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The Last Neoliberal

Elected on a promise to modernise France, Emmanuel Macron has revealed what the political centre looks like in practice – a war on workers, authoritarian demagogy and a further emboldening of the far-right.

Around the time of the French presidential election in 2017, some graffiti appeared in Paris and promptly did the rounds on social media. It read: ‘Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022’. With the next election now just over a year away, this warning may yet prove prescient. One poll from January put the pair effectively neck-and-neck, suggesting that in a second-round run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the former would win by only 52 percent to the latter’s 48 percent.

With the French far-right on the march, Macron has responded by trying to ape it. There was uproar recently when Frédérique Vidal, his higher education minister, whipped up a moral panic about so-called ‘Islamo-leftism’—a trope lifted directly from the fervid imagination of the extreme right—which, she said, ‘is eating away at our society as a whole’. This is part of a wider offensive, including plans to draft a list of government-approved imams and to forcibly dissolve the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, an anti-racist NGO.

With Macron’s disapproval ratings having long hovered at around 60 percent and much of his time in office marked by large-scale protests against his policies, it’s no surprise that he’s looking for distractions. Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini’s The Last Neoliberal, newly translated into English, puts Macron and his ‘Jupiterian presidency’ into context. It is an absorbing case study of what happens when the erstwhile centre-left, discarding its remaining obligations to the working class, gets drunk on its own heresy.

Creating the Void

Amable and Palombarini trace the prehistory of Macronism back to mid-twentieth century technocratic French modernism, and particularly the ‘Second Left’—the right-wing, revisionist faction of the Parti Socialiste (PS)—which emerged in the 1970s. The Second Left sought to abandon social-democratic shibboleths such as Keynesian demand management and public ownership, promoting instead what we would now recognise as neoliberalism. By the 1990s, it had established its dominance within the PS.

The presidency of François Mitterrand during the 1980s presented his party with a fork in the road. Having been elected on an ambitious programme of nationalisation and radical fiscal stimulus, Mitterrand abandoned it in favour of an orthodox, deflationary policy in 1983, two years after his election. Mitterrand is often presented as a hapless, if cynical onlooker merely swept along by the neoliberal tide. In fact, Amable and Palombarini remind us, he was an active player in the reorientation of the French left with an eye on the long game.

Peter Mair, in his feted analysis, Ruling the Void, emphasised that political disengagement has been a two-way process: politicians have disengaged from their former voters as much as the other way around. Amable and Palombarini show, however, that the French centre-left has consciously and deliberately broken up its traditional bloc of support and unmoored itself from the working class, in the hope of replacing it with a professional-managerial ‘bourgeois bloc’ more amenable to neoliberal reform.

Mitterrand’s U-turn thus forced him to seek new alliances, marginalising working-class interests and seeking to make the liberal middle classes the cornerstone of his support base. Far from resisting the further neoliberalisation of the European project, Mitterrand actively promoted it, seeing in its constraints on fiscal and monetary policy an opportunity to weaken the Communists—his one-time coalition partners—by ruling redistributive policies out of bounds. He also sought to splinter the right-wing bloc by slyly boosting the Front National.

However, the revisionist social democrats were unable to replace the traditional left-wing bloc—a broad alliance encompassing industrial and public-sector workers, liberal professionals, and middle-class intellectuals—with a new, majoritarian base of support. This meant that instead, it had to continue making overtures to the working class at election time. Inevitably, it would fail to live up to the promises it made on the campaign trail once ensconced in the Élysée Palace, thereby hastening its own demise.

From Hollande to Macron

The presidency of François Hollande repeated the pattern in farcical style. Hollande was elected promising a decisive break with austerity and hefty taxes on the rich, only to swiftly do a reverse ferret in office. This ensured the rapid collapse of the PS and prompted the heirs of the Second Left to break with it altogether, as it was no longer electorally viable: Emmanuel Macron, who served as Hollande’s finance minister, established his own party, En Marche (now La République En Marche), as a vehicle for his own presidential ambitions.

Macron likes to pose as an anti-establishment figure tearing up the rule book, but he is a scion of the French ruling class almost to his bone marrow. Educated at the elite École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), Macron was an investment banker before entering politics and had authored a report for Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, advising him to implement a raft of neoliberal reforms. The intervention of the 2008 financial crisis, however, meant that such free-market nostrums publicly fell into discredit, at least for a time.

Since assuming the presidency, Macron has sought to introduce neoliberal reforms to the French economy and labour market at breakneck speed. Unlike his PS predecessors, he is not primarily reliant on a working-class base of support, and has made no real attempt to establish one. With both the left and the right—its vote split between the Gaullists and the Front National—in considerable disarray, Macron’s centrist bourgeois bloc was able to emerge as an independent, leading political force even as a minority.

But given that the bourgeois bloc accounts for perhaps a quarter of the French electorate, it cannot win power entirely on its own; in 2017, anti-fascist voters felt obliged to swallow their doubts about Macron and back him over Le Pen. Nonetheless, the bourgeois bloc can have an outsize degree of influence, Amable and Palombarini argue, if it succeeds in convincing working-class voters to disengage from the political process. This disengagement also greatly hinders the socialist left’s attempts to regroup as a coherent opposition.

Macron’s hope is that his reforms will create, from the top down, an expanded bourgeois bloc, further shrinking the ranks of the blue-collar workforce while boosting those of the service sector and white-collar professionals. Yet there are countervailing tendencies which could undermine this: cuts to public pensions and healthcare, and the onward march of automation and precarisation elsewhere, may cause some to fall out of the middle class completely. This is a fragile foundation on which to build an entire political project.

One way to resolve this impasse may be a turn towards a more authoritarian-populist strategy. The model here would be Thatcherism; her authoritarian populism, with racism stamped through it, served to shore up support for the Thatcher government while it carried out its reforms. We are, of course, still living with the long-term effects in Britain, with the labour movement rooted out of many of its former strongholds while house price inflation and petty rentierism ensure the Tories still have a seemingly rock-solid popular base.

The harsh repression of the protests against Macron’s labour market reforms and those of the Gilets Jaunes, along with his cheap Muslim-baiting, suggests that Macron is indeed leaning this way. Amable and Palombarini note that the bourgeois bloc is more committed to European integration than to progressive social policy, and may therefore be prepared to sacrifice the latter for the former. But, they suggest, Macron’s failure to secure meaningful reform to the European Union could damage his prestige and undermine his broader project.

Contradictions of Sovereigntism

What about the opposition? French political journalists and academics largely agree that the old left-right divide is now irrelevant, and that politics is instead polarised around a different dichotomy: that of Europeanists and Eurosceptic ‘sovereigntists’. Amable and Palombarini note that the latter could draw on quite a diverse base of grassroots support, but that this base is fractured by ‘major contradictions’. For instance, manual and public-sector workers want stronger employment protections, while the petit bourgeoisie sees these as a burden.

Marine Le Pen’s renamed Rassemblement National has won over some working-class voters, while papering over the divides among its supporters with racism. But its commitment to a statist economic policy and a stronger welfare state are only skin deep. In the 1980s, the Front National was a standard-bearer for hardline Thatcherism, demanding privatisation as well as cuts to taxation and public spending. These tendencies are far from extinguished. As recently as the mid-2000s, Marine Le Pen herself was demanding swingeing tax cuts.

Indeed, Amable and Palombarini insist that more Le Pen voters are probably motivated to support her by the usual curtain-twitching grievances of the lower-middle class—resentment of migrants and the unemployed in particular—than are drawn to her dirigiste economic programme. The claim that the Rassemblement National is now the party of the French working class is also, they argue, an overstated one: many more working-class voters abstain from voting altogether than vote for either the left-wing parties or the far-right.

The ‘sovereigntist’ bloc, meanwhile, also has no agreed position on what France’s future relationship with Europe should be. The Rassemblement Nationale does not call for French withdrawal from the European Union, but merely for reforms to it. Nor are the sovereigntists in agreement about what they want to do economically. Amable and Palombarini point out that a probable majority of the far right’s leading figures, for all their opportunist posturing, themselves want to see France’s economy and labour market liberalised further.

Another dilemma is that ‘Frexit’—which would entail France leaving both the European Union and the Euro—would risk incinerating middle-class savings, immiserating much of Le Pen’s own base overnight. Perry Anderson has already made the point that Brexit would likely never have happened had Britain joined the euro, as Tony Blair once wished it to do. The French right may ultimately end up jettisoning its newfound working-class support altogether, healing its own divide by regrouping around a neo-Thatcherite programme.

Their Future or Ours

It might be that antipathy to Le Pen once again makes left-wing voters hold their nose and help Macron over the line next year, but the increasingly right-wing and reactionary bent of Macron’s administration is likely to leave others wondering why they should bother coming to his rescue. By stealing Le Pen’s clothes, Macron has made it harder to maintain a cordon sanitaire around her and her party; it may no longer seem so clear why Le Pen is uniquely awful and unacceptable, when Macron himself is so keen to emulate her.

However, Macron’s own project, as with that of the Second Left, is founded on a borderline misanthropic view of working-class capacities and a deep contempt for popular needs. Amable and Palombarini convincingly demonstrate that the French centre has predicated its ability to win and govern on marginalising working-class voters, inflicting such demoralisation that millions disengage from politics completely while others are hoovered up by the far right. Bien-pensant centrist think tanks and media aggressively delegitimise the working class.

At least during the 1990s heyday of the Third Way—to which the Second Left is broadly analogous—it could redirect some of the proceeds of the financial boom into social programmes. In this way, it could sugar the pill of the neoliberal reforms which, in the long term, entrenched precarity, poverty and inequality. While the boom lasted, the centre-left’s remaining working-class supporters could enjoy some benefits by way of compensation. But once the boom ended, this was no longer an option, plunging Europe’s centre-left into crisis.

What vision for the future does it offer now? For all Macron’s contrived appearance of restlessness, and his self-congratulatory self-image as a thrusting ‘moderniser’, there isn’t one beyond more of the same: more inequality, poverty and precarity on the one hand, and obscene profiteering on the other. It’s no surprise that Macron is widely mocked as ‘le président des riches‘. This is, as Amable and Palombarini call it, the ‘Uberisation’ of the French economy. The far right in France must thank its lucky stars for opponents like these.

It’s also no surprise that so many Blairite politicians and pundits in Britain once looked at Macron in such a sappy, doe-eyed way—they too would love to be free of any obligations to the working class. Some tried to emulate Macron with ‘Change UK’, but the most that achieved was strengthening the hand of the stay-behind Labour right. Yet Keir Starmer also seems to aspire to a managerial-bureaucratic brand of technocratic politics. His distaste for participatory movement politics, and even for basic party democracy, is manifest.

But only a movement firmly rooted in the working class, recognising its immense diversity and forging a common struggle out of it, can deliver the real social transformation which is so urgently needed. We must reject inept managerialism and sincerely commit ourselves to building popular power and self-confidence. Those of us committed to social change need to organise ourselves so that we are capable of doing precisely that. If we fail, we will face much bigger social explosions further along the line.