Lyon, declared the front page of its city paper Le Progrès, is now the “capital of [France’s] presidential election.” On the weekend of February 4-5, less than three months before a vote that may determine not just the future of France but the future of the European Union, the country’s third-largest city was host to the three political forces bent on destroying the political domination of France’s establishment parties.
Both of those two parties are currently mired in crisis and division. François Fillon of the center-right Republicans is struggling to recover from a potentially career-ending scandal: His wife and children received over 1 million euros—largely in public funds—for allegedly fictitious labor. Meanwhile, the center-left Socialist Party faces an internal civil war between a neoliberal party apparatus and its new presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, who aims to revitalize left-wing social democracy.
The way is open for an upset candidacy; polls suggest that the final run-off will be between Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front and Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist economics minister who has formed his own neoliberal party. The third candidate drawing large crowds in Lyon was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of Unsubmissive France (La France insoumise), another defector from the beleaguered Socialists, this time from the left.
The convergence of Macron, Le Pen, and Mélenchon showcased the three-way war-of-ideas dividing France, and the European Union as a whole. Electrified by Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House, an increasingly organized, chauvinistic nationalism finds itself close to power, promising the dissolution of the European project and a return to the “eternal” nation-state. An aloof and technocratic neoliberalism vows to forge ahead with untrammeled economic globalization—whatever the cost to those left behind in its wake. Finally, France’s new democratic left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, argues that the continent will be saved from the abyss of fascism only by a fundamental renewal of its social and economic contract. He represents a growing rebellion on the French left against both the Socialist Party—now led by Benoît Hamon—and its traditional loyalty to European integration.
As the doors to the main convention hall at the Cité Internationale de Lyon open on Saturday morning, National Front insiders, groups of young activists, and devoted supporters mingle in anxious anticipation. Journalists flock around the highest-ranking party members. It’s a closed-door convention—only card-holding members have access to the speeches and social events, including Sunday’s “patriotic luncheon.” To dissuade potential protesters or overzealous hacks, burly men wander the rooms in jackets bearing a crest marked by a gold laurel wreath and the letters “DPS,” for Département Protection Sécurité—the National Front’s private paramilitary force, consisting of some 1,500 former police officers and military veterans.
For some, this moment is the product of a lifetime’s work. Frédéric Boccaletti joined the National Front in 1995, when it was still a relatively minor fixture on the political scene, serving mainly as the eccentric stage for Jean-Marie Le Pen and his xenophobic and anti-Semitic ramblings. Boccaletti quickly rose through the ranks and is now a member of the central committee, having held multiple municipal and regional-level positions in Provence, a region where the National Front has always enjoyed support.
The French, Boccaletti tells me, are more receptive than ever to what he calls Marine Le Pen’s unifying, patriotic message: “Twenty-five years ago there was not really the problem of Islamization. We’ve evolved to a national party because the people no longer really have the impression of being in France. There has been an overflow of unassimilated immigrants from isolated neighborhoods out everywhere into our central cities.”
It is this reality, Boccaletti says, completely ignored for decades by establishment parties, that will deliver France into the hands of the National Front come May. “The French have realized that we don’t have a two-party system, we have a Socialiste-Républicain party. The left-right distinction no longer means anything. There has been no change of power from Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande [the presidents since 1981].… it’s an unending continuation. And it’s happening in the United States too, with Trump: it’s global.”
For many, conversion to the far right has been more recent, a radicalization by disillusionment. Former Greens, former supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon, and even former Socialists, they’ve grown increasingly wary of politics-as-usual. Such is the case of 19-year old Antoine Kieffer, who describes his decision to support the National Front as an awakening: “I asked myself why there was such a circus around this party. Why there was so much hatred from the mediocracy. I looked at their program. The party has changed, history advances. Globalization is over. We’ve arrived at a revival of the nation-state.” A middle-aged woman who has only recently decided to support the National Front, dismayed by the Républicains in general and by the scandals shaking Fillon’s candidacy, speaks on condition of anonymity: “We have to follow Trump. He has changed the paradigm and we need to follow the current of history. The United States is still the most powerful country in the world.”
The party’s determination to bring France into a new, post-global world filled the weekend’s speeches. As the party leader arrived in the convention hall to chants of “Marine! Marine! Marine!,” David Rachline, a senator and mayor, delivered an opening paean to an “eternal, independent France,” outside the European Union and free from “Brussels’ suit-wearing dictators.” Le Pen, he said, will “restore order,” “repair the ship of France so that it can assume its rightful place among the new concert of nations.”
By the time Marine Le Pen made her fire-and-brimstone denunciation of globalization and cosmopolitanism on Sunday afternoon, the audience was drunk on nationalism. To chants of “On est chez nous!” (“This is our home!”), Le Pen castigated the twin “totalitarianisms” of “globalized jhadism” and “globalized business.”
Over the two-day conference, a hazy picture of the country’s future under a Le Pen presidency took shape: Students in all schools will wear uniforms. A new patriotic ethos will suffuse the nation. Fifty percent of primary education will focus on the mastery of the French language. All undocumented immigrants will be categorically denied citizenship. Economic recovery will come with massive investments in the military, and France will build a new nuclear aircraft carrier.
Five miles away on the south side of Lyon, a very different collection of the disillusioned gathers on Saturday afternoon. Tables along the walkway to a large sports arena are piled with copies of the book L’État en mode Start-Up (“The State in Start-Up Mode”), with a foreword by the new star of French public life.
It is not for nothing that Emmanuel Macron’s new political movement, En Marche!, has been compared to one large start-up, or “Macron Company,” as the online magazine Mediapart termed it. Walking around the sports arena in the hour before Macron’s speech is like visiting a technology expo or Apple superstore. Dozens of volunteers wearing T-shirts of various colors that read “En Marche!” (Forward!) and “L’Équipe” (The Team) wait to usher spectators to their seats and give pitches to interested journalists.
Jaafar Greinch, a twenty-something owner of a small consulting business, directs his own local club of En Marche! in the suburbs of Lyon. They hold frequent meetings with voters attracted to Macron’s still-amorphous program. They are dismayed, he tells me, by the seeming disconnect between the traditional political parties and the actual experiences of French workers and entrepreneurs in a changing economy. “Our meetings are very open and we always have all different sorts of people,” he continues, “whether from the left or the right.” They want someone who knows that “we are no longer in 1958, that we are in a digital world where the labor market is entirely fluid.”
What Greinch is hinting at is Macron’s original cause célèbre, the events that launched him from obscurity into the public spotlight as one of the country’s most hated or most respected politicians. In 2015 and 2016, France was for several weeks gripped by a series of strikes, massive protests, and occupations of public squares. The cause: a series of labor laws designed to reform the county’s work statutes, making it easier for businesses to hire and fire employees and creating new categories of precarious workers without the social protections guaranteed by full contracts. The primary instigator of the reforms was none other than Macron, who was at the time serving as the minister of the economy in François Hollande’s government. To his detractors, Macron’s entire political profile has become synonymous with a new buzzword in French political language: l’uberisation.
For those assembled here, however, he incarnates responsibility, pragmatism, and the best face of a modern, globalized, and proudly European France. Countless supporters refer to him as the new Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French forces during World War II and the defining statesman of postwar France. They see Macron as a figure who promises to save France from what they see as the two extremes of fascism and left-wing nostalgia. The establishment parties are too embedded in their own apparatuses and webs of interests to make the changes that would liberate France from its past. Macron represents, as Greinch put it, nothing short of “the renewal of the political class.”
And the political class turns out for him. Christophe Charles and Sylvain Laignel have been friends for many years. The two are mayors of small communes south of Lyon, the former an old admirer of Jacques Chirac, France’s center-right and unabashedly pro-European president between 1995 and 2007, and the latter a former member of a Socialist Party that he fears has no future. “Emmanuel Macron is going to save us,” Laignel says with all earnestness. “France is running out of time.” Charles completes his friend’s thoughts: “Our old parties no longer reflect French society, but there is a silent majority in France that will rally behind Macron. He’s the only rampart against extremism. Macron is Europe.” In contrast to Le Pen’s rally across town, the European Union flag is as popular here as the French Tricolore.
The rally has the feeling of a mass conversion. As supporters file into the auditorium, large screens air online testimonials from people confessing that they had never been involved in political life before or felt themselves represented by any political party. After the virtual declarations of faith, celebrities—from a former Olympian to mathematician and former Fields Medal winner Cédric Villani—profess their support for the young rogue politician. “We saw what Obama did in the United States,” one speaker shouts into the microphone, “and we knew we could have change here!”
Many people here explicitly compare Macron to Obama, and it’s hard to shake the impression that I’ve seen this show before. For Macron’s promise of a more open French society (one of the high points of his speech was his declaration that “there is no such thing as French culture, but there is a culture in France”) comes with all the advantages and limitations of Obama’s liberalism. Macron embraces the reality of a diverse and multicultural France, but his self-identification as a progressive ends just about there.
Rather, he is the flesh-and-bone incarnation of the French and European status quo that was the target of so much ire among the other two crowds assembled in Lyon last weekend. He is someone for whom the system has worked: A diploma from the finest high school in Paris took him to the prestigious training grounds of the elite at Sciences Po and the Ecole Normale D’Administration, which serves as a pipeline to the upper echelons of the French state and the country’s largest multinational corporations. And it is in these two, interconnected worlds that Macron has stayed ever since, moving between the ministry of the economy and the investment banking house Rothschild, where he orchestrated a 9 billion euro deal between Nestlé and Pfizer and earned himself the nickname “the Mozart of Finance.”
Macron’s pledge to “reconcile France with the world” elicited thunderous applause from the audience. A prime target of En Marche! is the nostalgia that supposedly grips the country’s political life, from the radical left to Marine Le Pen’s ethno-nationalists. Yet one could just as easily say that Macron’s is the most nostalgic candidacy of them all: He embodies a faith in globalized markets that once captured the hearts and minds of European leaders and that has been unraveling since 2008. With Western Europe’s largest and most organized fascist party meeting at the same time five miles up the Rhone River, the optimism among the supporters of En Marche! seems ironic at best.
On Sunday afternoon, Jean-Luc Mélenchon takes the stage at Lyon’s Eurexpo to chants of “Résistance! Résistance! Résistance!” from a massive crowd of 12,000 supporters. He snaps his fingers and appears simultaneously via hologram before a crowd of 6,000 more in Paris. The 65-year-old veteran of the French left bellows into the microphone: “You have here in the same city the three political forces vying for the support of the French people.… Who do we see? On one side, Madame Le Pen with her ethnic communitarianism nourished by a thick syrup of family clannishness…. And then you have with panache Monsieur Macron, who embodies…an entire body of thought, which we have cruelly suffered these last 30 years: economic liberalism, every man for himself, everyone in competition with everyone.”
That energy carries Mélenchon through his winding, 90-minute speech. “You have to choose,” he continues. “You are going to choose in this crucial moment. We have already lost 10 years. The 21st century has already started, and we continue to lumber along with political and intellectual ideas formed out of a completely used and obsolete mold. And we must break away in the most peaceful and rapid manner!”
It is Mélenchon’s promise of an immediate and total break with the centrism of the Socialist Party that attracts many of his supporters. Since he formed the Left Front in the lead-up to the 2009 EU elections, it has even acquired a name, le dégagisme—a term taken from the protests in Tunisia that ignited the Arab Spring in 2011. Echoing Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution,” Mélenchon calls for a “citizens’ revolution,” the abolition of a “monarchical presidency” with unchecked powers (the current constitution enabled Hollande and Macron to pass their labor reforms by decree), and the immediate founding of a sixth republic.
These convictions are born of a deep sense of betrayal, primarily by the Socialist Party. Many in attendance had long given up on the Socialists and supported Mélenchon’s candidacy in 2012, which garnered some 11 percent of the vote in the first round. More significant, however, are the recent converts, disillusioned by the failures of president Hollande.
Antonia Rocci, a student from Lyon, is among the latter. Like many here, she voted for Hollande in 2012, out of the desire to block the bombastic Sarkozy from a second term and in the hope that Hollande would deliver radical change, both in France and in Europe. She recalls the sense that Hollande would challenge German-led austerity in France and across Southern Europe. “We’re a lost generation,” Rocci admits, declaring that she’ll never again cast a strategic vote for a moderate candidate. “It will always be the same with Socialist governments.” Gilles Carlotti agrees: “Hollande abdicated. He didn’t follow what he promised during the campaign and I saw from the very beginning that he had reversed on changing the European Union. I was very optimistic. It was a great shame for democracy.”
These are sentiments heard across Europe in recent years as traditional social democratic parties have gone into decline. Political forces from Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in Britain have born witness to the rise of a new radical left. But these parties have mainly offered a reversal of social democracy’s rightward drift since the 1980s, rather than a new vision beyond the old welfare-state contract between workers and capital.
Mélenchon has made it his goal to construct such a vision. The author of more than 12 books, he has long been more than just a politician on the French left. Indeed, Mélenchon’s program, The Common Future, has become one of the best-selling books in France since its publication in early December. The centerpiece of his plan for a new social and economic contract is an immediate planned transition to a green-energy society. He calls for a war-like social mobilization to green the French economy and move away entirely from fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Of course there are obstacles to such a radical program. The experiences of Mélenchon’s counterparts—like Syriza in Greece, whose efforts to renegotiate Greek debt were greeted in 2015 with a stone-faced “no” from Brussels—have hardened the conviction of some on the left that the European Union and social democracy are dead ends. “No progressive politics,” Mélenchon yells into the microphone, “is possible without leaving the European treaties.” This is an implicit dig at Benoît Hamon, the recent victor of the Socialist primary and Mélenchon’s chief rival on the French left, who remains more guarded in his criticism of the European Union.
Yet Mélenchon’s effort to build a center of gravity outside the stagnant and rightward-drifting Socialist Party seems to have born fruit. Hamon’s victory in the Socialist primary on January 29 was the product of the same disillusionment that fueled Mélenchon’s total break in 2008. Noting his proposals for a universal income and calls for a new republic and constitution, Mélenchon greeted Hamon’s victory as a demonstration of the “hegemony of our ideas” on the French left.
But the fact remains that the Socialist Party still finds itself much closer to a figure like Macron than to Mélenchon. Many of the highest-level party officials failed to attend the new candidate’s investiture. Manuel Valls (Hamon’s defeated opponent and the dominant leader of the party’s neoliberal wing), Ségolène Royal (the party’s candidate in 2007), and Bernard Cazeneuve (the acting prime minister after Valls’s resignation) were all absent from Hamon’s ceremony in Paris, which took place the same afternoon as Mélenchon’s dual rally in Lyon and Paris.
That Mélenchon would reach out to become a junior partner in a coalition with a Socialist Party still largely under the leadership of such figures remains wishful thinking, despite the fact that the party base has much in common with the leader of Unsubmissive France. Such obstinacy could also be the result of strategic thinking—or personal ambition—that goes beyond this election. If the Socialists are impossibly divided between a neoliberal party apparatus and a left-wing base, it’s only a matter of time before the house comes falling down and the only “progressives” left standing are Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron.
Jordan Ruynat, a student in Lyon and a volunteer for Mélenchon, told me without a shadow of a doubt in his eyes that “social democracy is dying and a new left is being born.” I asked him if there were any parallels between the current situation and the failed coalition between the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communists in 1932, whose combined votes would have prevented the Nazi Party from taking power. “It’s not a good comparison,” Ruynat responded. “Today’s political configuration is entirely different. [Unlike the French Socialists] the German SPD was actually on the left. And Le Pen has been so sanitized that people will vote for her anyway. The idea of a united front would favor the establishment, and that’s exactly what people want to destroy.”