Blog post

Constructing the Modern Prince

Sociologist Razmig Keucheyan, a professor at the Université Paris IV (Sorbonne), reflects on the fallout of the French presidential election. First published in Spanish at Nueva Sociedad, and then revised in French after the first round results for Contretemps. Translated from the French by David Broder. 

Razmig Keucheyan 3 May 2017

Constructing the Modern Prince

For the first time under the French Fifth Republic, neither of the two main parties (the Socialists and the Republicans) managed to reach the second round of the presidential election. What does this change in French politics represent, also taking into account the particularities of Marine Le Pen and the dizzying rise of Emmanuel Macron?

Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron are two different cases. It had long been predicted that Marine Le Pen would be present in the second round. That did not surprise anyone: all the surveys said that this would happen. People had so much taken this for given that there were few protests on the evening of the vote.

Conversely, a few months ago Macron’s qualification [for the second round] would have been hard to predict. A series of "accidents" explain how it happened: the fact that François Hollande did not stand for a second term, the scandals that hit François Fillon, Benoît Hamon’s victory over Manuel Valls in the Socialist primary, and the elimination of Alain Juppé in the primaries for the Right. All these events opened up a political space in the centre. So without these "accidents," Macron would very probably not have reached the second round.

So we have to resist the temptation to think that in the first round a "revolution" took place in French politics. For over a decade the French political field has been developing toward a gradual tripartite division: a left-wing pole, a right-wing pole — each with its own internal contradictions and undercurrents — and a third pole constituted by the Front National. That is a long-term process. What happened on Sunday is the confirmation of the emergence of this third pole. Of course, that also has multiple repercussions on the other two.

The question this first round has posed is whether the Left pole will itself divide into two: a radical Left around Mélenchon and a Blair or Schröder-like social liberalism around Macron, prepared to collaborate with sections of the Right. It is still too early to tell. Blair and Schröder were typical products of the 1990s. Now we have come out of that sequence. We live in the post-2007/8 crisis world, in which I think it is difficult for any project like Macron’s to prosper.

Macron has won a major victory. Can his En Marche! movement transform into a competitive party in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, which will follow soon after the presidential vote?

In the Fifth Republic, reaching the presidency is of decisive importance. But without a majority in the National Assembly, it is impossible to govern. Macron only collected the support of 18% of registered voters (24% of those who voted), which is not a lot. So it is far from obvious that even if he does win the second round, he will be able to transform his victory into a parliamentary majority.

There are two main possibilities. The first is that Macron does secure a majority in Parliament. The logic of the Fifth Republic is that in principle the president should obtain such a majority. This first possibility then divides into two: either this majority for Macron translates into a majority for his En Marche! movement — and in this case Macron will be able to implement his programme — or else a much more heterogeneous majority forms, centred on En Marche! MPs but only able to govern by relying on MPs from the Socialist Party, the centre, and even certain sections of the Right that agree to collaborate with him. In that second case, Macron’s task will be a lot more complicated, and contradictions will quickly appear.

A second possibility is that the Right wins the parliamentary elections. It was François Fillon the individual who was defeated in the first round. But the Right continues to be electorally dominant in the country. So what could happen is that the "people of the Right" — led by some other leader and not Fillon — takes its revenge at the parliamentary elections. So then we would find ourselves in a classic situation in the history of the Fifth Republic: a "cohabitation" between a president and a government who do not belong to the same camp. The resulting situation would involve conflicts and/or compromises between two opposed forces.

I think it improbable that En Marche! will transform into a party that restructures the French political terrain. The distinction between Left and Right has deep roots in modern capitalist societies. The social roots of this distinction are connected to class conflicts over the distribution of material resources, and not simply questions of "discourse" or "values" that can become outdated. That is the great limit of theories of the type of Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s, which imagine that a Left-populist "discourse" can be substituted for the Left/Right opposition when this latter no longer seems to be operative. While the Left/Right opposition may temporarily be blurred, it always reappears, because it is a materially structuring factor.

What may happen, in order to allow for the handling of this new situation, is the introduction of a greater or lesser dose of proportional representation. The two candidates who have qualified for the second round are to differing degrees in favour of this. France already had this system in the past, and such a development is "manageable" enough for the existing political forces.

Might the second round opposing Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen presage a new political polarity between "national" and neoliberal forces? Could this phenomenon establish itself in the long term, as against European politics’ traditional and indeed longstanding confrontation between Left and Right?

The opposition between "nationals" and "neoliberals" exists within each camp. It does not replace the opposition between Left and Right, but complicates it. Depending on the situation, one or the other of these sensibilities may win out. For example, there is a right-wing critique of the European Union, represented by Marine Le Pen. But there is also a left-wing critique, embodied by Jean-Luc Mélenchon (and he is obviously not "national" in the same sense as Marine Le Pen). Similarly, there exist liberal currents within the Right, but traditionally Gaullism was more "statist." That is why I do not think this political polarity can establish itself in the longer term, and still less overdetermine the classic polarity between Left and Right.

In the last few weeks of the campaign France Insoumise candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon saw accelerated progress in his electoral potential. Is he capable of capitalising on this result by creating a new and solid left-wing political movement? Can he build a political force that can last?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Benoît Hamon, and the two Trotskyist candidates Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou together collected over 27% of the votes. 27% is lower than the Left’s historical level, because the Socialist Party has lost a lot of voters. But the important element is that these 27% are clearly situated further to the Left from a programmatic point of view than they were before. In other terms, almost a third of voters expressed their agreement with anti-neoliberal or anti-capitalist programmes.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon now bears a great responsibility. If he takes on this responsibility, he can become a great figure in the history of the French Left. The responsibility incumbent upon Mélenchon is the responsibility to transform this potential political space into a great popular party of the Left, with an anti-neoliberal, environmentalist, anti-racist, anti-colonial and feminist programme. Different tendencies, disagreements and arguments could exist within such a party; and that would be a good thing, because debate is the sign of a Left that is full of life. If the Left wants to exist as an electoral force, giving form and substance to a space of this type is a necessity. With the strength of the backing of 19% of voters, Mélenchon has the legitimacy to make a proposal of this type. At the very least, the other currents would consider and discuss this.

Unfortunately, Mélenchon has traditionally been very effective in electoral campaigns but less so afterward. He was not capable of building a structured political movement after the 2012 elections. Obviously he is not the only one responsible for this failure. The Communist Party and the post-Trotskyist currents have their share of responsibility for this. Mélenchon has an "institutionalist" conception of politics. For him what matters is being elected to the presidency, and not constructing the "Modern Prince" in a broader sense.

The "Modern Prince," in Gramsci’s sense of the term, refers to an organisation or set of organisations that construct a hegemony. That proceeds not only through electoral participation, but also through the elaboration and circulation of ideas and ways of feeling and perceiving the world. It also proceeds via intervention in the workplace, in coordination with properly political action. Of course, that is a long-term process, which can see accelerations during electoral or insurrectionary phases. To achieve that, we have to be able to project ourselves into the long term.

The Socialist Party, the classic force on the French Left, collapsed in this election. Although Hamon sought to distance himself from Hollande’s legacy by proposing a more left-wing programme of reforms than classic social democracy’s, he did not manage to take off and he was left behind by another left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Does the Socialist Party have any possibility of getting its house back in order, or has social democracy entered into a process of irreversible decline?

It all depends on what we call "the Socialist Party." For five years, Emmanuel Macron was one of the main architects of Hollande’s economic policy, first as an adviser and then as Economy Minister. If he wins there will be important elements of continuity between his policy and the outgoing president’s. During his term in office Hollande realised a series of radical neoliberal reforms. What Macron wants is to accelerate this "neoliberalisation" of France.

If, conversely, by "Socialist Party" we mean the party itself, in the narrow sense, it is clear that its voters strongly rejected it. The Socialist Party’s immediate fate particularly depends on who will be leading its campaign for the parliamentary elections (and it will not be Hamon). Then we will know if it is continuing in its decline, or if it gets more MPs than predicted. In all likelihood, if En Marche! does not get a majority by itself, the Socialist MPs will join a composite "Macron bloc."

In the wake of World War II, social democracy based itself on the combination of two central ideas: the will to protect individuals against the negative effects of the market, and the will to conquer new rights. The social-democratic hypothesis is that it is possible to achieve both things within the context of the capitalist system.

I see no reason to think that these two ideas are going to disappear as structuring forces of the political terrain, or that they are going to lose their power of attraction over large segments of the population. European social democracy and France’s Socialist Party have seen numerous crises over the course of their long history. They have always proven able to reinvent themselves. So the radical Left should not be hoping that social democracy is going to disappear all by itself, allowing it to fill its place. It should develop its own forces and its own political project, to convince people of the need for more radical change.

Filed under: france, frenchelection2017, interviews, sociology