The 2017 French presidential election is a referendum on globalization. Immigration and international trade have emerged as central themes, eclipsing the issues and parties that dominated French politics for decades. Previous elections typically pitted an incumbent against a familiar face from the opposition, a candidate from the Socialist Party against a candidate from the post-Gaullist right. This model of alternating between two main political families, however, has long been quietly dying and is now thoroughly dead. In 2002, the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin failed to make it past the first round of voting (which narrows the field to two presidential candidates), leaving the center-right candidate Jacques Chirac to trounce Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the far-right National Front, in the second round. Last week, neither the center-right candidate François Fillon nor the Socialist Benoit Hamon cleared the first round. The National Front, now led by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine, and a new political movement, En Marche!, led by the former Socialist Emmanuel Macron, will square off May 7.
The opposition between left and right now seems obsolete to many French observers, not least to Macron and Le Pen. Both candidates trumpet the revolutionary aspects of the 2017 campaign, and, of course, their own programs to transform France. Much of this is pure marketing. Macron, avatar of the centrist consensus, released his campaign program last fall in a book titled Revolution. Le Pen, a career politician who has lined her pockets with misappropriated European Union funds, rails against the “caste” of corrupt elites and promises to start “the next French revolution.” Yet for all its absurdity (down to the exclamation mark in En Marche!, this embarrassing unofficial campaign song, and the photoshopped guillotines of Reddit’s r/Le Pen), there is, in fact, something profoundly “revolutionary” about this election.
Like the French Revolution of 1789-1799, the current political moment is a conflict between the winners and losers of globalization in France—between those who see flows of capital and people creating a prosperous world, and those who see these same currents bringing alienation and deprivation. The French Revolution is not usually told as a story about such a conflict. The more obvious clashes between court and crowd, monarchy and Estates General, regicides and moderates monopolize historical memory. Economic factors in the Revolution were long the focus of an orthodox Marxist historiography searching for proletarians and bourgeoisie in an eighteenth-century society where industrial production was still relatively unimportant. They were then largely ignored by late twentieth-century scholars, who focused on the Revolution’s political, cultural and intellectual dimensions.
However, a wave of recent scholarship insists on the importance of economic factors, and particularly to the critical role of debates about global trade, in the making of the Revolution. This research helps to explain the growing popularity of the National Front, which has appropriated much of the heritage of French Revolution’s most radical figures. While the left and center attack the National Front as the return of fascism, perhaps they should be more worried about the return of the Jacobins.
Popular images of the French Revolution in the vein of A Tale of Two Cities begin with starving peasants demanding bread while aristocrats cynically luxuriate and cut one-liners about cake. But the decades leading up to the French Revolution were a time of great prosperity for much of France, driven by global trade. Port cities like Marseille and Bordeaux, linked to international circuits of commerce, were booming, and Paris was a vibrant hub of production, consumption, and exchange. Whether they were of noble or non-noble origin, wealthy urbanites rubbed shoulders with each other, and increasingly shared common interests and ideas; prejudices about “common” birth were coming to seem out of place in a dynamic society driven by commerce. Well-off city-dwellers had an increasingly cosmopolitan outlook. An ever-wider range of consumers enjoyed access to exotic goods, such as textiles imported by the French East India Company, and readers regaled themselves with stories of Hurons, Persians, Babylonians, and other distant peoples. For many opinion-makers, it seemed obvious that global trade was bringing social orders and nations closer together, making international and domestic conflict obsolete, and preparing the advent of a universal human society.
For the urban and rural poor, however, prospects were less cheery. While France’s total wealth had risen considerably over their eighteenth century, that growth was distributed unequally throughout the social hierarchy and across the country. Millions of the rural poor lived only a poor harvest away from starvation. Unable to afford their own land, they scraped together a precarious living as hired laborers. Large numbers of single men wandered the countryside looking for work, but were widely perceived by those better-off as dangerous vagrants. Charity programs were hopelessly inadequate. Urban workers, with some limited protections offered by fraternal societies and guilds, were somewhat better off, but likewise vulnerable.
Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, both groups were threatened by economic reforms aimed at deregulating industries, cutting restrictions on imports, and lifting caps on the prices of essential commodities in the name of global commerce. Since the 1760s, French kings had been experimenting with laissez-faire measures aimed at deregulating the economy in order to increase tax yields and draw the country out of its spiraling debts. Many of the economic advisers behind these policies, such as the influential Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, were also calling for representative assemblies that would give voice to the concerns of wealthy elites, nobles and non-nobles alike. As finance minister under Louis XVI, Turgot launched a wave of legislation in the years 1774-1776. But his proposed assemblies were opposed by conservative forces in the nobility, and his attempts to abolish the guilds that provided rudimentary welfare programs to urban workers, remove caps on the price of bread (the quintessential French foodstuff and the primary source of French people’s calories), and promote international free-trade agreements generated violent movements of popular resistance. Like Macron, he resigned after only two years in office.
In 1789, however, liberal reformers found the perfect opportunity to put their agenda into action. The monarchy was in crisis, paralyzed by mounting debts, unable either to call on new loans from international credit markets or to convince French elites to pay more in taxes. Reformers seized control of the Estates General, a feudal assembly summoned to discuss France’s dire situation. The opposition of the conservative nobility and royal family was neutralized by popular violence in Paris and the countryside.
The first phase of the Revolution, from 1789 to 1792, saw the triumph of the officials, merchants, bankers and former nobles who had long been pushing for reforms of France’s economic and political institutions. At the same time, the rural and urban poor were able to use the crisis to advance some of their own interests. Parisian crowds demolished the hated toll-barriers between the city and the countryside. After a wave of violence against noble land-owners, the National Assembly, France’s new legislature, was pressured into abolishing a range of feudal obligations that peasants had owed to nobles.
While often recoiling at their violence, liberal urban elites could accept the demands of France’s poor, as long as they were directed against symbols of the Old Regime. But as the National Assembly was drawn into an ill-conceived war against the leading powers of Europe in 1792, and as the French economy went into a tailspin, urban crowds began demanding the return of price controls, particularly on bread. Responding to their demands, some members of the National Assembly, known as the Mountain or the Jacobins, used the crisis to seize power for themselves. Led by Maximilien Robespierre, they focused their attacks on the Girondins, a group of pro-war representatives chiefly from the port city of Bordeaux, linked to commercial interests and liberal economic policies.
Drawing on decades of popular resentment against the wealthy elites of France’s major cities, Robespierre condemned the Girondins not merely for their inept management of the country, but for their suspicious links with foreign trade. In his eyes, their commercial activity, their associations with the “speculation” of international finance, and their links to the colonial slave trade (one of the principal sources of Bordeaux’s wealth) marked the Girondins as unpatriotic and unvirtuous. The contrast between virtuous patriots and vicious, money-hungry, cosmopolitan egoists structured Robespierre’s thought, and underwrote his efforts to cleanse French society through mass executions during the Terror (1793-1794). For a brief, bloody moment, the social groups that had been the winners of France’s eighteenth-century globalization found themselves on the slaughter-bench of history.
Contemporary France is (probably) a long way from a return of the guillotine. But the parallels between the Revolution and the current moment are not reassuring. In recent speeches at Bordeaux and Lille, Marine Le Pen has put herself forward as the candidate of resistance to globalization, and moved squarely into the rhetoric of Jacobinism. Economic elites, she warns, form a “global caste” pitted against the interests of every nation. They respect nothing but money and mobility. Careless of the “the earth’s balance,” they poison the environment. They aim to subject the whole world to “a systematic deregulation according to the principle of unlimited free trade,” free of any restraint on their financial power, “with no control, protection, or frontiers” to stop them. They crush any government that opposes their vision (thus Le Pen’s sympathy for Assad’s Syria and Putin’s Russia, which she sees as allies against the neoliberal world order). They pit nations and ethnic groups against each other by promoting multiculturalism and mass immigration. They control the main political parties, pretending to protect French people from the wars, terrorism, economic dislocation, and cultural malaise that they themselves create. They insist that “there is no alternative” to their program. In the “disenchanted world” of neoliberalism, profit is the only motive, and the bonds of commerce substitute for brotherhood and virtue.
In phrases that could have come straight from the lips of Robespierre, Le Pen insists on the necessity of virtue, and on the viciousness of globalism’s winners: “They pretend that greed, that devotion to money… could be the source of virtues, because they create more initiative and dynamism in the economic sphere. Who are they to think that vices gathered together could produce virtue? In the economic sphere, as in every other, the accumulation of vice produces vice, and not virtue.” Against their viciousness, however, the people, guided by its patriotic leader, is ready to strike.
Using Jacobin language, Marine Le Pen is trying to brand the National Front as working-class France’s only credible bulwark against globalization. And she means globalization: not just immigration from the Third World, but also the power of international finance, the off-shoring of French industry, and the collapse of the French middle class. Opposition to the National Front often focuses on its racism and xenophobia. These are still major (if relatively implicit) selling points, but the party of Marine Le Pen is not the party of her father. Jean-Marie Le Pen railed against immigrants and Communists (and Jews and gays and Freemasons and…), and attacked government interference in the economy. The National Front’s platform still includes cutting taxes for the rich and welfare payments for the poor, but its electors seem more interest in Le Pen’s fiery denunciations of wealthy elites than in her proposals to make them still wealthier.
Since the collapse of the Communist Party in the 1980s, however, the National Front has become the most powerful voice for working-class people in French politics, to the discomfort of its own historical leadership and to the bewildered anguish of the left. Under the leadership of his daughter, the National Front has tried to “de-demonize” itself in part by courting groups such as gays, Jews, and inhabitants of France’s overseas départements like Guyane. The success of these efforts to purge the party of its (deserved) associations with homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism has been mixed, but its efforts to brand itself as credible opposition to globalism, in the tradition of Jacobinism, seem to be working.
Macron is, in this sense, Le Pen’s perfect opponent. Other candidates in the first round of the presidential election, like the flamboyant (and at times holographic) Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could speak to economic working-class concerns, or, like the right-wing François Fillon, to anxieties about immigration and multiculturalism. They would have stolen some of Le Pen’s thunder. Macron, however, has been tagged in both the left-wing and right-wing press as the candidate who loves globalization. It’s not an undeserved reputation. The platform of En Marche! celebrates the fact that: “France is an agent of globalization. The world is here with us, and France is in the world.”
Macron and his political movement present international commerce and intercultural exchange as stimulating challenges that are best met with “innovative,” “open-source” solutions that grant more autonomy to individuals, while connecting them to each other in a vague sort of community from which no one, apparently, is excluded. The cultural and economic tensions generated by global capitalism, Macron and company insist, can be resolved with targeted doses of neoliberalism, administered by data-savvy technocrats.
It’s a formula that recalls the unwinning combination behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Macron has avoided the cringe-inducing clumsiness of Hillary’s appeals to a multicultural electorate, such as her attempt to convince black voters that she kept hot sauce in her purse or her use of “yas.” But he embarrassed himself when he tried to sell French youth on a scheme to harness the power of culture to reunite an increasingly fractured nation. In a much-criticized speech given this February, the candidate pictured French culture as a free-wheeling space of global hybridity. Insisting that, “there’s no French culture, anyway; there’s a culture in France, it’s diverse, it’s multiple,” he argued that the role of the state should be to open access to this variety of cultures to as wide a portion of society as possible. By giving young adults five hundred euros worth of vouchers in the form of a “culture pass” to spend on “culture, whatever it might be,” a Macron administration would “contribute to this fraternity… that is culture.” The French right, from the Republicans to the National Front, was duly horrified by Macron’s denial that there was such a thing as a singular French culture, and Macron did penance by writing an essay for the right-wing paper Le Figaro in which he walked back his statement.
It is characteristic of Macron to flirt with an apparently “radical” idea, only to recoil from it at the slightest suggestion that it might not be popular. Widely mocked for having tried to “agree with everyone” in the presidential debates, Macron’s pursuit of the political center is, depending on who you ask, either a refreshing escape from partisan binaries, or the ultimate degree of glib cynicism.
But while the kerfluffle over his comments on French culture dominated the headlines, few commentators discussed Macron’s “culture pass,” which is, in its own way, equally characteristic of the candidate. Macron posits that France’s marginalized classes (children of immigrants, residents of suburbs, young people) lack access to the globally-oriented, diverse, changing culture of France. In his eyes, access to culture does not mean access to the tacit knowledge necessary to appreciate traditional forms of high culture (the “patrimony” normally praised in official French discourse), it means the money to purchase books, songs or concert tickets. But even though culture is here simply an assemblage of commodities, the content of which is meaningful only to the individual consumer, the act of consuming culture somehow remains a critical means of participating in France’s (fluid, undefined) national identity. By consuming cultural products (whatever they might be!) French people are drawn closer together in a fraternal marketplace. You want brotherhood, go to the mall.
Macron’s cultural politics is, perhaps, harmlessly naïve. Vouchers for books are unlikely to soothe the anxieties that immigration, multiculturalism and nativist reactions to the same stoke throughout French society, but they’re not likely to do much harm. But the same problematic assumptions behind his “culture pass” also underwrite his troubling answers to France’s economic woes. Macron and En Marche! (which includes a number of socialists, Green Party members, and assorted elements of parties further to the left) have enough residual socialist reflexes to know that much of France has been left behind by globalization. Deindustrialization, competition with Asian and Eastern European economies, and demand for new skills have hit the French working class hard, resulting in a stark spatial divide. While Paris and other big cities have largely prospered, in spite of high over-all unemployment and generally sluggish growth, France’s small towns and suburbs are zones of stagnation. Until the 1980s, their working-class inhabitants voted in huge numbers for the Communist Party, one of the most powerful in Western Europe. Now, observers note the continuing rise of support for the National Front in the small towns of “peripheral France” and sympathy for the Islamic State and domestic terrorists in the “lost territories” of the suburbs.
En Marche! lays out these problems clearly in its own platform. Its solutions include reducing taxes, bringing wireless internet to rural areas, and offering bonuses to companies that hire full-time workers. While these measures are designed to empower individuals to become entrepreneurs and encourage small business to expand, En Marche! has answers to local governments whose resources are being strained to the limit. Much of France’s poverty is concentrated in areas where government transfers and government jobs are responsible for a large percentage of residents’ income. Since the crisis in 2008, from which large cities quickly recovered but from which rural and semi-urban industry did not, state services in these areas have become more necessary and more overburdened
Macron’s team offers a range of clever, tech-friendly solutions, from using tele-conferencing to connect rural patients to their doctors to encouraging carpooling. None of these measures, taken individually, appear troubling: they are the kinds of things a good consulting firm might think up. But taken collectively, in the absence of any proposals for larger, structural changes, they suggest that the leadership of En Marche! looks at those excluded from the economic opportunities available to wealthy, well-educated urbanites and asks why the former don’t just open up their own Etsy shops? In the economic and in the cultural sphere, a gentle nudge is all France’s working class needs to get back on its feet and become “an agent of globalization” like the rest of the country.
Macron will likely win the election May 7. Whether the legislative elections soon after will grant him a workable majority is another question, but so far the former minister has proven himself an adroit political maneuverer. Many figures in French political life rallied to his side even before the second round of the election, and his moderately reformist, gently neoliberal, smilingly technocratic program speaks to a sizable swath of public opinion. It surely doesn’t hurt that he’s good-looking and amiable.
Like Girondins achieving the dreams of Turgot, Macron may well complete the neoliberal reforms he started in the Hollande administration. The revolution, however, may well devour him. Under a Macron administration, the National Front would have an ideal opportunity to complete its project of stoking opposition to global capitalism in its neo-Jacobin rhetoric, and its anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-welfare policies. While the left is largely rallying to Macron against Le Pen under the banner of anti-fascism, it must be careful not to identify itself with his project or cede the heritage of the Revolution to the National Front.
Blake Smith is a PhD candidate in history at Northwestern University and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. His research on eighteenth-century European views of Asia has been published in French Cultural History, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, and History of European Ideas.
 The following analysis draws particularly on : John Shovlin The Political Economy of Virtue: Luxury, Patriotism and the Origins of the French Revolution (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); Paul Cheney, Revolutionary Commerce: Globalization and the French Monarchy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Anoush Terjanian, Commerce and its Discontents in Eighteenth-Century French Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 Christophe Guilluy, La France périphique: comment on a sacrifié les classes populaires (Paris: Champs actuel, 2014), 51-69.