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On the narcissism of small differences

In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

May 11, 2017
7 min read

How do you feel after Macron’s victory?

Relieved. I was sick of the elections, I think the entire country was exhausted with the whole thing. I wasn’t afraid of a Le Pen victory as I had been earlier. The polls were unanimous that the gap was too big to cover for the far Right in a couple of weeks. However, this election has created huge divisions particularly on the Left and has revealed a very fragmented France. The Front National thankfully lost, but also scored a record vote in the sense that they doubled their vote.

What drove the record high support for Le Pen?

The reasons are similar to those driving Brexit, Trump and other events. This is what you get after 40 years of neoliberalism. Inequality has increased dramatically, unemployment is stuck at about 10 percent and people feel excluded, and are justifiably worried that their children will be worse off than they are.

Le Pen’s votes came from de-industrialised regions of the North, from rural areas feeling left out of French concerns and from people who have low and falling incomes and poor education.

And it’s true that these groups have been pretty much neglected by all governments for the last 30 years. In terms of rural areas, for example, French and European policies have favoured the Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitants Agricoles (FNSEA), representing the biggest rich farmers who receive nearly all the subsidies under EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, while small farmers get little or nothing.

It’s ironic that the big issues in these neglected parts of the country target immigrants and terrorists, who barely can be found in these communities let alone threaten them, but sometimes these simplistic answers are easier than analysing what’s really happening in society, which has been a huge transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich or the rural to the urban.

What did you think of the rise of Mélenchon, who was covered in international press as a surprise development in the election but ultimately failed to make the second round?

Well, from the outside he may have been an unknown figure, but inside France he’s been a prominent figure for the past ten years. He was a Socialist Party member but left in 2008, fed up with its conservatism. He participated as a left candidate in the last election (2012) and got an equal hearing but came across as an accusatory, loud, ‘angry’ candidate. He learned his lessons or mellowed with age – he’s now 65 – because this time he came across as amiable, smart and eloquent.

He is solidly left and has some very good ideas – in my view he is one of the few political leaders to have completely absorbed the theoretical and practical implications of putting the environment at the forefront and our need for a green transition. He has been an impressive speaker, charming crowds, particularly of young people, at mass events where he has spoken eloquently without notes and with the backup of a great tech team (appearing physically in one city and simultaneously in hologram in five others for example) and backed up by a sophisticated social media strategy.

As a result he came very close in the first round, and was first in some big cities. If he had come first, it’s difficult and scary to imagine what the result could have been between him – considered deeply dangerous by market forces, routinely described as hard or far-left even though this isn’t true – and a truly far-right candidate.

Do the French and Dutch votes against the Far Right signal the peak of populism, either on the right or the left?

I don’t see why everybody now seems to think they have to call a perfectly reasonable desire for change carried by millions of people as “populism”. But if inequality is left untouched and if the centrist and so-called ‘socialist’ parties continue to embrace neoliberal policies then No, “populism” hasn’t peaked and will continue on the left. So I assume probably on the right as well where people see the solution to their problems in completely different terms – rejection of the “Other”, racial purity, return to a mythical past and so on.

Ex-President François Hollande is the real culprit in our present situation. He won as the “Socialist” party candidate, but pushed it so far to the right that it’s now unrecognisable. He was literally down to a four percent approval rating when he decided not to run again! But he spent five years building a boulevard for the Far Right to drive down, breaking all his promises, giving huge amounts of money to employers’ unions and doing nothing to regulate the banks or finance. At the end of his term he tried to force through an anti-labour anti-union law leading to huge street demonstrations. I don’t usually hate politicians, but Hollande bears a historic responsibility of doing what he could to destroy our social model and make France a pale copy of the US.

So it’s not wholly surprising that people on the left looking at Macron and Le Pen preferred to abstain or vote blank in record numbers even when it looked as if it might risk a far-right victory. Not my choice – I voted for Macron – but I can understand if not sympathise with it.

What can we expect from Macron?

He does seem to have decided on a “new broom” policy on personnel and on talking to all parts of civil society but as we speak very little has been revealed except that he will rule by decree if necessary, for example on labour issues. He says he understands the despair of many people but his class background may make that difficult. He’s a product of the bourgeoisie of Amiens in northern France, a Jesuit lycée and the elite National School of Administration which led him to work both as an advisor to and later minister of the economy for Hollande but also at the merchant bank Rothschilds. But he’s also young, smart enough to know we need a new approach and not a party product. The financial markets certainly seem delighted with his election, but if he doesn’t give people a sense of a fairer deal we are in for rude awakening in five years and a worse bout with the Front National.

What should be the next steps for progressive/left forces?

Right now, to ensure that we have strong candidates for the legislative elections in June and uniting our strengths. If Mélenchon could come to an agreement with the Socialist Party’s Hamon and his followers and the Greens [he’s already refused to team up with the Communists], the progressives could win a lot of seats. But I fear that’s unlikely. The left is awfully good at displaying what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”. So it often snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. I hope I can be more optimistic towards the end of next month!

Susan George is an American and French political and social scientist, activist and writer on global social justice, Third World poverty, underdevelopment and debt. She is a fellow and president of the board of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. 

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