Macron’s victory is not a defeat for populism

Yanis Varoufakis *

ATHENS – French President Emmanuel Macron was almost re-elected by a comfortable margin, in the face of a rivalry with which he shares a mutual hatred, which obscures a certain kind of interdependence between their two political camps. Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen may hate each other, but they have developed the kind of political coexistence that provides fatal insights into the current predicament in France, Europe and beyond.
The ghost of Le Pen’s victory has continued the tradition of helping the incumbent return to the Elysee. Before Macron, exactly twenty years ago, Jacques Chirac succeeded in uniting 82% of the electorate against Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s father).
But this time it was different. In 2002, fear of Jean-Marie Le Pen motivated Chirac’s victory. In 2022, it was a two-way street: while Le Pen Macron certainly helped gather a clear majority of voters, Macron also supported Le Pen. The result speaks for itself: the far-right received 42% of the vote. Over the past five years, Macron and Le Pen’s interdependence has grown, not in spite of, but at least in part because of the mutual hatred between the two rivals.
Chirac’s re-election in 2002 was built on a coalition of right, center and left against the xenophobic far right. Five years ago, with the same threat from the right, Macron broke the mold by presenting himself as neither a left nor a right. That strategy worked, but to a greater extent than it should have: Macron’s mantra of “neither left nor right” tainted the minds of those who vehemently opposed it.
Young people, the precarious (living in a fragile and uncertain socio-economic situation), and increasingly the most insecure parts of the proletariat increasingly refuse to evaluate presidential candidates on the basis of the left-right separation. They see how France is ruled by a strange world of money that not only left them behind, but also kept them trapped there with no hope of progress. From their perspective, Macron embodies this world. They see that the new political division is between respected politicians who promise to preserve this world and independent thinkers who promise to destroy it.
In the televised debate between the two candidates, Macron has managed to present himself as an example of a competent official and a competent manager who understands the system and can handle it better. But that does not impress voters who want to inflate the system rather than run it better.
Macron’s approach reminded me of the Remainers in Britain who did not predict the blitzkrieg mentality that characterized a retirement. The more these voters are told through maps and statistics that Brexit will cause them suffering, the more excited they are about the idea of ​​making collective sacrifices to destroy a system they believe is designed to work against their interests.
Going back to the comparison with the 2002 election in France, there is a big difference between the multi-sectarian coalition that supported Chirac and Macron’s radical slogan, “Neither left nor right”. Twenty years ago, left-wing voters endorsed a right-wing politician to oust Le Pen. Chirac realized that these voters’ votes were borrowed from established political forces such as the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, and he ruled as if on the basis of a tacit contract with fierce critics of the establishment. In 2017, by contrast, Macron managed to eliminate both left and right before invoking the ghost of Le Pen to ensure complete control.
Once he arrived at the Elysee, with an absolute majority in the National Assembly, Macron continued to pursue his agenda free from the commitments that Chirac had chained, bound only by the shackles of massive funding and a financially sober and obligation to the European Union. Within a few years, he had succeeded in making Paris more business-friendly, reviving the French opening scene and clearly influencing the official unemployment rate.
But the layer of pericaria has expanded. Many voters saw their prospects decline as a direct result of policies that seemed to them to have waged a direct class war against them personally: tax cuts for the super-rich, deregulation related to retrenchments, a regressive carbon tax and insistence on dramatically raising the retirement age in a country where the average life expectancy of the poor is about 13 years lower than that of wealthy men.
This reality became the basis for the intensifying reactions between Macron and Le Pen’s political actions. Despite the absence of any suspicion of collusion, it is clear that both are sensitive to each other. The dynamics between them form a new political impasse that helps facilitate a new type of capital accumulation in favor of a new ruling class. Macron eventually serves this class, and his rule is strengthened when someone like Le Pen represents the official opposition.
None of the foregoing will be construed as a reluctance to take any side. Five years ago, I invited everyone who could listen to me to vote for Macron against Le Pen. All I needed was the idea of ​​the sheer desire of my French friends, especially those of black color, for the possibility that Le Pen could get his hands on the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs.
This year, despite the decision by DiEM25 (Movement for Democracy in Europe 2025, to which I belong) to issue the same recommendation to French members, this task proved to be extremely difficult. The impact of the payout between Macron and Le Pen has narrowed the space between them over fundamental issues of human rights and dignity. How can we forget Gerald Darmanin, Macron’s Home Secretary, who denounced Le Pen last year for being “too lenient with immigration”?
Indeed, politicians like Macron everywhere fail to support the liberal rationality they claim they advocate. By hiding behind the banner of “neither left nor right”, they supported the irrational combination of austerity and bank bailouts that led to 12 years of stagnation and prevented any serious investment in green energy. During the pandemic, they turned a blind eye to unjustified violations of civil rights. Today, they do not hesitate to demonize the moderates who warn against an escalation of NATO-Russia conflict, and who support the pursuit of a US-Russian agreement that will allow neutral Ukraine to join the European Union, but it from NATO will keep. .
The moral of Macron’s re-election is that the divide between left and right remains a fundamental necessity in class-dominated societies. And when centrist politicians manage to disguise this fact, they get caught up in a dynamic feedback loop with the far right making them sound more vocal and less irrational, while the far right seem infinitely more convincing. That is, they lose even when they win.

Translated by: Ibrahim M. Ali
* A former Greek finance minister, leader of the MeRA25 party and professor of economics at the University of Athens.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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