France after Sarkozy: Confronting the politics of despair

Issue: 135

Jim Wolfreys

In 1981 the joyous celebrations that greeted François Mitterrand’s election as president, on a radical reform programme, were an expression of widespread hope of significant change. Almost exactly 31 years later the mood following François Hollande’s victory over Nicolas Sarkozy could not have been more different. Hollande won on a modest promise of “fair austerity”. The joy expressed at his success can largely be attributed to the fact that he is not Sarkozy, something Hollande was keen to trumpet as a virtue throughout the campaign, presenting himself as the unremarkable guarantor of a “normal” presidency. Hollande went out of his way to give assurances to financial markets that nothing would really change since he was “not dangerous”, reminding them that under the Jospin government (1997-2002), the Socialists had “liberalised the economy, and opened up the markets to finance and privatisation”.1

His victory nevertheless represents a sea change in European politics, breaking the Sarkozy-Merkel austerity axis and undermining the myth that there is no alternative to public spending cuts and wage freezes. This was the primary significance of the election result. It was not, however, the primary focus of the campaign. Indeed, as far as the mainstream candidates were concerned, austerity was the dog that didn’t bark in this election, prompting the Economist to claim that France was “a country in denial”, and warning that it may find itself at the centre of the next euro crisis.2 Public debt in France stands at the equivalent of 90 percent of GDP. So feeble, however, are the political justifications for austerity that not even the timidity of Hollande’s proposals could undermine the basic common sense of his argument—that it is not working, that there should be more attention paid to growth and that the rich should pay more tax.

Despite the apparent differences between the two principal candidates’ economic policies, the campaign exposed the lack of economic solutions emanating from either camp. Their attention was generally focused on the major preoccupations of the Sarkozy presidency—”national identity”, immigration, law and order, and Sarkozy himself. His defeat was the first of a sitting president since 1981. Having won a convincing victory in 2007 his popularity had fallen to a record low, the result of disillusionment with both his record and his conduct in office. To this extent, Hollande’s victory was predictable. The most notable aspects of the first round poll, therefore, were the scores achieved by Front National (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen (6.4 million votes) and by the Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (4 million votes). This article will focus primarily on these developments, following an assessment of the impact of the Sarkozy presidency.3

Ultimately, there was a broad consensus between Sarkozy and Hollande on the question of the budget deficit. Sarkozy wanted to pay it off by 2016; Hollande proposed to take a year longer. Seven years earlier, during France’s referendum on the new constitutional treaty for the European Union, Hollande and Sarkozy had posed together as the champions of a neoliberal Europe, spearheading the campaign to welcome the imposition of “free and undistorted competition” as the underlying principle of a modern economy.4 In the intervening period it was not so much Hollande who differentiated himself from his rival, but Sarkozy who differentiated himself from pretty much everyone. His term of office became a grotesque psychodrama, evolving from a narcissistic “bling-bling” presidency, helplessly in thrall to wealth and celebrity, into an increasingly individualistic “hyper-presidency”, combining authoritarianism, cronyism and crass opportunism in what could be mocked as a kind of kitsch Bonapartism were it not for the fact that Sarkozy was also the most brutally racist French president of modern times, putting the ruthless stigmatising of Muslims, Roma people and immigrants at the heart of his policy agenda. In word and deed Sarkozy went further than any other mainstream politician in legitimising the Front National and making racism respectable. His attempt to use racist demagoguery to compensate for policy failures managed to alienate even his own supporters, many of whom grew increasingly concerned that he was besmirching the highest office of state and blurring the distinction between his Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) and the extreme right.

In the wake of the election the resources of mainstream parties continue to appear limited, divided between a neoliberal right which lacks the confidence or the means to build a positive consensus for its economic outlook beyond political and economic elites, and Hollande’s social liberal centre-left whose appeal exists by default—the product of disaffection with austerity and popular identification with values of solidarity and “fairness”, values which remain aspects of the residual lexicon of social liberalism but are no longer part of its function or practice. While Sarkozy’s defeat is a setback for those who argue there is no alternative to austerity, Hollande’s victory is based on a repudiation of the effects of neoliberalism that will not be satisfied by his oxymoronic promise of austerity with a human face, or “fair rigour”. This is borne out by the abstention rate of close to 43 percent in the first round of the June 2012 parliamentary elections, the highest ever recorded, indicating that Hollande may have been able to mobilise voters keen to see the back of Sarkozy (80 percent of the electorate voted in the presidential election), but was not offering enough to build on that mobilisation beyond his victory in the presidential election on 6 May.

In such a context, the record score for a Front National granted unprecedented legitimacy by both Sarkozy and Hollande marked, contrary to the ignorant complacency of many analyses,5 a dangerous new phase in the development of post-war French fascism, whose threat has never been greater. The campaign also represented a new stage in the emergence of the French radical left as a viable alternative to social liberalism. The crystallisation of anti-austerity sentiment around the figure of Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a significant development, with the momentum on “the left of the left” shifting to the Front de Gauche from the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) which, along with its previous incarnation, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, had been the dominant force on the radical left since 2002.

The disintegration of the Sarkozy phenomenon

The son of a minor Hungarian aristocrat, Sarkozy developed a love/hate relationship with the French elite. Forced to repeat his final year at an exclusive well-to-do Parisian secondary school and unable, because of his poor command of English, to graduate with a degree from the elite Institute of Political Studies—the traditional breeding ground for the French political establishment—he rose through the ranks of the Gaullist right to become leader of the UMP during Jacques Chirac’s second term as president in 2004. The following year he became interior minister, for a second time, and made no bones about his desire to blame the inhabitants of France’s poorest areas for the deprivation they suffered and much else besides. His notorious vow to clean out the impoverished urban fringes, or banlieues, with a power hose was a major contributory factor to the three-week uprising which swept these areas in November 2005.6 His outspoken attacks on urban youth were combined with sideswipes at his political rivals—Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, portrayed as ineffective peddlers of compromise.

Sarkozy’s combativity also served a political purpose, one that was to become increasingly important for the French right. His highly personalised, hyper-active bullishness served as a substitute for a world view capable of marshalling widespread positive affiliation to the free market.7 Without the means or the will to elevate the figure of the entrepreneur as a potential solution to economic crisis, Sarkozy focused instead on pointing the finger at those he held responsible for it—a weak political elite, unable to impose its will on a resilient labour movement, and, above all, the “dangerous classes” represented by the urban poor and, in particular, those of “immigrant origin”, the descendants of those who had found work in France during the years of post-war expansion, with special attention reserved for those of Muslim faith.

Following his election as president in 2007 Sarkozy promised a “break” with the past, an end to the compromises that had seen successive governments fail to drive through neoliberal reform. Vowing to “liquidate the legacy of May 1968” he was seen by many as the “neoliberal enforcer” that conservative commentators had long identified as the missing link in French political life. Sarkozy’s appeal was partly based on his self-consciously cultivated “outsider” status. He did not belong to the conventional political elite. This manifested itself in his aggressive bombast, his trenchant, often racist, rhetoric and his open infatuation with wealth, fame, glitz and glamour.

Much to the horror of aristocratic party grandees like Villepin, Sarkozy responded to his 2007 victory as if he had won a game show. During a special concert on election night at the Place de la Concorde, a nationwide television audience was treated to a self-indulgent parade of variety acts, the highpoint reached perhaps with former Playboy model and Eurovision contestant Jeane Manson’s rendition of “Oh Happy Day!” (“Oh Happy Day, that Nicolas Sarkozy was born…”).8 Sarkozy himself made a speech about how he would represent “all of France and leave no one by the side of the road”,9 and then headed off to the exclusive Fouquet’s restaurant on the Champs-Élysées accompanied by various celebrities (among them actor Jean Reno and the “French Elvis”, Johnny Halliday), a select band of political allies (Villepin’s foreign secretary Philippe Douste-Blazy had to endure the humiliation of being turned away from the restaurant) and, above all, a fairly large gathering of leading entrepreneurs. One study estimated that the value of the companies represented at Fouquet’s rose by 7 billion euros in the months following Sarkozy’s election.10 The next day Sarkozy travelled by private jet to the tax haven of Malta where he holidayed on a yacht as the guest of a billionaire friend. His reputation as “the president of the rich” began to take hold on the night of his election.11 His subsequent decision to award himself a 140 percent pay rise did nothing to help matters.

Sarkozy was to discover that his “outsider” status was not compatible with the role of president. This applied on a personal as well as a political level. Episodes which he may have imagined to be refreshingly irreverent were perceived as disrespectful of the office. Due to receive the title of Honorary Canon of the Basilica of St John Lateran at the Vatican a few months after his election, Sarkozy turned up late, with a stand-up comedian in his entourage, and proceeded to check his mobile phone for texts during the audience with the pope.12 In an exchange with a hostile member of the public on a walkabout at an agriculture exhibition in Paris, Sarkozy was caught on television telling him, “Cassetoi, alors, pauvre con,” roughly translated as, “Sod off, then, you twat”.13 Running in parallel to such outbursts was the ongoing soap opera of the new president’s private life, from his heavily publicised divorce from his first wife, Cécilia, to the whirlwind romance and hastily organised marriage to singer/model/heiress Carla Bruni.

Politically, the new government’s priorities were established from the start with the virtual abolition of inheritance tax, establishing a pattern that would see 84 billion euros worth of tax breaks granted during the Sarkozy presidency—the equivalent of 4 percent of GDP—the vast majority benefiting companies and better off households.14 Sarkozy avoided the kind of humiliating defeats at the hands of the so-called “social movement” that had punctuated the Chirac presidency. Like Chirac, he was also able to force through attacks on pensions, along with measures facilitating the marketisation of higher education. He did not, however, bring about the much-heralded “break” that would tame the “social movement”, still less “liquidate the legacy of May 1968”. For some commentators, his method amounted to a game of smoke and mirrors, consisting of:

opening up a number of projects at the same time with the aim of drowning potential opposition under a deluge of dossiers (suffocation), while discretely conceding, often in a completely opaque manner, substantial advantages if resistance proved too strong (conciliation). At the end of the process, there remained only a media-friendly display of pseudo-reforms, the sole beneficiaries being the most influential pressure groups to the detriment of the collective interest and at the price of a rise in the public sector deficit.15

State racism

Emblematic of Sarkozy’s presidency was his obsession with “national identity” and immigration. Here his attempts to outdo the FN at its own game backfired badly. The creation in 2007 of a ministry which conflated immigration, integration and national identity had set the tone from the outset for what would prove consistently racist administration. Sarkozy draped himself unashamedly in the colours of French colonialism with a speech in Dakar that detailed at length the “problems” of Africa, notably the failure of “African man” to “enter into history”. His advice to an audience of intellectuals was that if they really wanted to deal with the problem of starvation in Africa, then they should grow their own food.16 Such fatuous and ignorant assertions were an important reminder of the neo-colonial ideology underpinning government policy.

Whereas previous administrations may have been accused of pandering to racism in order to pick up votes from the FN’s electorate, Sarkozy’s presidency went further, actively pursuing an unrelenting agenda of xenophobia and stigmatisation. Unable to take on the labour movement and inflict lasting defeat on it, Sarkozy prioritised attempts to sow divisions along ethnic and racial lines, mostly directed against France’s 5 to 6 million Muslims, who became the target of an unprecedented campaign of vilification. Annual quotas of immigrants to be deported were established. Roma camps were dismantled. Interior minister Claude Guéant publicly declared that some civilisations were superior to others on the grounds that French civilisation respects women more than “others” such as, by implication, Islam.17 As establishment figures lined up to indulge the misogyny of former IMF managing director and presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, such claims bore all the hallmarks of the state racism of France’s colonial era. Like Muslim women in 1950s Algeria, those in 21st century France were to be liberated from the yoke of the veil. Complicity across the spectrum of the left, to varying degrees, in shoring up the myth of progressive Republican secularism merely served to bolster discriminatory attitudes towards France’s Muslim population.

Part of Sarkozy’s appeal in the first half of a decade in which he became the mainstream’s dominant figure, between 2002 and 2012, was that he had grasped the relationship between racist demagogy and authoritarianism that underpinned the electoral success of the FN. Following Jean-Marie Le Pen’s poor showing in the second round of the 2002 presidential election, when he barely improved on his first round score, Sarkozy moved to position himself as the figure capable not just of making speeches about the dangers of immigration, but of acting upon them. Once again Sarkozy was to discover that he could not be an “outsider” and a president at the same time. The scapegoating of immigrants is based on the notion that they are somehow to blame for social problems like unemployment and crime or the scarcity of resources like decent housing. The failure to stem the rise of the FN over the past 30 years is derived in part from a failure to counter this myth. The credibility given to it by Sarkozy meant that FN racism was further legitimised, but in the process he also exposed his own impotence: since immigrants are no more to blame for poor housing or unemployment than for inclement weather or wasp bites, no amount of “tough” measures will be enough. Ultimately, the real outsider will always be able to propose something more. And so it proved.

Following the ban on schoolgirls wearing the hijab, the presence of mothers covering their hair on school trips was called into question. After the ban on wearing the burqa and the niqab in public, Marine Le Pen called for the wearing of the hijab on public transport to be outlawed. And so it went on. In 2010 she compared the sight of Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation of France. Within a year the government had banned prayers in the street. In February 2012 Le Pen had whipped up a storm over the the ludicrous claim that all meat being sold in the Paris region was halal produce but not labelled as such. By early March Sarkozy was arguing that this was the number one preoccupation of the French.18

More surreal developments were to follow with a controversy generated over separate swimming pool hours for women. This arose when right wing politicians seized upon a decision by the Socialist mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry, to allow women-only sessions at a municipal swimming baths. Since some of the women in question were Muslim, what had occurred was perceived as a concession to “communalism”, anathema to the increasingly zealous defenders of the Republican principle of secularism. The story arose because a local pool had been running a
longstanding programme for obese women. A number of Muslim women from a local estate had joined the weekly aquagym class, and had asked that the porthole shaped windows to the outside be covered and that the instructors be female. The women in the class were from a variety of backgrounds, some Muslim, some Catholic, some atheist. Covering the windows was not a question of religion, said one woman who attended the class, “but modesty”.19 These requests were granted, but one for a separate class for Muslim women was denied.

When the local UMP leader questioned Aubry over what he saw as an attack on the Republican principle of equality, she defended the obesity programme in these terms: “Let’s make a little detour (from our Republican principles) so that these women win and achieve their emancipation”.20 Eventually, however, the municipal authority bent to Republican orthodoxy. “It’s the obligation to ensure the neutrality of public services that’s at stake,” said a city hall source. “We even had a request from bearded men for a slot reserved for men. If we start off like that, we don’t see why not dwarves, and people with one leg or no hair?”21 From 2008 the windows were uncovered and most of the time at least one of the two instructors was male. Around a third of the women left the class.

The issue was revived during the presidential campaign as part of an attempt by the UMP to portray the Socialists as “communalists” who would encourage cultural isolationism. The president of the social centre in question, a former Socialist deputy, had written in 2011 to UMP leader Jean-François Copé, complaining about the party’s continual attempt to create a furore over the issue: “Why this conspiracy against an hour of women’s aquagym? Because some of the women are of foreign origin? But this is racism!”22 At the height of an election to determine the presidency of the world’s fifth largest industrial power, during the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, nothing symbolised the political distortions of the Sarkozy era more than his outburst on the subject during a campaign speech in the Loiret. “On the territory of the Republic,” he declared, “we want—sorry, Madame Aubry—the same swimming pool opening hours for men and women”.23 Unable to provide solutions to any of the major problems facing its population, Republican state power has chosen instead to preoccupy itself with what Muslim girls and their mothers wear on their heads, with how their food is labelled, with where they pray and with whom they can do aquagym classes. During the traditional televised debate between the two presidential candidates, Hollande was at pains to stress that, should he become president, he too would ensure that the sanctity of mixed Republican swimming pools was upheld.24

Early in the campaign, in March 2012, Sarkozy had called for immigration to be cut by half. “There are too many foreigners on our territory,” he declared. “The functioning of our system of integration is getting worse and worse because we can’t find them a home, a job, a school”.25 Such rhetoric continued throughout the campaign, intensifying between the two rounds. Hollande was labelled a “communalist” candidate following unfounded claims that 700 mosques had called for Muslims to vote for him.26 Sarkozy went out of his way to insist that the FN was a fully legitimate part of French political life.27 The unchecked legitimisation of the organisation was accelerated by figures such as leading Socialist Arnaud Montebourg, who argued that there was now a “consensus” between the Socialists, the UMP and the FN over immigration: all accepted that there was a need for a certain number of immigrants to France and for limits to be imposed beyond this minimum. Pointing out that under Sarkozy more undocumented migrants had been regularised than under Jospin, Montebourg continued: “When Sarkozy argues that immigration should be stopped, I don’t point the finger at him”.28

The resurgence of the Front National

As ever, it was the FN that benefited most from such developments. When three children and a teacher were murdered at a Jewish school in March, following the killing of three soldiers, two of them Muslims, the week before, all by a lone Islamist, Mohamed Merah, Sarkozy warned against making political capital out of the atrocities before announcing snap measures to clamp down on terrorism, including more stringent policing of internet browsing.29 This underlined an important aspect of the role of racism in contemporary France. Along with its basic function of sowing divisions among those suffering the consequences of social inequality, the promotion of the notion that “French values” are under threat and must be protected serves as a justification for directing resources towards law and order rather than towards social provision, bolstering the penal authority of the state.30

Whatever Sarkozy could do, however, Marine Le Pen could outdo. At a 6,000-strong FN meeting in Paris, with the crowd chanting, “This is our home!” Le Pen shouted, “Yes, this is your home. And you’re right to have had enough of these Franco-Algerians like Mohamed Merah!” At a meeting in Nantes she asked, “How many Mohamed Merahs in the boats and planes that arrive full of immigrants every day in France? How many Mohamed Merahs among the children of these non-assimilated immigrants?” She did not concern herself with mere anti-terrorism measures, vowing instead to “bring radical Islam to its knees”.31

A constant refrain of the French right since the 1970s has been the desire to reinvent itself “without complexes”, in other words, a right not inhibited by “political correctness” or by the experience of wartime collaboration with the Nazis. This was one of the aims of the so-called Nouvelle Droite (New Right), a group of think tanks which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s which united various elements of the mainstream and extreme right in a strategy of “Gramscism of the right”, an attempt to challenge the left’s alleged hegemony on cultural issues.32 In reality, this is something accomplished with far greater ease by the FN, since it has fewer qualms about openly embracing racism, but its task has been made far easier by mainstream legitimation of its ideas. In particular, the pursuit of Islamophobic policies in the name of “Republican secularism”, embraced by government and opposition alike, has allowed the FN to appropriate secularism as one of its “values”, linking it to the immigration question: “Secularism will be easier to apply once immigration is stopped.” To this end, the FN proposes the creation of a ministry of “immigration and secularism”.33

This is consistent with the strategy pursued by the FN for the past three decades: rather than attempt to contest France’s Republican past, the Front embraces it, all the better to relativise its own counter-revolutionary, fascist legacy. The audience at Marine Le Pen’s Paris rally, for example, heard from an FN speaker who saluted Napoleon’s army, Clemenceau’s defence of Dreyfus, and the Resistance as part of its own tradition. By contrast, at an FN convention in February 2012, Jean-Marie Le Pen read from a poem by the collaborator Robert Brasillach, editor of the collaborationist newspaper Je suis partout, who took a pro-Nazi and vehemently anti-Semitic line during the war. Le Pen’s justification for such acts is that the FN assumes France’s historical legacy in its entirety. When it comes to secularism, the Front is happy to embrace it, not for its own sake but because it offers it an opportunity to present itself as the most zealous secularists, those who will assert the authority of the Republican state against “outsiders”.

Much has been made of the role of Marine Le Pen, who replaced her father as FN leader in 2011. Attitudes towards her tend to be based on the notion that she represents a “softer” or “gentler” image for the Front. The Guardian’s election blog, for example, carried articles by Jon Henley in this vein during the election campaign which could have been written by the FN press office. “The Front National is different”, ran the quote in one headline. “The knee-jerk racists are out”.34 Yet the list of FN candidates for the parliamentary elections revealed a party whose representatives retain close links with the various currents of violent, negationist, Catholic fundamentalist and “revolutionary nationalist” elements that form part of the organisational core of the FN.35 Marine Le Pen understands the importance of cultivating these links. In January 2011 she went to Vienna to attend the annual ball of a secret neo-Nazi society, Olympia, dedicated to the propagation of anti-Semitism, pan-Germanism and Holocaust denial. She was a guest of the Austrian Freedom Party, an organisation that, like the FN, has its roots in pro-Nazi fascist currents that attempted to refashion the tradition to fit the post-war period.36 This remains the FN strategy under Marine Le Pen. Her immediate reaction to the biggest ever vote for a fascist candidate in French history was to assert the party’s outsider credentials, calling on people to join the FN’s May Day demonstration, a tradition inaugurated by her father both as a deliberate challenge to the left and as an attempt to establish the Front as a party with a capacity for extra-parliamentary mobilisation. Sarkozy’s call, following the first round presidential vote, for his own May Day march in defence of “real work”, that consciously drew on the language of the Vichy regime, revealed the desperation of a mainstream whose efforts to set the agenda on issues of racist authoritarianism had merely left it tailing the FN.

Le Pen uses the same bullish provocations as her father, declaring herself the only “anti-system candidate”, the candidate of “the forgotten, the middle classes, the popular classes”. During the campaign she attacked the parties of both left and right who, she argued, had given power over to the “dictatorship of the banks—a gilded fascism which doesn’t speak its name”.37 “This is just the beginning,” she declared in response to the FN’s score on 22 April, reappropriating a slogan from May 1968. “Let’s keep up the fight”.38 Her decision, once again in the tradition of her father, to support neither Sarkozy nor Hollande in the second round of the presidential election, underlines that the Front’s outsider status is more important to it than the prospect of alliances of any kind with the mainstream right. Such alliances may yet take place, but they will be the result of the disorientation of the mainstream, and the reactionary radicalisation of sections of Sarkozy’s UMP, rather than any supposed “moderation” on the part of the FN. In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in the presidential election, a wave of anti-FN mobilisations dominated the entire fortnight between the two rounds, ensuring that his vote barely improved on his first round score. The most significant change affecting the extreme right in the subsequent decade has been the accelerated integration of racism, demagogy and intolerance into mainstream rhetoric and policy. The FN’s respectability derives from this, rather than its
change of leader.

The rise of the radical left

The candidate who offered the most vociferous and consistent opposition to the FN during both the presidential and parliamentary elections was Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He castigated Marine Le Pen at every opportunity. What message did he have for her? “I want to make your life rotten, until its last day. You make me feel ashamed… You’re scared of me in the way that vampires are scared of the light”.39 Announcing that he would confront her in the northern constituency of Hénin-Beaumont in the June parliamentary elections, he said, “I hope that most citizens want to be represented in the National Assembly by someone whose response to the crisis is social and not ethnic”.40 To a population faced with ongoing factory closures he said, “If you don’t want to do anything and take it out on the Arabs who work in the factory, then vote for Madam Le Pen! If you want to take it out on thuggish bosses and prevent redundancies then vote for the Front de Gauche”.41

An indication of the momentum that built around his dynamic, confident presidential campaign was the way his 11 percent score, representing 4 million votes, was perceived as a disappointment by many activists, their hopes raised by polls putting them on level pegging with the FN and the prospect of finishing third. But Mélenchon nevertheless achieved what no radical left candidate had managed since its emergence as a meaningful electoral force in 1995—creating a single pole of attraction uniting the vast majority of voters across the spectrum of the “left of the left”, from Communists and disaffected Socialists to revolutionaries. As one analysis put it in 2003, France since 1995 has experienced:

a revival of collective protest at social inequality which is reconfiguring the relationship between a burgeoning associative network, the labour movement and the political left. But it remains a movement whose own lack of political and organisational focus has so far hampered its ability to mount a meaningful challenge from beyond the mainstream.42

The absence of forces able to give voice to the aspirations of the movement and to maintain a strong political profile beyond the electoral terrain, and in periods when struggle ebbs, has been a weakness affecting the radical left across most of Europe. A number of figures have emerged at various points to crystallise opposition to neoliberalism in France. For now the initiative in this ongoing and fluid process of recomposition rests with Mélenchon.

Part of the explanation for his success in 2012 lies with the highly impressive campaign conducted by the Front de Gauche, an alliance of former Socialists (who had left the party to form the Parti de Gauche in 2008), the Communist Party, and a number of smaller groupings forming part of the associative network constituting the so-called “social movement”. With early polling putting the Front de Gauche’s standing at around 5 percent, a series of huge demonstrations of the Front’s mobilising capacity propelled its message into public consciousness in a manner that no other campaign had managed in a generation. Over 100,000 people joined a march and rally at the Bastille on 18 March, the anniversary of the establishment of the Paris Commune in 1871. The slogans of the day, calling for a “citizen’s insurrection” at the polls, were given a resonance by the scale of the event, itself notable for the prominence of the traditional symbols of the French left—red flags, clenched fists, the Internationale, the references to the heroic struggle of the Commune, as well as the Marseillaise and even some tricolour flags.

The campaign became a phenomenon. Around 20,000 people turned up at Mélenchon’s meeting in Lille, 70,000 were present at a huge open air meeting in Toulouse, 100,000 were in Marseille and around 50,000 attended an indoor rally in Paris shortly before the first round vote. Mélenchon, a junior minister between 2000 and 2002 under the Jospin premiership, developed a detailed set of radical left measures focused on wealth distribution and ecological renewal. Proposals to cap earnings at £300,000 were presented with none of the defensiveness that sometimes holds back the left. “We have to smash this prejudice that the rich are useful just because they’re rich,” he told the Guardian.43 According to the Front de Gauche, over 400,000 copies of the 95-page programme were sold during the campaign. Mélenchon is a powerful speaker, steeped in the oratorical traditions of French Republican socialism. His speeches struck a chord by articulating widespread and deep-seated anger at austerity, racism and neoliberal idolisation of the rich. “This country produces more than it has ever produced,” he told the audience at his final election rally:

You owe them nothing—they owe you everything!… This system is on its last legs… Look at these people with no imagination who keep trying to prolong the old world. The puffed up representatives of this kind of ancien régime, so sure of themselves, who scoff at you. They don’t understand that we have understood—the model they propose no longer speaks a human language. Because a human language is not their lamentable calculation of suffering and misfortune. It’s not their narrow-minded determination to haggle over every single euro we need for our small pleasures. It’s not this odious calculation of misfortune that we should carry out for them someday and ask: how much does the ignorance cost that comes from all the teachers’ posts you’ve got rid of? How much do the 564 deaths at work cost? The 43,000 people who are disabled for life at work? How much does the daily suffering cost—of imagination kept in check, deformed by greed? You no longer speak a human language. A human language is made up of words of love, words of fraternity, words of poetry! This is how a human language is spoken.44

It has been argued that part of Mélenchon’s success can be attributed to the defeat inflicted on the impressive movement that developed in the autumn of 2010 against Sarkozy’s pension reforms, reflecting a displacement of hopes invested in struggle onto the promise that they may be realised by electoral means.45 Such arguments, however speculative, may well apply to sections of the Front de Gauche electorate, but they imply too rigid a distinction between the arena of struggle and that of elections. During the period of struggle opened up in France by the huge public sector strikes of 1995, the role of the street and the workplace has been emphatically reasserted in a developing movement that has scored some important victories and discovered various organisational forms with which to advance these struggles. The movement has regenerated a belief in the change that
collective action and solidarity can bring. A nurse involved in the 1995 strikes articulated this sense of possibilities:

If I felt concerned again it’s because this time it was about essential, political demands… It was the rejection of a capitalist society, the rejection of money. People were mobilised more against that than against the Juppé social security plan… At the end of the demos, people stayed where they were, as if they were waiting for something else.46

At times this thirst for fundamental social and political change has found electoral expression, initially with the Trotskyist candidate Arlette Laguiller, who won over 5 percent of the vote standing for Lutte Ouvrière in 1995, and then with the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire’s Olivier Besancenot, who achieved similar scores in 2002 and 2007. In 2012 Mélenchon best articulated this desire for political change as part of a campaign that developed its own dynamic, one that cannot be reduced solely to a narrow electoral project characterised by a passive relationship between those who were mobilised by the campaign and its figurehead. His success has also been influenced by the fact that the NPA has failed to provide a durable political home for the activists who gathered so enthusiastically around the party when it was formed in 2009. The NPA has suffered splits and divisions, while Lutte Ouvrière has become an increasingly marginal influence on the radical left.

In Hénin-Beaumont, Mélenchon failed to win through to contest the second round of the parliamentary election against Marine Le Pen, his vote squeezed, like that of many Front de Gauche candidates, by a nationwide increase in support for the Socialist Party. He nevertheless achieved a creditable score of 21 percent. More importantly, his attempt to link the fight against the FN, and the gathering mood of anger at austerity and its effects, to the heritage of the labour movement and its traditions of struggle and anti-fascism, gave confidence to activists on the ground. As one NPA member in Hénin-Beaumont put it:

It’s about saying, “No, things don’t always need to be this way. We can get beyond capitalism. There is a collective force that can be mobilised, and no, there’s nothing inevitable about the extreme right gaining an influence in this area.” There’s a hope in this campaign that’s inspiring. I’ve lived here for 11 years. We’ve done lots of painstaking anti-fascist activity—it’s been hard sometimes. Now there’s more of a sense of our mass, collective strength.47

Mélenchon, like many on the radical left in France, believes in the Republican model of citizenship, according to which shared values, rather than shared ethnicity or culture, are the key to a successfully integrated society. As we have seen, however, over time “universal values” like secularism can be moulded into a national heritage, becoming part of the ethno-cultural vision of a Guéant, a Sarkozy or a Le Pen. Historically, the Republican model has created a blind spot for the French left when it comes to confronting the FN and fighting racism, hampering its ability to defend Muslims when they are stigmatised, for example, for wearing a piece of cloth over their hair. Mélenchon himself supported the ban on Muslim schoolchildren wearing the hijab and in 2010 was critical of the decision by the NPA (hotly contested within the party itself) to present a regional election candidate, Ilham Moussaïd, who wore the hijab. She did not, he argued, represent the majority.48 Moreover, those who wore the hijab should not complain of stigmatisation, since they were “inflicting a stigma on themselves”.49

During the presidential election campaign Mélenchon presented a robust defence of the Republican tradition and its alleged capacity to integrate immigrants. This was given great prominence at his rally in Marseille. At the Front de Gauche’s final meeting of the campaign he condemned the way the FN was diverting anger at the banks onto immigrants, “persecuting people and inciting a war of religion” by castigating “our companions in work, love, family—our children, grandparents, cousins—by attacking Muslims, once again, as previous generations attacked Jews”.50 The Republican tradition cannot simply be dismissed for its complicity in promoting Islamophobia. It forms part of a series of contradictions, centred on the role of the state, that are characteristic of the Mélenchon phenomenon. These contradictions are not fixed or static, however; they are part of a dynamic which is unfolding as resistance to austerity and neoliberalism develops. Which elements come to the fore in this process depends on the relationship between the forces gathered under the banner of resistance and their collective ability to shape events in the face of “the market”.

Mélenchon referred throughout the campaign to the relationship between the vote and the struggle. The bigger the Front de Gauche score, “the stronger you will be in the workplace”. After the election workers would be able to tell their employers, who “only understand force”: “Carry on like that, and we’ll call on Mélenchon and his friends.” The more the bosses were afraid, the more they would concede. “They are right to fear us,” he argued. France’s 6 million manual and 7 million white collar workers “hold the future in their hands if they only become aware of themselves and their interests… Spread this word around you and don’t ever be diverted: the rich have a class consciousness and they never forget it. Have a class consciousness, a sense of the general interest”.51

The political trajectory of the Mélenchon phenomenon is not pre-determined. It will be shaped by all kinds of elements in the months and years to come. How the rest of the radical left relates to the phenomenon can have an important influence on this process. A Mélenchon victory in Hénin-Beaumont, for example, would have had a significant impact on breaking the sense that the FN is on an upward trajectory and that its role in public life cannot be contested. He was pipped to second place by the Socialist candidate, who won 1,059 more votes. The four far-left candidates who stood in the election received a total of 656 votes. The exceptional circumstances of that election, in particular the very real prospect of a radical left candidate inflicting a defeat on Le Pen, could have prompted them to put their energies into a united campaign against the FN. Had they done so the outcome might well have been very different. Positive engagement with the Front de Gauche by the revolutionary left, welcoming the emergence of a significant radical left electoral force while not shying away from legitimate differences and concerns, can be part of a process of deepening and clarifying political understanding within the movement. Under a Socialist president who, as one report put it, “will have no choice but to disappoint”,52 this will be an important part of the social conflicts to come.

The Socialists won an overall majority in the June 2012 parliamentary elections, leaving the UMP is some disarray, notably over how to relate to the FN. In Hénin-Beaumont, Marine Le Pen narrowly lost to the Socialist candidate in the second round stand-off, her first round score only 190 votes up on her presidential score there. Mélenchon’s first round score had increased by around a thousand votes on his presidential vote in the town. Overall, the Front de Gauche won around 700,000 more votes in 2012 than the Communist Party had won in the 2007 parliamentary elections, but it gained five fewer seats than the Communists had won alone. This, as Mélenchon noted, was the price of “autonomy”,53 since the Front de Gauche had no electoral agreement with the Socialists. The Greens, who made an alliance between the two rounds of the election, won more seats than the Front de Gauche, with fewer votes.

There was criticism that Mélenchon had narrowed the campaign down by focusing on opposition to the FN, revealing, as one analysis put it, “the limits of virulent anti-fascism”.54 François Delapierre, the director of Mélenchon’s presidential campaign, however, dismissed the idea that the FN has become less extreme: “In reality, it’s a fascist party which wants to reconfigure the political landscape around confrontation with immigrants and their children”.55 Mélenchon was equally trenchant. Arguing that the basic function of racism today is to divide people at a time when they are uniting against neoliberal austerity, he identified the threat of the FN as twofold. It represents both a menace to democratic institutions and a danger “in terms of possible ways out of the crisis.” He claimed that those who complained he was putting undue focus on the FN were themselves reducing a social and ideological question to a moral question: “Either they win authority over the masses or we do,” he argued. “And the question will be—is it the banker or the immigrant who’s responsible for the crisis? That’s what’s at stake here…and in the wider world. So the struggle must be implacable and to the end”.56

In the wake of the parliamentary election, Communist Party leader Pierre Laurent argued that the conditions were not right for the party to participate in a Socialist government. He noted the Socialists’ continued orientation around Hollande’s presidential programme, spurning the opportunity to engage with the Front de Gauche, and added that “we remain available if these conditions evolve”.57 Mélenchon claimed that the Front de Gauche would become “the spokespeople for the expectations of the social movement, without concession or naivety or impatience”.58 The extent to which it is able to do this will depend on its capacity to build a formation that is open to all elements of the radical left, one which sees its primary task not to win constitutional change (the call for a Sixth Republic is a central element of its programme) but to advance the struggles against austerity that will take place outside the electoral arena. If Laurent’s message implied that the situation was fluid as far as the Communists’ relationship with the Socialist government was concerned, Delapierre’s analysis points to the pitfalls of becoming associated with it:

If Hollande confirms his acceptance of austerity, things can also happen. We saw in Greece how socialists disassociated themselves from the line taken by Pasok and Papandreou. But either way, it’s outside the so-called social democratic parties that the search for an alternative to the domination of capital is finding expression. It’s this analysis that motivated our departure from the PS, and it’s been totally reinforced by the political cycle which is coming to an end.59

Although hopes that Mélenchon might have beaten Le Pen in both presidential and parliamentary elections were dashed, he did more than any other candidate since the FN’s emergence as a political force directly to confront the party on the electoral terrain. Exposing the tension between the hard core elements of the FN and its wider periphery will take more than such confrontations alone, however. In the same way, giving electoral expression to the social movement will only be meaningful if the movement is backed at every turn in the struggles to come, building on and deepening the radical left critique of austerity that proved so effective in the presidential campaign.

Next to Mélenchon, Hollande looked a profoundly uninspiring figure. When he tried oratory or passion his words came out in an unmodulated bark that sounded more like someone hailing a cab than a call to arms. Hollande’s campaign, however, gathered momentum under the impact of the Mélenchon phenomenon, with his pledge to introduce a 75 percent tax rate on annual incomes over 1 million euros coming to the fore, along with promises to restore the retirement age back to the age of 60, from 62, for anyone having worked for 41 years, to create 60,000 education posts over five years and to renegotiate the European fiscal compact, giving greater emphasis to growth. As the head of a think tank linked to the Socialist Party acknowledged, however, the 75 percent tax rate is “just a symbolic measure”. The Socialist Party, he went on, “has modernised, and does understand the need to improve competitiveness and control the deficit”.60

The last time the Socialists were in office they were able to implement neoliberal reforms by incorporating the Greens and the Communists into Jospin’s “plural left” project. For the moment Mélenchon’s success has exerted sufficient influence on the Communist Party for it to resist such temptations. Whether that continues to be the case, and whether the Front de Gauche is able to succeed where others have failed and build a durable radical left formation, rooted in struggle and capable of directly confronting the threat of the Front National, remains to be seen. Those who speak for “the markets” insist that France needs to drive down its labour costs. In 2000 they stood 8 percent below those in Germany. Today they are 10 percent higher.61 Significant social confrontations are likely to form as much a part of the Hollande presidency as that of his predecessors in a political environment that, as the 2012 elections demonstrate, continues to polarise. At stake is the ability of the radical left to create a positive, combative, effective alternative both to austerity and to the politics of despair represented by the Front National.


1: Economist, 2012.

2: Economist, 2012.

3: An analysis of the Socialist Party’s evolution is beyond the scope of this article. It will be dealt with in a forthcoming piece on social democracy for this journal.

4: See Wolfreys, 2005.

5: Typical of attempts to downplay the significance of the Front’s 6.4 million votes was Jon Henley’s election blog for the Guardian-Henley, 2012a.

6: See Wolfreys, 2006.

7: For an analysis of some of the consequences of the Gaullist right’s adoption of a neoliberal outlook, see Brustier and Huelin, 2011.

8: TF1 News, 6 May 2007,

9: Chrisafis, 2007.

10: Coulomb and Sangnier, 2012.

11: See Pinçon and Pinçon-Charlot, 2011.

12: L’Express, 2007.

13: Le Nouvel Observateur, 2008.

14: Peillon, 2012.

15: Cahuc and Zylberberg, 2012, p9.

16: A full “unofficial” translation of the speech can be found at

17: Le Monde, 2012b.

18: Lemarié, 2012.

19: Saberan and Bretton, 2012.

20: Her statement was put up on Lille’s municipal website, 1 July

21: Saberan and Bretton, 2012.

22: Veron, 2012.

23: Veron, 2012.

24: Les Echos, 2012.

25: Tassel, 2012.

26: Equy and Cerez, 2012.

27: Le Figaro, 2012b.

28: Mathiot, 2012.

29: Husson and Ferran, 2012.

30: Tissot, 2004.

31: Le Nouvel Observateur, 2012.

32: See Fysh and Wolfreys, 2003.

33: Le Monde, 2012a.

34: Henley, 2012b. See also Henley, 2012c.

35: Du Roy, 2012.

36: Gauquelin, 2012.

37: Mestre, 2012. See also Le Pen, 2012.

38: Le Figaro, 2012a.

39: De Boni, 2012.

40: Le Figaro, 2012c.

41: Le Monde, 2012c.

42: Wolfreys, 2003.

43: Chrisafis, 2012.

44: Mélenchon, 2012.

45: Sabado, 2012.

46: Quoted in Béroud and Capdevielle, 1998, pp96-97.

47: Socialist Worker, 2012.

48: Wolfreys, 2010.

49: Andrieu, 2010.

50: Mélenchon, 2012.

51: Mélenchon, 2012.

52: Von Rohr, 2012.

53: L’Humanité, 2012a.

54: Dupin, 2012.

55: Alliès, 2012.

56: Socialist Worker, 2012.

57: L’Humanité, 2012b.

58: L’Humanité, 2012a.

59: Alliès, 2012.

60: Economist, 2012.

61: Economist, 2012.


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