While Emmanuel Macron is still expected to win the French presidential election on Sunday, his victory will be marred by the spectacular rise of extreme right nationalist Marine Le Pen. The National Front (FN) candidate has successfully normalized much of her party’s hardline anti-immigrant nativist agenda while painting herself as a champion of the working Frenchman. If Macron is unable to lead a successful unity government, she is setting herself up to be a favorite in the next election.
But the 48-year-old scourge of “savage globalization,” who wants to close French borders and end all immigration, could never have risen so high without the complicity of the left. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who worked hard to block Le Pen’s father’s rise to power 15 years ago, has refused to even say who he will be voting for. Polls suggest this stance has encouraged his supporters—some of whom marched on May Day against what they depicted as the plague (Le Pen) and the cholera (Macron)—to stay home.
While concerning to his supporters, the left’s refusal to throw themselves behind Macron suggests a crumbling of the fabled anti-fascist front that has defined post-World War II France.
Against this backdrop of bitter political and social divisions, French historians Dorothea Bohnekamp and Nicolas Patin (link in French) argued in a recent Le Monde editorial that France today shares several characteristics with pre-1933 Weimar Germany. That democratic era, which existed between the two world wars, was marked by bitter partisanship, economic hardship, and the scapegoating of minorities. Obviously, there are fundamental differences between the two scenarios, but seeking out historical similarities may help predict the future of the modern French political system.
An ambiguous love/hate relationship
One big similarity is the disintegration of major parties, says Bohnekamp, a Weimar expert at the Sorbonne. “In Weimar, the parties of the center like the SPD (Social Democratic Party) fell apart to the benefit of the extremes in Germany—the Communists and the Nazi party,” she tells Quartz. “In France in 2017, the two main parties have also lost an enormous number of votes [the Socialists and Les Republicains were both eliminated from the presidential race] and the parties of the extremes have profited.”
At the same time, there exists an “ambiguous love/hate relationship between the far left and far right today as there was in Weimar,” Bohnekamp explains, “it’s a ‘holy alliance’ of the extremes.”
The German extreme left in the 1930s refused to form a common front with the moderate Social Democratic Party (SPD) against Nazism—at the behest of Joseph Stalin—because they viewed SPD members as “class enemies,” according to Bohnekamp. “They put liberalism and fascism on the same level, as does Melenchon. In both époques we can see a polarization of the public debate and a rise of populism.”
As a former Trotskyist, Melenchon should really know better than to see a moral equivalence between the extreme right and liberal center. When the German Communist Party followed Stalin’s orders and refused to join a coalition with the “bourgeois-liberal-imperalist” Socialists in 1931 and 1932, they helped pave the way for Hitler’s rise to power. As Leon Trotsky himself wrote in 1932: “To identify social democracy with fascism is completely insane. Behind this radical phrase hides the most cowardly passivity. In the fight against fascism we are ready to strike practical accords with the devil and his grandmother.”
Of course Le Pen is not Hitler, and Macron isn’t the devil, but the difference in their politics is clear. While Macron is pro-European Union, pro-gay marriage, and pro-economic reform, Le Pen has talked of upending the balance of powers by undermining the independence of the judiciary, attacked the freedom of the press, and does not believe the French republic must remain particularly committed to equality regardless of race, nationality, sexual orientation or ethnic origin.
And yet, intellectuals on the left (link in French) like philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, and some on the right, have suggested that Macron is just as dangerous as his far-right counterpart. And so, as French intellectuals argue over what to do about an entrenched extreme right (and their theories of French decline), historians see a zeitgeist that can yet again be compared with Weimar Germany.
“There was an atmosphere in flamboyant, decadent Weimar of ‘cultural pessimism,'” write Bohnekamp and Patin in Le Monde. “Today in France we observe the same crisis of meaning, especially across the middle class. The current power regime is discredited and there is growing exasperation at the commedia dell’arte of the political elites.”
The historians also point to the corrosive effect of years of high-profile political corruption in France. These scandals have gradually destroyed faith in the French democratic system, just as similar scandals did in pre-1933 Germany.
“Under Weimar there was a wave of corruption scandals that hit all the parties, including the Nazis, who were nonetheless undamaged by the fallout,” Nicolas Patin tells Quartz. “The middle classes felt the elites profited from impunity. Moral and economic corruption broke confidence in the system.”
The “other” as a political scapegoat
And importantly, the spread of hatred of “the other” remains a common feature of the two periods, in Bohnekamp’s analysis. Ominously, this segmented and fragmented social climate is unlikely to get better anytime soon.
Jean Birnbaum, the author of A Religious Silence: The Left confronted by Jihadism, concurs that France’s current mood feels vividly Weimaresque, notably in the popular thirst for “an end to everything” in the current system. This thirst confuses the desire for political renewal with the chaos that could come after something a Le Pen win.
What is undeniable is that France’s far left and far right seem to be fighting similar, if imagined, enemies using very similar language. In failing to distinguish between Le Pen and Macron, the far left is experiencing a defining moment of “amnesia,” Birnbaum explains, and a burial of France’s anti-totalitarian sensibility.
From the perspective of Weimar historians like Bohnekamp and Patin: “if history can still serve us as a guide, it would show us that democracy is more fragile than we think—and more precious also.”