Right Wing Populism as class struggle

France after April 21st

Jacqueline Henard analyses the failings of the French political elite which have paved the way for Le Pen’s shock rise in the last presidential elections.

“The political class has realised that it cannot go on like this.”
Daniel Cohn-Bendit on 19 December 1995 about the supposed discoveries of the French elites as a result of the week-long mass strikes of autumn 1995.

There are some nights which imprint themselves on one’s memory with seismic force. Those hours on 10 May 1981, for example, in which France realised that this time Francois Mitterand had done it. The peuple de gauche, the Left, at that time still a comparatively clearly defined milieu, began to celebrate: We’ve won! A new era! Down with capitalism! An end to unemployment, fear and penny-pinching! At the Bastille, despite the drizzle, it felt as if the earth were spinning faster as a result of the presidential election. In the Elysée Palace meanwhile the loser was preparing his retreat: At the end of his television address Valéry Giscard d’Estaing would stand up in front of the camera and slowly walk out of the picture. The image of the abandoned presidential chair was seen in every French living room, a symbol of the feelings of the solid middle class after the defeat. Since then Giscard has always spent the anniversary alone, not available to anyone, a very private requiem for the electorate’s insult.

Three presidential terms later, on the night of 21 April 2002, the French and their political class were afflicted by a terrible hangover, affecting all political camps. It was a hangover without any preceding intoxication. The election campaign had been dull and uninspired. “We find it very hard to motivate ourselves. “It’s nothing but a remake, except that now they’re all seven years older,” sighed a young man in Jacques Chirac’s team, who has meanwhile probably suppressed such frankness since he is now government spokesman. At first and even at second glance the presidential contest appeared anecdotal and inconsequential: 16 candidates, including three genuine Trotskyists and a demagogically talented huntsman, who wanted to rehabilitate the character of the countryside (ruralité).

The finale seemed to have been settled since May 1995: The then victor against the man who, surprisingly, had lost by a small margin – Jacques Chirac against Lionel Jospin. For five years they had unwillingly ruled the country as a couple, one as president, the other as prime minister, had appeared together at almost all important events, had as far as possible said what the other wanted to hear, as soon as one was a percentage point ahead of the other in the opinion polls. Hard to say any more, what distinguished them, what each wanted to do, that was different from the other and even harder to explain why, in the course of five years they had not tackled it. “Jospin and Chirac are as interchangeable as washing powder – Monsieur Omo and Monsieur Ajax,” mocked a challenger, the left-wing nationalist Jean-Pierre Chevènement and added self-confidently: “I am the only choice.”

Throughout the weeks of the campaign hardly anything was said about the right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. There were three reasons for this: First, Le Pen, the traditional pet hate of the Left (and of French journalists), had conducted an election campaign which was moderate by his standards. No negationist gaffes, no fisticuffs with political opponents. Television dutifully transmitted his election broadcasts: Le Pen in a dinner-jacket on a boat trip surrounded by supporters, all very presentable, always very respectable. The newspaper journalists forced themselves to produce an election report. Nothing more. Second, because the National Front had split in winter 1998. After that the Le Pen case appeared to many to be closed. The split had ended up as a breathtaking war of succession with wild abuse in front of the cameras. The National Front’s own supporters had been appalled and had turned away to join that group of citizens which – out of embarrassment? – is readily dismissed as irrelevant: the non-voters. Disregard of non-voters is particularly pronounced in France, since shares of the vote and abstentions are calculated on the basis of registered electors and not on the approximately 20 per cent wider basis of those entitled to vote. Third, it looked as if the improved situation on the labour market (more than two million new jobs) could drastically reduce the number of those willing to vote for the National Front.

There were good reasons, therefore, for not writing about the old warhorse yet again. And a bad one: French journalists, and the claim is not just a matter of being wise after the event, had enough of their own scaremongering. Otherwise at least one of them should have picked up the rumour, which a week before the first round had reached even the ears of foreign correspondents in France: The inland secret service predicted that Le Pen would make it to the run-off.

So much for the preliminaries to the “earthquake” of 21 April 2002 which, with 19.88 per cent of the vote, had given Jacques Chirac only an embarrassingly small lead over the right-wing extremist Le Pen and had, against all expectations, thrown the dry, but decent Jospin out of the running. He had lost. The dream of a “pink-red Europe” was over. Instead a brown nightmare threatened. The self-confident, superior “fatherland of human rights” suddenly saw itself as a nation of traitors and was not at all proud that night. The need to talk to other people was great and very widespread. A casual acquaintance sent me an e-mail from Avignon: “I was walking through the town and overheard an elderly couple talking. ‘If I had known that,’ said the woman, ‘I would not have voted for Le Pen.’ It seems to me, that the sky has turned brown.”

Even before sunrise it was clear, that the whole political landscape was in ruins. Especially on the left. The French Left was forced to recognise that the five years of its supposedly successful “rainbow strategy”, a government coalition with five discernible partners, had contributed to the disaster. The only thing that had cemented the coalition was the will to power, that and the adjective “left”; nothing more, it appears in retrospect. Merely keeping this coalition together had been an effort with devastating side effects. The Socialists, as the dominant force with the presidential candidate, no longer knew how they should treat the other Left parties; vigorous attack, at any rate, was impossible. The confusion was so great, that during the nomination process they had even supported two candidates from other parties in the hope of a larger reservoir of voters in the runoff. This calculation collapsed on the evening of the first ballot. The electors did not understand such subtleties and, what’s more, did not feel like having a President Jospin. In retrospect, the punch line of a joke, that was doing the rounds during the election campaign, sounds like a warning to the Party strategists: Lionel Jospin unfortunately reminds every woman of her divorced husband.

The figurehead of the Left brusquely took leave
of his duties as early as the night of 21 April. Jospin’s supporters have described his action as “dignified”; he was not hanging onto to his job at all costs, as happens so often in French politics. One can also see the manner of his resignation as an offended capitulation, as childish and irresponsible, proof that the candidate Jospin lacked the personal stature and the requisite toughness for the office he was striving for. His lieutenants had to beg for four days, before he finally felt able to make the only election recommendation possible under the circumstances: For his arch-rival Jacques Chirac. Only Giscard d’Estaing needed even longer (twelve days), but then gave a dazzling address for democracy and only at the very end spat out just once the hated name of the successor to his successor [i.e. Chirac].

On his resignation Jospin refused to leave any kind of testament and avoided all opportunities for debate. The long, boring monologue, which he published nine months later in Le Monde1, reveals no insights into the deeper causes of his defeat. It is a complacent self-criticism, written for his own kind by a party official with a higher education. The text is the public version of Giscard’s annual private requiem: A man is offended and does not understand why people are so ungrateful. The idea, that perhaps he did not even address them, does not occur to him – although that is precisely what explains why Jospin came off worse than Le Pen. Jospin (and with him a large part of the Socialist leadership) lack any feeling for what might move les couches populaires, ordinary people. Voter analyses show, that the Socialists are less and less able to score with their original clientele.

Why? They don’t know. Supplementary question: Does their core clientele even exist any more? The old style working class has disappeared. Today only public employees and the full-time workers of state dependent companies can be politically mobilised, as the big strikes of autumn 1995 showed. The working class has been replaced by unstable milieus. People who are united only by the knowledge, that they cannot hit the jackpot by striking. Check-out girls, bank employees, officials of this or that association. They frequently experience the modern world labour with impotent displeasure. They feel the tectonic shifts of globalisation under their feet and would like to know, what exactly is going on, what it means for the future of their children and whether there is anyone who still sees the overall picture.

In the best of all worlds politics could give them answers: Provide “the people”, which more and more consists of individuals, with the reassuring feeling that it can influence its own fate and the way of the world through elections. It is increasingly unable to fulfil this duty. Not only because politics has less and less to do with personalities and more and more to do with administration, but also, and this is probably especially true of France, because its trustees have no feeling for this broad, diffuse successor stratum to the working class, which forms the electoral reservoir of right-wing extremism. Incidentally this insensitivity is something that the “electable” parties of right and left have in common, as the philosopher Marcel Gauchet concluded thirteen years ago in an analysis, which is still worth reading, of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s breakthrough in the 1988 presidential election.2 A number of demagogically spiced personnel decisions in the present French government are a sign, that the old-new president, Chirac, would from now on like to draw the lessons.

Class struggle, according to Gauchet’s analysis, has unjustly gone out of fashion as a model. The rise of right-wing populism does indeed bear features of class struggle, if one redefines le peuple as the sum of all those, who feel themselves to be politically impotent and do not recognise themselves in the representatives of the people. The new “workers and peasants” are, admittedly, not a class in the old sense, but in a new one. It gathers up the children of the old lower strata, the unemployed, the growing number of the precariously employed and the frustrated or frightened middle strata. On election day they are all capable, in an act of aggressive simplification, which has little to do with national and authoritarian longings of the old kind, of voting for a candidate like Le Pen.

This new “people” is a milieu, with which the political elite of France has little contact. It is not the world from which they come and in which they live. They don’t mix with them (unless in the context of an audience, with the electoral district agent interposed). The higher the position in the party hierarchy, the less there is any direct notion of the everyday problems and desires of the “man in the street”. An example: On the executive committee of the Socialist Party, there is a woman, who had already been a minister three times, before she set foot in one of those dreadful, cold high-rise estates around Paris. These are social disaster areas, inhabited not only by junkies and adolescent hooligans, but also by people with quite normal aspirations towards restful sleep, work, clean stairwells, decent bus services and schools. Afterwards, moved and amazed, she said, really with terrible naivety, to a Party election worker: “How much trust the people show in me!”

In France the socialisation of the leading figures of politics does not take place on market squares or in local party organisations. A man like Jospin acquired his ability to assert himself in secret Trotskyist cells. Others learned their trade in ministerial offices and other rooms with closed doors. Before that most of them attended one of the elite grandes écoles. These are homogeneous worlds, in which one has to convince people like oneself or, even better, trump them. The rules of the game are fairly unpolitical (or perhaps merely especially modern): Success comes to him who shines, and not to him, who knows how to get majorities.

The foundation stone of such French careers is laid early on. Careers which lead to high office are often already decided before secondary school. The top of the class goes to an elite lycée, preferably in central Paris, and from there to one of the grandes écoles. There is not much time for childhood. School lasts from half past eight to half past four and after that there’s homework. Children are competitors, much more so than in German-speaking countries. In the corresponding milieus (old upper strata and families of teachers) they are told early on which way leads to the stars. The latter want their children to get there, the former expect them (if necessary with the appropriate extra help in the shape of holiday boarding schools) to maintain standing. The royal road into the ranks of the technocracy, from which the political class is recruited, does not require the acquisition of social competence, but the acquisition of knowledge. The competitive measurement of knowledge, of analytical and synthetic skills, already begins many years before the first elimination tests (concours), which in France are accepted as the only really just method of selection. Basically these are co-option procedures: Good is, whoever is better than the others and like the members of the selection committee.

Anyone who has come to power and influence by this route through the study knows social and class vindictiveness and shock only through literature. Demagogic talent cannot be expected of him. There is a good chance that his path through life has avoided existential tempering. And it is likely, that the fly-trap topics of the right-wing populists – crime, foreigners – simply don’t mean much to him.

The French and their elites is a subject which has been discussed to death in recent years. A first high point in the debate about their ruptured relationship was reached after the mass strikes of autumn 1995. After that everything was supposed to change: not so remote, more discussion, fewer technocrats, clean morals. Elections were called early in 1997 (a technocrats’ proposal) and brought the Conservatives an embarrassing defeat and the French a left-wing government with new promises of improvement: more discussion, fewer technocrats, cleaner morals. The number of technocrats in the ministerial departments rose as never before. A part of the political argument was transferred to the chambers of examining magistrates. They were allowed to pass on to the press, with impunity, information from current corruption investigations. Some got their teeth into the financial conduct of the long-serving Mayor of Paris and incumbent President, Jacques Chirac, others into the constitutionally most senior politician of the opposing camp, the President of the Constitutional Council and Mitterand intimate, Roland Dumas. Revelations about the corrupt practices of the political elite became a light entertainment programme of a rather special kind.

Now a year has passed and President Chirac has just been proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize. On appeal Roland Dumas got away with a “censure”. No one is interested in corruption scandals any more. The Left is still on its knees. Aware that it got away lightly once again, the camp of the middle class parties has allowed itself to be remodelled by a strong hand as one big party without a programme, a presidential election association called UMP. The government combines initial efforts at fundamental reforms (pensions insurance) with populist initiatives: action against hooligans on public transport, for the disabled, against cancer. State television has started a new peak time politics show. We’re already on first name terms with all the ministers’ wives.

And the next time? What will the shocked voters do, who on the morning of 22 April faithfully swore to take democracy seriously from now on? And the politicians, who “have heard what the people are saying” as they were already protesting the night before? They all have another four years to go. Time enough to forget the fevered bout of noble feelings.

Le Monde, February 1, 2003

"Les mauvaises surprises d'une oubliée: la lutte des classes", in Le Débat no. 60 (May-August 1990).

Published 15 May 2003
Original in German
Translated by Martin Chalmers

Contributed by Transit © Transit Eurozine


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