French elections: notes for a discussion after the second round
by TONI NEGRI
Let’s identify, first of all, a few not entirely useless base elements to begin evaluating the first round of the presidential elections in France. Given the proportional character of the first round, the relations between the political forces are clearer here than what happens in the second, majority standoff between the two leading candidates. Even more so because abstention was less significant than had been predicted. Now, it’s Marine Le Pen’s 20% that is most striking – better yet, it best represents the most dramatic and probably most transformative element (of the French constitutional structures) since this result will soon (in the next few years) be reflected in the legislative and administrative elections. At the moment, it doesn’t look like the Front National wants to negotiate with Sarkozy: the rightwing will recompose sooner or later but, according to the Le Pens – both father and daughter – this will only happen on their terms. Let it be clear that FN’s affirmation isn’t simply due to a “little white” support base of reactionaries and racists, but is now also beginning to represent ample layers of a non-Gaullist but simply liberal, nationalist and anti-European right. It non longer represents a peripheral France, a France found in the rural world, outside of big cities and in deindustrialized middle-sized cities, but has now broken through to the heart of power.
The second important element to energetically highlight is that the results of this vote correspond, again even if partially, to specific figures and class stratifications. We are not alluding to the old ones, to the Fordist ones, but to the new social composition of class that is post-Fordist, cognitive and tertiary. In the metropolis (where this mode of production is predominant), the left wins, even in the banlieues; the Gaullist right instead stakes its claim in the zones where privileged classes are concentrated: rentiers, financial services, agricultural aristocracies, etc.; the extreme left occupies the same spaces as the moderate left and Mélenchon reaches his peak in Parisian peripheries; FN’s extreme right does so where we’ve already mentioned. It is interesting to note these spatial coordinates of the vote because social dimensions correspond to them. This shows how, far from being a vote of anger, like a large part of the press – especially the international press – has proclaimed, this vote was particularly conditioned by social problems and by a context of critical “biopolitical” reflection (attention toward the general economic conditions, the response to the new organization of the labor market, restrictive wage reforms, pensions, the attack against the welfare state, etc.).
In light of these considerations, it therefore seems that the longer timeframe of hegemonic lines (in this case of neoliberalism) is being interrupted; the shorter timeframe of immediate interests instead is beginning to conflict with the former. Languages, keywords and, consequently, social behaviors are starting to recur in an explicit, combative and antagonistic way while posing questions and problems of power. My impression is that both the decrease in the preannounced abstention and the defeat of social movements with partial objectives (in particular the annulment of the Green Party) depend on the recurrence of political struggle around general questions: what prospects are presented in the crisis and what social model is being organized in Europe? Europe: this is the fundamental question of this first electoral round. What an enormous distance from when the extreme right and extreme left, together, said no to the Lisbon Treaty – now this no is repeated only by the extreme right and embarrasses the Gaullist forces, while the extreme left converges toward Hollande in assuming a European program, finally renewed in socialist terms. But is this sufficient to guarantee a renewal of the process of European unity?
Hollande has presented a program in which a few particularly incisive elements were proposed in the struggle against the crisis and the current liberal and depressive EU policies. Regarding internal policies, the central point of the socialist proposal deals with taxing high incomes; regarding the EU, the socialists are asking for a revision of the Fiscal Compact’s criteria, a Eurobond agreement and the promotion of economic development by the EU that maintains the welfare state as a central element. Getting this policy to pass at a European level is evidently very difficult, but it is also true that, now, this policy is met by a public opinion that is less and less in agreement with the destruction of the Euro-system and the dissolution of the Eurozone. “Few believe that currency flexibility would help. Many continue to believe that devaluations would merely generate higher inflation” (Martin Wolf). Also in the socialist arsenal, there is a sharp attention to defending Europe against the prevalence of “financial markets” that seems to be emerging and thus a prevision of arms that dulls their ability to attack (the regulation and control of “fiscal paradises”, rating agencies, the taxation of financial transactions, etc.). It is clear that all this could have hostile consequences for America’s –evermore malicious – policies toward Europe, but this will become important above all if the Netherlands join Great Britain in opposing the EU.
It is clear that European social democracy (and Hollande with it) will probably not be able to put these policies into practice, even if a “wide coalition” can establish itself in Germany after the next elections. What can the extreme left in France, reorganized around Mélenchon, do in these conditions? For now, Mélenchon can’t do anything but vote for Hollande. And what will happen after that? Mélenchon has promised not to join a Hollande government if he wins. This seems like a wise decision. However, it is important to remember that in the coalition that Mélenchon has built, there is also – and not as a secondary force – the PCF… and we know how strongly old and new communists are drawn to government! Furthermore, there are no proposals that are adequate to the claims of the new social subjects of the cognitive proletariat in Mélenchon’s program: in particular, he doesn’t talk about – or even mention – basic income, nor are the questions around the control and management of a “common” welfare addressed in a radical manner. In the case that he doesn’t join the government, we therefore can’t realistically foresee anything – beyond punctually criticizing Hollande’s proposals – than an attempt to radicalize and expand them. A sad destiny, if things really do go in these terms. A sad destiny also if Mélonchon’s relative importance pushes him back to that anti-European demagogy that has sometimes appeared, more than in his politics, in the politics of some of his supporters. We certainly hope not.
It is clear that, in this situation, supposing the victory of Hollande will be confirmed over the next few days, what happens in France will be determinant not only for France but also for Europe. It seems to us that, not only programs for refounding Europe can be measured against this experience, but above all so can new experiences of confrontation and conflict between social democratic governments and the forces of the extra-governmental radical left. Will it be possible, through the continual action of social movements, through a recomposition of these movements on a European level, to introduce new “common” motifs in the governance that social democrats are preparing to assume on a European level? Our doubts are as strong as our hopes. In any case, only if we are able to organize, in France and beyond, social movements of struggle outside of electoral deadlines without illusions about what governments can do – it is only in this case that Hollande’s victory can be welcome. Many experiences, now developing on a global scale, show us that only the independence of social movements from governments can be effective in terms of programmatic and political reinvention toward the “common”. We await this decision from the forces that have supported Mélenchon and from Mélenchon himself.
However, let us not forget that the success of FN in the first round of the French elections constructs a serious obstacle to any attempt to propose a democratic renewal of the EU. Nor can we forget that such a strong FN will constitute an element of great attraction for all of the fascist, identitarian and reactionary organizations in Europe. From now on, an antagonistic attention must be paid to every provocation of the European right. This is said without any antifascist fetishism, but simply with the awareness that these are dangerous and perverse forces.
Translated by Jason Francis Mc Gimsey