Laurence Dorman writing about...

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The French left marches towards its own gentrification

Emmanuel Macron’s ‘En Marche !’ movement is poised to seize the biggest majority of any government of the Fifth Republic after the first round of the legislative elections on Sunday. In the wake of this seismic shift, the left lies in ruins.

This is a translation of an article by political scientist Virginie Martin published on the Conversation France shortly after Macron’s election as president in May.

Gentrification is a term normally used to describe the sociological metamorphosis of working class areas into more middle class ones, with the arrival on the scene of professionals in the knowledge and entertainment sectors, but also other white-collar workers such as engineers, and finally members of the professional-managerial classes as well as doctors and lawyers. It’s a phenomenon that is observable in certain quartiers of Paris, which little by little has become a “city without people”.

This metamorphosis is just as evident in politics, notably within the French socialist or social-democratic left. The French left that will have finally shed its skin in carrying Emmanuel Macron to power, he who has carried the standard of economic liberalism at the same time as a genuine albeit timorous form of cultural liberalism.

In the right place at the right time

Indeed it is this left above all that has brought the new president to power, thus completing its own gentrification. Firstly, 45% of those who voted for François Hollande in 2012 gave their support to Macron in the first round of the elections, though for differing reasons; some voted tactically, others were perplexed by Benoît Hamon - the official candidate to Hollande’s succession having won the socialist party primaries -, and many were left nonplussed by the complex coverage of the campaign in the media.

Secondly, a number of left-wing campaigning groups such as the Jean Jaurès Foundation - the president of which was invited to Macron’s inauguration on the 14 May - published papers demonstrating how Macron was the right person in the right place at the right time. In the same vein, Terra Nova, a traditional-left-wing think-tank, cannot be said to be blameless for the outcome, and indeed publications from these circles helped to form the mould of the current president, with prominent members of the milieu attending meetings at Bercy during his time there as finance minister.

Finally, at top of the pyramid, numerous minsters and other figureheads of this so-called socialist or even ecologist left gave little support to Benoît Hamon, preferring Emmanuel Macron instead. Many in the socialist power matrix, including a considerable number in its base, but also right up through the middle management to the top brass migrated towards movement that fell in line with the president’s ‘march’.

Substitute the working class

This movement represents a sort of gentrification of the left, its ‘bourgeoisification’ and its visible and even unashamed break with the working classes. For two decades we have seen how a section of the working class has turned away from this left in order to embrace the Front National. This year however marks another step in the process: it’s as if the Macron presidency served to solidify this break, this electoral and sociological development. Let us return to the aforementioned Terra Nova, which published a report on the occasion of the previous presidential elections entitled “the Left, what electoral majority for 2012?”. What did this report have to say?

It advised that the left make a shift in its electoral foundations, broadly, to substitute out the working class for something else. Its main recommendation was to turn away from the working class so as to turn towards an electorate that stood for “the France of tomorrow”; which was “younger, more diverse, more feminised, better educated and more culturally progressive”.

The working class no longer appeared to be a viable target for a number of reasons, partly because it was in the midst of demographic decline, partly because it voted less and less for the left, and finally because - according to the the reports’ authors - its values were too structured around “inward-looking reactionism” and it was therefore no longer “in tune with the left’s values”. In the report, the working and middle class vote were seen only as “strategic extras”.

A liberal transformation, completed

Macron’s election consummates this sociological and political transformation. It leaves the Socialist Party bled dry and slots the final piece of the puzzle into place, by fusing two entities - a feminine, urban, diverse France (those that some pejoratively call the bobos), and an ‘Ivy League’ or ‘Silicon Valley’ France, made up of engineers and start-uppers. It’s an exact reproduction of the gentrification that Paris has undergone, or indeed other large cities, here transplanted onto a political movement that has condensed into ‘En Marche !’.

A movement that talks about liberalism, empowerment, freedom, self-government, not to mention the concept of ‘self-start-up’. Today, this liberal transformation, this electoral migration is completed, even surpassed by itself: gentrified France has brought about the demise of the historic socialist left, with the working classes partly flocking to Jean-Luc Mélenchon though largely resting faithful to Marine Le Pen. As for the liberal movements, they have reconciled themselves with each other at the heart of an elitist bloc coming from both the left and the right. It should be noted in passing how the various groupings that some content themselves naming ‘populists’ do not add up to a single force, unlike their liberal equivalents.

Macron’s election tells the story of the end of this process, in a sort of a redux of the referendum on the European constitution of 2005, with the urban France that looks out across the Atlantic set against the one which looks inwards to Europe, the France of the insiders against the France of the outsiders. It seems in the end that as is the case with nature, politics hates a void, and with the end of the left-right divide has replaced it with one of class. We’ve gone back to the future.