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The ‘Outsiders’

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‘It’s going to be a very interesting election. But you know some outside things have happened that maybe will change the course of that race.’ This from Trump, speculating in an interview with the Financial Times about Marine Le Pen’s prospects in the French presidential election (round one on 23 April). As far as we know, Trump has yet to meet her. She got as far as Trump Tower in January, but the president elect was indisposed and Le Pen’s people said at the time that she never intended to meet him. She linked up instead with one of his aides-de-camp. Here she is having coffee with Guido Lombardi, who has a pied-à-terre in Trump Tower and was formerly the US representative of Italy’s Northern League. Both Le Pen and Lombardi like to spare a moment to mull over the scourge of immigration.

It’s as well for Le Pen that she missed a photo opportunity with Trump that could have come back to haunt her. She is angry and embarrassed by her favourite outsider’s missile strike on Shayrat airbase in Homs, after the sarin attack in Idlib province last Tuesday.

Yet Trump’s impulsive decision – one in the eye for Obama – does not mark an end to the ideological confusion that Europe is experiencing, with the new hard right and an older left refraining from objections to the Trump ascendancy, and to Brexit, on the grounds that the real enemy is liberal market ideology and the European behemoth that drives it. That is certainly Le Pen’s view. Her most eloquent opponent – Jean-Luc Mélenchon for La France insoumise, well to the left of the Socialist Party, who can make fools of his rivals in debate – happens to share it.

It’s hard to remember a period when far-right and left-of-left lived in such uneasy complicity, disagreeing, above all, on the observable ways in which they’re aligned. This is nothing like the dying days of the Third Republic, when Moscow forced the Communist Party to acquiesce in Nazi ambitions in Europe. The Hitler-Stalin pact brought turbulence and doubt to members and sympathetic observers. Paul Nizan left the party; Sartre wrote that the pact strengthened the enthusiasm of the French bourgeoisie for a war that would end up dissolving the party. But the stress that the French party laid on anti-imperialism as a justification for the pact finds an echo in Le Pen’s intense dislike of Western interventionism (Russian interventionism seems to be OK). Trump promised to step back from all that.

The German assault on Russian deployments in Poland in 1941 brought the Nazi-Soviet Pact to an end. Trump’s 59 missiles will not clear the lines. Both Le Pen and Mélenchon – who has the remains of the Communist Party behind him – are Russotropic. Le Pen turns towards Moscow for a paradigm of strong-man nationalism; her party has secured loans from Russian banks. Mélenchon still discerns a version of Republican socialism through the miasma rising from its monumental Euro-Asian past, including Bolshevism: his policies are grounded in a dynamic argument with old and terrible failures, including Stalinism. Both candidates are more or less wedded to Assad as a Russian satrap. Mélenchon in 2016, responding to a question about Putin’s involvement in Syria, replied: ‘I think he will sort out the problem.’ Le Pen, on a visit to Lebanon in February, hailed Assad as the only ‘viable solution’ in Syria.

Both contenders will modulate their positions and hope for the best. Mélenchon, the first candidate for the French presidency to open a YouTube channel, has said that he deplores the sarin attacks but won’t yet attribute them to Assad. He can still weave an ingenious path through the new Cold War discourse. Le Pen is in a tight spot. She took Trump to be a good omen for her campaign, but after Syria she is disabused, and looks embarrassed. Not so Mélenchon, whose prowess as a politician is propelling him slowly forward towards an honourable defeat. The latest Paris Match-Ifop real-time poll – ‘real time’ is 6 p.m. daily, Monday to Friday – has him in fourth place, about to edge past François Fillon, and well ahead of Benoît Hamon. In spite of her claim on TV on Sunday that ‘France’ was not responsible for the round-ups of Jews at the Vél d’Hiv, two years after the French defeat and a year after the Hitler-Stalin pact was broken, Marine Le Pen appears to be leading the field.

Comments on “The ‘Outsiders’”

  1. farthington says:

    This piece has a comparable tenor to all western mainstream commentary – albeit more expressed with greter panache in the Harding style – anybody who has any sympathy for Russia (now crudely personalised as ‘Putin’) is suspect. Indeed, there is a second current – anything that Le Pen or JLM believe in must be ‘off the spectrum’ by definition.
    The stark reality is that Brussels, whether on the European economy, or on its foreign policy (esp re the Middle East), is dead in the water – functionally and morally bankrupt. JLM and Le Pen know it. So does Asselineau. Macron, as befits his stellar patronage, will merely reinforce the impasse.
    IN passing, re the Nazi-Soviet pact, intolerable of course for the Western Communist Parties to slavishly follow Stalin’s orders. But the pact was a direct result of the British refusal to countenance a pact with the USSR, with France meekly falling into line. Michael Carley’s 1939 and Geoffrey Roberts’ The Soviet uNion and the ORigins of the Second World War are instructive in this regard.
    The Brits have found the Ruskies dangerous for a very long time – all that potantial pesky interference in their own imperial imperatives.

  2. Putting Le Pen and Mélenchon in the same bag is the preferred pastime of some of the laziest political commentators in France, followed by a close second of claiming some sort of complacency or admiration on Mélenchon’s part for Putin. There is no need to add to the numerous voices willfully or ignorantly blurring the lines for the sake of preserving… what? Liberal democracy in its current form? The European project? In either case it’s not going to work, there are too many people losing out in the current set-up and they are not going to go back in their box.

    If we cannot discuss reasonable alternatives to the current situation, be they economic or diplomatic, then we will only continue to see support for parties like Le Pen’s on the rise.

    There is a world of difference between singing the praises of Putin’s stoking of Russian national identity whilst making trips to Moscow to get loans to finance your presidential campaign – as Le Pen has done – and pointing out as Mélenchon has done that whomever the leaders of France and Russia might be at any given moment, it is important for them to co-operate and discuss with each other as partners, if we are not to persist in what appears to be a slide towards generalised conflict. De Gaulle had to deal with Stalin and they were not exactly from the same political traditions.

    Finally, the dubious value of polls notwithstanding, it might have been worth mentioning that Mélenchon is the only candidate that has gained between 8-9 points in the past 2 weeks or so. His surge has turned the campaign from a Macron/Le Pen showdown to a four-horse race, but he could go further. This time, facing a disintegrating Socialist party, he is not hampered by the ‘vote utile’ that made anxious left-wing voters prefer Hollande in 2012…

    Something is happening that might be very good news for France and the rest of the world as a result. People like Jeremy Harding – whose article on the elections in the 16 March 2017 edition was interesting and insightful – need to stop reading off the script nonetheless and take a closer look at the country at this uncertain time.

    • kadinsky says:

      Good post. People like Melenchon and Hamon are offering bold, big-picture solutions to the present impasse, one that has produced a surge in support surge for rightwing populists. Centrist politicians, advocating business-as-usual, directed by Big Money, will be no solution to anything.

  3. Max Stanfield says:

    Harding’s characterization of Melénchon combines standard Anglo-American prejudice and neocon-neoliberal groupthink on economic, and foreign policy. It’s hard to escape it these days. In an especially hard to digest morsel he has Melénchon still discerning “a version of Republican socialism through the miasma rising from its monumental Euro-Asian past, including Bolshevism: his policies are grounded in a dynamic argument with old and terrible failures, including Stalinism.” I’m not sure what Harding means associating French Republican socialism with a “monumental Euro-Asian past…” Surely it’s a bit of stretch! But the message is clearer when he grounds Melénchon’s policies in “a dynamic argument with old and terrible failure, including Stalinism”. Is this a reference to the influence of the Communist Party, which, when it last ran a candidate for president gained less than 2% of the vote, and whose advice was not sought when Melénchon declared his candidacy in the current election? Without getting into the finer points of an alternative to the standard western economic and geopolitical (now liberal) dogma, it’s worth pointing out that Melélenchon was a long time member of the Socialist Party, albeit on its left-wing, until 2008, a junior minister under Jospin in 2000, and that he appears to remain a great fan of Mitterrand, the man who obliterated the Communist Party. So Melénchon is closer to Jeremy Corbyn than Tony Blair. Is that Harding’s problem or does he not get French politics?
    The second point concerns Harding suggestively faulting Melénchon for not blaming Assad for last week’s gas attack. To my knowledge the evidence isn’t clear, unless of course we take Trump at his word. Peter Ford seems to agree. Is he another bad guy? Trump the preposterous clown, who can flip facts and policy on a dime, supported by the agencies that gave us the serial lies form Tonkin to Iraq and Libya is now the bearer of truth. And we’re to believe him at first blush.
    A final point. On Russia Meléchon’s has stated clearly he is in complete disaccord with Putin’s policies but he refuses to join the chorus of Russian bashing. On the question of Russian in Syria, he stated that Russian involvement is likely to resolve the problem… of eliminating ISIS.

  4. Stu Bry says:

    No one should be talking about a post Assad future unless they can actually define what that means.

    However none of our expert imperialists ever do as it is likely to mean chaos and death even beyond what we have witnessed in Iraq and Libya.

    The West clearly has zero interest in deescalating the conflict in either Syria or Yemen.

  5. The question for Laurence Dorman is: do you agree with Mélenchon that Putin will sort out Syria? I hope not to sound like the ‘laziest political commentators in France’, whoever they are, but Mélenchon and Le Pen have no objection to the way in which this Syrian solution is delivered: from the air. Trump, too, has got the hang of the aerial solution, even if he’s a volatile ally. He could just as well fire off missiles against the Syrian opposition if he saw images showing children of god injured by Bashar’s enemies. Who are god’s children?

    Farthington: thanks on ‘the Brits’ and the Russians. Do you mean that continental European populations — some of them — and their elected representatives have a better sense of Russia than the British media, which goad Westminster into hasty, baroque anti-Putin positions? If so, I’m with you. Why did liberal market democracies, swollen with hubris, close down the possibility of the European Russia that Gorbachev saw as the pay-off for folding up the Soviet Union?

    Grudging thanks to Stanfield, but how can socialists in a post-socialist world not have an argument about the past — the kind of argument that ‘Anglo-American prejudice’, as you call it, rules out? Would you vote for a left-wing candidate in Europe who knew nothing about the historic failures of socialism? Would you vote for a hard-right candidate who promised safety for a national workforce and an ethnic majority, without admitting where she came from? Trust Mélenchon on that one.

    • You are a long way from becoming Christophe Barbier or Franz-Olivier Gisbert, but I must insist: in a break with the habitual quality to which I am accustomed in your contributions to the LRB, you are not giving an authentic description of the situation.

      Mélenchon’s line on Syria does not consist of letting Putin “sort it out”. I am aware of the TV show from which you cite him on this, but he has replied to this in a blog post (melenchon.fr 30/03/16), which makes it clear that his position cannot be resumed in this way. Mélenchon continues in the Gaullist tradition of non-alignment with either the US or Russia – hence his proposition to exit NATO. As such, it is coherent that he does not automatically condemn Russia for its involvement in Syria. He made clear very recently on “L’Entretien Politique” on France 2 (viewable on YouTube) that Russia is the only state with which the Syrian government has a legal agreement. Does this mean it is legitimate? No, not necessarily but perhaps more legitimate than the US which carries out attacks on a sovereign state outside of any legal framework.

      Furthermore, at multiple instances but most recently in a conference dedicated to defence two weeks ago and at his rally in Marseille last Sunday which was themed on peace Mélenchon has held the same position as the UN: the violence must end and elections must be held, as difficult and fantastical as this might sound. Does the peace pass by Assad? Again, not necessarily, but we cannot have a negotiation without all the actors around the table. The only thing that everyone agrees on is eliminating Daech.

  6. farthington says:

    Re anti-Russia/Putin, I have no opinion on the current role of the British mainstream media as I don’t read any of it becauses it lacks credibility. Rather I am referring to a deeper current – a long-standing coolness or opposition to Russia/USSR, born of potential rivalries in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Near East and Central Asia. The Foreign Office appears to have been the core of this mentality.
    Thus when Litvinov tried ceaselessly to get the Brits and French into an anti-Nazi alliance (and the even more reluctant Poles), the Brits said go away. Far better that the Nazis follow their nose and annihilate the slav Russkies while we sit back and enjoy the carnage. The urbane Litvinov getting nowhere, Stalin replaces him with the apparatchik Molotov. As Stalin said at the time, holding his nose with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, this will give us time to marshall our defenses.
    As for European elected representatives having a better sense of Russia – where? who? NATO might be an American trojan horse, but its European top brass are as Stangelovian as the Yanks.
    Re Ukraine, Yanukovych went to Europe looking for cooperation, and all he got was a proposal equivalent to the Troika’s attitude to Greece. You can be welcomed into the ‘humanistic/civilised/ Western European fold as long as you agree to enslave yourself. Yanukovych rightly said, no thanks, and turned back to Russia as the more reasonable partner. For this rational response, he had to be deposed. And Russia is sanctioned for it. Hello?
    The gutlessnes, the subservience of European leaders is a sight to behold.

  7. IPFreely says:

    There’s a saying by Bismarck, the Realpolitiker that goes something like this: the key to decision-making in foreign policy depends on God’s will and that what you have to do is grab his coattails and let yourself be carried to victory. I am not sure how Putin would see this but the US president seems to have been getting inspiration from Above. Other ‘western’ leaders have been told, “put up or shut up,” remember the way he treated Frau Merkel? Trump is more dangerous by far than Putin. He has more weapons, more soldiers, more ships, far more aircraft and is completely free of moral scruples.

  8. Tanvyeboyo says:

    It may come as a surprise to readers of the article and comments, but the election will not be decided by policy towards Russia or Syria.
    Most French people instinctively understand Bill Clinton’s ‘It’s the economy stupid’.
    Those who don’t are the sort of angry, discouraged types who voted for Trump or Brexit.Lots of them but they are thankfully divided between those who can read and write a bit (Mélenchhon) and those who barely can read and are for Le Pen.
    If mainstream right-wing candidate François Fillon had not been exposed as an expenses cheater (something Cameron avoided) then he would be a shoo-in to win.
    The PS choose Mr Hamon, an improbable, hybrid Mr Bean/Miliband/Corbyn-like primary winner, rather by accident because grassroot socialists believe in Santa Claus and his promise to give 600Euros a month to pretty much anyone. He only did that because he needed a decent vote to count in the PS hierarchy.
    But, ‘manque de bol et puis merde’, he somehow won and he is doing so badly he may lose his deposit and refund of campaign expenses and finish off Mitterand’s PS, already discredited by dopey Hollande.
    So that leaves one serious candidate, Emmanuel Macron, an interesting and complex figure who hasn’t been in politics for about 100 years like the rest of the ‘peloton’ in the 11 horse, 6 no-hopers, race.
    Macron isn’t perfect but his rise and rise is text-book stuff.
    If France votes for someone else, then they deserve everything they are going to get.
    But as they say: ‘le pire n’est jamais certain’, a sort of French optimistic rebuttal of Murphy’s Law. On va voir!
    At least they don’t have Scotland-sized bits threatening to break off, but, hang on, what about upheaval in French Guyana? Not that many this side of the Atlantic care.

    • Tanvyeboyo says:

      Franch Guyana, between Brazil and Surinam, is actually slightly bigger than Scotland but has only 250,000 inhabitants, just a bit more than greater Aberdeen and less than the much smaller Med Island of Corsica. 35% of them are illegal Brazilian or Surinamese. Franch Guyana is currently the scene of tension, strikes, blockades, as they claim vast levels of public spending, on a scale that not even Mr Mélenchon would contemplate. If it explodes, like New Caledonia in 1988, it could become an issue as the presidential election rolls into legislative elections on June 11 and 18 just after elections in some other ‘European’ country whose name escapes me for the moment.

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