It is understandable how academic commentary has been stimulated over recent months but in the aftermath of the Forward! (En Marche!) political victory it is important to remember the fundamental points.

The use ‘populism’ as a catch-all phrase to characterise the positions of both Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and, to a lesser extent Emmanuel Macron, obscures the reality and is of little practical use. The reality we face is one of upheaval; an upheaval which has disturbed the two great presidential parties, those previously led by François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac. Over the past 40 years these parties had successfully presented a simplified form of political diversity to the public principally based on the left opposing the right. The voting results from the first round on 23 April 2017 whilst impressive due to their importance must be put into context due to the margins involved. The first round had no clear winner but three political outsiders achieved success despite this not because of the political skill portrayed by their respective leaders but rather due to the inability of mainstream politicians. They failed to maintain public confidence that would otherwise have ensured they achieved the votes necessary to qualify for the second round of the presidential election. From this perspective, the French situation is the exact opposite of the American situation where the upheaval of the political spectrum fails to affect the broader stability of the bipartisan (two-party) system.

Modernisation and reform cannot be improvised

In America, the change is quite remarkable. The Democratic Party have undergone what many consider a ‘re-founding’ during Barack Obama’s first campaign which some attribute to Howard Dean’s influence, whilst the Republican Party strategists equally have accepted the need to renew the electoral components and resources inherited from the Reagan administration. Such changes demonstrate, contrary to popular belief, that political parties are not, as critics state, an outmoded political vehicle, but that such issues must be regularly discussed. However, as is the case elsewhere in Europe, such discussions were not conducted in France to the same degree as in America. If one considers the particular case of the French Socialist Party (PS) where Benoît Hamon declared himself as the reformer, even a “rebel” during the “primary” provides sufficient evidence to illustrate that a systematic renewal at a party level is not enough. Despite the significant policy changes, the transformation of the party to one which sought to advocate environmental issues as well as to defend a universal allowance was ultimately of no interest to any voter. This failure suggests that such adaptation and modernisation can not be improvised. Such changes must be accompanied by proper consideration of the organisational structure in order to ensure that such a structure can perform their socialisation function and provide a genuine vehicle for open dialogue between the party and their voters. It is self evident that the recent successes of Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen at home followed in the foot steps of Beppe Grillo’s success in Italy. As such, one may surmise that there is a growing demand amongst citizens to not only replace the old elite and their elitist policies, but to remind the political parties of their historical character. Furthermore, research has not yet been undertaken to validate the work of political scientist Robert Putnam on his hypothesis that any need for participation or the inclusion of individuals results in a weakening of other more conventional forms of social and political association; notably trade unions, mutual associations, co-operative enterprises, clubs irrespective of nature, as well as churches. Arguably the same dynamic was witnessed during the 1970s but the effects were less widespread. Alain Touraine considers that this change was the result of contemporary individualism and the associated cultural shift in 1968 which gave rise to groups focused on environmental issues and “new” social movement. It is worth noting that this took place during what many consider to be a more prosperous time than we are currently experiencing.

The widespread usage of the phrase ‘populism’ also conceals another aspect of the transformation of the European political landscape which applies equally to France at this time: a crisis on the political left that is much deeper than any apparent alliance between social conservatism and moderate economic liberalism may suggest – as reflected in France by the RPR or “Les Républicains” party. Whilst it is clear that François Fillon has suffered a significant setback since his rise to power within the party, following the collapse of François Hollande’s popularity one cannot compare his situation easily with the obstacles faced by the French left-wing politicians. First of all, Benoît Hamon, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron have each been presented to the public as competing candidates, indicating disunity within the political left. Such fragmentation on the left has not been seen since the Epinay Congress. The Congress is considered by many as the foundations upon which the modern Socialist Party (PS) was built – this includes building on the ruins of the SFIO (French section of the Workers’ International) and favoured, at least in the short term, the absorption of the “second left” as represented by Michel Rocard and the CFDT (French Democratic Federation of Labour). The alliance that had been the backbone to François Mitterrand’s election to power was shattered not only by the loss of the Communist Party but also the elimination of radicalism. The Socialist party was also weakened by their inability to retain certain members of their executive, which became critical as they could not implement alternative strategies and adapt. As a result, one of François Hollande’s most promising ministers moved to defend the modernist position after they themselves had resigned from the party. It was yet another dissident, himself a former socialist minister, who, in the aftermath of Lionel Jospin’s defeat and faced with the far-right chose to align himself with the extreme left in order to secure a more popular voter base. Finally, and as heralded for a number of years by Laurent Bouvet, the Socialist Party (PS) has largely lost their voter base to Marine Le Pen, whether this is by shifting voter behaviour or simple abstention and disinterest from the public; citizens who consider themselves rightly or wrongly to have been exposed to the economic and cultural transformations of France and Europe by the Socialist Party (PS).

If one combines the votes cast in support of Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon it is somewhat reassuring that the European Social Democracy has at least a priori a voter base for the near future. The calculation though is misleading: on the one hand, the new voter base who support Jean-Luc Mélenchon are purported to be younger and poorer than those who typically support the left and are more likely to shift as a result and on the other hand the success of Mélenchon owes much to his ‘protester stance’ and his moderate form of nationalism, often referred to as “sovereignist”, which in many ways modernises the speech of Jean-Pierre Chevènement who was hostile to the concept of a Federal Europe. Mutatis mutandis, these variables can also be found in other European countries such as Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium.

In other words, the twenty-first century is moving ever closer to the spectres of the 1930s as the nature of individual aspirations and priorities shift amongst a backdrop of widespread economic and social change on an international level. The rise of the French extreme right and, to a certain extent, albeit in a different way, the successful promotion of national socialism, which is deemed by many to be radical itself, is met with a cruel response. This confirms the pessimism of Hobbes who considered that the search (and need) for security overrides the individual desire for freedom. Furthermore, it also confirms the insightfulness of Lenin whose theory of class consciousness does not include any presumption of spontaneous humanism or internationalism of the masses. Finally, it also adds weight to the works of philosopher Etienne Balibar who popularised the notion of present-day fears and the revival of nationalism within Europe by reference to the need for social protection as part of the national character.

A model for European social democracy?

Can we consider Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the second round of the presidential election as evidence that the platform provided by the former Minister of Economy, François Hollande, is a true model for European social democracy? Such an outlook may be greeted positively by those who took the time to read the Forward! “En Marche” party manifesto and identified with the politics of Tony Blair, Gerhart Schröder and Michel Rocard, more than with the neoliberalism proposed by Milton Friedman. Emmanuel Macron’s plan is rooted in socialist tradition which does not deny their liberal origins and favours, like the ordoliberalism which is often the inspiration behind Angela Merkel’s policies, productive investment as an extension of the State, which then in turn stimulates the creation of jobs within the marketplace. One of the most common markers for such attempts within politics to strike a balance between the economy and society as a whole is the lowering of taxation for both home-owners and businesses. Similarly, another marker is the investment in education. In general terms, the new French president is a supporter of socialist internationalism and his positioning in terms of Europe reflects this rather than the defensive position held by the radical left-wing who desire a nation-state. Finally, if one considers the initial feedback from statistical surveys, the communication strategy implemented by the former finance minister, which combines a strong media presence with a local door-to-door approach seems to have formed a new political alliance capable of attracting the votes of a large proportion across a number of social groups within France. A “farewell to the working class” is perhaps likely to occur: but this does not, however, imply the renunciation of a humanistic approach in favour of satisfaction of personal interests, particularly those with vested interests in financial or cultural capital.

However, the successes of Emmanuel Macron cannot make us forget that Macron’s offshoot or style of European left-wing liberalism is nearly the same as that proposed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The “Unsubmissive” movement succeeded in seducing those who had previously been inclined to support the National Front but had remained largely undecided towards the end of the campaign. This is despite their somewhat archaic statist conception of public management and the preoccupation of the youth with ecological issues. In other words, we could be faced with a situation where the left cannot achieve a majority within France unless an alliance can be reached with the right taking into account the prevailing economic and ideological conditions which are less favourable than they were when François Mitterrand could afford the luxury of obtaining PC support from a nationalisation program endorsed by ‘big industry’.

Macron appears to have edged his bets on another option rather than face such a dilemma. It is possible that he had already calculated that such an alliance with those who oppose him was unlikely given that he wishes to implement progressive policies in broad terms similar to the policies of the 1970s. The first element of this bet relies on his ability to maintain the momentum that brought him the presidency: “En Marche!” shall produce their own literature and proposals during the general election (legislative elections). The second element within this bet relies on the break-down of the main right-wing party into conservative and liberal elements. Such a process would then allow the new president to attract executive decision makers from the liberal right and, above all, their voters. This assumption is all the more plausible given that Marine Le Pen would in turn announce an alternative to the conventional National Front as founded by her father.

As a result, nearly 40 years after François Mitterrand’s historic victory during the presidential election of May 1981, Emmanuel Macron has successfully reproduced his achievement. Macron has adapted his campaign near perfectly to ensure a single man can conquer the right by mastering above all else, the political tensions of the right and timing his manoeuvring accordingly. The outcome of the general election will reveal the extent to which he has or has not succeeded with his bet. Now he shall be called upon to govern and convince an electorate he is the right man to remain in power. This may be a difficult task given the voter abstention rate at present and the number of blank or spoilt ballots which only serve to testify to the widespread problem he faces.