The French lesson

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By ANDRÉ KAYSEL

There is no way to defeat the extreme right without the left

On July 7th, the French went to the polls for the second round of early legislative elections, called by President Emmanuel Macron just under a month earlier. In the first round, which took place just a week earlier (30 June), the far-right party Reunião Nacional (RN) obtained the highest vote (around 33%), followed by the left-wing coalition Nova Frente Popular (NFP) (28 %), with the officialist centrist coalition “Juntos” in third place (20%).

Given these results, and with so little time for the 2nd round, most opinion polls and political analyzes converged in pointing out that, although it would probably not achieve an absolute majority, the group headed by Marine Le Pen would be very close to it, being able to count on the support of the traditional right-wing list, the “Republicans” who came in fourth place, to form a government and nominate the new prime minister, probably the young Jordan Bardella.

To everyone's surprise, last Sunday the New Popular Front, made up of the League of Unsubmissive France (LFI), by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Socialist Party, the Communists and the Greens, came in first place, even though Far from the absolute majority (182 seats), Emmanuel Macron's supporters made a significant recovery, taking second place (168 seats) and the extreme right ended up in third place (with 143 seats), out of a total of 577 that make up the Assembly French National.

This unexpected result was the result of an impressive coordination and electoral mobilization effort, whereby left-wing or center candidates with less chance of winning mostly renounced district disputes, so that those with more chances could block the election of representatives. of the National Meeting. Furthermore, the election was marked, in both rounds, by a strong electoral mobilization, with around 66% and 67% participation, respectively, the highest registered for legislative elections in the last four decades.

Now, the delicate dilemma of composing a government coalition in a parliament in which none of the three main blocs has an absolute majority (289 deputies) arises, involving interlocutors from the left and center/center-right, who until the day before were strongly faced in the disputes that marked French politics during the presidency of Emmanuel Macron.

In this sense, the editorial line that has prevailed in the hegemonic media, inside and outside France, stands out, which seeks to point out as the main obstacle to the formation of a future “republican” cabinet the LFI and its leader Mélenchon, stigmatized as “ extremists”, often treated as almost equivalent or even equivalent to the extreme right of the National Rally and Marine Le Pen.

This line of argument, which we could call “extreme-center”, is not new and has marked the French and European public debate in recent years. According to the defenders of this thesis, whose main political representative is precisely the current tenant of the Élysée Palace, it would be necessary to avoid the “two extremes”, right and left, both stigmatized as “authoritarian”, “anti-democratic”, “outdated”, etc.

In recent months, marked internationally by the escalation of conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine, this balance has even tipped in favor of the extreme right, which has been increasing the tone of its support for Israel, while the so-called “radical left” is stigmatized as “anti-Semitic”, simply for showing solidarity with the cause of Palestinian self-determination and denouncing what is happening in the Gaza Strip as genocide.

More generally, supporters of the “extreme center” postulate that the only effective barrier against the rising tide of the extreme right, in France and around the world, would be the adoption of a centrist and moderate policy, which combined free economic measures -market with the defense of “multicultural” policies that recognize differences, in that discursive formation that political theorist Nancy Fraser has been calling “progressive neoliberalism”.

In this framework of references, largely hegemonic in the large corporate media, in addition to being very strong in academic circles, the role of the left would be, at best, that of an acolyte of the “center”, having to set aside its preferences for economic policies. interventionist and egalitarian, which would “scare the markets”, in the name of a great convergence around “moderation”. In short, in the “centrist trap”, supposedly imposed by the unstoppable rise of the extreme right, the left should resign itself to disappearing from the political spectrum, at most taking charge of defending “recognition” policies.

Now, the message that the French electorate has just given at the polls goes precisely in the opposite direction: dissatisfied with the technocratic authoritarianism of Emmanuel Macron, who imposed a frankly unpopular pension reform, supported left-wing forces more than the center as the preferred antidote. to block the National Meeting, which, it is worth remembering, still had important growth, consolidating itself as the main isolated party force in the country.

The reasons for the preference for the New Popular Front can be found in its program, which includes measures that directly incorporate very concrete concerns of a large part of France's working population, such as the increase in the minimum wage or the freezing of some prices for basic necessities. , not to mention the repeal of the pension reform. In this sense, the preaching of opinion makers from the “extreme center” that this program would lead to “economic chaos”, as Emmanuel Macron himself said during the campaign, only has the effect of increasing popular support for the extreme right and stigmatization of immigrants as a scapegoat, as the French popular electorate massively rejects austerity measures.

It is also worth asking what is so “radical” or “extreme” about the positions of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the LFI: surtaxing great fortunes? Strengthening public social welfare services? Be against NATO or in favor of the formation of a Palestinian state? All these axes – distributive justice, valorization of the public and defense of the self-determination of peoples – were key elements of most, if not all, leftist programs, radical or moderate, of the last hundred years, with different emphases in the North and in the Global South.

Treating them as equivalent to a program that openly preaches the mass deportation of refugees and the denial of full citizenship to non-white people is authentic absurdity for anyone who calls themselves “Democrat” or even “Republican”. In other words, the heirs of Leon Blum and the Popular Front of the 1930s and those of Marshal Petain and Vichy collaborationism are being treated as equivalent.

This logic of “two extremes” sounds quite familiar to Brazilian ears. After all, how many times during Jair Bolsonaro's government (2019-2022) were voices heard treating as “extreme” the leadership of Lula, whose moderation and proclivity towards conciliation are more than proverbial, and of the then far-right president?

Last year, when the current President appointed Márcio Pochmann, a left-wing economist with a solid academic career, to the direction of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), a series of representatives from the major Brazilian media outlets compared the appointment to that of General Eduardo Pazuelo for the Ministry of Health during the previous government, suggesting that both would be “deniers”, whether of the “laws” of economics or medicine.

Finally, in recent weeks, we have seen how a speculative attack on the national currency was attributed, almost in unison by economic and political commentators, to Lula's supposed “incendiary” statements, which limited himself to defending social spending and criticizing the President of the Central Bank, Roberto Campos Neto, for openly playing politics with the opposition, posing in public with the current governor of São Paulo and likely candidate for Bolsonarism in 2026, Tarcísio de Freitas.

Even though the positions taken by Lula and the Workers' Party (PT), in the Brazilian context, are much more moderate than those of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the LFI, in the French context, the message of the defenders of the “extreme-center ” on both sides of the Atlantic is the same: the condition of the commitment to prevent the rise of the extreme right, call it Marine Le Pen or Jair Bolsonaro, is the complete withdrawal of any claim by the left to implement its own program, leaving intact the pillars of fiscal austerity and rentier capital accumulation.

The result, as Italian economist Clara Matei points out, in her approach to austerity policies in the wake of the 2008 capitalist crisis, is to continue to feed the sources of popular discontent on which far-right leaders and groups feed, stigmatizing them as scapegoats, whether immigrants in the global North or subalternized racial or gender groups in the South.

This is the great lesson of the last French elections, which would be very useful to learn in Brazilian lands: there will be no way to defeat the extreme right without accepting left-wing forces and their programmatic platforms as interlocutors, both in the political arena and in the public debate. We have a long tradition to be proud of in defense of social majorities, without which democracy makes little or no sense.

Our liberal interlocutors, who do not need to agree with us, could at least, if they have a genuine interest in blocking the heirs of Vichy or “operation Condor”, listen to us and engage seriously in a frank debate about the complexity of the acute problems of contemporary times. .

André Kaysel is a professor at the Department of Political Science at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). Author, among other books, of Between the nation and the revolution (Mall). [https://amzn.to/4bBbu4P]


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