The irruption of new technologies which have deeply transformed our ways of life and the erosion of centenary or millennial norms, values and practices are the principal factors in the conflict between cosmopolitan secularism and civilizational rootedness.
The ongoing presidential elections in France are inevitably influenced by the domestic situation in the country and also by the international juncture. There was no surprise in the results of the first round which brought face to face the finalists of the 2017 contest: President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally. They represent the two major political tendencies in the world’s socio-economic environment: Macron broadly expresses the ruling “globalist” liberal doxa headed by American and European financiers, corporate potentates and policymakers and promoted by the European Commission, World Bank, IMF, Davos Economic Forum and G-7, while Le Pen gathers many of the nationalists and traditionalists from both the old Right and Left who distrust and reject the international elites behind the programmes to manage the planet according to a technocratic agenda mainly inspired by American practices and intended to perpetuate the Anglo-Saxon and Eurocratic leadership.
This dialectic is found in many parts of the world and reflects less and less the classical Left/Right split which characterized the social struggles of the last two centuries. The irruption of new technologies which have deeply transformed our ways of life and the erosion of centenary or millennial norms, values and practices are the principal factors in the conflict between cosmopolitan secularism and civilizational rootedness which can be detected, despite many local nuances, at the core of the cultural and political struggles witnessed in countries as diverse as France, India, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran or even China. In France, Macron can count on about a quarter of the national electorate, mostly consisting of urban upper middle class salaried professionals and “new economy” entrepreneurs. The National Rally enjoys a constituency of equivalent size among rural dwellers, artisans, small businesspeople, retirees and, generally speaking, citizens who resent or fear galloping globalization, mass immigration of non-European (mainly African Muslim) origin and the digital dematerialization of the economy with their combined traumatic impact on mindsets and lifestyles. Most of those who voted for defeated candidates voicing such messages will join the supporters of Marine Le Pen who carries a half a century old family tradition harking back to the conservative peasant and small traders’ movements of the early twentieth century. We need not go into further details to notice parallels with India’s political landscape and choices.
Without forgetting one quarter of citizens who have not voted and who will probably continue to abstain out of indifference or because they reject the system, the “grand old parties” that were the pillars of the French Republic: the Socialists, the Communists and the Centre Right “Republicans and Gaullists” have been devastated. Their lack of appeal is also due to their respective uncharismatic candidates for the top job. None of them got even 5% of the votes cast and will therefore not be reimbursed by the State for their campaign expenses, even though they control a majority of elective posts at the regional, district and municipal level and have a large representation in Parliament. Some are facing bankruptcy. The Ecologist Greens also fell below 5%. The Far Left “Insoumis” (Rebellious) party captained by a former Socialist Minister, the fiery 70-year-old orator Jean-Luc Melenchon is the only one to retain influence with more than 20% of the voices, especially among the youth and Muslims, but it shares more than a few ideas with the Nationalist “Right” with regard to the financial sector and to foreign policy, which they also wish to make Non Aligned by moving away from NATO and not ganging up against Russia. It is another matter that the two are viscerally opposed in matters of culture, attitude to religion, immigration and economic management. One may note that politicians who expressed strong opposition to Putin and Russia and all out support for Ukraine have not done well, whereas Macron has remained ambiguous on the issue.
Melenchon has moved from the left wing of the old socialist party to a version of internationalist populism borrowed from multicultural, antiracist “Antifa” movements. He professes the utopian universalism of the French Revolution, going as far as wanting to meld the country’s culture into a hybrid Afro-Asian secular syncretism and replace the present republic by a different, less presidential, more decentralized dispensation. He gambles on the support of immigrants and ethnic minorities against the predominantly “autocthonous” constituency of his rightist rivals, one of whose major concerns is to stop and if possible reverse the out-of-control inflow of people from the former colonies.
In the economy however, the populist left and the populist right both want to boost the role and power of the state and enlarge the bureaucracy but, while the National Rally predictably promises to lower taxes and protect free enterprise, Melenchon pledges to mercilessly squeeze big corporations and richer people to fund his ambitious social programmes, which most economists deem spendthrift and unaffordable. Significantly, his Party has warned that, not having a chance to win the elections it will use the customary mass protests and strikes to fight the future government in what is effectively the pursuit of democracy by other means, outside the polling stations.
The diminished old Right, which claims the legacy of De Gaulle, is in dire straits, sandwiched between the National Rally it has sworn not to join for many years (partly for reasons of rivalry with Le Pen family and partly due to a decades-old Establishment taboo on the alleged “Far Right” which is increasingly difficult to justify) and Macron’s “Pokemon” Party, attempting to gather any and all around the incumbent President. Macron, worried about the lack of identity of his “En Marche” label, which has not won any regional or local elections and has no identity apart from him, has just announced plans to set up a new party but it is difficult to predict the fate of another such ad hoc outfit.
The ruling head of state suffers from an endemic trust deficit and widespread popular resentment regarding his high handed and arbitrary style of management during the COVID epidemic and his vocal championing of an ever tighter European Union. He also has the dubious distinction of adding more than 600 billion Euros to the national debt (now standing at almost 120% of GDP) and of logging the largest ever foreign trade deficits (100 billion a year). His background as a Rothschild investment banker is for many proof that he belongs to the international capitalist oligarchy, estranged from and indifferent to the common people. The media have reported allegations of tax evasion in offshore accounts for his earnings at Rothschild, an Anglo-French firm which retributes its associates partly in Channel Island anonymous trusts and a judicial investigation has begun into the contracts awarded by his government to various foreign consulting groups, particularly McKinsey—which paid virtually no taxes in France—to the tune of a billion dollars a year.
What is particularly troubling is that McKinsey advised Macron’s first presidential campaign in 2017, reportedly for free as he had a longstanding professional relationship with them. Was that US giant rewarded with major contracts at the public’s expense for doing work normally assigned to the bureaucracy?
France will have to choose on 24 April between Macron’s chameleon-like, politically bipolar presidential coalition and Le Pen’s call for a national unity government pledged to bring together elements from the right and the left. Both sides claim to be less ideological than pragmatic in their opposing bids to solve the country’s growing problems. While Macron claims that salvation lies in the European Union, which he wants to lead, the National Rally intends to curb the powers of the Brussels Bureaucracy and regain greater autonomy by distancing itself from overbearing Germany. Although Macron is still likely to win, partly due to the widespread fear among citizens of an untested new dispensation and to the support of the western power elites, the country is likely to get deeper into trouble in the coming years as domestic and foreign crises are steadily worsening.