France: what next after Chirac’s ‘victory’?


  Second Round First Round
Chirac 25,316,647 82.15% 5,666,440 19.88%
Le Pen 5,502,314 17.85% 4,805,307 16.86%
Blank votes 1,758,849 5.40% 995,554 3.37%
Turnout 32,577,810 80.14% 29,498,009 71.60%

Le Pen’s crushing defeat in the second round of France’s presidential election has shown the real balance of forces in France today. Despite his success in coming second in the 21 April first round, Le Pen’s forces are still in a minority. Le Pen’s final vote was only 952,700 higher than in the previous, 1995, presidential contest. Contrary to the media reports, even this was not a massive swing to Le Pen. In this year’s first round the combined Trotskyists’ vote was 1,357,100 higher than in 1995.

Despite the huge rise in turnout, from 29,498,000 two weeks ago to 32,831,500, the far right’s actual vote on 5 May  was only 55,400 higher than the 5,472,430 combined vote of Le Pen and his former deputy Mégret in the first round. In some areas, like Alsace, Le Pen’s vote actually fell.

5 May was not in any way an endorsement of Chirac. In the first round Chirac scored 19.88% of the vote, which actually meant that only 14% of the total electorate voted for him. He is widely despised as corrupt and usually called the "super-liar". The London based Financial Times correctly pointed out that the popular slogan ‘better a crook than a fascist’ was "the defining sentiment" of the second round campaign.

First round radicalised society

Notwithstanding his modest increase in votes, Le Pen’s entry into the second round was a profound shock that radicalised French society, sparking off two weeks of nearly continuous protest. A wave of fear swept across the country. The overwhelming desire was to stop Le Pen before he could get any stronger. This was a lively, energetic movement from below, led by a tremendous youth mobilisation, with school students and college students setting the pace. France was plunged into turmoil.

The French ruling class was shaken by the results of the first round of voting: 21 April saw a massive rejection of the main two ruling parties though which it had ruled for the last twenty years. Chirac and Jospin gained only 36.06% of the vote. Both suffered big losses in comparison with 1995. Chirac lost 685,200 votes but Jospin lost a huge 3,900,500. These results were a rejection of the existing capitalist politicians.

Now Chirac has been re-elected as a real Gaullist-type Fifth Republic President, a man on the top of the nation, over and above the political parties. The first round showed the weakening of the Fifth Republic’s institutions, especially the presidency. After 21 April the huge pressure from the media and the establishment, using the fear of Le Pen coming to power, even suspending publication of opinion polls, had as a key objective restoring authority to the Fifth Republic’s institutions.

Ruling class feared Le Pen victory

Despite Le Pen’s success on 21 April France today is not the France of the mid-1930s when sections of the ruling class debating using repressive or even fascist methods to crush the working class. This is not on today’s menu for the ruling class. In fact, many bosses feared that a Le Pen victory would not only mean increased class conflict within France but also the loss of markets in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

This is why the ruling class  joined in the massive campaign against Le Pen that expanded to involve all the main parties, the mass media, the trade unions, the bosses, and the churches and sports stars.

But the ruling elite had another motive, namely to try to regain the initiative and to neuter the spontaneous protests. Their fear was that the mass movement would quickly lead to a more profound radicalisation.

Already the first round had seen the Trotskyists win 10.44% (2,973,600 votes) nearly a doubling of their vote since 1995. Both the ruling class and the leaders of the Socialist and Communist Parties feared that this vote would be the basis for the creation of a genuine mass anti-capitalist party. Their answer to this was to exploit the masses’ urging for unity to defeat Le Pen and try to direct it into "safe", Republican channels.

Rapidly after 21 April a de facto ’Republican Front’ was constructed to mobilise support for Chirac in the second round. But Chirac had limited appeal. The Financial Times commented, "the left … can claim the bulk of the credit for mobilising the country". By the "left" it meant mainly the leaders of the trade unions, Socialist Party, Greens, Communist Party and others. But it was these leaders who also worked to give the 1,300,000 strong 1 May demonstrations a "national" rather than a working class, genuinely socialist, character. This was part of a concerted effort to place the "blame" for Le Pen’s success on those who did not vote or those who had voted to the left of Jospin.

But the collapse in Jospin’s support was due to the disappointment with the record of his "plural left" government. This government was elected in 1997 in reaction to the neo-liberal attacks that characterised the first two years of Chirac’s presidency.

Jospin’s ’Pluralist left’ government failed

In some circles internationally, the Jospin government was seen as different from New Labour in Britain, especially with the introduction of the 35-hour working week law.

But this law was used by bosses to attack working conditions and, as the Financial Times commented, "provided a convenient smokescreen behind which more pragmatic policies, such as privatisation, could be introduced".

Looking at the ’plural left’ government’s decline the Financial Times explained that Jospin’s "turning point … came in early autumn 1999 when he was forced to eat his words after saying ‘the state cannot be expected to look after everything’ when the tyre group Michelin unveiled plans to sack workers. Backtracking, he comforted the electorate with the view the state should and would do everything for them. And here he could not deliver".

This was compounded by Jospin’s campaign. He began by saying in Le Monde that he was not a "socialist" candidate, and ended up on 16 April saying he was the only candidate able to avoid events such as the general strike taking place that very same day in Italy. This reflected the key electoral problem for the "plural left": that they are not able to return even to a traditional reformist approach because of their links with the bosses.

The "plural left’s" failure to "deliver" over five years was the reason both for the dramatic fall in support for the Socialist and Communist Parties, and the dramatic rise in the Trotskyists’ vote.

Unfortunately the main Trotskyist organisations in France, the LO and LCR, did not act to take any initiative between the first and second rounds. There was no attempt to mobilise their millions of voters to take the lead in a socialist fight back against Le Pen and warn against supporting Chirac. In today’s situation, Le Pen was certain to be defeated on 5 May and the LO and LCR could have used their support to argue against the idea of "national unity" against Le Pen. Instead, the LO largely absented themselves from the mass protests and the LCR decided to change their previous position and called for a vote for Chirac. The danger is that an opportunity to lay the basis for a new, mass anti-capitalist party has, once more, been missed in France.

Nevertheless 1,758,850 went to the polls and spoilt their ballots, thereby signaling their rejection of both Le Pen and Chirac. Gauche Révolutionnaire (the French section of the CWI) argued for this policy, stating that there was no possibility of Le Pen being elected on 5 May and that it was necessary for activists to reject the call to come together behind Chirac. In many working class areas there were also high levels of abstentions as workers refused to vote for Chirac, for example in Lille, 29.26% did not vote.

Chirac victory  "a warning"

Internationally the capitalist class are worried about the future in France. The Financial Times’ 6 May editorial on the second round advised against a false satisfaction that Chirac has been re-elected with massive support: "the outcome should also be a warning to France. There is greater support for political extremism in that country than in any other leading European democracy…None of the French political establishment took the disaffection of the French electorate seriously enough. Voters are feeling insecure, socially, economically and politically. They see the old politicians – in Paris and in the wider EU – as detached from the reality of that insecurity."

These issues will not disappear. Chirac has now appointed Raffarin, from the neo-liberal Liberal Democracy party, as the acting Prime Minister until the June parliamentary elections. Raffarin was previous a minister in the Juppé government during Chirac’s first two years in office, a government which launched attack after attack on working people.

Chirac is seeking to build upon the momentum of his election victory. Rafarin’s appointment was part of a manoeuvre by Chirac to isolate his rivals on the right and strengthen the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), the electoral bloc he formed after the first round. The French business paper, Les Echos, said that Chirac, "has to win the parliamentary elections and ensure a majority. For the first time in five years, it is he who holds the cards. And it is he who has to act".

If Chirac is able to win a parliamentary majority on the backs of his 5 May victory that will signal a new series of attacks. Already Chirac has said he will "reform" the 35 hour week law and we can be sure that his reforms will be what the bosses, not the workers, want. However in the run up to the June elections he is also promising immediate tax cuts.

Because the two weeks before the first and second presidential rounds saw so many forces calling for a vote for Chirac now there is the possibility that some working people  will think that Le Pen has been defeated and conclude, "that’s enough". Others may be, initially, unready to immediately fight Chirac’s neo-liberal policies. The first effect of Chirac’s huge victory was seen in the very small attendance at the "anti-Chirac" demos s planned for Sunday evening after the polls closed.

If the ’plural left’ win next month’s parliamentary elections then the stage will be set for a new period of ’co-habitation’ with Chirac, with the same results as between 1997 and 2002.

Other possible scenarios set the stage for a further polarisation in society. Le Pen’s defeat does not mean that the far right has gone away; on the contrary, it will try to gain from disillusionment with the results of either Chirac and/or a ’plural left’ government.

Opportunity to build a new mass workers’ party

The largest Trotskyist organisations, the LO and LCR, will contest the June elections separately. There are good and bad sides to the recent declarations of these two organisations. While the LO is more critical of the ’plural left’, it has no flexibility and has really been incapable of intervening in the recent protests against the far right. The LCR, which finally called for a vote for Chirac, is still arguing for a new anti-capitalist party, without saying clearly what programme it should have or whether it should be based around them or with other forces. At the same time, its leaders have left open the possibility that they will again support pro-capitalist candidates to stop Le pen winning any MPs in the June 16 second, decisive, round of parliamentary elections.

Action needs to be taken immediately if this latest opportunity to build a new workers’ party, offered by the nearly three million strong Trotskyist vote, is not squandered and lost. The LO and LCR should jointly call for the formation of a new party, outline a basic socialist programme and inviting others from the Communist Party (PCF) left and other forces to participate. One of the first steps to rally support for such a party should be the organising of democratic local assemblies to select a single genuinely socialist candidate to stand in each constituency on 9 June.

It is still an open question as to what the left wing of the PCF will do. The PCF left-wing will have at least 15 candidates running, some, like Karman in Aubervilliers (Paris), and Hoareau in Marseille, with a real chance of getting more than 20% in the first round.

The Gauche Révolutionnaire will try to work with these organisations, but also try to reach the many thousands of people that want a genuine alternative. Already the events of the past weeks have opened the door towards many different parts of the population that have a huge thirst for political ideas and action. One of the tasks Gauche Révolutionnaire has set itself is to help  these new activists to prepare a counter offensive  to Chirac’s policies, and to fight to make new gains in regard to wages, working condition etc.

The key to permanently stopping the far right is building a workers’ alternative that will seriously fight to change society. The elections and the mass demonstrations show that millions are looking for an alternative. The Gauche Révolutionnaire is both actively  involved in the daily struggles that are unfolding and are also arguing for a single anti-capitalist, left candidate to stand in every area in June’s parliamentary election. This would one of the concrete steps towards the creation of a new mass workers’ party that could struggle for a government representing the interests of the working class, and which would implement a genuinely socialist programme.

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