The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Sterile Elites and the French Election

France has an electoral run-off system. The top two candidates in the general poll go on to a face-to-face election. This year, that is Macron and Le Pen. Melenchon, the left-wing candidate came up just short.

What is happening was inevitable, and predicted. Europe had been sclerotic before 2008, but enough people were doing well. After 2008, Europe, more than perhaps any other areas in the world, doubled down on austerity and neoliberal policies like “labor flexibility” (code for “fire for any reason, reduced (ideally no) protection from bosses.)

And so we now have the neo-fascist (in a much more real way) vs. the neoliberal who ran Hollande’s vastly unpopular economic policy.

The French establishment has reacted predictably.

Elites simply can’t pivot. They don’t know how to do anything but keep doubling down on neoliberal austerity. It is their entire playbook, and this default strategy may wind up costing them everything.

Polls currently have Macron winning, and Le Pen has been softening her rhetoric on leaving the EU, though it’s primarily, “We can wait a bit and have a referendum.”

I consider that a mistake, not because of electoral considerations this time, but because of the electoral considerations next time. As sometime-poster Mandos has pointed out, the EU has set up both membership in the EU and the Euro so that leaving them frontloads the pain onto whoever leaves. If you’re leaving, you need to get it over with right at the start of your term so you have time to recover from the pain.

(Leaving the Euro is clearly correct on policy terms, though whether Le Pen and her team have the chops to manage it properly is another matter.)

The other consideration is that if Le Pen doesn’t win this time (and the polls are unreliable, given past performance around similar candidates and issues), she’ll be on the final ballot in the next round, because the policies Macron will pursue will make the French worse off–just as they did when he ran them from Hollande. They aren’t going to miraculously work now that Le Pen is even more of a threat, or because Mercury goes retrograde or something.

But then there’s a very real chance Melenchon will be on the last round ballot next time, too, and he’s been pulling no punches. He refused to endorse Macron (he did not play Bernie Sanders Nice) and unlike Sanders followers, who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton, about two-thirds of Melenchon supporters refuse to vote Macron.

A Melenchon deputy explained:

We don’t want to help Marine Le Pen, but we don’t want to endorse Mr. Macron,” he said.

“He’s the candidate of free trade,” Mr. Coquerel said. “He’s going to assist in the Uberization of society. Everything we are going to fight against in the coming months. There’s no possible rapprochement.”

This is correct behaviour, as far as I am concerned. Melenchon is not a colleague, he did not run under the same party, and he disagrees with almost all of Macron’s economic policies.

If Macron can’t win against Le Pen without the left’s support, he doesn’t deserve to win, because he isn’t a left-winger on non-social issues. And while social issues are important, so is whether or not you have a good job. Freedom in poverty, as those of us who have been poor know, isn’t really freedom.

Besides, Melenchon is in the same position as Le Pen. He’ll almost certainly be in the next “last round” if Macron wins, because, again, Macron is going to hurt a lot of French. It is inevitable, he cannot avoid doing so because he genuinely believes in neo-liberal austerity as the road forward.

There are a large contingent of people who are “just hanging on.” The status quo sort of works for them, but they can see the abyss, and they don’t want change, yet, even though they aren’t happy.

They will only want change if the game of economic Russian roulette that is austerity happens to take them out, and dump them into a slum. Their numbers decline every election, as some eat that austerity bullet and others die (since they tend to be older) and a very few can no longer stomach buying their present with their children’s future. (This is rare, most don’t care, and I base that on the cold hard numbers. If they cared, things would have changed long ago. Their children are expendable to them.)

So we play the game out. Time’s wheel must grind on, bodies caught in the gears, till the last neoliberal has failed, and we get either the populist right or the populist left.

Those are your choices: populist right, populist left, or continued decline into what will become an increasingly obvious dystopian surveillance state; something out of an 80s cyberpunk novel, but without the actual cool tech (as yet).

But there is no other choice that moves away from current trends except populist right or left. Those are the choices. Choose.

Update (how LePen will win, if she does):

A false story of “I will help fix your awful life” wins against a true story of “I’m going to hurt you, but the other person is lying about helping you and will hurt you even worse.”

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  1. Herman

    “If Macron can’t win against LaPen without the left’s support, he doesn’t deserve to win, because he isn’t a left-winger on non-social issues. And while social issues are important, so is whether or not you have a good job. Freedom in poverty, as those of us who have been poor know, isn’t really freedom.”

    This is something that much of the center-left cannot understand. The part of the center-left that is comprised of affluent professional types simply cannot understand that social issue victories don’t mean much when you are too poor to even have a decent existence to enjoy them.

    But if you try to explain this to many on the left you get called a Bernie Bro or a brogressive or a brocialist. The left went down the tubes when it became dominated by students and people from the professional/managerial class as opposed to ordinary working people. Look at how the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party has tried to paint Bernie Sanders and his supporters as sexist, racist and anti-choice. Social issues have become a shield to defend the class interests of affluent liberals just as rich conservatives use social conservatism to defend their class interests. It is all about diverting attention away from the life or death economic issues that should be the core of politics.

  2. Hugh

    In the US, people knew that the status quo was killing them. So what did the Democrats do? They tried to force down the throats of the electorate an arrogant, supremely dishonest candidate with the biggest tin ear in politics who ran on more of the same, the same old, same old, the status quo, and you can’t have nice things. Oh yes, and if you didn’t STFU and vote for her, you were a misogynist, racist deplorable. Despite this from the Democratic party point of view, she lost. Go figure. That there was a pseudo-populist on the right who benefited from all this was almost beside the point.

    As Ian says, ordinary French people are facing a similar choice. The difference is, I suppose, that the French have been wedded to their Establishment more so than even in the US, and crucially they have no electoral college. So just as a dreadful, hateful candidate like Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote despite a platform of continuing the destruction of the middle class and the poor, Macron could do the same in France.

  3. Will

    Ian: Bravo, this is a succinct and, at least in my view, accurate portrayal of the situation as it stands.

    Herman: I agree. I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times, identity politics is radioactive. From both ends of the spectrum. If you really care about this nation and its future you have to set it aside and approach things from a universal perspective. Getting humans to see themselves and others as simply fellow citizens seems to be… problematic.


  4. The problem is leaving the Euro is incorrect – but leave this euro is correct. Again – lots of people are protected against going down, when they actually should be bankrupt. this has consequences, and we can see this by the minimal GDP production. every person who, needs to go down, but does not, costs the system a little bit of money. On aggregate, this means that unemployment and GDP are extremely sick.

    We have to learn that capitalism must do better than the theoretical, rather than doing what is better than the next practical alternative – which in this case is Chinese capitalism or radical Islamic fundamentalism, both of which are awful. But being just better than awful is not saying a great deal for the miracles of capitalism. Because we do not actually have capitalism anymore. partially this is because the poor do not have a choice about revolting, they are boxed in by a relentlessly militaristic American regime.

  5. The problem is that the demand to drop identity politics, at least from the left, is most often made to those who actually need it.

  6. Herman


    The kind of identity politics as practiced by the Democrats really doesn’t help the people it purports to. What did Obama do to help African-Americans? The militarization of the police continued under his administration and his economic policies did little to help poor and working-class African-Americans and would have actually hurt them had Obama succeeded in getting the TPP passed.

    When it came to poor and working-class African-Americans Obama maintained the same condescending stance that well-educated professionals maintain toward less affluent Americans generally. Obama’s comments about black people feeding their children Popeye’s chicken for breakfast were as bad as anything you hear on right-wing talk radio or Fox News. Obama’s message was the same as that pushed by the Republicans: poor and working-class black people are in a bad state because they don’t value education and hard work and family values enough. Another example of blaming the victims of neoliberal policy for their plight.

    Sure, you could argue that Obama was better for African-Americans than any of the possible Republican options and I can respect anyone who voted for Obama for just that reason. But I don’t think that the identity politics left is interested in anything other than a more diverse elite class. We saw this play out again with Hillary Clinton. Working-class women were supposed to forget all of the damage the Clintons did to their families by supporting policies like NAFTA and vote for Hillary just so Hillary, an incredibly wealthy woman and consummate political insider, could break the glass ceiling and become POTUS.

  7. First – do what is necessary. that means getting democracy, socialism, and capitalism back.

  8. Sally

    There are two left wings.
    1 A Metropolitan elite of quite prosperous people who are very liberal on social issues, but are protected from the harshness of austerity capitalism.
    2 A working class left of low wage unskilled labour whos life is getting worse. They may also be liberal on social issues, but pocket book now dominates their priorities. Also, they may not be as liberal on immigration because this is a direct challenge to their daily lives and jobs.

    This was seen in BREXIT and the battle between Clinton and Sanders, and then Clinton vs Trump. The first group of leftists, the metropolitan elite is comprised of celebrities who work in the arts, and entertainment or high tech and are quite often self employed. They can be found on twitter as a sort of pack of twitterarties. They may be very rich like Hollywood actors or authors like JK Rowling. But they can also be more moderately paid. However they are all pretty middle class financially. They like to travel and enjoy liberal social issues. These people are not likely to have to worry about competion from immigrants. In fact they like the cheap wages of their nannys, gardeners, plumbers etc etc. These people have no idea what life is like in modern employment. Low wages, long hours, massive intrusion, and surveillance into the lives and work.

    They get very angry when the 2 group of working class lefties turned out for BREXIT, or Berrnie Sanders. Labelling them “racist, fascist scum.”

    Macron is another Blair, Clinton, Obama endless line of elite identikit politicians preaching identity politics with neo liberal austerity, and Neo Con foreign policy of more wars for bankers. He offers nothing for the second group of lefties. Will they take the only other option and vote for The populist? Macron lectures the people of Poland for wanting to secure their borders. He went to Africa and said that a bridge should be build to allow more Africans to flood safely into Europe. (Exactly what his banker elites like Soros demamd) This will only make things much worse in the next few years. In 5 years time it will only help the populist. Perhaps they will have outlaw voting by then?

  9. The Stephen Miller Band

    I love the French. How wise & egalitarian to hold elections on Sundays unlike Tuesdays in America. It encourages voter turnout & participation whereas in America holding elections on Tuesdays discourages voter turnout & participation which is rather ironic when you consider the choices are increasingly Small Pox or Ebola.

    I don’t think Le Penn will win. In fact, this whole Global Populist Social Engineering Experiment will come to end with the mighty fall of Donald Trump in the next year or two.

  10. James Wheeler

    Superb article Ian.

    It appears likely that Le Pen will lose but she appears likely to get at least 40% of the vote.

    As you say, when the elites carry on policies that impoverish the majority of the population, ordinary people, both working class and increasingly the middle classes, will turn to those voices who challenge that neo-liberal consensus.

    As for those who say that populism will fail. If populists have perceived to have failed, the angry masses will not return to the stale establishment politicians, but will turn to the real extremists. Those movements, on the fringes, who reject democracy and favor a dictatorship.

    All those on this forum who get worked up about the election of President Trump will, in 15 years time, if he doesn’t succeed, will be looking back in nostalgia when the future Hitler emerges from the current fringes of the alt-right in America.

    Or maybe it will be a Leninist figure, who manages, unlike most of the modern day Left, to mobilize the working classes against the financial oligarchy. That would truly horrify the faux-radical middle classes who predominate the so-called Left these days.

  11. Hugh

    In the US, the economic divide is between the top 20% and the bottom 80%. The top 20% have have held their own or improved their position since the 2007 recession and subsequent meltdown in 2008. By and large, for the bottom 80%, the 2007 recession never ended. I wonder what the split looks like in France. Also I wonder how it plays out geographically. I can see the Paris region/Île de France going for Macron. A lot of the North with big cities like Lille and the South with big cities like Marseille would go Le Pen. I don’t know where Lyon would go though.

  12. VietnamVet

    This is as clear as it gets. What is shocking is how effective the corporate media is at hiding the truth. At some point, the victims despair from debt slavery will turn on the oppressors. With 80% of the population thrown under the bus and burgeoning private and public debt which cannot be paid off; the West is unstable. Ernest Hemingway’s quote “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly” is apt. The Euro’s demise and the breakup of the EU and NATO are predestined once the Troika turned Greece into an European penal colony and Turkey was seized by Islamists.

  13. S Brennan

    Say brother Ian; say it loud.

    “Freedom in poverty, as those of us who have been poor know, isn’t really freedom.”

    If you haven’t spent a decade or more in poverty without hope of reprieve, you don’t understand how this world actually works and the odds of you having useful solutions is almost zero.

    The only reason Teddy and Franklin could move past this, [to some degree], was because of crushing health problems that were, in some small/larger way, an apt substitute for poverty.

  14. Tom


    Turkey isn’t ruled by Islamists.

    As for France, this is what they get for practicing Laicism rather than Secularism, rather than getting rid of Laicism and replacing it with Secularism like Turkey did, they doubled down on it and fucked themselves.

    Fuck them.

    The EU is driving itself into the ground, Britain should pull out as fast as possible and give Europe nothing, not one red cent and declare all obligations to it illegal and non-binding.

  15. Some Guy

    Sally and Hugh make great points but I think it’s worth elaborating on one point. Sally’s urban elite and Hugh’s 20% are doing better than their compatriots, but much of this 20% is also feeling the bite of neoliberalism at their heels as well.

    Even in jobs at big multinationals, well inside the top 20% in pay levels and based in the big cities, there is less dignity, more outsourcing/offshoring/pressure/surveillance/cutbacks etc. than 10 years ago or 20 years ago, etc.

    These jobs once came with defined benefit pensions, now defined contribution. Even those whose own careers are secure look to what the future holds for their children and see a looming chaos of ‘disruption’ and ‘gig economy’ and zero hour contracts and unpaid internships, and offshoring and automation and corporate looting and are in a constant panic about what they can do to save their children from the menace they see in their future.

    Yes, I can hear those with no job or pension at all saying, ‘cry me a river’, but my point is not that these people are suffering by some absolute standard, the point is that even in those sectors and places where people are in theory doing well, there is growing anger and discontent, a growing disconnect between expectations and results, between a better past, worse present and frightening future and an increasing willingness to consider radical options.

    The rot is closer to the centre than even people on this site might think. At the very centre, in the capital, Clinton won almost 80% of the primary vote in the District of Columbia, but even in favoured district 2’s like Massachusetts and California, she was in the low 50’s.

  16. bruce wilder

    Mélenchon won’t be back. He’s too old already (65 now). Sanders is 75. Corbyn is 67.

    This older generation can kinda, sorta remember a society that worked and kinda, sorta why it worked.

    The essence of neoliberalism back in the 1980s was to stop fighting The Man, to stop perpetually fighting the rich and powerful. The largest part of the Baby Boomers and Generation X have never known a politics in which the interests of the 80% were represented, in which a large part of the 80% was economically organized. That’s a little less true in France than in the U.S., but Hollande demonstrated the impotence and moral bankruptcy of the decadent social democratic left.

    A large part of the millenials, the oldest members of which are now in their mid-30s, have suffered so much economically that they can scarcely be said to have started careers. They are not producing an abundance of leaders and the leaders they are producing have no political models from which to work.

  17. The Stephen Miller Band

    The essence of neoliberalism back in the 1980s was to stop fighting The Man, to stop perpetually fighting the rich and powerful.

    Yes, and Credit Expansion was/is a large part of that. It took the place of Marx’s “religion is the opiate of The Masses.”

    Easy Credit, whilst wickedly predatory, was/is an amelioration. An appeasement with a hidden price tag — your autonomy, your independence, your future, YOUR SOUL!!

  18. Tom W Harris

    First – do what is necessary. that means getting democracy, socialism, and capitalism back.

    Wisest summation of our collective history I’ve ever read. I’m going to have to steal it (with attribution of course).

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