Jonathon Shafi: Yes, Le Pen lost, but there is no room for complacency in France

CommonSpace columnist Jonathon Shafi says French politics remains divided and the left must move quickly 

FRANCE has stalled the advance of the far right by defeating Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential elections. 

At various points in the campaign it looked very possible that Le Pen would make the breakthrough that would have extended the new axis of the radical right into the heart of Europe itself. We can be glad that has not happened.

The Front National is now in the middle of a deeply divisive feud about where to go next. One side wants to draw closer to the mainstream right, while retaining the populist insurgency with deeply reactionary politics. The other says that the reason for failing to break through was that Le Pen was not radical enough, and should have been even harder on immigrants and muslims. We will see how this develops, and how this defeat will impact the international far right.

The crisis will continue, and the terrain will become more fertile for the development of radical forces - left and right.

My view is that the election has only stalled the National Front. It has postponed the breakthrough that it wanted, at the moment it thought belonged to it given world developments. But because the victor was Emmanuel Macron, who will now go on to implement his plan which is best described as punitive neoliberalism, the crisis will continue, and the terrain will become more fertile for the development of radical forces - left and right.

That is why Nigel Farage responded to the result by predicting that Le Pen will be French president by 2022. And he is right to make the connections. He understands the dynamics of the crisis far better than many on the left, especially in the UK, where it clings on to liberalism in various forms. But in France the left is far more deeply engaged, because the political crisis is deeper and has been radicalising social forces for longer.

The radical left is a major feature of the situation. It is not a fringe element - it has a mass movement - and very nearly made it to the run off. Graffiti in Paris last week read: "Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022." This was written not by Farage and Le Pen followers, but by leftists sounding the alarm, their point being that the Macron programme will only intensify the crisis and thus breed support for Le Pen. 

We have to remember that France is the ailing heart of Europe. Its sharp decline is promoting a culture of militant racism and regular clashes between workers and police in the streets.

The challenge now is to confront neoliberalism directly. Therefore, it is critical for the French left to build on their campaign, institutionally and with strikes, street actions and so forth. And above all by being an independent force. 

We have to remember that France is the ailing heart of Europe. Its sharp decline is promoting a culture of militant racism and regular clashes between workers and police in the streets.

Such action is part of the furniture in French politics. The movements of the left in France understand that they must be first out the traps in immediately opposing the Macron presidency. That is why there is no time to celebrate - but to get on with immediately moving into political combat with Macron.

Macron plans to cut corporate tax from 33 per cent to 25. The 35-hour legal work would remain, but he would let companies negotiate real work hours - undermining the ability of workers to collectively organise. He has promised to reduce public spending by €60bn and cut 120,000 public sector jobs. 

This falls directly in line with EU diktat which has percolated the crisis of the EU itself. But more than these reforms, he wants to discipline French society - not just in the workplace and economically, but behind the state too. That's why every man and woman fit enough between the ages of 18 and 21 will have to complete a month's mandatory national service. His explicit aim here is to "strengthen links between the nation and the armed forces".

The good sense of the French left made itself clear when, the day after the election, thousands of people took to the streets of Paris under the banner of the 'social front'. This made it clear to Macron that his attempt to deploy punitive neoliberalism as a resolution to the crisis will be fought - from the start. And at the same time it stole the initiative from the far right.

So the reality is that it's not about which is worse or better, Macron or Le Pen. It's blindingly obvious that Le Pen being defeated electorally is better. But that's not the question. The question is about the relationship between Macron and Le Pen. The answer is that neoliberalism in many specific ways gives rise to the far right and at the same time wants to smash the only force that can defeat it in total: the radical left. That's the precise nature of the relationship. That is why the time to mobilise is now.

The good sense of the French left made itself clear when, the day after the election, thousands of people took to the streets of Paris under the banner of the 'social front'.

In France, the radical left is doing this because it understands better than us the severe nature of the crisis in its society - one the election won't solve. Indeed, Macron is immediately on the offensive against the left. He said in his victory speech: "I will do everything I can so there is no more reason to vote for the far right or left."

But he won't do that by redistributing wealth, empowering unions and workers, standing with the anti-racism movements or democratising French institutions. He's saying that the extremes are one and the same. In practice, he will triangulate the far right. In practice, he will look to discipline French society in various ways, from militarism to repressing labour and youth movements. The dangers here should be obvious, and underline the the need to end complacency.

It's also worth reiterating that black and muslim people are under attack daily in France. But not just by the National Front. France - like all imperialist countries - is a deeply, militantly, racist society. Indeed, some of this impulse even impacts radical sections of the left. 

That's the legacy of colonialism. The project of European capitalism is often viewed as a sort of borderless, racially frictionless affair. In fact, it's based on the exploitation of the global South and reliant on racial scapegoating to rationalise social inequality.

This made it clear to Macron that his attempt to deploy punitive neoliberalism as a resolution to the crisis will be fought - from the start. And at the same time it stole the initiative from the far right.

So, we need an anti-systemic left, and it has to be international and rooted in the diversity of the working class. That requires navigating the crisis not in a manner of holding our breath every four or five years hoping the neoliberal option defeats the far right. 

It means popularising our own vision beyond neoliberalism, a system that its opponents like to pretend is going to recover. Not in the long term, and not without a great challenge from the forces of the radical left.  

In France, that is being dealt with by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the array of social, labour and youth movements. Their combative attitude needs internationalised.

Picture courtesy of Jonathon Shafi

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