Obama Joins the Struggle for Economic and Social Justice in France — on the Wrong Side

April 21, 2017

Bernie Sanders’ crew supports progressive candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Former US president Obama “wade[d] into the French election fight” on Thursday with a highly publicized phone call to French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. Obama stopped short of a formal endorsement, but it was made clear to everyone that he supports Macron, a former investment banker.

Macron’s main competition at the head of what has become a four-way race includes two right-wing candidates, and the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In a reflection of the division within the Democratic Party of the US, a group of people who led Bernie Sanders’ campaign has endorsed Mélenchon and likened his struggle to that of Sanders’, including similar spurious charges against both of them.

A group of celebrities including Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Eve Ensler, and Nancy Fraser also launched a petition imploring French voters to support Mélenchon so as to avoid having to choose between “status quo corporate establishment liberalism and xenophobic right populism.”

It is difficult to gauge the effect of Obama’s intervention. While he is popular in France, it is worth noting that he intervened against Brexit before the vote, even going to the UK to campaign against it, and it still passed. So it is possible that Obama’s endorsement will have the unintended effect of boosting right-wing, xenophobic nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen, who has some similarity to the leaders of the Brexit movement in the UK.

Macron was previously finance minister in the current government of President François Hollande, who is deeply unpopular. Hollande, of the Socialist Party, is disliked partly because of the state of the economy, which has had almost no growth in income per person over the last decade, and 10 percent unemployment. He is also unpopular because of the reforms that the prevailing political interests — backed by the IMF and European Union authorities — have proposed and implemented, ostensibly to solve France’s economic problems. (I have written more about this here and here.)

These reforms focus on cutting France’s budget deficit, as a well as reducing “rigidities” in the labor market. These include reducing eligibility for unemployment insurance, means-testing social benefits, and legal changes that reduce the bargaining power of labor unions. Macron himself can claim credit for the “Macron law,” which made it easier for employers to dismiss workers.

Macron also supports the enormously unpopular cuts to the pension system that have already been made, including raising the retirement age for full benefits from 65 to 67 (and early retirement from 60 to 62). This was particularly harsh, even as compared to when the US made the same increase in the age for full benefits in our Social Security system in 1983. US workers affected by that reform were given decades of advance notice, while in France it hit workers who were much closer to retirement.

Fortunately for the US, Obama did not follow this kind of program in response to the Great Recession here, when we had 10 percent unemployment. He could have pushed for much more to stimulate a faster recovery and more employment, and he supported some deficit reduction when he shouldn’t have, but he clearly did not attempt the kind of counterproductive policies that people like Macron are promoting in France.

In other words, Macron represents a neoliberal program that offers regressive “solutions” for France’s problems of mass unemployment and economic stagnation. It is also worth noting that France’s annual interest payments on its public debt are just 1.7 percent of GDP, so the public debt problem is being overhyped.

For his part, Mélenchon proposes a progressive economic program that includes additional spending of 275 billion euros (294 billion dollars), or about 2.3 percent of GDP over the next five years. Like many economists, he is operating under the idea that the problem facing the French economy is inadequate demand, not a “rigid” labor market or the public debt. Spending priorities include public investment in renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions, antipoverty programs, public housing, and lowering the retirement age.

One of the criticisms that was leveled at Bernie Sanders during his campaign, that is being re-enacted in France, is that he was promising too much and would not “get things done.” But part of the job of a political leader is to provide a vision of what is feasible and desired by the majority, mobilize people behind it, and fight for it. Then, he or she accepts a compromise that is the best possible deal at the moment, while continuing to fight for their program. Like Bernie Sanders in the US, Mélenchon is a politician with 30 years experience in the legislative and executive branches of government, and electoral politics. He is not some young anarchist hurling tear gas canisters back at the police. He will know when to compromise for something that moves the ball down the field, and keep pushing for more.

It is sad to see Obama, as ex-president, throwing his weight against progress in France, and also in the US, where he intervened to preserve the status quo in the struggle for leadership of the Democratic Party in February.

Don’t get me wrong. Obama was one of the best US presidents in the past century, which unfortunately also says something about how low the bar for that contest is. The bar is especially low if we count, as human, the lives of non-US victims of US foreign policy, which is not often done in the Western mass media.

But Obama promised that as ex-president he would help reverse the Republican control of state governments that has allowed them to win national elections through gerrymandering US congressional districts and further disenfranchising Democratic voters. Without this gerrymandering and voter suppression, it is questionable whether the Republicans could ever have national power in US. This is a worthy cause, and he could be a great ex-president by working on it, rather than supporting “the millionaires and the billionaires,” as Bernie Sanders would say, in France and Europe.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, and the president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy” (2015, Oxford University Press). You can subscribe to his columns here.

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