|Socialism Today Socialist Party magazine|
France – Fight the Right, build a workers’ alternative
Robert Bechert, 23 April 2002
The political earthquake in France has rocked all of Europe. Le Pen’s success, and the crushing defeat of Jospin, has shocked European rulers and alarmed workers and youth. Immediately tens of thousands of came onto the streets throughout France to demonstrate their determination to block the road to Le Pen who they see as an out and out fascist. Protests have continued with thousands of school and university students striking and demonstrating.
This spontaneous reaction was not accidental. We saw similar protests in Austria after Haider’s victory there just over two years ago. That was a significant development for Austria. But in France, with the stronger, and more recent, fighting traditions of its workers’ movement, Le Pen’s successes could provoke a mighty fight back that could shake the country to its foundations.
Le Pen has called for a "strong nationalist May 1". To counter this a massive mobilisation by the workers, immigrants and youth is necessary on May 1st to both demonstrate the real balance of forces in France and to show their determination to fight attacks no matter which quarter they come from. May 1st should be a stepping-stone on the way to further mobilisations, including a possible one-day general strike against any attacks that a new government may try to make.
These elections were a rejection of the parties that have ruled France since De Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. The two main parties, Chirac’s RPR and the "Socialists" gained 36.06% of the vote, while the 28.4% abstention rate was the highest ever. Less than 14% of the total electorate actually voted for Chirac. This was the lowest score ever for a sitting President and means that, whatever the size of his likely second round victory, a re-elected Chirac will be seen from the start as a weakened figure.
But it must not be overlooked that, alongside Le Pen winning through to the second, decisive round on May 5, there was an extremely important move to the left in this election. The combined vote of the three Trotskyist candidates reached 2,973,600, 10.44%, compared with 1,616,540, 5.3%, in the last presidential election seven years ago.
The combination of growing dissatisfaction in society and the policies of the leaders of the official workers’ movement have produced a situation where there is both a radicalisation to the left and an attempt by the far right to use populist, racist and nationalist slogans to exploit this discontent.
While Le Pen’s success is a warning, it does not mean that the French workers’ movement is immediately facing a decisive, crushing defeat.
In terms of actual numbers the far-right vote increased by less than 900,000. In 1997 Le Pen got 4,573,200 (15%), while this year he won 4,805,300 (16.86%). However the 667,120 (2.34%) votes won by the Mégret-led split off from the NF need to be added to see the far right total. One survey showed that, compared with 1997, Le Pen’s support among young people fell from 18% to 12%, his support among pensioners jumped from 9% to 19% and among the self-employed and small business owners from 13% to 30%.
A key factor in Jospin’s defeat was the rise in the abstention rate, which rose from 21.63% to around 28.4%. Nearly two million less voters took part in this election than in the previous first round in 1997. The number of spoilt ballot papers remained roughly the same, 995,550 compared with 888,810 in 1997.
Immediately after the vote attempts were made to blame Le Pen’s victory on a "splitting" of the left vote. But Jospin’s defeat was the result of his own party dramatically losing votes.
Jospin was elected Prime Minister in 1997 as a result of a tremendous movement against the policies of President Chirac, but then carried out fundamentally capitalist policies. The result was that, despite enjoying a period of economic growth, the vote of Jospin’s "Socialist" party collapsed from 7,101,990 in the first round of the 1995 presidential election to 4,610,740. Back in 1995 there were also Communist, Green and Trotskyist candidates, so their standing this year does not explain Jospin’s loss of support now.
Fundamentally, despite some reforms, Jospin’s "plural left" government was carrying out the same type of pro-business polices that have characterised the Blair government in Britain. In the last weeks before the election the government continued with privatisations, selling stakes in Renault, Thomson Multimedia and all of Autoroutes du Sud de la France, motorways in the south of France. This last sale was carried out under a so-called "Communist" Transport Minister.
Even the limited reforms it carried out had a dual character. Commenting on Jospin’s flagship 35-hour working week law, a writer in the Los Angeles Times recently wrote that "big corporations actually found the scheme useful, encouraging a general revamping of hours and working practices". Many of the new jobs created during this period, especially for youth, were short contract and temporary.
The idea, expressed in Britain by the veteran Labour left politician Tony Benn, that a combination of left unity behind Jospin and "not getting into bed with big business" would have defeated both Le Pen and Chirac is absurd because Jospin’s policies were fundamentally what big business wanted. From the beginning of this campaign Jospin stressed he was not running as a "socialist" and many commented that there was not much difference between Chirac and Jospin. This, along with the "Socialist" party’s record in government, was the main reason for its defeat.
The same is true for the Communist Party (PCF), which sits in Jospin’s government and fared even worse in these elections. It suffered a virtual extinction as its vote disintegrated from 2,634,180 in 1995 to 960,750 (3.37%), its lowest ever percentage. Only in 1924 and 1932 did it get a lower number of actual votes. The contrast between the slump in their support and the more than three times higher vote for Trotskyists represents an historic defeat for a party whose leadership was a key player in the international Stalinist movement. Now the PCF will enter into a major, possibly final, crisis.
Generally these elections showed a deep hostility and hatred towards ruling parties. This is the reason that alongside the 2,973,640, (10.44%) Trotskyist vote, the Greens’ rose from 1,011,370 to 1,495,900 (5.25%) and the former PS minister Chevènement's "left/republican" movement received 1,518,900 (5.33%).
These results showed a widespread alienation from the "political class", the caste of ruling careerist politicians. Days before the vote a French commentator said that the French were "not rejecting politics as such, but the themes, the show, the behaviour of the political class. They do not feel the political class speaks their language or shares their concerns."
This was particularly the case in regard to the growing opposition to any hint of neo-liberal policies and to capitalist globalisation. Significantly before the vote the Financial Times wrote, "11 of the 14 presidential hopefuls, whether of right or left, are opposed to globalisation and anti-capitalist in tone".
Le Pen aimed to exploit this situation. He weaved together a campaign that utilised the growing feeling of insecurity, alienation from the establishment, disgust at widespread corruption and the growing fear of crime. At the same time he attempted to give popular opposition to capitalist globalisation, the EU, and US policy a nationalist character. With his appeals to the "ordinary people, the rank and file, the excluded", Le Pen is attempting to replace the left as the alternative to the ruling elite.
Le Pen’s advance is both a warning and also a symptom of polarisation. However this threat of reaction can spur on the movement.
Protests in the streets have already started, but these need to be linked to building an alternative. To be able to both stop Le Pen’s movement now, and in the future, the workers’ movement has to show that it is seriously fighting for an alternative society.
The nearly three million votes for the ‘Trotskyists’ gives their organisations, particularly the LO and LCR, a big responsibility at this moment. The LCR was the second largest party among youth winning 13.9%, more than Le Pen and only slightly less than Chirac. While weak among youth, the LO won 10% of the white and blue-collar workers vote.
Now both organisations have the duty to take real initiatives at this time. Their vote gives them the opportunity of beginning to create a new mass party of the French working class.
Immediately the LO, LCR, the left from the PCF and others willing to fight must come together, nationally and locally, to plan the next steps in the protests which are already developing.
While the struggle will not, by any means, be only through the ballot box, the forthcoming general election can be an important rallying point. Steps need to be taken now to prepare a joint left list, fighting on anti-capitalist policies, for June's parliamentary elections - elections that could see a defeat for Le Pen as more people turn out to vote.
The likelihood is that Chirac will win the second round. The political establishment have rallied to defeat Le Pen. Undoubtedly sections of workers, immigrants and youth will vote for the "lesser evil" Chirac to stop Le Pen, widely seen as a "fascist". Already some youth have demonstrated with posters "vote for sleaze not for fascism". This is entirely understandable, but while a "cordon sanitaire" may defeat Le Pen next month, it is the capitalist "co-habitation" politics of Chirac, Jospin and the rest of the ruling elite that helped open the way to Le Pen.
However there will be a section of workers and youth who will either vote blank or spoil their ballots. A strong showing of ballot papers rejecting both Chirac and Le Pen would be a warning of opposition to the capitalist policies which both advocate. Undoubtedly the coming days will see a massive campaign against Le Pen, a campaign which will also aim to undermine the left by frightening people back to voting for the establishment parties.
France has entered into a new period. The whole country has been thrown into turmoil. Struggles have begun which could, at a certain stage, lead to a new May 1968, and an open challenge to the capitalist system itself. If these elections showed anything at all, they showed that the existing order of society has only minority support; the real debate is what is the alternative?
Thus the new struggles that have started will be accompanied by a debate within the workers’ movement on the lessons of the Jospin government, its defeat and what to do next. In this debate the Gauche Révolutionnaire (the French section of the CWI) will argue not only for the creation for a new mass workers’ party but also that it should struggle for a workers’ government that will implement a genuinely socialist programme.
This statement first appeared on the website of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) 26 April 2002
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