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Should We Rethink Political Representation in Europe to Make Solidarity a Meaningful Word Again? The Case of the French Presidential Election

The 2017 French Presidential election clearly demonstrates the problems and the paradoxes that are common to most European countries, and that shape the current state of affairs in Europe in general. For sure, this year’s campaign has been characterised by a disruption of the system of political parties that has ruled France in the last decades. The parties of the establishment are no longer as dominant as they used to be. The LR, the liberal conservative party, has struggled to stay in the race in spite of the scandals that nearly drowned its candidate, Francois Fillon. The position of the PS, the Socialist Party, is even more difficult: Benoit Hamon has taken over the leadership of the party and has managed to shift it to the left compared to Hollande’s presidency, and he won the support of the French Green party. But Hamon has been overtaken on the left by Jean-Luc Melenchon, who, running for his new movement, ‘France Unbowed’, has promised to end austerity, to lower retirement age, to cut the length of working week, to raise public spending, minimum wage and security benefits; and to tax top earners at 90%. On the centre-right Hamon has then been surpassed by Emmanuel Macron, who, running without the endorsement of the Socialist Party for whom he served as minister of economy, has created his own party, ‘En Marche!’ In Macron’s eyes, the left-right divide in politics needs to be overcome, in the name of what, in such critical times, is uniting the French citizens, namely ‘being French’. Yet, the star of the campaign has undoubtedly been Marine Le Pen, the leader of the radical right-wing party Front National, who presented herself resolutely as anti-elite, despite the fact that raised in Montretout, an estate on the edge of the French capital (after a bomb attack on the family’s Paris apartment) and as a lawyer she can hardly deny being part of the same elite she is raving against.

If we look at the French Presidential election campaign and results and how they have shaken the foundations of the French political scene, we can only understand what has happened if we situate it within the context of three European and global phenomena:

1.    The economic crisis that started in 2008 and is not over yet.
2.    The Islamist terror attacks which began with the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015, and continued with the Paris attacks of November 2015 and the Nice truck attack of July 2016. On the 20 April, only three days before election day, a gunman killed a policeman in the heart of Paris, making terrorist assaults almost a question of routine in present-day France.
3.    The refugee crisis of the summer of 2016 and the lack of a common European response.

All these three phenomena have also occurred in other European countries. Terrorist attacks have not been confined to France – Belgium, Germany and the UK have been targeted as well, albeit at a different scale. The rest of Europe is just as affected by these global processes and events as is France.

The economic crisis, the terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis have generated fear within the white lower and middle classes who are concerned about their material well-being, their security and their identity as French and European citizens. The rise of radical left wing candidates, such as Melenchon, as well as that of the radical right as personified by Marine Le Pen, can be explained exactly with the insecurity of the popular and the middle-class in today’s France. Melenchon and Le Pen exemplify the two ways out of a crisis: a progressive solution, even though it is debatable whether Melenchon’s proposals are feasible, and another one, as proposed by the Front National, characterised by racism.

Both Melenchon and Le Pen are sceptical about the European Union and its elites providing possible solutions to the current economic and political crises. It is not by accident that the EU has been at the centre of the French campaign as it is in the current British political discussion. Indeed, as Peter Marcuse writes in ‘Whose right(s) to what city?’ (Cities for People, not for Profits, 2012): ‘In each crisis, the outcome has depended, not simply of the strength and weakness of the critical forces, but also on the strength and weakness of the established system.’ What has been so far the response of the established system, in France and in Europe, to a crisis that is created, as analysed by Marcuse, by material inequality, insecurity and emotional discontent and distortions?

The way out of the economic crisis is social solidarity, both at the national and at the European level. However, what makes the present situation more complex is the combination of the social and economic crisis with the ‘refugee crisis’ and terrorism. And here comes the paradox of the French election and the point where the French, but also the European establishment, are failing: who represents the French of Islamic origin in the peripheries of Paris, Marseille and the other French cities? None of the main candidates in the French election has spoken to them; even Melenchon, who addressed the Muslim French population in Marseille, is still acting within the script of the French Republic. It is Marine Le Pen, the only woman in the presidential race, who is the only one trying, even in a completely distorted way, to represent the peripheries, and the Front National has a real presence in the French suburbs inhabited by French Muslims [1].

And this is the situation we are stuck with, in France but also in many other European countries: the political establishment’s lack of ability to extend political and social solidarity beyond the imagined nation(s) of white, French and European citizens is fueling nationalist and racist representation in France and elsewhere in Europe. It looks as if it is time to think long and hard about political representation in Europe and make solidarity a meaningful word again.

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[1] Jerôme Fourquet, ‘Le vote Front National dans les électorats musulman et juif’, in Crépon, Dézé, Mayer (dir.), Les faux-semblants du Front National, Presses de Sciences Po, 2015.

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