Front National to the political mainstream in France. While the power elite have lined up behind Mr Macron, he does not officially belong to either of the two mainstream political parties - the conservative Republicans or the Socialists. In a technical sense he is also an outsider but ideologically with them. This is a repudiation of the mainstream political parties by the French electorate. There are other worrying signs: about 12.5 per cent of the 47.5 million registered voters  were either blank or spoiled and 25.4 per cent abstained from voting.

However, advocates of liberal democracies also took a great satisfaction that the onward march of illiberal democracy had been halted.  But in reality the election has just been able to maintain political and economic status quo for the moment - it has not resolved the fundamental causes of the rise of illiberal democracy in Europe and North America in the shape of the far-right ultra-nationalist political movements. In fact, the forces of illiberal democracy are still on the rise in many countries around the world and in particular, in Europe. The economic climate in France engenders the rise of far-right Populist Party railing against globalisation, immigration and Islam. The anti-globalisation economic agenda where protectionism is the instrument, they argue, will deliver the economic nirvana while the anti- immigration and anti-Islam slogans are the dog whistle of race politics. 

In France now three million people are unemployed and that constitute 10.2 per cent of the workforce. Almost a quarter of youth in France are unemployed now. France has now become a prime example of what is described as a "dual labour market'' where insiders have higher pay and job security while others, especially younger people, can get only part-time or casual jobs with low pay and no job security or none at all. Also government finance is in deep trouble so much so that the country has had to adopt a series of austerity measures that are negatively impacting on consumer demand.  Not surprising that "France's fundamental economic problem", according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation  and Development (OECD),  "is a lack of growth''.

The establishment political parties, such as the Republicans and the Socialists have failed to address the deep economic, social and political crises. There is no reason to believe the economic climate will change for better in the next few years' time. Mr Macron will definitely face troublesome five years. France's problems with its working class are not different from other industrialised countries resulting from fast changing technological innovations and economic austerity programmes. Its foreign policy that grievously embodied in regime change resulted in the destruction of Libya and Hollande's more than ever eagerness to militarily intervene in Syria further added to its own security concerns largely but not solely resulting in blowbacks from extremist groups both within and outside causing the death of 230 French citizens over the last two years. France remains one of the closest allies of the USA in its military ventures in the Middle East and North Africa.  France's military interventions have caused   death of  thousands of innocent civilians and children and maimed and injured thousands of people and children in Libya and Syria. The French state's response to its security threats is to create fear of terrorism, hostility to immigrants and Islamophobia. 

What we have now witnessed in the French presidential election is thoroughly post-modern political performances. This fear-mongering perpetuated by the state has been seized by the far right to mount a formidable challenge to the French establishment by discarding the taboos surrounding the issues of race and identity. They have now wheeled those out on to the open public space for an open public display. The Front National's (FN) rhetoric and major concerns, including immigration and  tirade against Islam not only as a religion but also as a culture, have taken up more and more public space in French national political debate and also have been increasingly appropriated by the mainstream right - and even the left. The far right in France, as represented by the Front National (established in 1972), has slowly been gaining ground over the last 45 years and its steady electoral gains must have to be viewed in the long-term context.  Given the level of electoral support Le Pen gained at the election, the far right not only in France but also in the rest of Europe have strong reasons to believe that better days lie ahead for them. France has just walked away from the edge of the abyss by electing Macron but it is now time for it to seriously reflect on its past and present  and try to stimulate the economy by discarding its austerity measures and embrace the idea that economic gains are to be equitably shared   to avoid falling into a far-right abyss in the future. 

The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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