Le Pen’s success in reaching the second round of the French Presidential elections has highlighted the series of setbacks the so-called "centre-left" governments have recently suffered in European elections. This follows recent election gains for far-right or racist parties in Austria, Denmark, Italy, and in the Netherlands.

Numerous newspaper articles have highlighted the fact that in 1999, 13 of the 15 EU states were governed by what were described as "centre-left" coalitions, the exceptions being Ireland and Spain. Now that total is down to 6, and the media’s attention is on what they describe as the rise of the right, and what is called the crisis of the "left".

Naturally many workers, young people, immigrants and sections of the middle class, have been shocked by Le Pen’s advance, just as they were last year by the victory of the Berlusconi/Fini/Bossi alliance in Italy and, the year before that, by Hider’s FPÖ joining the Austrian government. Many are asking whether the growing dissatisfaction, alienation, and anger are going to benefit the extreme right.

Undoubtedly Le Pen’s advance has seized the headlines, but the fact that he is in the second round presidential elections must not be allowed to obscure the other significant aspect of the French elections, namely the near doubling of the Trotskyist vote to 2,973,600 (10.44%).

Growing alienation

France illustrates that what is happening is not really a crisis of the "left" in general. Rather, both the far-right’s advances, and the jump in the French Trotskyists’ vote, are indications of the same process - a growing alienation from what is seen as the ruling elite. This is especially directed towards the political leaders, usually careerist and often corrupt, who are seen to be indifferent to the problems and fears of the mass of the population. Often the far-right has been able to gain from this because the leaders of social democratic and communist parties, organisations that originally grew out of the working class movement, are losing their social basis and generally being cut off from increasing parts of the working class, poor and youth.

Even New Labour’s re-election last year did not mean that it is immune to this development. Last year’s low election turnout, along with the continual ebbing away of the Labour Party’s historic support within the working class, means that it too can suffer serious electoral defeats in the future.

Fundamentally, these electoral defeats are the result of disappointment and disenchantment with the policies of these so-called "left" parties. Even in Spain, the right wing AP’s 1996 election victory was preceded by 14 years of rule by PSOE, the ‘Socialist’ party.

Unlike many of their previous periods in office when at least some measures to ameliorate conditions were implemented, usually at first, recent years have seen these "left" or "centre-left" governments, to a greater or lesser extent, carrying out fundamentally neo-liberal policies.

Immediately after Le Pen’s success, a top EU diplomat was quoted as saying; "Leftwing parties have gone down the same road as the right, embracing globalisation, using populist language against growing unemployment and crime".

Partly this reflected the fundamental change in the world that took place at the start of the 1990s. The collapse of the old Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe removed both a counter-weight to the power of world imperialism and also appeared to undermine the idea that socialism was a viable alternative to capitalism. This was re-enforced by a ferocious ideological offensive to try to eliminate from political life the very idea of striving to replace capitalism with socialism. The result was that most leaders of the workers’ movement made a sharp turn to the right. At the same time, the neo-liberal offensive attacked living and working conditions.

The leaders of the old social democratic and communist parties worked during the 1990s to break the remaining commitments to socialism and to transform the parties into bodies only seeking to help capitalism work "better". New Labour in Britain, and Italy’s Left Democrats, are the prime examples of this.

Thus these election defeats are not for socialist ideas but for parties that, while coming historically from the workers’ movement, generally have broken their links with it. Their loss of votes was a reaction to their record in government, not any rejection of socialism.

Jospin lost support of workers and youth

In France, Jospin’s lost of support was particularly marked among industrial workers and youth. Fundamentally, there was a tremendous disappointment with the government he led after winning the 1997 general election, which saw a rejection of the policies of Chirac (who had been elected president only two years previously).

The policies of Jospin’s "gauche plurielle" (‘plural left’) government had a dual character. It did carry out some reforms but these were in the framework of an acceptance of the basic character of capitalist policies in the late 1990s.

Thus, as in other countries, there was a limited boom that actually increased the polarisation in society and growing inequality. Many workers did not significantly gain from the economic growth; even the 35-hour week resulted in a worsening of the conditions during the hours actually worked. Youth especially faced an increasingly precarious existence, with many dependent only on temporary or part-time jobs.

Generally, many workers did not fully benefit from the boom of the 1990s. Cash wages may have increased, but so did the intensity of work, along with insecurity. The steady process of cutbacks in public spending helped many realise that, for the first time, it was likely that the next generation would have worse conditions. The increasing polarisation between rich and poor, along with the increase in the number of permanently unemployed, helped create the disintegration of aspects of society, as social problems, drink, and drug abuse, along with crime, all increased.

A growing feeling of alienation has developed. The exposure of widespread corruption and influence buying has added to the correct belief that the rulers do not really care about the majority, especially those who feel they are on the bottom of the pile. Added to this, there is the increasing feeling that it is more difficult to have any say in what is happening, as real power moves further away, especially as a result of globalisation and the increasing role of the EU. On top of this, many countries have recently experienced sizable population movements without the governments providing the necessary resources, resulting in increased competition between working people for jobs, housing, social services etc.

The labour movement should have fought on these issues, but it did not, thanks to the combination of the leaders of the former workers’ parties sitting in government, trade union leaders generally unwilling to struggle, and the weakness of the genuine socialist forces.

This created the opportunity for the far right to step in and, using a combination of populist and nationalist slogans, to win elections. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Previously, even when they still had roots within the working class, the failures of social democratic governments prepared the way for right wing governments. Thatcher only came into power in Britain because of the 1974-9 Labour government’s austerity measures.

This cycle will only be broken when a genuine workers’ government mobilises the mass of the population to start the socialist transformation of society.

Naturally, many workers and young people across Europe have been horrified by Le Pen’s advance, as they were before when Berlusconi become Italian prime minister.

Clearly any right wing government will attempt to launch new attacks against workers and minorities. However, Italy shows that electoral gains by the right do not automatically mean a decisive defeat of the working class movement. Less than one year after Berlusconi’s election victory, we saw a three million strong Rome demonstration on 23 March, and 13 million workers staged a one-day strike on 16 April against the government.

Earlier in the 1990s, the first Berlusconi government was forced out of office after less than nine months because of a huge wave of protests. Similarly, a few months after Chirac’s first presidential term in 1995 he was fatally undermined by the public sector workers’ struggle and, within two years, he lost a parliamentary election to Jospin. While obviously not all right governments will face opposition so quickly, it is inevitable that, at a certain stage, workers and youth will move into action outside of parliament to defend what has been won in the past.

‘National unity’?

In such situations, there will be attempts to coral opposition within ‘safe confines’, i.e. to prevent radical socialist ideas from gaining support.

Often this will be by leaders of the trade unions and old political parties calling for "unity" against the government and/or the far right. But by this they do not mean unity in action, and unity in struggle against the right so as to win the movement’s demands. Instead they seek to manipulate workers’ natural desire for unity and for solidarity into uncritical support for the leaders and policies that were responsible for allowing the right to gain its successes.

Thus in France, while Jospin has been sacrificed, the rest of the PS (socialist party) leaders try to avoid real discussion on their responsibility for the right’s victory by concentrating on Le Pen. In the same way, in Italy the majority of the leaders of the former "Olive Tree" government concentrate on attacking Berlusconi and demand unity from their left critics in order to defeat him.

However, while this strategy of the old leaders may, for a time, dampen down discussion it is increasingly clear that it will not prevent a radicalisation developing as the records of the governments like Jospin’s and the Olive Tree are discussed and an economic crisis develops.

Three million votes for the Trotskyist Left

The clearest sign of this radicalisation is the nearly three million Trotskyist votes recorded in France. The size of this vote means that there are now a sizable section of workers and youth who are looking for a genuine socialist alternative. This could be a powerful lever in revitalising and rebuilding the workers’ movement in France and setting an international example.

The two largest Trotskyist organisations in France, the LO and LCR, have a responsibility of acting quickly to seize the initiative of setting in process the formation of a new workers’ party in France. Such a party, especially if it has a clear socialist programme, would not only have the opportunity to build powerful support within France, but would also be an international example in creating a new workers’ party that re-establishes the idea that socialism is the genuine alternative to capitalism.

An edited version of this article appears in the next issue of The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party (England and Wales CWI section).

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