Shades of Sanders: French presidential candidate and socialist Jean-Luc Melenchon draws a crowd at a rally in Rennes, France, on March 26. (David Vincent / AP)

The major Western countries are undergoing their first significant political realignment since the end of the Cold War. France is currently taking center stage in this drama, and its rising star is the “French Bernie Sanders,” Jean-Luc Melenchon — another socialist from Sanders’ generation. Last summer, after the spectacular challenge of Sen. Sanders came within striking distance of winning the Democratic nomination, I wrote that there are now three ideologies vying for control in Western politics: 1) The old order, seemingly in decline, represented by establishment center-left and center-right politicians; 2) the proto-fascist, ethnocentric nationalists of the far right; and 3) a reinvigorated, radical social-democratic challenge from the left. I also concluded that only choice No. 3 offers any hope for the maintenance of prosperous democratic societies and that we will remain in the grip of a severe political-economic-social-cultural crisis until “Team 3” gets a chance at governing a major advanced democracy. The current situation in France reflects this analysis, a point slightly confused by the fact that there are five main candidates. That said, independent politician Emmanuel Macron and the conservative nominee Francois Fillon clearly belong to Team 1, and Marine Le Pen to Team 2. Meanwhile, the insurgent Socialist Party nominee Benoit Hamon and longtime leftist Melenchon stand firmly in Team 3. Since only Le Pen has unified one of the ideological tendencies, she is almost sure to be in the runoff that will follow two weeks after the first round of balloting April 23. Sadly, the left candidates, who would seem to have enough support between them to qualify for a runoff, are unable to unify their efforts in order to outpoll Le Pen or Macron, who currently is leading the fading, scandal-ridden Fillon. The tragedy, of course, is that just like the American scenario of 2016, the final competition will probably feature two candidates — neither of whom promises to seriously address French society’s ills and will ultimately only oversee a deepening crisis. The promise of this moment comes from the fact that the only candidate surging in the polls is Melenchon (just 4 percent or 5 percent behind co-leaders Macron and Le Pen in the latest surveys), who is speaking to overflow crowds across the country. His followers hang onto his every word as he outlines detailed plans to redistribute wealth, commit France to the strongest environmental program in the world and use the power inherent in Europe’s second-largest economy to rewrite the European social contract such that working people and the average citizen are no longer at the mercy of Berlin, finance capital and the 1 percent. Like Sanders, Melenchon is animating a vision of a world in which most of us want to live. That vision stands in marked contrast to Team 1’s program, which maintains an imbalanced, oligarchic social order, and Team 2’s reactionary fever dream of reversing history. Is it really possible to state with such certainty the future success, or lack thereof, of these political tendencies as I do at the top of this essay? Of course not — but then again, yes. It seems quite straightforward with Teams 1 and 2; if you simply apply their policy programs to the current state of affairs in French society, the predictable consequences are strikingly apparent. Le Pen, as I’m sure readers will agree, would be a nightmare for France, Europe and the world, exacerbating tensions within the society and elevating naked racism into a governing program in Europe for the first time since the disasters of World War II. Macron and/or Fillon simply represent “more of the same” — that is, the status quo. In the case of Fillon, his leadership would probably usher in a ratcheting-up of right-wing economic policies (the Thatcherization of France) that would only exacerbate wealth inequality and double down on the failed social compact of neoliberalism in which the average person works longer hours for less while accruing mountains of personal debt. In other words, a Macron or Fillon government only sets the table for a stronger challenge by Le Pen in five years’ time, as resentment would continue to grow across France toward a political establishment that serves the few with contempt for the many. The rise of Emmanuel Macron to the status of front-runner is surely a head-scratching mystery. An elite civil servant who became a wealthy banker/investor and then a central player in Francois Hollande’s administration without ever running for office, Macron oversaw the administration’s effort to change France’s labor laws, which led to the wholesale collapse of Hollande’s popularity (his 4 percent approval rating at that time may be the worst in recorded history).
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