From horizontal to vertical: The new French political divide
On Sunday, April 24, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected President of the French Republic. The leader of La République En Marche! presided over an increased social fracture, compulsory vaccination and mass immigration, all while crippling an economy he had promised to save. How, despite this abysmal record, did he gain re-election?
In 2017, Macron won by playing the old ‘horizontal’ left-right divide to his advantage. He understood that the left-right divide between the two major parties – Socialist and Gaullist – was increasingly meaningless. Macron first hollowed out the Socialist Party by playing to the ideological concerns of the Left. Socialist voters could trust that at heart he was one of them – a former minister in the socialist government. Then, once against Marine Le Pen in the second round, he relied on the fact that the candidate for the Gaullist party, François Fillon, would ask his supporters to vote for him. The fusion of the two main political parties against the ‘far-right’ thus begun.
Over the past five years, Macron changed his support base. In 2022 he was elected by a social class, the bourgeois, which saw liberal elites from across the right-left divide cooperate to stave off an increasingly unified working class, now smeared as ‘populist’. Once again Macron won not because people supported him or his policies, but because he had successfully created a supposedly extremist boogie-woman whom he could be contrasted with. Only he could protect French elites from this dangerous threat and the working class who supported her.
The new division in French politics is a vertical one: University-educated economic and social elites, be they politically Right or Left, vote Macron. Paris votes Macron (85%). The working class and the countryside on the other hand vote Le Pen. The over-representation of the Le Pen vote in small towns is linked to the characteristics of its population: lower incomes and fewer graduates than in cities. Of course, the bourgeois class has its political disagreements. But Macron’s voters are sociologically and economically united. That’s why, in the end, they always set those political divides aside. Macronism is the bet that such voters care more about their class interests than political unity, and a successful one at that. A bourgeois on the Left or the Right can say, even publicly, that he doesn’t like Macron. But he is still relieved that he remains in office, that the status quo continues and the stock market doesn’t fluctuate too much.
At the same time, the anti-elite bloc of France’s overseas territories, working classes, and those who live in the small towns and countryside is divided between the Rassemblement national (Le Pen) and La France Insoumise (Jean-Luc Mélenchon). The elite bloc made a limited score in the first round. To win, they had to maintain the division amongst the anti-elites on traditional right-left lines. To do this, French elites have turned the polemic of antifascism into a perfect political weapon. From the 1980s the French Left took a liberal turn, abandoning the working class by supporting deindustrialization and the end of countless public services. At the same time, and not by chance, an anti-fascist movement was born. Supported by associations such as SOS Racisme (1984) and the ever-compliant media, the Left demonized its own disgruntled supporters.
Under the presidency of Francois Mitterrand, the Left effectively re-invented the far-right. Electoral laws were changed to give it just enough of a platform to spook the French elite, though not enough to influence government. In 1986, for the first and only time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the National Assembly was elected via proportional representation. Le Pen’s party obtained almost 10% of the vote and 35 seats. Mitterrand and the government made a great show of panic. Deciding that this was too much democracy for the people’s own good, they reverted to the older, safer electoral system. But the point was made. The spectre of Fascism now haunted France, requiring an elite-enforced cordon sanitaire against anything that they deemed indeed to be ‘fascist’. At the same time, the return to the old electoral laws made it impossible for the Front national to gain representatives. Marine Le Pen obtained 13% of the vote but only 8 seats in 2017.
Former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin himself admitted this anti-fascist struggle was theatre. The French fight against Fascism today is not about killing the opponent, but ensuring its survival. Macron would not have been elected, let alone re-elected, if he had not been confronted with the looming threat of a “fascist party”, whose presence in the second round he consciously engineered.
Guilluy, a French geographer who coined the expression “France périphérique,” explains that the bourgeoisie benefits from antifascist strategy. Their union is to the detriment of the working classes, who do not benefit from globalization. To criticize deindustrialization or the Euro is to be a “fascist”; to propose an alternative to the neo-liberal economic and social system of the European Union is to be a “fascist,” and so on. Observations, demands, and proposals coming from the working class are immediately labeled as fascist, and thus politically disqualified. By excluding even the hypothesis of a vote for Le Pen, the ruling class excludes any rational consideration of an alternative to its liberal status quo.
Why does the antifascist strategy succeed?
Among Macron’s voters, especially in the second round, there were people who did not believe in him, his program, or his ideas. These people, when it came down to it, did not reason in terms of traditional politics, but were moved instead by a deep fear; a fear stoked by Macron and other elites, that Le Pen is ‘one hair removed from genocide’.
In the middle of the 20th century, antifascism was a movement of the far-left. Communists and socialists could win larger parliamentary majorities and turn the promise of “protection from Fascism” contingent upon economic revolution. Today, antifascism is a rhetorical strategy, one that favors the liberal bourgeoisie dedicated to preserving the economic status quo. Mélenchon’s call not to give a single vote to Le Pen in the second round saved the bourgeoisie. Only 13% of Mélenchon’s base voted Le Pen, while 42% cast a vote for Macron. The latter was the one that gave Macron his victory. Even though Le Pen’s program, especially economically, is fundamentally left-wing, the charge that Le Pen is far-right is enough to prevent the populist bloc from uniting. To avoid what they have been told is “Fascism,” socialists voted for a former banker who ardently defends capitalism.
France is notoriously difficult to govern. No political leader can wield the kind of power that could enable a President to do what the fear-mongers claim. But we are told that the election of Le Pen could have changed everything; she could have bypassed all opposition and suppressed our freedoms in order to establish a Fascist dictatorship. Obviously, this was not her plan. And even if it was, she remains immensely unpopular among the establishment.
It is not at all sure that Le Pen could have had a government, due to the lack of experts in her Party and her inability to bring people together, or a supportive parliament for example. Similarly, judges would not have hesitated to set aside the application of decrees or laws which breached ‘human rights’. Under the French constitutional system, a President cannot really become a dictator. But the fear that one might is a very useful thing to exploit.