Across the west, the old order continues to crumble in the face of assaults from all directions. Discontent with a status quo that offers stagnating living standards, rampant insecurity and declining social provision finds its expression in both the radical left and the xenophobic right. With its impending presidential elections, France may depart from this script – or so the embattled centrists hope.
Emmanuel Macron, the handsome, sharp-suited French presidential candidate, is their dazzling new prince. He represents hope, a lifeline. Some centrists lean more towards recreating the world of the late 1990s, when “third way” social democrats triumphed in Britain, France and Germany; others are more dewy-eyed about the Cameron-Osborne hegemony. Free marketeers who embrace gay rights, if you will. Either way, all hope that Macron’s victory would re-energise the old centrist politics across the west. But the surge of the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has thrown their hopes into disarray – and shows that a populism of the left is still in the game.
Yes, there is every chance that Macron will triumph. If the second round of the presidential elections is between the far-right Marine Le Pen – who denies the French state played a role in deporting Jews in the Holocaust – and Macron, then the triumph of the centrist is likely, though not inevitable. That we even have to debate whether a mainstream centrist will defeat a fascist is illustrative of what a cauldron of discontent France has become. Macron is cagey about exactly what he will do if elected. But it is an illusion to believe that this investment banker who wants to slash 120,000 public-sector jobs – at a time of rampant job insecurity – and cut taxes on the rich will cure France’s anger at the status quo. A savvy Le Pen no doubt has her eyes on the real prize: the 2022 presidential race.
Last month, I visited the headquarters of two presidential campaigns. One was the flashy operations centre of the Socialist party candidate, Benoît Hamon. He himself is the beneficiary of discontent surging across the west: he was the leftwing outsider in the Socialist primaries. At the time, he was ahead of Mélenchon in the polls, and his camp were clearly exasperated at the presence of Mélenchon, who could split the left vote, resulting in no left candidate in the second round. Hamon had just won the support of the French Greens, and his team wanted the same endorsement from Mélenchon. Some believed that Mélenchon had one aim: not to win the presidential election, but to crush the Socialists.
It was a view I took to Mélenchon’s headquarters. A cocky little Brit, they must have thought, suggesting their candidate stand down and give Hamon a shot at the second round. Well, they’ve had the last laugh. Mélenchon is now surging, Hamon has collapsed, and Macron’s polling is declining: some polls now place him third, ahead of the scandal-hit rightwinger François Fillon. More than four out of 10 French voters think he’d be a good president, twice as many as last month. His radical programme of a 32-hour week, lower retirement age, a hiked minimum wage, increased social security and higher taxes on the rich is resonating. It is still unlikely that he will make the second round of France’s presidential election; but if his surge continues, there is a chance, not least if Hamon realises he cannot win and stands down.
France is angry. Young people lack secure work. One in 10 citizens are out of work. After five years of François Hollande – a dire president who betrayed the hope that catapulted him to power – poverty is rising. Frighteningly, many discontented young people have been seduced by Le Pen. They want change – any change – to strike a blow to the system. Yes, there are problems with Mélenchon: his sympathies for Putin are worrying, for example. But the idea that a centrist politics which will throw people out of work will cure France’s fury is naive.
Again, France shows where Europe’s battle lines are drawn. Europe’s centrists are baffled by the rise of the new left and the xenophobic right. These are signs of mass hysteria and delusion, as far as they are concerned. They cannot accept that the old order is broken, and millions of Europeans want a decisive break from it. If the left can’t get its act together in Europe with a bold but convincing alternative, then the xenophobic right will continue to triumph. What happens in France this month will surely help determine the future of the entire continent.