Landscape of Treason

As François Hollande’s ignominious presidency draws to a close, his party confronts its gravest crisis since it was refounded in 1971 out of the ruins of the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO). Party membership has dropped to as few as 42,000 cardholders, a mere quarter of the 2014 figure. Municipal Socialism has imploded: today, the PS controls less than a third of large- and mid-sized cities, five of seventeen regions, and only twenty-seven of France’s 101 departments.

On the French elections

Emmanuel Macron in 2014

The 2017 election promises to be the most disruptive presidential contest in France in decades. For the first time since 1962, when the direct election of the president was introduced, there is a good chance that neither the Socialist Party (PS) nor the right-wing Republicans (LR, successor to Charles de Gaulle’s Union pour la nouvelle République) will advance a candidate to the second round. Two features mark the novelty of the conjuncture: the collapse of the Socialists, whose wildly unpopular incumbent took the unprecedented decision not to stand for reelection, and the continuing rise of the far-right National Front—widely expected to make the ballot for the May 7 runoff.

In the lead-up to the first round of voting, on April 23, public opinion polling has tracked rising indices of voter abstention and indecision. With less than a week before France votes, only 72 percent of those surveyed declared themselves firmly resolved to cast a ballot (down from 80 percent in 2012), and a third of voters are undecided as to their choice of candidate. The elections will take place in the midst of a still sluggish post-2008 recovery, with annual growth rates hovering steadily around 1 percent. Unemployment is above 10 percent; almost half of those seeking work have been out of a job for over a year. Across the board, polls register declining confidence in economic and political institutions; only the repressive apparatuses of the state, the army and the police, enjoy high levels of popular approval. A precipitous fall in voter trust in political parties, beginning in 2013 (in national polling carried out in 2016, only 8 percent of respondents expressed confidence in the parties), has been accompanied by mounting sentiments of decline, especially from those who identify with the political left. There is every sign that this election, no matter what its outcome, will have far-reaching consequences.

As François Hollande’s ignominious presidency draws to a close, his party confronts its gravest crisis since it was refounded in 1971 out of the ruins of the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO). Party candidate Benoît Hamon has seen his poll numbers drop to single digits. While France Unbowed (FI), the left-wing movement headed by ex-Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, looks certain to outperform the PS contender, senior members of the party leadership have one after the other endorsed the centrist Emmanuel Macron. Party membership has dropped to as few as 42,000 cardholders, a mere quarter of the 2014 figure and a bathetic verdict on party secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis’s onetime target of half a million members. Municipal Socialism has imploded: today, the PS controls less than a third of large and mid-sized cities, five of seventeen regions, and only twenty-seven of France’s 101 departments.

Five years ago, the outlook was considerably brighter. Following the elections of 2012, the PS exercised unprecedented dominance over French political life, Hollande’s triumph having well exceeded that of Mitterrand three decades earlier. The Socialists controlled the presidency, the government, both houses of congress, all save one region, 60 percent of the departments, and two thirds of mayoralties. What explains the dramatic reversal?

Part of the answer is that the 2012 race was less a victory for Hollande than a defeat for then President Nicolas Sarkozy, undone by low growth and persistent unemployment. The PS’s massive gains in legislative elections obscured less promising trends. The Socialists owed their victory not to any majority of popular support, but to the structure of the French electoral system, which favors bipolarity and seriously disadvantages smaller parties. At the same time, the concentration of executive power at the expense of parliament—reinforced by a 2002 reform that reduced presidential term length to make elections for the two branches of government coincide—has contributed to decreased participation in legislative elections: turnout in 2012 hit a record low, with only 56 percent of registered voters showing up at the polls in June, compared against 81 percent who cast their vote for president the previous month.

In any case, the sheen of PS electoral success would soon tarnish. Hollande ran for president as a candidate of the moderate left, against the theatrically authoritarian and pro-business Sarkozy. He promised to fight unemployment, defend French industry and prevent plant closures—notably of the Florange steelworks, outside of Metz—impose stricter regulations on the banking sector, and renegotiate the terms of the European Fiscal Stability Treaty (TSCG).  “My enemy,” Hollande declared with brio in the January 2012 speech at the Bourget airport that launched his campaign, “is the world of finance.” But the first months of his presidency would be defined by inaction, professions of faith in balanced budgets and ministerial confusion. Within the cabinet, the choice of the neoliberal Pierre Moscovici for minister of the economy and the dirigiste Arnaud Montebourg as minister of industrial renewal made some political sense (Montebourg came out of the 2011 PS primary with 17 percent of the vote) but telegraphed dissonant lines of policy. 

Betrayal after betrayal followed. In June 2012, the president added his signature to the TSCG. On September 30, eleven days before parliament voted to ratify the document, demonstrations in Paris brought some 80,000 protestors into the street to march against the “Troika dikat.” A few months later, the government conceded to the demands of the ArcelorMittal conglomerate and approved the closure of blast furnaces at Florange. Obliged to disavow his minister of industrial renewal in talks with Lakshi Mittal, Hollande privately expressed his admiration for the CEO: “He gets straight to the point—he’s all business!”  An upsurge in unemployment, beginning in the summer of 2011 as the first effects of Sarkozy’s austerity measures began to be felt, continued unabated through 2012. By autumn, official data showed the number of unemployed passing the 3 million mark. Hollande’s approval ratings plunged, with little more than a third of those polled in November 2012 reporting confidence in the president, the lowest figure in the history of the Fifth Republic. In December, the French Constitutional Court struck down legislation that would have imposed a 75 percent tax on revenues of more than €1 million, one of Hollande’s signal proposals on the stump (along with Florange and revision of the Fiscal Compact). As the year came to a close, the government had offered scarcely a single concession to its left-wing base, aside from a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. No previous Socialist administration had so uniformly failed to enact progressive social or economic measures on taking power.

In response to the worsening economy, the administration adopted an unyielding supply-side program of tax cuts, decreased social spending, and slackened restrictions on layoffs. In 2013, Prime Minister Ayrault was replaced by Manuel Valls, a leading figure of the PS right. That August, a cabinet reshuffle saw the departure of Montebourg and Hamon, both of whom criticized the government’s economic policy. Brief flashes of ministerial discontent illuminated a monotonous backdrop of unemployment, low growth, and labor unrest.

Against a tableau of impotence and retreat, French military power offered a gratifying exception to the larger trend. In foreign affairs, Hollande expanded and intensified the militarism of his predecessor: external operations (“OPEX”) proliferated, including missions in Mali (Operation Serval), the Sahel (Operation Barkhane), the Central African Republic (Operation Sangaris), and Syria (Operation Chammal). In 2015, there were no fewer than twenty-five ongoing military campaigns abroad. To this total had to be added a massive security effort on French soil. The January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris against the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket inspired newly draconian policing and surveillance legislation. On November 13, 2015, another round of attacks in the capital prompted Hollande to announce a national state of emergency, declaring the country to be at war and deploying 10,000 troops to mainland France.

But the French president was stymied in his most adventurous counterterrorism gambit: to amend the Constitution so as to enshrine the state of emergency and authorize revoking the nationality of French citizens convicted of terrorist crimes. The bill was too much for Socialist Party MPs. Depriving citizens of their nationality, a longstanding ambition of the right, flouted cherished republican principles. It was also nonsensical from a practical standpoint, aimed as it was at deterring would-be terrorists already prepared to sacrifice their lives. After months of parliamentary debate, and the resignation in protest of Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, Hollande and Valls would renounce their hopes of seeing the amendment passed.

This defeat was accompanied by bruising political struggle on a second front, as legislation revising the French Labor Code triggered a popular uprising in the spring of 2016. Labeled the loi El Khomri, after recently appointed labor minister Myriam El Khomri, the law stipulated new collective bargaining regulations to disempower unions, fewer restrictions on firing workers, a cut to mandatory severance pay, and incentives for overtime work. Beginning in March 2016, strikes and demonstrations against the reforms erupted across France, culminating in the months-long occupation of the Place de la République. The “Nuit debout” protests, which recalled the 2011 emergence of the Spanish Indignados movement and Occupy Wall Street in the US, semaphored broad dissatisfaction with the political system and national elites.

Reform of the Labor Code succeeded where constitutional revision failed. But both initiatives were politically disastrous. Together, they consummated the alienation of government from its own political base; Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection, announced on December 1, 2016, as the president’s approval rating sank to 4 percent, merely confirmed an established fact. The following month, Valls was defeated in the PS primary, in which the former premier faced powerful challenges from Hamon and Montebourg, both ex-ministers classed amongst the opposition frondeurs within the party. With the refusal of Valls and other leaders to support the candidacy of primary winner Hamon, some observers predict the dissolution of the PS itself.

The decline of the Socialist Party has been accompanied in tandem by the efflorescence of the far right. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s impressive showing in 2002 came as a brutal shock to mainstream opinion in France; his daughter’s first-round success 2017 is widely perceived to be inevitable. Beginning with the 2012 election, in which Marine Le Pen won the highest ever score for a FN candidate in a presidential race, the party has gone from success to success: in both the European elections of 2014 and departmental elections the year after the FN won the largest share of first-round votes, in each case about a quarter of the electorate. Although the Front’s isolation has largely prevented it from converting this support into political power, as alliances between the other parties traditionally result in FN candidates being defeated in runoffs, mounting signs indicate that this “glass ceiling” may be fragile.

Founded in 1972 out of a hodge-podge of far-right and neo-fascist groups seeking a parliamentary road to power, the FN first tasted electoral success in 1983, when the party won the mayoralty of Dreux, to the west of Paris, and saw ten municipal councilors elected. Its real breakthrough came three years later, in the wake of a law introducing a measure of proportionality in legislative elections; in 1986, thirty-five MPs and six regional presidents were elected on FN lists, with almost 10 percent of the vote in legislative and regional elections held on the same day. Through the 1990s, the FN reliably commanded between 10 and 15 percent of votes cast, culminating in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s unexpected first-round upset in 2002, when he narrowly relegated Socialist challenger Lionel Jospin to third place. The following years, however, brought diminished electoral returns. Mediocre results in the 2007 presidential election—in which Sarkozy effectively coopted many Frontist themes—and European and regional elections in 2009 and 2010 gave reason to believe the party was on the decline.

The FN leadership shakeup in January 2011, when Le Pen père bequeathed the helm to his daughter after her resounding victory in the party primary, heralded a reversal of fortune. Under Marine, electoral success went hand-in-hand with a pronounced rhetorical shift: the party has sought to soften its hard-right edges, disciplining and expelling members (including Jean-Marie himself) for especially outré provocations, courting disenchanted leftwing voters, and publicly touting a strategy of “de-demonization” with a view to consolidating the party’s status as a normal feature on the political map. The Front has added a strong emphasis on socioeconomic issues to its traditional focus on security, immigration, and “French” values. Whereas the party historically advocated an uncompromisingly laissez-faire, anti-statist economic policy, its leader now champions the defense of the French welfare state (for deserving beneficiaries) and trade protectionism. Criticism of European integration, part of FN platforms since the early 1990s (the party used to celebrate Europe on anti-Communist as well as racial and civilizational grounds), has taken a more and more central position. Although immigration and religion remain core issues, talk surrounding them has changed register; overt racism and anti-Semitism have been partially discounted in favor of an Islamophobic discourse that appeals to republican values of secularism (laïcité) and women’s rights.

Marine Le Pen has incontestably presided over a symbolic makeover, amply reflected in media representations of the FN. Yet “de-demonization” is a time-tested tactic in the Front’s repertoire. As the political scientist Alexandre Dézé has argued, it should be understood not as the description of a process underway, but as one moment in a dialectical movement that has propelled the party since the 1980s. If it is to take power, the FN must not only win over a sufficient number of voters but eventually be able to convince other forces to ally with it, hence the necessity of a normalizing strategy; at the same time, both the party’s broader appeal and ability to mobilize its militant base depend on an image of intransigent hostility to the political establishment, requiring in turn doses of strategic radicalization. This twofold operation is integral to the success of the FN, but its contradictory character also imposes considerable limits—if the party were to embrace either normality or extremism fully, its political viability would vanish.

Sociological studies of the FN electorate reveal a similarly fissiparous picture. At its inception, the party appealed to a narrow stratum of the rightwing bourgeoisie, before branching out in the 1980s to reach a petty-bourgeois, mainly urban and disproportionately male base of shopkeepers, middle-managers, and the self-employed. The gap between the urban and rural vote has gradually closed since 2002, while resistance to FN ideas on the part of practicing Catholics has waned since 2005, as fear of Islam has increased. Strikingly, the gender gap seems to have all but disappeared. Gains have also been recorded among public-sector employees, hitherto resistant to FN messaging, and voters who identify as gay or lesbian. In fact, according to some polling, the FN is several percentage points more popular with LGBTQ voters than with their straight compatriots. Geographically, the party has seen its progress slow in historic bastions of the southeast, along the Mediterranean coast, while it has grown steadily—drawing in large part on working-class votes—in the industrial North.

The most notable evolution of the FN electorate has been its proletarianization. Beginning in the mid-1990s and steadily increasing thereafter, the percentage of voting French workers who intend to cast their ballots for the Front now stands at 42 percent. The FN has described itself as the “leading workers’ party in France,” a boast given ideological form in its post-2012 emphasis on social themes and defense of public services. Although increasing working-class support for the far right is indisputable, the prevailing narrative of a surge of workers rallying to the FN misleads. The salient characteristic of the French working-class vote is now abstention: 40 percent say they will not vote at all (up 11 points from 2012), as against 25 percent of those eligible who favor Marine Le Pen. Notwithstanding diagnoses of an insurgent “left-Lepenism,” Marine’s leadership doesn’t appear to have affected the small proportion of left-wing support for the party, unchanged since 2007; rather, the FN has profited from a rightward turn over decades on the part of working-class voters, scoring best among those who identify with the right or as “neither right nor left.”

The two current frontrunners in the presidential election—Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the former investment banker and minister of the economy under Hollande—call on inversely symmetrical bases of support, Macron’s weak showing among working-class voters is emblematically identical to Le Pen’s share of senior executives (13 percent). Their campaigns have in many respects been complementary. Both candidates embrace the slogan “ni droite, ni gauche,” popularized by the interwar fascist leagues. Macron, bauble of the extreme center, seeks to substitute for the traditional right-left divide a vision that opposes globalizing, educated, cosmopolitan professionals to backwards, bigoted, and unenlightened nationalists: Le Pen’s worldview in camera obscura. For both Macron and Le Pen, openness, free movement, and European integration can be counterposed to patriotism, “national preference,” and the defense of entitlements. The prospects for either option depend on a significant recomposition of the electorate.

Until the 1980s, the French political spectrum was structured by two relatively coherent social blocs. The left appealed to low-skilled wage-earners and public-sector employees, while the right drew on the support of technicians and associate professionals, middle managers, the self-employed, and the agricultural sector. In the first round of the 1981 presidential elections, the candidates of the left bloc (Mitterrand and Communist Party leader Georges Marchais) and the right bloc (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac) could still collectively claim 87.5 percent of the vote. According to polling, that share has fallen today to some 40 percent.

As the economists Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini argue, this disaggregation is the source of tremors that have fractured the party-political landscape.1 But it remains to be seen what the alternative might look like. From its inception, the modern PS included a powerful current that sought to break with the lingering heritage of the Second International, uniting leftwing “realists” and moderates of the center and center-right to supervise the aggiornamento of French capitalism. To accomplish this, it would be necessary to assemble a new voting coalition—“younger, more diverse, more feminine, better educated, more urban, and less Catholic,” in the 2012 prospectus of the think tank Terra Nova. Ideologically dominant within the party since the late ‘80s, this strategy has run up against practical limits, incapable of conquering an electoral majority absent massive abstention on the part of workers and other wage-earners. At election time the PS continues to be required to reach out to its historic base of voters, even as in power the party has consistently pursued policies contrary to their interests.

The center-right has had little more success in managing its electorate, which includes both a bulwark of private-sector wage-earners sympathetic to Gaullist criticisms of inequality and “social fracture” alongside a contingent—drawn disproportionately from the petty bourgeoisie of shopkeepers and small-business owners—resentful of the tax burden imposed by upkeep of the French social model and attracted to the free-market bonanzas unleashed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Labor-law reform has been a crucial point of contention between these fractions; after foiled attempts by Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy, full-scale revision of the French Labor Code had to await the Socialist Hollande.

As governments of the right have tacked back and forth between rhetorical appeals to social solidarity and laissez-faire economic policies, voters disappointed with the results of these policies—ironically, disproportionately representative of the social base that sustained the initial lurch to economic liberalism—have deserted in greater and greater numbers for the National Front. The far right, in turn, has confronted limits to its ability to appeal both to its historic wellspring of petty-bourgeois support and a more recent, growing constituency of working-class voters. If the cultural politics of xenophobia and national chauvinism cannot resolve the attendant contradictions, they have so far proved to be more effective than the alternatives proposed by the Socialists or the center-right.

The disintegration of the bipolar political scene may be confirmed by a run-off between two antiestablishment candidates. Of the four contenders in with a shout, three (Macron, Mélenchon, and Le Pen) have positioned themselves—with varying degrees of plausibility—in opposition to the political class and the regnant “system.” If Le Pen and Macron both advance to the second round, the contest will almost inevitably be situated on the preferred terrain of the National Front, pitting nationalism against globalism, the people against the elite, security against tolerance. The odds of Le Pen winning remain very small. But even in the probable event of a Macron victory, the terms in which this confrontation would be staged promise to have a lasting impact, perhaps above all where the question of Europe is concerned.

Since the razor-edge victory of the “yes” vote on the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (51 to 49 percent), European issues have precipitated cross-cutting cleavages across the French political spectrum. Socialist backing for the failed 2005 European Constitution referendum, pushed forward by then PS Secretary Hollande against substantial resistance within the party, only reinforced this tendency. Resentment over serial disregard for expressions of democratic will, culminating in Hollande’s renunciation of his promise to renegotiate the 2012 Fiscal Stability Treaty, has deeply divided the PS and irrigated Mélenchon’s insurgent leftwing movement.

Contrary to commentary that operates a crude binary distinction between “pro-Europe” and “anti-Europe” camps, French attitudes to the EU are complex and highly stratified on class and political lines. Polling conducted after the 2005 referendum, rejected by 54.7 percent of voters (76 percent of workers) in defiance of strident injunctions from the dominant political parties and bourgeois press, revealed a stark contrast between rationales underlying votes for and against. While the vast majority of those in favor cited their allegiance to the European “idea” or “project,” the opposition vote instead reflected preoccupations with jobs and benefits—including worries about unemployment (60 percent), excessive economic liberalism (19 percent), and insufficient social protections (16 percent). These figures give the lie to pious center-left fretting over the decline of working-class consciousness, supposedly supplanted by jingoism born of a failure to adjust to enlightened, contemporary “values.” 

Over the past couple years, notwithstanding the ongoing crisis of the Eurozone and highly-politicized controversy over refugees, French opinions of the EU have on the whole improved. Only slightly more than a quarter favor either leaving the EU or the single currency. A growing majority report that EU membership is generally positive for France. Negative views of European integration on the part of right-wing voters, most heavily concentrated on the far right, are strongly correlated with anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment; by contrast, only a small minority of those who identify with the left express dislike of outsiders or the belief that reducing immigration would have a beneficial effect on unemployment. Politically, this left-right split is mirrored by opposing currents of Euroscepticism. The National Front insists on the threat posed by “l’Europe apatride” to a culturally and ethnically defined French nation. But the left grouped around Mélenchon’s France Unbowed directs its criticism at the prevailing doctrine of fiscal austerity, distinguishing between hopes for a solidaristic, “social Europe” and the actually existing Union.

To date, Europe has not been a central preoccupation of French voters, placing well behind concerns over unemployment and national security. A Le Pen-Macron run-off would almost certainly bring it to the front of the agenda. According to this hypothesis, any attempt to address redistribution and questions of class will yield to the thematics of Closed and Open, National and Global. It is a form of political blackmail. If the left tries to criticize austerian Europe from the vantage of a more equitable future Europe, it will be attacked for being too Closed and National, rather than Open and Global.

The immediate practical outcome is less clear. Even if Le Pen were to defy the odds and win a majority of the second-round vote, it is uncertain that she would be capable of or even interested in taking France out of the EU and the Eurozone—parliamentary politics, public opinion, and constitutional law all pose major obstacles to French exit. In recent weeks, her campaign has taken a more moderate tone, and now promises a national referendum on “Frexit” (which the FN would almost certainly lose) rather than unilateral withdrawal.

Disquiet on the part of the political mainstream shows little sign of calming. As the first round of voting draws near, the surge in support for Mélenchon’s candidacy—he is presently polling around 18 percent, neck-in-neck with LR candidate François Fillon, whose campaign has been beset by successive financial scandals—has provoked a tempestuous media reaction: the prospect of a Mélenchon-Le Pen second round, a “nightmare option” in the words of The Economist, has already spooked markets; the financial press keeps a close eye on the Franco-German bond spread, which spiked on April 11 as polls showed Mélenchon overtaking Fillon. The France Unbowed leader’s program—including a salary cap on top earners, increased taxes on the wealthy, a reduced working week and retirement age, renegotiation of EU treaties and withdrawal from NATO—has aroused wild opprobrium; a popular television journalist recently denounced his foreign policy and calls for deescalating tensions between the EU and Russia as “the discourse of the USSR in the 1950s,” while the leader of the reformist CFDT trade union warns darkly of the candidate’s “totalitarian vision.” 

Macron, who for his part was moved to describe the erstwhile Socialist minister for vocational education as a “revolutionary Communist,” enjoys considerable media backing both in France and abroad and the support of an impressive bevy of foreign political elites. Three days out from the first round the En marche! candidate boasted of an encouraging telephone call from Barack Obama; the former US president, mindful perhaps of his foray into the summer 2016 British referendum on EU membership, hastened to clarify that this was not an endorsement. In Germany, SPD Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel—who joined Macron and Jürgen Habermas for a March 2017 gala at the Jacques Delors Institute in Berlin devoted to the question “Which Future for Europe”—has announced his support, as has the CDU Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who described the possibility of a Mélenchon-Le Pen runoff as “the worst possible scenario.” Mélenchon is still a longshot, although the closeness of all four leading candidates in the polls—and the large percentage of undecided voters—makes any prediction foolhardy. The combined vote for the left is plausibly greater than that for any other party, and the persistence in the race of the Socialist Hamon, currently polling at 7 percent, could make the difference.

Hollande, who lets it be known that he favors Macron over the PS candidate, has seen his onetime protégé run a decidedly right-wing campaign, framed explicitly as a rupture with the debacle of the past five years. If the outgoing president feels betrayed, it would not be the first time. Nor will critics feel much sympathy for this ineffectual, self-pitying man, whose tenure has recorded the destruction of his party, the further political exclusion and embitterment of France’s exploited classes, and the anointment of intensified repression at home and endless war abroad with the pale unction of social democracy. It is tempting to depict the successive betrayals of the Socialist Party in moral terms. But the anathema of treason can also be treated analytically, as a morbid result of the disalignment between the ideological orientation of the party leadership and the demands of its voting base. “For the PS,” as Hollande has reportedly commented in recent days, “everything hinges on whether the party is capable of reconfiguring its electorate.”

Whatever the final outcome of the election, the upheaval of the 2017 campaign presages a durable alteration of French politics. Whoever is elected president on May 7 will immediately face the hurdle of legislative elections in June and the challenge of forming a government, potentially without the support of a major parliamentary party. What alliances take shape for this purpose will give some idea of reshuffling to come. Following the analysis of Amable and Palombarini, at least four possibilities can be scried in the crisis of the establishment parties and their traditional bases of support.

The first is the formation of a “bourgeois bloc,” the hope long cherished by PS modernizers and incarnated by Macron: an alliance between righ-twing social democrats and the most educated, dynamic fractions of the center-right, bringing together the intellectual professions and private-sector managers around a pro-European program of social tolerance and economic neoliberalism. In 2007, liberal centrist François Bayrou’s first-round score (18.6 percent) gave a hint of the electoral potential of such an approach—in 2017, Bayrou has thrown the support of his Democratic Movement (MD) behind Macron.

The second is a “sovereigntist” alignment of left and right forces in favor of leaving the EU and the Eurozone. Such an alliance, subject of much bien-pensant handwringing over populist extrêmes, is most forthrightly proposed by the ex-Maoist heterodox economist Jacques Sapir, who has called for a “Front against the Euro” that would take leaving the single currency as a starting point for a radical rethinking of French economic policy on the basis of protectionism and greater state intervention in the economy. Such proposals have met with blanket dismissal on the left, notably from Mélenchon himself, who has made the fight against the FN a cardinal feature of his platform.

A third possibility is the reconstruction of the historic left bloc on the model suggested by France Unbowed, combining opposition to austerity and traditional class politics with an emphasis on environmental issues and outreach to other social movements. Challenges to this type of realignment are likely to crystallize around foreign policy and the question of Europe. A fourth and final prospect is the reformation of the right bloc around neoliberal orthodoxy, Euroscepticism, and cultural reaction. This would depend on the far-right renouncing its opportunistic turn to economic populism, and the center-right fully committing to extremist positions on immigration, religion, and domestic security.

Of these four prospects, the fourth is perhaps most likely: it could be accelerated by a run-off between Fillon and Le Pen, both of whom will seek to capitalize on Thursday’s attack on the Champs-Élysées. But none can be ruled out.

  1. Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini, L’illusion du bloc bourgeois: Alliances sociales et avenir du modèle français. Paris: Raisons d’Agir, 2017 

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