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"The Time of Monsters: France’s Presidential Election"


At the website of Salvage magazine, historian Chris Armstrong surveys the French political terrain in the lead-up to the first round of the presidential election, set for April 23. The widely held fear, of course, is that Marine Le Pen will win, delivering another major Western government into the hands of a fascist. The French left, meanwhile, mired as it is in corruption and internecine conflict, will not be a factor in the election. Armstrong argues that a win for Le Pen is unlikely, and that left-leaning forces should act strategically to ensure this while also beginning the slow and patient process of building a political force for the future. Here’s an excerpt:

Corruption is a feature of French political life with which the electorate’s patience is wearing increasingly thin. This is the case whether in its properly criminal sense, or the looser colloquial sense of a self-serving political class. This ties in with a longstanding and accentuated idea of a “blocked” French society and thereby inflects the logic of contemporary French politics in a complementary way to laments over the French welfare system. Standard complaints from the likes of The Economist about the over-generosity of the French social model neglect that in many ways it is conspicuously uneven, which, coupled with its complexity, provides fodder for sectional resentment and promises for equalization that are much more about dismantlement.

These two factors of corruption and perceptions about the French social model coalesce in a certain view that if only entrenched interests and institutional blockages could be got out of the way, the France of the trente glorieuses could be resurrected. Indeed, Wolfgang Streeck suggests that we underestimate today the power of the idea that post-Second World War growth, employment and stability typify what capitalism is or should be, rather than being exceptional. The two frontrunners of the campaign capitalise on this malaise in differing registers: the technocratic neoliberalism of campaign sensation Emmanuel Macron, heading the recently founded movement, En Marche!, and the xenophobic nostalgia of the Front National …

French commentators have noted a proliferation of references to Gramsci around this presidential election – ‘now is the time of monsters’ has been a favourite quote doing the rounds on Twitter. Not only Mélenchon and Hamon but also Sarkozy and Macron have cited the Italian thinker. On the occasion of these French presidential elections, then, it is worth reiterating that Gramscian thinking is about more than pithy quotations or a generic conception of political power. Applied properly to this historical conjuncture, both in France and further afield, it suggests that a robust and operable conception of hope has as little time for even the slickest version of neoliberal technocracy as it does for the slogans of fascists; it prescribes a non-sectarian rigour in assessment of the possibilities and limitations inherent in current left forces; and it recalibrates the short term vista of presidential elections with the necessary long-term work of democratic and socialist reconstruction.

Image: French presidential candidates after a recent televised debate. Via Salvage.