Thoughts and impressions on the French election

The flags are tricolor; the supporters of the new president, multi-colored. The margin of victory, at latest count, stands at exactly two to one for Emmanuel Macron. A decisive victory over his nationalist rival, Marine Le Pen.

And yet.

It’s not so much a question of who the French voted for as what they voted against. Fascism needed to be defeated, as it was in 1945. Nothing could be taken for granted. This time, however, the French did not need to rely on their allies; they did the job themselves. For that, they deserve much commendation. Even the best and most modern fascist gambit, a sensational last-minute hack attack, failed spectacularly. The pity is that it came down to a “centrist” neoliberal banker, rather than a genuinely progressive leftist candidate, as the one to defeat Marine Le Pen, the heiress of her father’s old fascistic tendency. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the reason the abstention rate for the run-off vote was at a near-record high.

But here’s the thing: Even with so many disgruntled French voters staying home, no doubt feeling that each was as shabby a candidate as the other (albeit for widely differing reasons), the anti-fascist voice carried the day.

Emmanuel Macron is no rabble-rousing leftist; he’s a banker, a young fogey (one might say), no doubt dedicated to the economic policies of the EU, and the military policies of NATO. Despite his radical-sounding “movement” name, there’s nothing terribly radical about him. Look beyond the youth and the glamour, and you see something rather like the current establishment. In other words: More of what the French (and indeed all Europeans) are heartily tired of. More of the same merde that bogged down the so-called Socialist, François Hollande. The clamor for change has resulted in a change of face, yes, but will it result in a change of policy? Qui sait?

Meanwhile: Anti-war and anti-austerity sentiment are on the rise. The French are rightly concerned about the safety of their social programs, and whether these will adequately accommodate the stream of refugees pouring in as NATO’s Middle Eastern wars displace more and more Arabs and North Africans from their homes. This as bankers and industrialists continue to carp against local labor law, pleading “too much competition” from overseas, where exploitation is rampant and will lead to civil unrest before long; look for terrorism and civil wars in the same “booming” economic zones the capitalists are exploiting right now.

France is located at a critical juncture; it borders on the Mediterranean, as well as the Alps, and so finds refugees coming in from both directions. Some, mainly francophone Africans, come in from the sea itself; others through Italy, journeying up the shaft of the boot after landing at Lampedusa. The overland route into Europe from the Middle East runs through Turkey, Greece, and again Italy; France is the next station stop. Human smugglers are making a literal killing by transporting desperate souls.

It’s this stream of refugees, more than anything else, that enabled Marine Le Pen to rise as far as the run-off. She really ought to thank them for that. Her own policies alone were not sufficient to do it; no, nothing less than the fear of a steady influx of non-white faces could propel the fascists to mobilize en masse. But at the same time, it all proves the emptiness and futility of fascism, and explains why all efforts to re-brand it as “pro-French” have failed. When the only thing that defines one’s Frenchness is the bare fact that it’s not African or Arabic, what is there to be so proud of?

The rest of France, even the disgruntled abstainers, are not so insecure in themselves. For them, being French is a question of how one lives, not just how one looks. They pride themselves, justifiably, on having an effective social-security system. When someone falls through the cracks and turns in consequence to crime (further motivated, no doubt, by NATO’s wars against their own people “back home”), it is cause for acute chagrin. The terrorist attacks on the Bataclan and in Nice, as well as the violent electrocution deaths more than a decade ago in one of the Paris banlieues, are proof of that. And while there is no shortage of knee-jerk resentment, and calls for the outsiders to “assimilate” (the recent burkini controversies reveal that), this masks the fact that exclusion is what’s causing those cracks that the unassimilated fall through in the first place. Even those who are willing to assimilate still feel the sting of nativist rejection. There is resistance, even at the state level, to giving newcomers an incentive to fit in, and an unspoken but thoroughly felt desire to shove them off elsewhere as quickly as possible. The police are still arrogant and vicious. There is also the old religious hypocrisy: official secularism is enforced to a ludicrous degree upon non-Christians, but Catholicism is still ungrudgingly tolerated; no one tears off nuns’ veils, in contrast to those of Muslims. The social-security system of France works at its best only for the ethnic French entre eux, and that needs to change if the refugees are to become French citizens in full.

I hope that Macron can do it, but I have my doubts. He’s not stupid, far from it, but he is still a product of his milieu. And that milieu is stubbornly conservative, for all its talk of republican ideals. It’s a problem that seems to have resisted all his predecessors, as well as his more progressive political rivals. While I share the vast relief that fascism has been defeated pour le moment, the social and economic forces that gave it such a strong footing are not overcome yet. Not by a long stretch.

Bonne chance, monsieur le président.

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