French Election Highlights the Failure to Address Unemployment and Inequality

Scott Harris from Between the Lines, a weekly radio newsmagazine, interviews Prof. Richard Wolff on the recent French Presidential elections.

As most polls predicted, the second round of the May 7 French presidential election was won by centrist novice politician and former economy minister Emanuel Macron, defeating Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party by a margin of 66 to 34 percent. Macron, a former investment banker, now confronts an economy where 10 percent of French workers are unemployed – and an environment of rising job insecurity and anger which attracted a record number of voters to support Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and xenophobic platform.

While economy minister under outgoing Socialist President François Hollande, Macron was the architect of a 2015 law that reduced worker protections, provoking widespread labor union protests. Now as president, he has promised to make France more competitive by cutting public sector jobs, reducing government spending, reforming pension laws and reducing corporate taxes.

But the economic policies prescribed by Macron, closely follow the edicts of the European Union’s so-called “troika,” the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that promote austerity, which in the view of many economists has led to stagnation and high unemployment. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics and author, who assesses the results of the French presidential election in the context of high unemployment and growing income inequality.

RICHARD D.WOLFF: If you add up all the eligible voters – and the French have a fairly long tradition of having much higher turnouts in their elections than we do – if you take all of them that were eligible to vote, Mr. Macron, the winner, got 43 percent of the eligible French voters to vote for him. So he didn't get anywhere near a majority. But if you add to that, as you must, the fact that at least a quarter to a third of the vote he did get was in no way a vote for him, as the people said on their way out of the polls – but a vote against Marine Le Pen, the right-wing, quasi- or partly fascist kind of candidate, then Mr. Macron becomes the president of France with a stunningly weak performance, with a stunningly small part of the French population having any enthusiasm or any support for what he represents. And there should be no surprise about this, because he was an economy minister in the previous government of socialist Francois Hollande, which came into power promising the French working class it would stop austerity, that it would reverse the policies of the conservative government and build a new economy for France by helping the people in the middle and the bottom – betrayed all that, became so unpopular that Mr. Hollande could not run for re-election as he originally planned to do. Drove Mr. Macron to be so frightened about the future political association with Mr. Hollande that he quit the socialist party, set up his own party and ran this election.

This is a sign of a society that is very fast polarizing and one-third of the votes went for Ms. Le Pen, and she's very clearly based her entire pitch on being "France No. 1," sort of like Trump's "America No. 1" or "Make America Great Again." She's viciously anti-immigrant in every way and has been for a long time, scapegoating and blaming immigrants who are not of course the cause of the difficulties of French capitalism to say the least. That's her schtick. Luckily, a large past of France is not willing to do that yet. But they are very dissatisfied with what exists. And having elected Mr. Macron, they have literally put into office a person they have already in a big majority said, is of no interest and of no importance to them. On the contrary, they disagree with everything he says and has done for most of his short political career. So this is a highly destabilizing event in French politics and will disrupt and destabilize Europe even more than it already is.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Wolff, I wondered if you'd lay out your concern that if the economic and political elites in Europe and the United States don't make some major changes in reversing rising income inequality in the U.S. and Europe, that you're going to inevitably see the rise of the right as we've already found to be true in the United States and Europe. That at some point they could become a dangerous threat and undermine democratic institutions across the globe.

RICHARD D.WOLFF: Well, I think in general, the ruling groups in the United States and Europe are making so much money – which they are – by cashing in on the very problems that they're causing the rest of their citizens by moving production to low-wage areas so they can make more profit. They are completely in denial. They are blind, they are doing real well. It's the one, two, three, four percent. They live luxuriously; they have an army of servants of one kind or another to take care of them. They're not going to change what they're doing because they're making out like bandits, which is basically what they are. So I expect nothing to change in that way. Therefore, I expect the instability and the inequality to continue as it has uninterruptedly in the last 25, 40 years. And that means we're going to provoke mass dissatisfaction.

I am of the opinion that that could go either to the left, or to the right. If the left remains as divided and unclear about where it's going to take society, then it will mostly go to the right. And that's already happening and that frightens a lot of people. And that's probably good thing. But it leaves the basic question unresolved, which is, What do you do about out-of-control capitalism that has no brakes any more, that doesn't have enough of the people with a broader sense of what's going on?

o it's hell-bent on making money and continuing along the same lines that it has always functioned and lets the chips fall where they may. Under these circumstances, the left has got to focus itself on becoming the potent force it could be by getting clear where it's going or else the alternative will be growing turbulence, growing social conflict and the rise of the right because the left doesn't offer the mass of disgruntled people a way forward.

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