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The French Left And Right Risk Coming Too Close Facing Macron's Centrism

07/08/2017 12:00
POOL New / Reuters

Summer holidays in France are a matter of near-religious ritual. Work emails are left by the wayside as families enjoy weeks in the sunny countryside. And yet, this time, it is already August and members of the French National Assembly and the Senate are fervently trying to iron out a large-scale reform of the country's labour code after voting a series of measures to "moralise" the country's political life.

This atypical burst of summertime activity seems to be an attempt at turning the corner after a tough month for the new French President and his even newer party, La République en marche (LREM). After a series of presidential 'gaffes', polls reported Emmanuel Macron's approval rating had dropped by 10 points and the French press pronounced the end of the presidential honeymoon period. As the initial enthusiasm with the Macroniste wave of newness abates, is it the beginning of the end of the "revolution from the centre"?

While it may be debatable whether Macron's victory was ever a "revolution", it relied on the idea that the traditional left-right cleavage had become redundant. On economic issues, this has opened up possibilities to case-by-case pragmatism. One day, the government announces large budget cuts, while shortly thereafter the President promotes the temporary nationalisation of one of the country's biggest shipyards. Yet this is hardly the creation of a political centre, but rather an attempt to push through as many changes as possible and hope that they engender some positive impact before the French lose their patience, which could happen very quickly.

Notwithstanding, the appeal of Macron's ideal of centrism combines a moral argument, according to which the real fault line in today's France is "open" vs "close" parts of society. Macron wishes to represent inclusive internationalism and bonhomie, while his adversaries, whether Marine Le Pen's Front national (FN) or Jean-Luc Mélenchon's La France insoumise (FI), stand for exclusive nationalism.

And yet, as far as these two parties stand on opposite divides of the political spectrum, their positions have been converging through resistance to Macron. Moreover, as the right-wing Les Républicains are implicated in the business of governing together with LREM and the Socialists are still reeling from a legislative defeat that left them all but voiceless, the left wing FI and the far-right FN remain the most vocal opposition to the new centre. In the case of the FN, the loudness remains despite internal party struggles that have marked the party's state of crisis since its dismal showing in the legislative elections.

As the army general Pierre de Villiers resigned over cuts to the military budget on 19 July, the FN and FI united in criticism against the government's "brutal" policies. This alliance was to be expected on the level of resistance to cuts to public services, as both parties claim to represent public sector workers and had previously attacked Macron, the ex-banker, as the foot-soldier of rampant capitalism. Just as expectedly, Le Pen took the conversation further to her favourite issue and lambasted Macron for failing the country's security. What was more suprising was to see members of Mélenchon's FI, like the MP Bastien Lachaud, support the "courage" of a military general in a conflict against a civilian institution.

Far more telling, however, was the spate about the commemoration of the Vél d'Hiv roundup just a few days earlier. The ceremony that commemorates the mass arrest of over 13,000 Parisian Jews by the French police in the night of 16 July 1942 has become one of the most important events in the official French calendar. Since 1995, when Jacques Chirac acknowledged the French Republic's responsibility for collaboration and the fate of its Jewish citizens, the commemoration has become a way to reassert a near-general consensus about the importance of coming to terms with France's darker history. Or at least, the consensus lasted for just over 20 years.

The first cracks appeared during the presidential campaign in April. Then, just about everyone condemned Marine Le Pen for rejecting French responsibility for collaboration. However, after Macron held a commemoration ceremony on 16 July for the roundup's 75th anniversary, Le Pen was joined by Mélenchon. In a blog post, the left-wing firebrand repeated arguments that had been far more salient on the right, as he deplored the admission of collective responsibility implied in the state commemoration of Vél d'Hiv and called to re-focus the debate on heroic French resistance to the Nazi invaders.

In other words, Mélenchon, who in April still qualified Le Pen's remarks as "absolutely useless", suddenly decided to support the far-right's re-writing of history. This convergence between the French far-right and the far-left had occurred in the past, often over mutual Eurosceptic stances. Simultaneously, however, FI's comments over the resignation of gen. de Villiers and Mélenchon's transgression over Vél d'Hiv reflect a new threshold. Here, Mélenchon disregarded what would have been considered a fundamental principle of the French left in favour of a nationalist, resistentialist myth.

One reason for this shift is the desire to provide an opposition - or "resistance", to replicate the movement's language - to Macron's centrism. While Mélenchon's France Insoumise can still define itself economically through its defence of the public sector and the "French model" of welfare, the movement is searching for a moral definition of the left that would be different to Macron's appropriation of internationalism and progressivism.

At this moment, the danger is that the FI will re-re-shape French left-wing identity in nationalist terms. This would undermine the revival of a progressive left and strengthen Macron's view of a society where left and right are seen through the narrowest lens of their most regressive streaks.

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