France’s new revolutionary politics: anything new under the sun?

With the Conservative victory in the UK following the election of Trump in the USA and the earlier Brexit vote, the political landscape in the West seems somewhat depressing. Against the spectre of Le Pen in France, the victory of Macron sent signs of hope across the European liberal-left. The liberal media let out a collective sigh of relief, extolling the virtues of this great new hope. Yet in this era of simulacrum is all the media sphere promises?

It’s been 40 years since Stuart Hall announced the Great Moving Right Show, where the centre of political gravity shifted far to the right. In the UK it was startling to see Corbyn’s Labour manifesto derided by 80% of the press as radical. Indeed, it would have looked more or less at home as a 1970s Conservative Party manifesto. That’s how far to the right the centre has moved.

France is no different: policies passed since 2015 by Hollande’s social government were increasingly towards the right of the spectrum. The state of emergency adopted following the Paris terrorist attacks in November was then renewed five times, and Macron is planning to extend it further. International Socialism explains the shift in its last edition, highlighting in particular the crisis political parties are facing in France.

This shift has been supported by a largely right-wing mediascape; where “the left” is really just the centre. Television news and newspapers are staffed by middle-class liberals who are said to represent “the left,” but as Deirdre O’Neill argues, the majority of the commentariat are privately educated Oxbridge graduates.

At best journalists reflect what Marx Deuze calls an “occupational ideology”, wherein their concepts of “balance” and “objectivity” tend merely to reflect hegemonic shifts – they obey and amplify institutionalised politics and its reconfigurations over time.

No clean politics

The challenge to the political “centre” by UKIP, the Front National and other far right groups has been met with contradictory consternation by the media that facilitated it. The narrative of the likes of UKIP and FN feeds off the media narrative that the political class is dirty and its institutions corrupt. It is not just the promise of national self-determination that animates the right, but also the cleaning up of dirty politics.

In response the political class and broadly supportive, if contradictory media, will seek a “clean” candidate.

It was on this basis that Macron was elected on a clean politics pledge and promised to do away with embezzlement scandals and bad habits – but bad habits die hard. What France faces now is pretty much to the T a copy of the Fillon affair, or “Penelope gate” for the media, which shook the presidential campaign between January and May. The smear campaign saw the leading right-wing candidate and former Prime Minister François Fillon go from polls favourite to disgrace through a series of scandals including reports that he paid his wife for work as a parliamentary aid that she allegedly did not perform.

Fillon and Le Pen, who was accused of using legislative aids on the EU payroll for her own party’s political activity but rejected a formal summons from French investigators, quickly became the plagues of the 2017 presidential election. This paved the way for fresh blood, novelty and dynamism, incarnated by the young and smiley Macron. He played his cards well and benefited from the crisis of the traditional parties and a media seeking hope.

Having left Hollande’s government, he distanced himself from the much disliked president (who gathered 4% of approval at the end of last year) while never taking positions (“I’m neither right nor left”) and using appealing timely statements (“Make our planet great again.”)

Such rhetoric sits well with the media. It is the rhetoric of Blair, Jospin, Schroeder and Hollande –  it says enough to appeal yet not enough to threaten the establishment. The media’s position towards Benoit Hamon – who was democratically chosen to represent the left in a primary election Macron refused to participate in – is unequivocal. Although hardly a revolutionary, the Guardian presented him as a “rebel” from the outset, drawing obvious comparisons with Corbyn. Hamon’s programme, had he been elected president, was very daring compared to previous and other leftist candidates, promising a Universal Basic Income and strongly criticising Hollande’s bad record on immigration, refugees, and the treatment of undocumented migrant.

The broadly liberal policies of the “radical” candidates are portrayed at the left boundary of possible politics. Such limitation constitutes what Chomsky calls the boundaries of legitimate dissent. Left-liberalism is the only left alternative to liberal liberalism. Anything beyond that is cloud-cuckoo land. Therefore, personalities like Macron are championed by the media because it’s better to have them than the real left.

Of course, in reality, Macron brings nothing new, but in the lead-up to the election, he was the perfect answer to old-style politics which, as the Fillon and Le Pen affairs demonstrated, are filled with abuse, treason and unworthy of public trust.

Before long, rumours were circulating about Macron’s entourage, and investigations are now ongoing into four of his former ministers, who resigned shortly after being nominated.

But the distinction ought to be clear between what is legal – and indeed all these ministers, members of parliament or other public figures should be treated as innocent until proven guilty – and what is right in the ethical and moral sense. As elected representatives of the French people, they should lead by example.

Fillon’s many lines of defense, including the always-handy “everyone else’s doing it” has only contributed to making these practices commonplace – to the point where Fillon still gathered 19.5% of the vote in the first round; and so it’s hard to imagine Macron, with his choir-boy image will lose much voters confidence in the current affairs. The parallels with the UK’s own deified liberal Tony Blair are stark.

So Macron’s leadership, instead of bringing fresh air, has so far been more of the same.

Four of his ministers could be heard in current investigations and have already resigned.

Richard Ferrand, formerly from the Socialist Party, is under investigation for his past business and financial dealings, and was asked by the president to resign in order to lead the party’s deputies in the national assembly. Not completely sidelined then, but moved enough to show the government is tough on ethics, Ferrand now benefits from parliamentary immunity.

Most significantly perhaps was the resignation of Justice Minister and Garde des Sceaux (garant of the justice) François Bayrou, who was carrying the moralisation law.

The law, a true symbol of the moral ideals publicly defended by Bayrou through years of political campaigns, is meant to “restore confidence” and is mainly targeted at ministers and members of parliament.

Speaking in a press conference early June, Bayrou said “For years we have seen practices develop that have damaged people’s confidence in their elected representatives and provoked a profound exasperation among the French.” This is what the fresh blood is supposedly fighting against, then?

Macron: a breath of fresh air?

Macron’s election promised renewal, and of the 350 LREM deputies, 315 have never been elected before. LREM being less than two years old and self-defined as a “neither right nor left” party, calling it directionless is probably just an understatement. So what do these new wannabe politicians believe in, defend, and most importantly what did they agree to in order to represent the party at the assembly?

In order to be invested, all candidates had to sign a contract – which Macron explained would discourage “disagreement with the heart of our project” and prove commitment to “voting with (him) the big projects”. He wants no dissenting voices.

The contract itself is rather vague and organised around six projects – the clearest one of all being the labour law – the one Macron failed to pass originally in 2016 and which was pushed with force through parliament edited and revised under its new name: El Khomri law.

Now that he has a majority in the national assembly, Macron will push for a vote of confidence in early July which will enable him to rule by decree – bypassing Parliament to push through new reforms. And what better time to do that than during the quiet summer months?

The muted response to such a proposal in France and abroad is telling, just as when Mario Monti was appointed to lead a “technocratic government” in Italy. In that instance there was no chorus of protest in the Western press about a new dictatorship in Europe. It is in the Western media mindset justifiable to impose martial law, rule by decree or unelected government if “necessary”. But of course that necessity cannot be found in places like Venezuela for instance.

Contradictory positions: who can we trust?

In a post-political era it is not the substance of rhetoric that counts. Much as newspaper headlines are designed to attract attention and feed bias in the left and right, so the vacant utterances of politicians are there to titillate empty-minded voters who demand their prejudices are spoken to.

While in Brussels for a EU leaders summit, Macron declared it was France’s honour and duty to welcome refugees. Visiting Calais on Friday, Home Secretary Gerard Collomb defended more heavy-handed security measures in the handling of the migrant crisis in Calais and announced the deployment of 200 more police staff, bringing to almost 700 the total of forces on the ground. As for the charities trying to help migrants access food and water on the ground, Collomb invited them to “spread out their know-how” away from Calais.

The government’s position was recently criticised by Jacques Toubon, head of France’s public human rights watchdog, who advocated for migrants to have access to clean water and for charities to distribute food.

So while his ministers defend tougher security measures, raising Macron’s popularity with Fillon, Le Pen, and “centrist” voters, Macron seduces foreign leaders – and the media ensures this is what everyone sees.

Devoid of substance he plays the game with a compliant media. There is no substance, we are left with gushing adoration of his personality and character: He’s a good person, has a nice smile, he’s stylish, witty, young, has a wife. There is no political evaluation whatsoever, purely personality evaluation.

UK media coverage has shown even more support to Macron than the French; with the Guardian describing him in November 2016 as “a product of the times,” and “a rebel,”.

Since his election, his victory has been portrayed as “an example for Britain,” a “revolutionary political moment,” “a breath of fresh air in French politics” simply for being young, good looking and energetic – which earned him comparisons with Canada’s Trudeau.

And it’s not just the “left” newspapers that are happy to support Macron: so are the markets.

Rare are the opinion pieces that present his anti-system stances as a “sham”; and indeed, he is nothing but a product of the system. One that knows that nowadays the old distinctions between left and right are gone, and to appeal to the masses and please a broad audience, he should avoid taking a strong stance for as long as possible. As with compartmentalised liberal newspapers the strategy is clear – tell people what they like to hear and hope nobody notices the contradictions.

Politics have shifted, and so has our perception of politicians: their roles, their responsibilities, and what we should them hold accountable to. But indeed, we know deep corruption persists, with the wealthy seeking always more power and more money. Tax evasion, embezzlement, fictitious jobs – corruption at this level could easily be solved if there was real counterbalance. But the media defends and perpetuates the status quo, sacrificing a couple of figures here and there to seem balanced. So when there’s a need for fresh blood, the media presents fresh blood. But Macron, former economy minister, former investment banker, graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) and Sciences Po, is not only no different, he’s probably more dangerous than what France has just left behind.

Written by Charlotte Sexauer

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