Image: © Francis Azevedo
Dr Claire Launchbury, whose first ever political action was stripping down posters of Jean-Marie Le Pen in Orléans in the run up to the 1995 presidential elections, hopes France resists the siren of the Front National and warns that the political and social future for matters of true liberty, equality and fraternity for every citizen, resident, immigrant and refugee hangs very tentatively in the balance.
While the appearance of Le Pen fille in the second round confirms predictions, however difficult that is to stomach, Emmanuel Macron is an almost completely unknown quantity. He followed a parcours parfait for a potential locataire of the Elysée palace, ENA educated, a former banker with Rothschild et Cie, serving in the Parti Socialiste government of Manuel Valls as Minister of Finance, Industry and Digital Communications. But at just 39, and running as an independent, his candidature in the second round is a first in many ways for the Ve Republic.
The French electorate is faced for now with a protectionist, anti-EU far-right platform in terms of immigration that nevertheless espouses traditionally socialist economics in France, with the state as the largest employer. Hence the concern that Mélenchon voters might tip over the top of the circle from Left to Right; or a liberalising, free-market ‘centrist’ who wants to cut back on fonctionnaire positions and impose a comparatively austere version of a relatively generous (by Anglo-Saxon standards) system of state benefits and support.
This either/or will be mitigated, however, by the ‘third round’ legislative elections which take place in June, and will almost certainly lead to some form of political ‘cohabitation’ with one or other of the main parties excluded, for the first time since the 1950s, from the presidential race.
What can be predicted whatever the outcome is, as Joshua Clover’s recent book title attests, Riot. Strike. Riot. (Verso, 2016). Anti-Fascists clashed with police at Bastille on Sunday night (23 April) in protest at the vote for Le Pen. Police violence against ethnic minorities in the banlieues continues to cause inevitable flare-ups that can only become more entrenched if the state apparatus has fascist, racism and discrimination written into it from the very top.
There are hopes here for new networks of solidarity, building on the legacy of the leftist resistance, which has underlined activism and indeed intellectual movements in France such as Le Comité invisible who clearly saw the insurrection coming. (L’insurrection qui vient (La Fabrique, 2007)).
Eric Hazan, the director of La Fabrique, fought alongside the FLN in the Algerian War of Independence, served as doctor during the civil wars in Lebanon and has been involved with the Russell Tribunal following the Gaza conflict of 2009, attesting to the complex roots and routes of dissent in contemporary France.
Indeed, recent work by Olivia Harrison (Transcolonial Maghreb: Imagining Palestine in the Era of Decolonization. Stanford University Press, 2016), addresses the transnational imbrications of the occupation of Palestine in the former French colonies of North Africa, where it must be remembered, Le Pen père, is alleged to have, at the very least, witnessed the torturing of Algerian prisoners while working as an intelligence officer.
In a more sobering way, Professor Andrew Hussey (director of the Centre for Postcolonial Studies at the School of Advanced Study and author of The French Intifada, Granta, 2014) sees parallels playing out in the banlieues and in the radicalisation of fundamentalist terrorism here in acts of anti-Semitism, notably the case of Ilan Hamili who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006; the Merah shootings in Toulouse which targeted a Jewish school in 2012 and the Hyper Cacher shootings in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015. The cases of home grown, yet internationally ascribed, terrorist acts have inevitably played into the discriminatory rhetoric that Marine Le Pen has successfully managed to bring into the realm of mainstream discourse, if not entirely, credibility.
En Marche, En Greve
European liberalisation of state utilities and services such as EDF, La Poste and France Télécom, and of which Macron proposes an increase, are very likely to cause widespread industrial action. As Sarah Waters from Leeds University has researched, while workers remain on firm contracts of employment, their roles are frequently demoted.
A telecoms engineer in his or her 50s might find themselves working in a call centre in an unskilled and regimented environment, which has led to a significant spike in cases of workplace suicide. It is well reported that rates of unemployment in France are high, despite significantly high rates of productivity compared to elsewhere in Europe. Yet attempts to adjust contractual rights, the Contrat première embauche (CPE), were widely contested in 2006.
Even if part of the motivation behind it was to create more opportunities, there is no appetite for the precarious employment contracts that are all too familiar in today’s UK. The turn to austerity, a reduction in state provision, social security all proposed in line with Macron’s modernising agenda, are again likely to lead to widespread protest and contestation.
It is no surprise, in contrast, that the economic agenda of Mélenchon and what is routinely referred to as the ‘hard left’ by commentators, received significant support including from high profile economists at home (Piketty, Lordon) and abroad in the mainstream press.
France is a complicated political nation that can often seem contrary: banning veils (or any other visible religious symbol or dress) as a measure of republican equality rings false for those with multicultural reflexes, for example. While Macron will, one hopes and prays, win, at the very least, in the default position of not being Marine Le Pen, and the cynical hope that French chauvinism might play in our favour, for once, the political and social future for matters of true liberty, equality and fraternity for every citizen, resident, immigrant and refugee hangs very tentatively in the balance.
Dr Claire Launchbury is a research fellow in French and city studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) and the Institute of Historical Research (Centre for Metropolitan History). Her research concentrates on francophone cultures, expression and dissent in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Lebanon. She recently organised the international conference, Francospheres of Resistance and Revolution at the IMLR.