The Agony of the French Left
French and American politics often move in tandem. First there was the American Revolution, then the French. The American presidency seized power in 1948, the French in 1958. French democracy was born in 1848, American in 1865. The two greats of American and French socialism, Jean Jaurès and Eugene Debs, both promoted reform over violent revolution and were both victims of the violent nationalism of World War I. But when we elected Trump, they elected Clinton.
Emmanuel Macron’s (LREM) presidency has been a disaster. After defeating the neofascist Marine Le Pen (RN) in a landslide, one of Macron’s first acts was the abrogation of the highly popular and successful solidarity tax on wealth (ISF). At the stroke of a pen, Macron created a five-billion-euro deficit by ending a tax of 0.5 to 1.55% on household incomes over 800,000 euro that affected a mere 358,000 people but made up 1.5% of the republic’s total tax income.
Macron’s opening salvo in France’s newest class war was followed in 2019 by his so-called “retirement reform.” Before 2019, the retirement age in France depended on your profession (i.e. coal miners retire earlier than teachers, with the maximum age being 63) and your pension was based on your yearly income for your 25 highest earning years (normally your last 25 since pay raises are automatic in most sectors). Macron proposed to raise the retirement age to 65 for everyone and base pensions off one’s whole working life (18-65), which would’ve meant a drastic reduction in everyone’s pensions. This specifically targeted students, who would have three, four, or even six years with zero income, drastically cutting the pensions of an entire generation. These “reforms” were necessary, Macron said, because of a certain five-billion-euro hole in the national budget.
Our French comrades did not accept this. A massive strike wave broke out across France – in which I participated – and the CGT, UNEF, and many other organizations, both right- and left-wing were involved. The gilet jaune coalition was reborn, and the massive strike wave did its job: although Macron refused to concede, his party, La République en Marche! could not bring themselves to pass the legislation. The people were heard.
Then, in February 2020, COVID hit. The people could not be in the streets. France’s open border with Italy – the original European COVID hotspot – meant that the disease quickly spread through the hexagon and the Conseil d’État convened to pass emergency decrees. At the initial meeting, Macron’s prime minister Édouard Philippe (LREM) invoked the antidemocratic article 49.3, forcing the legislation through without debate or even a vote in the Assemblée Nationale or the Sénat. Without a chance to react, French workers were put into lockdown – although unlike the U.S. workers, they were guaranteed 80% of their pre-COVID salaries.
What has been happening in France since the rolling lockdowns (confinement) is a tragedy. Cole Strangler wrote an excellent piece about how France is becoming Americanized. One of the most distressing examples of this is the rise of French Fox News, CNews. With nowhere to go, many tuned into the far-right channel, which accordingly saw a surge in viewers, and, as with the original Fox News in America, French public opinion shifted right. I’ve seen this myself: family members of comrades I met before the pandemic have embraced the far-right xenophobia of the news channel. The simple fact that the 24-hour channel is free online regardless of location made it a more compelling offer than the left-wing Mediapart, which has a paywall and no cable news section.
The lockdown measures themselves were much more extreme than those in the United States: the label “essential business” was not handed out freely at first, and in order to leave your home you needed to have an attestation that you could only make online. The police were free to stop anyone on the street to enforce this rule. I was stopped more than once, but it was Black Frenchmen who suffered the most from these rules. The police also stepped up their traffic patrols as a way of increasing state revenue. This hit poor and rural Frenchmen the hardest.
Finally, as in America, the issue of vaccines appeared. The habitual oppositionalism of the French left, long out of power and reeling from defeat, led them to adopt a disastrous position of being against vaccine requirements. In their defense, Macron’s vaccine policies are not only disastrous but inhumane. On the Caribbean colony of Martinique, for example, a vicious cycle has begun where state health services are cut and locals, without hospital beds, have turned to traditional medicine. This, in turn, has led to Macron’s denunciation of the island’s Black inhabitants, who he then punishes by stripping away even more of their health care resources. The majority-Black inhabitants of the island continue to face colonial oppression in their own homes. I spoke with one comrade from the island – and member of the French Communist Party (PCF) – who has refused to be vaccinated because of this, and she is not alone.
But most Frenchmen live in France, and on the streets of Paris you can see stickers that say “passe sanitaire” (sanitary pass, the vaccine passport) with the two ‘S’s in the shape of the Nazi SS rune. One PCF comrade in the west of France told me that the vaccine passports are totalitarian, and that the PCF is resisting it in the name of freedom against the state. This is not without reason, the powers that Macron has given police to enforce the rules on vaccination and lockdown are extreme and will be in place for months to come. Still, I have been shocked to hear our comrades call public health totalitarian. I do not think many of us would oppose vaccine mandates in the United States, so why have our French comrades come to the opposite conclusion?
This brings us to the 2022 Presidential election starting on 10 April. The “nation of human rights” has been presented with three choices: Emmanuel Macron and his program of class warfare; the classically neofascist Marine Le Pen; and a newcomer to the political scene, an unapologetic racist pig who has somehow outflanked Le Pen to the right, Éric Zemmour and his brownshirts known as Reconquête (R!). Zemmour’s reactionary beliefs are truly horrific. The most infamous example of his racism is his desire to bring back a law from 1803 that makes it illegal to name your child anything that is not on the Christian calendar! A humorous website has recently appeared where anyone can check if their first name will have to be changed should Zemmour be elected. France’s right-wing drift is horrifying: a country that, in the 1981 election, saw no candidate claim to be on the right is now forced to choose between three right-wing candidates. Macron, the so-called “decent option,” has sprinted right to keep up with his opponents. To quote one comrade I interviewed: “France is in a big shit.”
Those of us who remember the 2017 election will notice a missing name: where is the “French Bernie,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon? The 2017 election saw the creation of an ersatz popular front between members of the socialist (PS) and communist (PCF) parties coalescing around the charismatic ex-Trotskyist. His last-minute rise offered French voters a chance to have a real left-wing candidate in the second round of voting, but in the end, he came up 2% short of Le Pen. Since his defeat, however, Mélenchon has been active and, like Bernie, he has spent the last five years preparing for the next election and defending the voiceless. Unfortunately, he is not Bernie.
I was shocked to hear “Mélenchon is not serious anymore” from one comrade, but there is a general belief that he cannot win, and that France has gone too far to the right. This disillusionment has fractured the French left even further, as the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo (PS) and the general secretary of the PCF Fabien Roussel have both launched serious election campaigns as well. Zemmour’s rise is also being blamed on Mélenchon because the former began his sensational ascent after a televised debate between the two. I do not believe, like some say, that debating Zemmour was a tactical error, but even so, Mélenchon’s platform leaves much to be desired.
If the French students among us are looking to practice the language I invite you to read his pamphlet, L’Avenir en commun. Many of his ideas are good and necessary, but many are typically French and greatly out of touch with reality. For example, the tool with which the French right attacks Muslims is laïcité, the strict and absolute separation of church and state. When it came about in the nineteenth century, it was directed at the powerful and reactionary Catholic church, but now, in the twentieth century, the church is no longer the counterrevolutionary behemoth it once was. But laïcité remains on the books, and religion is officially not allowed in public spaces. The right has used this to prevent Muslim women from wearing veils in schools or in town halls, even while restrictions on Catholics have been loosened. Until Zemmour, all attacks on Muslims were couched in terms of laïcité. Mélenchon’s solution is simple: increase restrictions on Catholics as well. For example, he has argued that priests should not be able to participate in public debate in their capacity as priests. Who does this help? What political power does the Catholic church still have? As another example of the issues with left-wing French politicians, during the height of the BLM uprising in the U.S., France also had a national debate about racist policing, and during an interview, Roussel (PCF) came out in favor of the police. French politicians are sprinting to the right and the left has no response.
This agony of the French left is a horrible sight. The country which once had communist ministers in the government is now forced choose between xenophobia, the end of the welfare state, or, probably, both. The French left is unable to fight it. Most of the comrades I have spoken to are either voting for Christiane Taubira (Walwari) – a Black woman from the French Caribbean who was the minister of justice under François Hollande – or Philippe Poutou (NPA), a protest candidate who received 1% of the vote in 2017. A mechanic at the Ford plant in Bordeaux, Poutou attends presidential debates in a t-shirt and jeans. But he is just a protest vote. Anne Hidalgo suggested a popular front under her candidacy, but PS’s image has not recovered from the memory of Mitterrand and Hollande. Well-meaning comrades have organized a “popular primary” to decide between the five left-wing candidates, but Mélenchon, Hidalgo, Roussel, and Yannick Jadot (EEV) have all refused to participate. Time will tell if the popular primary will be successful, but with three months until the first round I am not hopeful. The French left is in shambles, it needs to be rebuilt.