Stefano Palombarini is a researcher in political economy at the Paris 8 – Vincennes University. Together with Bruno Amable, he wrote L’illusion du bloc bourgeois: Alliances sociales et avenir du modèle français (2017, not yet translated), one of the first and most in-depth analyses of the political and social significance of Emmanuel Macron’s ascension to the French presidency.
What is the “bourgeois bloc,” and what does Macron represent in the establishment of this bloc?
The bourgeois bloc is a specific alliance – one relatively new in France – that grew out of the crisis of the two historical blocs in French politics: the right-wing Gaullist tradition and the left-wing bloc that emerged in the 1970s. Both entered a crisis in the course of the neoliberal transformations of the 1980s and finally fell off a cliff in 2017, eliminated in the first round of the presidential elections. In the context of this crisis, the project of a new social alliance arose, bringing together social groups favorable to neoliberal reforms, which is exactly what Emmanuel Macron has accomplished. We have called it a “bourgeois bloc,” because while it is true that from a political point of view it stands in the center, from a social point of view it stands with the top, bringing together the upper-middle classes from both of the old blocs mentioned above. It is built around the neoliberal agenda, and is characterized by weak support among the working classes and by being in the minority across society.
The protests against pension reform, and the opinion polls, have shown almost universal opposition to Macron’s policies. Is there an erosion of his support?
Actually, the support for Macron and the bloc he represents is stable. Historically, support for neoliberal reforms in France has always been around 20-25 percent. And those are also Macron’s numbers, according to the polls. That is his true weight, on the electoral and social level.
What does the current social movement represent for the bourgeois bloc and the left bloc that opposes it? Are we witnessing the crisis of the former, and the revenge of the latter?
In a sense. The bourgeois bloc is mainly composed of people who think they are benefiting from the promises of social climbing with which those in power try to “sell” neoliberal reforms: the rhetoric about merit, competition, tax cuts. Wherever these recipes have been applied, the corresponding promises have not been fulfilled, particularly with regard to the middle classes. So the crisis of the bourgeois bloc is inevitable, and we are partly witnessing it. The question is what comes next. On the one hand, the current social movement has made sure to put the issues of economic policy back at the center of the debate, preventing the mainstream media aligned with the bourgeois bloc from saturating the air with issues such as immigration, security or Islam, which is good for the anti-neoliberal left bloc represented by NUPES. On the other hand, however, the current demonstrations have an aspect of reaction against the denial of democratic mechanisms. These are fertile grounds for the far right. It is a fluid situation, which in itself is good news if we look at other countries, Italy for example.
Macron embodies a contradiction: a champion of European liberals on the one hand, and responsible for authoritarian moves on the other. How do you explain this?
Macron is the last neoliberal, as in the title of the English translation of our book (The Last Neoliberal, Verso, 2021). The last of those leaders like Blair, Zapatero, Schroeder or Renzi, politicians who embodied a model – neoliberal reform – that failed miserably wherever it was applied. Each of these politicians met their downfall, and that is no accident. All have had the same trajectory of apparent innovation at first, followed by a rapid destructive crisis. However, compared to the course of an ordinary Renzi, the distinctive French characteristic is the institutional setup. Once he went into crisis and lost power, Renzi was essentially put out of business; in France, by contrast, the institutions allow a president who loses support to remain in power. Then, in order to continue to exercise it, he has to avoid going through normal democratic mechanisms. It’s completely absurd, but in France, an individual – the president – can pass pension reform without it being voted on in Parliament, since a no-confidence vote is virtually impossible to pass. But doing so leads to a cascade effect, provoking protests that he has to quell, and then you get the repression of social movements and the marginalization of unions. All of this is tied to the Fifth Republic setup, which concentrates incredible power in the hands of one man.