Unemployment, Xenophobia Lifts Fascist Candidate to Final Round of French Election

Posted April 26, 2017

MP3 Interview with Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, conducted by Scott Harris


The results of the closely watched first round of the French presidential election didn’t stray too far from what many polls had predicted. Emmanuel Macron, a centrist political novice who served as the economics minister in the outgoing Socialist government, led the field of 11 candidates, winning 24 percent of the vote. He was followed by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, who attracted 21.3 percent of the vote. While Macron and Le Pen now move to the second round election on May 7, it was notable that French voters had decisively rejected the nation’s two establishment parties, the center left incumbent Socialists and the center right Les Républicains.

Le Pen who campaigned stoking nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment, is viewed by many as a serious threat to the future stability of the European Union, especially after British voters shocked the world by opting for Brexit and leaving the EU. One of the French election's biggest surprises was the late surge by leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came in fourth with 19.6 percent of the vote. Mélenchon called for reducing the French workweek from 35 to 32 hours, lowering the retirement age to 60, taxing earnings of more than $35,000 a month at 100 percent, and like LePen advocates – France’s withdrawal from NATO.

France, which has long suffered with 10 percent unemployment, warmly received Mélenchon’s attack on economic policies emanating from both Paris and Brussels, which blocks fiscal stimulus in favor of deficit reduction. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who examines the results of the first round of the French presidential election – and the economic proposals made by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. [Rush transcript]

MARK WEISBROT: You have this terrible unfortunate second round between somebody Marine Le Pen, from the National Front, which has a long history of racism anti-Semitism, and sympathy with fascism generally. She's tried to clean up the image of the party, but it's still is like that, it's very anti-immigrant or anti-foreigner, I should say. People who are not even immigrant, but people who have different nationalities. It's a terrible choice because Macron is almost certain to continue the decline in French living standards, which is part of an agreement with the European Union at this point and part of the Eurozone policy. And that is the kind dilemma, because Mélenchon was willing to oppose that. He was willing to oppose that. He was willing to say, Well, we'll have to renegotiate these treaties with the European Union if they're not going to let us recover. And he had a big stimulus. And of course, Le Pen also said, "Let's get out of the Euro."

So the best analogy for Americans would be like Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump, although there are some differences. And that is, that Hillary Clinton would not have moved things probably backward here. She, I think, would've been more like Obama, would've had some positive changes. Not enough to satisfy most people who would vote for her, but probably positive. But Macron, because of the situation of the Eurozone, because of the stability program for example, that they agreed to with the European Union, which means more deficit cutting and basically a freeze on spending. Because of the structure of the Eurozone, he's very likely to lower living standards further for the French people.

The reason Mélenchon did so well, I think, was because he was willing to say, "Look, we have to do something. We're not going to condemn a whole generation to mass unemployment – 10 percent, long-term unemployment more prevalent than it was before. We're not going to accept that, and we're not going to accept further cuts." In fact, he proposed to reverse the raise, the change in the retirement age. He wanted to increase the minimum wage, something close to a living wage, a thousand Euros a month. So, he was willing to do this, and say, "Look if the European Union won't accept that, we're going to have to renegotiate the rules. And that's what really needs to be done."

But the problem is that the mainstream media and politicians have this narrative that anybody who challenges that is anti-European and they try to lump them into the same cab as the right-wing nationalist, xenophobe, fascist and racist. And they did a little bit of that to Bernie here in the U.S., right? You remember? Not quite as much but they did try say, that his concern for jobs in the United States, loss of manufacturing jobs, his opposition to the TPP, you know you did have some in the media trying to portray that as just kind of isolationist, xenophobic, but not nearly as much as you see in Europe, because Europe obviously has a different history. The whole project of European economic and political integration is always framed as something to prevent wars, and racist nationalism and things like that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, Mark, French voters certainly have an important choice ahead in the May 7 election – to elect a protofascist or stick with someone who's an architect of many of the economic policies in France that have carried on stagnation and continued economic inequality. Is there any hope there that the French electorate could send a message to Macron as he runs in this second round?

MARK WEISBROT: It's hard to do in this round because there isn't much of a choice. I think in June there'll be Parliamentary elections and that's where the positive change could take place in the sense that if the left gains, Mélenchon's party gets a foothold and there's coalitions between them and other left parties, maybe some from the Socialist party will break away towards them. Then you could see continued progress. But in terms of the presidential race, it's just one of those unfortunate choices like we had between Hillary and Trump.

For more information on the Center for Economic Policy and Research, visit http://cepr.net/

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