Given the amount of coverage this year’s French presidential race has already received, it’s easy to overlook just how historic it promises to be: For the first time since World War II, a communist and a nationalist stand a real chance of winning, while representatives of the two mainstream parties could easily find themselves shut out of the second round of voting. The story of this campaign has been one of competing insurgencies.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the communist candidate, has surged at the polls in the run up to the vote scheduled for this weekend. His left-populist campaign, formally associated with no established party but rather based on a movement he founded last year (La France insoumise), has earned him comparisons with Bernie Sanders.
The nationalist Marine Le Pen, who stands a strong chance of winning the first round, is the closest thing to a “known quantity” among the frontrunners, leading the well-established (though far from “establishment”) National Front.
She has been running neck-and-neck for first place with the centrist Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and Economy Minister in Francois Hollande’s Socialist government, who abandoned his party to form a movement of his own (En Marche!). Macron’s moderate pro-European supporters are passionate, but beyond this core group, his prospects are less certain; some polls had as much as 40 percent of the electorate undecided with a week to go before the vote.
And the only major party candidate who still stands a chance to advance, Francois Fillon of the center-right Les Republicains, ended up clinching the nomination because, although he served as Prime Minister for more than five years, he is seen as more of an outsider than his rival, the aging Alain Juppe.
After Brexit, Donald Trump’s win, and even the recent Dutch elections, the French race feels eerily familiar. Voters are disenchanted with politics. Burned by years of economic policies that have failed to deliver broad-based prosperity, and unable to recognize the people living in their own countries, they are looking to new leaders who, unencumbered by governing legacies or political correctness, will be able to shake things up. This is an election about sticking it to the man.
Many invoke a “demand side” explanation for the surge in populism: that it is a reflection of voters’ unaddressed grievances and anxieties being unmet for far too long by the ruling elites. Certainly, voters’ fear and anger are a real part of the equation, but consider a “supply side” framing: the rise of the fringes is the result of the collapse of the neoliberal center, which itself was only compelling to voters when juxtaposed with a thriving and viable welfare state model.
A case in point: the travails of the British Labour Party. Well before the Brexit referendum, Labour had been losing ground. With the Cold War over and communism so thoroughly discredited by the collapse of the Soviet Union as even a theoretical alternative, Tony Blair successfully managed to pivot his party toward the emerging neoliberal consensus. It was only with Blair’s departure from politics that it became clear how much of his success was due to his enormous reservoirs of personal charisma. Under Gordon Brown, the soulless technocratic heart of neoliberalism was laid bare to voters, and they wanted none of it. Voters were not exactly thrilled with the alternatives either: David Cameron won the elections, but not the majority, resulting in the first hung parliament since 1974.
The Conservatives’ decisive win in 2015 was less the product of brilliant leadership on the part of Cameron and more the result of Labour’s remarkable implosion. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn—a radical trade unionist pacifist who has advocated the renationalization of various industries—can be interpreted as an attempt to re-root Labour in an authentic Leftism. Part of Labour’s implosion has to do with Corbyn’s profound incompetencies as a politician, managing to alienate both working class communities and socially liberal urban voters. But it also is due to the perceived irrelevancy of his program: Socialism as a governing agenda just doesn’t seem to catch fire quite like it did when the left had a real progressive message of shoring up social safety nets and giving labor a voice in corporate governance. The era of welfare state capitalism is over, and center-left parties are finding themselves in the position either of having to implement austerity measures or swinging even further Left. Corbyn chose the latter, and it’s not working.
Now that the British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for snap national elections on June 8, Labour will likely to take a big hit. Early projections have the Conservatives winning 381 seats, a net gain of fifty from Labour, which would end up with 182. With Corbyn refusing to step down, the party seems to be headed further into oblivion. But even without Corbyn, it is not clear what Labour stands for any more.
A similar story is evident in the Netherlands. While most observers were obsessing over the prospects of Geert Wilder’s far-right party defeating incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right VVD, the real story of the Dutch elections was the implosion of the center-left PvdA. And PvdA’s self-immolation has, if anything, been more spectacular than that of Britain’s Labour: In 2012, the PvdA won 25 percent; in 2017, that number had dwindled to 6 percent, the worst result since the party’s founding in 1946. Again, a pivot to the bloodless center was to blame. PvdA was seen by its base as being too willing to implement the austerity agenda of Rutte’s VVD, its coalition partner since 2012—a betrayal of its traditional Leftist principles. A leadership struggle, with an attempt to pivot back to “true” socialism is likely, but electoral success less so. Though Wilders’ party only gained five seats in Parliament, he is now setting the terms of the debate. Shopworn socialist pieties about class struggle sound irrelevant.
The dynamics of the French race are easier to understand with this framing. Francois Hollande’s approval ratings plunged to single digits following the terrorist attacks in Paris last fall, making him the most unpopular president in French history. But the truth is that he had earned that moniker as early as 2013: With the exception of brief rally-round-the-flag blips like the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Hollande has struggled to get his approval rating above 30 percent throughout his term, evidence of the staleness of his technocratic meliorism masquerading as some kind of center-left alternative to years of UMP rule. After he announced that he would not seek reelection, his Socialists nominated Benoit Hamon, the founder of the Young Socialist Movement and the leader of the leftist faction of the party, for the presidency. Hamon has been compared to Corbyn, and just like Corbyn, his more “authentic” socialism has failed to catch fire with voters.
Unlike Corbyn, of course, Hamon has had to face a challenger from an even more “authentic” communist Left in the surging Mélenchon. But there’s reason to be skeptical that Mélenchon’s success is due to anything other than a series of stirring debate performances and rallies. His outsider status, coupled with a charismatic firebrand act, may be giving undecided voters a reason to give him the nod. But in contrast to polls, where Mélenchon is virtually tied with Fillon, betting markets give him only 7:1 odds of winning it all (compared to Fillon’s 3:1, tied with Le Pen).
Which brings us back to Emmanuel Macron, who is still favored to win, by both polls and punters. Europeanists tell themselves that it is his centrist, pro-EU message that is resonating with voters, but as with Mélenchon, his popularity might have more to do with his image as an outsider. After all, Pew last year found support for the EU dropping to all-time lows in France. Macron’s edge over his rivals may lie in his nebulous messages of hope through unity, and an implicit promise to be all things to all people—a campaign only a broadly unknown quantity could plausibly run. Le Pen, by contrast, is by now a professional dissenter, and her National Front has a strong and well-defined brand.
A specter is haunting Europe, but it isn’t communism, and it almost certainly isn’t a warmed-over centrist neoliberalism. Some might argue that the specter is nationalism, but that, too, is not quite right. The specter is (perhaps fittingly for Marx’s original metaphor) a vacuum—political emptiness. The rise of formerly fringe populisms is not just a story of one country and one election, nor is it solely about specific demands of angry voters. Rather, it is a symptom of the lack of political options, vision, and compelling narratives from both the broad center and the ideological Left it successfully opposed throughout the Cold War. In a quest for meaning, voters are casting about for outsiders who can provide it for them.
In France, anyway, that may not be enough to hand a victory to Le Pen’s brand of too-well-established nationalist right-wingery. But even if she loses, one shouldn’t feel too good about European politics as a whole. Overall, this is not a healthy situation.