By Dawid Stanczak
Decades of neo-liberal policies, and the persistent economic downturn have created the basis for a rise of right-wing populism across Europe. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front (FN), and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche are running neck-and-neck in the French presidential election. According to the poles, both Le Pen and Macron are at 26%. However, half of Mr Macron’s supporters are still hesitant, whereas over 70% of Le Pen voters say their choice is final. The establishment’s favoured right-centrist, Francois Fillon of the Republicans (LR) has been left far behind in the poles. Fillon’s reputation has been decimated after allegations that he used public funds to pay his family for work they never did.
Macron stands for continuation of globalism and neo-liberalism, wishing to reduce public spending and the size of the state whilst cutting business taxes. His political programme is one of Thatcherism, whereas Le Pen is committed to “economic patriotism”, saying she wants to protect French sovereignty from the EU single market. She wants to introduce a policy of “intelligent protectionism”, including taxes on hiring foreign workers and on imports. The FN claims that migration is threatening French identity, while terrorist attacks are fuelling security concerns. Thus, Le Pen’s objectives are to leave the Schengen free movement zone, cut legal immigration by 80% and recruit 15,000 more police officers.
Le Pen casts herself as an anti-globalisation voice speaking for the disenfranchised lower and middle-classes. She has camouflaged anti-Muslim sentiment and xenophobia in dubious arguments about defending gender equality and the pillars of the Republic. The FN did well at drawing the working class support with populist rhetoric, but it is fuelling division and racism. Whilst they pose themselves as the party of the people, they ultimately offer no alternative to capitalism.
The rise of nationalism in France, as elsewhere in Europe, is a result of a prolonged neoliberal rule and austerity. Public spending cuts, tax relief for the corporations, low wages and socio-economic inequality have angered the general public who are ready to follow whoever will offer a concrete alternative to neoliberalism.
The so-called Socialist Party has turned its back on the working class people. They have been punished for their embrace of the capitalist market and implementation of austerity. In their primary election, Benoît Hamon emerged as a surprise victory. This represents a rejection of neoliberalism but he has no concrete left programme. His proposal of a “universal income” amounts to an increase of the social minimum to only 600 euros.
Conversely, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) offers a much more developed left programme. Mr Mélenchon, who called for a nonviolent “citizens’ revolution” and for the constitution to be rewritten, proposes a monthly minimum wage of 1,300 euros (£1,125), and the renegotiation of EU treaties to stave off attacks on workers’ rights and public ownership. His movement has 328,000 members and has held some of the largest rallies of the campaign. This is an important indicator of the potential for the building of a fighting left in France. In recent opinion polls Mélenchon has been dramatically increasing now challenging for 3rd place and showing the potential to build an alternative that exists.
While Le Pen is not likely to win the Presidency this time, the threat of the FN will not simply disappear. The populism of the far-right cannot be countered by the liberal capitalist establishment so support the very policies of cuts, privatisation and attacks on living standards which have fuelled the rise of Marine Le Pen and the FN. Only a mass party of the working class which leads and organises struggle in the workplaces and communities alongside the rank-and-file of the trade union movement can offer real answers to the fears and concerns of ordinary people and harness that anger to fight against the bosses and their political representatives.