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The difficult return of the left-right divide

Summary:
In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, four candidates had achieved between 20% and 24% of the vote: this means that many second rounds were possible and could have occurred, within a deeply fragmented political and ideological landscape. Until the last moment, the voters of 2022 also had to face considerable uncertainties, and in particular a choice between a second round between the extreme right and the right (Le Pen against Macron, which the vast majority of voters now and quite logically place on the right) or between the right and the left (Macron against Mélenchon). This choice is anything but trivial and carries with it considerable consequences for the kind of public deliberation that will occupy the country for a fortnight (and perhaps longer): a debate centred

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In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, four candidates had achieved between 20% and 24% of the vote: this means that many second rounds were possible and could have occurred, within a deeply fragmented political and ideological landscape. Until the last moment, the voters of 2022 also had to face considerable uncertainties, and in particular a choice between a second round between the extreme right and the right (Le Pen against Macron, which the vast majority of voters now and quite logically place on the right) or between the right and the left (Macron against Mélenchon). This choice is anything but trivial and carries with it considerable consequences for the kind of public deliberation that will occupy the country for a fortnight (and perhaps longer): a debate centred on the hunt for immigrants and Muslims in the first case, or the hope of a discussion on wages and working conditions, health and education, social and fiscal justice, renewable energy and public services in the second.

However, whatever the outcome of the election, we can already be sure of one thing: we will not see the peaceful return of a reassuring left-right divide. Firstly, because the general trend to the right-wingisation of the political landscape and the emergence of a powerful anti-migrant electoral bloc correspond to a strong trend, which Macronism in power has dangerously accentuated. Secondly, because it will take a long time for the forces of the left to unite and come to power.

Let’s start with the first point. Things are now written. By appropriating the economic programme of the right, Macron’s centrism has not only become more right-wing: it has also contributed to making the country more right-wing, by pushing the Republican right into a dead-end chase with the far right on identity issues. The most dangerous thing is the arrogance of the president-candidate, who claims to be re-elected without any debate or programme, or with botched measures that betray his fundamental elementary reaction to govern first and always for the first in line, by banking on the divisions of his opponents.

The ultimate in cynicism was reached with the issue of pensions. It should be remembered that to be entitled to a full pension in France, two conditions must be met: reaching the minimum legal age (currently 62) and validating the required length of contributions, which is increasing regularly and will soon reach 43 years (from the 1973 generation). In other words, for all those who have a higher education and start working at 22 years old or more, raising the legal age to 65 years old will have strictly no effect: under the current legislation they will already have to wait until 65 years old or more to have a full pension. On the other hand, for those who started working at 18, they will now have to wait until 65, i.e. 47 years of contributions, even though their life expectancy is lower than that of the former. To propose such a reform, while claiming that long careers will be spared, even though they are by definition the only ones who will be affected, is a gross lie. By behaving in this way, Macron allows Le Pen to present herself cheaply as the defender of the working classes and those who work hard.

The same thing happens when Le Pen proposes to reintroduce (in homeopathic doses) the tax on top financial wealth. The measure is largely hypocritical, since it also provides for the complete exemption of principal residences: multimillionaires owning a château in Saint-Cloud will be entitled to a sharp drop in their real estate wealth tax, while ordinary French people suffer property tax increases. But as long as Macron refuses to re-tax high financial assets, this too allows Le Pen to present herself as a popular candidate at low cost.

This explosive political cocktail of violent anti-migrant rhetoric and social measures for the white working classes has already worked successfully in Poland and Hungary. Further afield, it is also what allowed the Democrats to regain power after the US Civil War, with a platform that was segregationist towards blacks but more social than the Republicans towards whites (including towards Irish and Italian migrants). The risk today is that such a social-differentialist (or social-racist) posture will prevail in France. In concrete terms, if Macron does not urgently make a strong social gesture, on pensions and tax justice, then his arrogance may cause him to lose a second round against Le Pen.

Let’s come to the second point. For the left to regain power, it will have to reconcile the working classes of different origins, which are today deeply divided, and therefore bring back to it those who no longer believe in social and economic promises and who rely on anti-migrant measures to change their lot. This will require an ambitious programme for the redistribution of wealth and a sincere mea culpa on the errors of power. This will take time, because the rupture with the working classes is long-standing. The different parties (‘insoumis’, ecologists, socialists, communists, etc.) will have to overcome their resentments and come together again in a new popular, democratic and internationalist federation. You cannot criticise presidentialism while at the same time refusing internal democracy when it comes to choosing a candidate. You cannot advocate internationalism while limiting your defence of democracy to national borders. All the more reason to start working on this now.

Thomas Piketty
Thomas Piketty (7 May 1971) is a French economist who works on wealth and income inequality. He is a professor (directeur d'études) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), associate chair at the Paris School of Economics and Centennial professor at the London School of Economics new International Inequalities Institute.

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