France: Elections – political earthquake

The first-round success of far-right leader, Jean-Marie le Pen, in the French presidential elections shocked the world. Hardly discussed, however, were the votes for the Trotskyist parties. Socialism Today interviews Alex Rouillard, organiser for Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI section in France), on the election and the tasks for the left.

Why was the result of the first round, allowing Le Pen to enter the second round, such a shock?

IT WAS A triple shock. The first was that the choice would now be between the right and the far-right. The second one was that everyone had thought that the problem of Le Pen had disappeared with the split between the two Front National leaders with the setting up of MNR [Mouvement National Républicain] by Mégret. And the third point is that Le Pen is seen as the spiritual son of one of the darkest periods of European history.

But there was not really a massive upsurge in Le Pen’s vote?

THE FAR-RIGHT’s votes were not much more than in 1995, if you combine the total for Le Pen and Mégret in 2002 and Le Pen plus de Villiers in 1995. The difference is the complete collapse of Jospin and the plural left. Overall, they lost several millions of votes. Jospin’s support fell from 26% in 1995 to 16% in this last election.

How did Jospin and the Parti Socialiste (PS) campaign?

IN THE FIRST round they campaigned only on a so-called ‘balance sheet’ of the government. In fact, they were unable to find one thing where they could say: ‘Look we have made a real social policy’. Even with the special youth jobs or the Aubry law on the 35-hour week, they know that they have to be very careful. For example, the Aubry law is a major attack on the working conditions in many workplaces, especially in the industrial sector, by introducing huge flexibility in working hours, including weekend working.

How did Le Pen campaign? Where did Le Pen collect most of his votes from?

IN FACT, WE saw an invisible Front National, in terms of placards and so on. The campaign it conducted was not very aggressive. In a quite clever way, Le Pen claimed that signatories necessary for standing in the presidential elections had gone missing. He used that to gain media attention. It is quite clear that the signatories were not missing at all. Then he put social demands on the top of his programme and that was enough to make him a challenger to the two main candidates. Jospin and Chirac did not deal with the real social issues, such as jobs and so on.

Le Pen collected most of his votes in rural areas and in deprived working-class areas, the banlieues, etc, for two different reasons. In the countryside it is because he was able to catch the votes of the small farmers who have been ruined by the European agricultural policy. He put forward concrete demands for them. In the run-down urban areas, it is mainly some workers and unemployed. For these two categories there are also other disasters following the capitalist crisis, such as insecurity – disturbances and violent crimes – and things like that which sometimes poison people’s daily lives. The thinking was that voting for Le Pen would force the establishment to adopt different policies on that issue.

Le Pen did not get an overwhelming support in the big industrial suburbs of the cities. For example, in Paris Le Pen was not a big candidate. It’s interesting to see that in these industrial suburbs he did not receive much more than the far-left candidates. The areas with large high-rise housing schemes, for example, the ‘Red Belt’ of Paris or Rouen – mainly working-class areas – saw equivalent scores for Le Pen and the far-left.

What kind of campaign did Lutte Ouvrière (LO) have for Arlette Laguiller?

THEY BEGAN WITH a very anti-capitalist and radical campaign against redundancies and profits and the fat cats, etc. But, at the same time, they did not have a flexible approach, they did not take up social demands that were not already written in their programme, concentrating mainly on the question of globalisation and things like that. So they had very good support but they fell into the trap laid by the media who accused Lutte Ouvrière of being sectarian. They spent too much time on this attack, saying that they are not sectarian, etc. They should have had a much more effective position on social issues. Worst of all, was the last week of the campaign when they did not really have an open position for a new workers’ party. Because they were trying to reach Parti Communiste Francais (PCF) supporters, they were just speaking about a ‘new communist party’ and saying to their potential voters that they were not asking them to vote for communism but to vote for their simple anti-capitalist demands. So in the last couple of weeks their campaign lacked any real dynamism.

And the campaign of Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) for Olivier Besancenot?

NEARLY THE REVERSE of what LO did! The main difference is that their electorate is not the same at all. LCR are much younger, for example students and young workers vote for them, but not so much the industrial workplaces. There is a very big difference between the old industrial North of France, where the vote went mainly to LO, and the South, with its concentration of the more hi-tech branches of industry. The workers there voted mainly for the LCR. So their campaign was based on only a few demands, from the legalisation of cannabis to demanding a law forbidding redundancies. Then they made a change in the last two weeks, speaking about a new force and a new workers’ party that would fight capitalism, etc. That explains why in the last period of the election campaign they received stronger support than they were expected to get.

How did the PS leaders respond to Jospin’s defeat?

BY BLAMING THE people for not voting for them and mainly blaming them for voting for the far-left. As soon as they saw the results they said that they would vote against Le Pen and campaign for that. For them, it was a way of avoiding discussing the first round and immediately discussing the preparations for the coming parliamentary elections, preparing a new ‘united left’ list.

Mainly the PS leaders were calling for a vote for Chirac, except Jospin, for example. He just said that we have to vote in order to defend the republic, not even saying that we have to vote against Le Pen. The main PS leaders said we have to vote for Chirac. At the same time, in many leaflets they just said that we have to vote against Le Pen because they have not forgotten that they have to defeat Chirac in the parliamentary elections.

What were Lutte Ouvrière and the LCR’s tactics for the second round?

LUTTE OUVRIÈRE’s position was very hard-line, just saying that Chirac and Le Pen were both servants of the bourgeoisie. Well, not saying that they were the same, but servants of the bourgeoisie nonetheless. LO called for a blank vote or abstention, saying that no worker’s vote should go to either Le Pen or Chirac. This was not at all flexible. LO did not appeal sympathetically to those who would agree on many issues but vote for Chirac because they were scared and, at the same time, they were not calling for a mobilisation.

The LCR on the other hand initially said that they had no position and called for mobilisation. Two days after they changed that with a call against Le Pen with a very formal call for a ‘social round’ – but without putting concrete issues – after the second round of the election, but not really giving a clear direction to the movement against Le Pen. It was clear that this position would put them out of an agreement with LO. Neither of these two organisations had a real orientation to propose on the basis of the 10% they received in the first round of the election. Neither proposed a political alternative, such as a real, new workers’ party, not only in words but in concrete proposals, such as calling for joint open meetings, etc. That is the only way, really, to defeat Le Pen and all the other dangers that exist under capitalism.

What was the position of Gauche Révolutionnaire?

WE SAID THAT we have to mobilise, that only struggles can really defeat dangers like the Front National. That only working class and young people can really defend the democratic rights of the whole population. But we never called for a vote against Le Pen because the most important thing in the mobilisation was to show the people that it was not the politicians who are able to defend democratic rights but their own mobilisation. May Day clearly showed that we could stop things like the Front National. And so we said that we would be casting a blank vote but that we fully understood that a lot of people would vote for Chirac. But we did not call for a vote against Le Pen which was, in fact, a call for a vote for Chirac. A campaign around the vote would give the impression that it was through the election that we can stop Le Pen. In fact, it is through the struggle that we can stop him.

What response did Gauche Révolutionnaire get to its intervention?

WE RECEIVED A very positive response because we were really active in the mobilisation. We were not putting our call for a blank vote up as a barrier to discuss with people because our main propaganda was to mobilise, to call the students and school students to go on strike, etc, and even to have an appeal to extend the strike depending on the sector where we were working. It was really easy to discuss with people and we had very friendly and good discussions with people who wanted to talk about these issues. People joined us during the movement. A lot of people worked with us. Our position [for a blank vote] was not an obstacle at all. On the contrary, it was also a way of having a deeper discussion on the question of why we had to mobilise, in which direction. Also, we said that we should take into account the warning represented by the fact that Le Pen went through to the second round, and that the move towards a socialist alternative against capitalism was linked to defiance of the bourgeois institutions and Chirac. That made it clearer for a lot of young people.

An estimated 1.5 million people participated in the May Day demonstrations all over France. What was the mood?

IT WAS A very good one! People were open and friendly, with the possibility of discussing with people. But most union leaderships and political leaders put pressure on to make the vote for Chirac the main slogan. It could have been a May day much more social, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist but, because of the lack of forces who were against the slogan of an anti-Le Pen vote, the demonstrations were not enough to give confidence to a lot of workers and youth to link the question of fighting Le Pen with their own concrete daily demands.

How do you view the outcome of the second round?

THE WHOLE PLURAL left and the media were all saying that Le Pen will gain a big score. We never thought that, even if it was difficult to resist that pressure. The first of May showed the complete isolation of Le Pen. And so it was much more important to have a signal for the working class and youth of an independent vote in that election. And that idea won 1.7 million blank votes, which was a real clear call in that direction. Of course, these blank votes were not the same as those in the first round because, in the second round, the only ones casting a blank vote were those who wanted to say ‘We don’t believe in Chirac or Le Pen’ and who did not believe that Chirac was a barrier against Le Pen. Maybe also there were a few first-round Le Pen electors, especially workers, who voted blank in order to say they wanted to cast a protest vote in the first round. It is interesting to see that the media did not analyse of the blank vote. It would have been very interesting to see how many trade unionists, workers, etc, voted blank.

Regardless of people’s reasons for voting for Chirac – many to stop Le Pen – Chirac has nevertheless been strengthened by the results, hasn’t he?

WHAT IS REALLY important is to see that as soon as Chirac was re-elected, he assembled a very hard-line government, completely reinforced by his 82% vote. Of course, the result has strengthened Chirac a lot because he is now a typical fifth republic president, the man on top of the nation, over the other parties, the guarantor of democracy, etc. I’m sure that Chirac’s score is like LSD, because for him everything is OK. He was saved. The first round of the election could have been a big warning for him, and a fight against Jospin in the second round could have led to a defeat. Now nobody is talking about his affairs, since just after the first round. The corruption scandals around Chirac have completely disappeared from the papers.

What effects will the elections have on the Parti Socialiste?

THE PS GAINED a lot of new members just after the first round. But it is not moving left. It has just gone back to a 1997 position – a little bit more social, more open to young people’s problems, etc. So it’s clear that the leadership does not want to win back power on the basis of a lot of social demands. And so it is possible that a lot of those who have joined the PS will be quite quickly disappointed.

The most important aspect of the presidential election, in many ways, was the 10% vote for the Trotskyist organisations – in a country that historically had a mass Stalinist Communist Party. What is the implication of this?

THE TWO MAIN far-left organisations achieved 10% in the election, but they have found no way to reach an agreement. The main task will be to struggle against the attacks of the government. But to struggle against the attacks is not sufficient to resolve the problem of the Front National. To resolve the problems of misery, poverty and unemployment in France we will need a real new workers’ party. A new workers’ party does not mean only a movement with general anti-capitalist demands, etc, but a real party which is able to organise the struggle, to make the struggle win, and to have a real socialist objective. The proposal, for example, from the LCR does not deal in any way with a socialist perspective. They keep the illusion of just having demands that are enough to defy the system. On the other hand, LO sometimes speaks about communism but does not link the task of going to socialism to the building of a party. It makes no steps in that direction.

What is Gauche Révolutionnaire’s perspective now?

NOW THE LCR has made an appeal to all those who want to fight capitalism to discuss together. Of course, we will participate in those discussions. But their appeal did not mention ‘socialism’ or even ‘party’. For us, the next few years will confirm that the main task is to rebuild confidence in the capacity of workers and young people to organise and lead struggles and win support for a socialist programme. That is the way to defeat Le Pen and also capitalism. It is on that perspective that more and more people are joining us. We are ready to fight alongside all the genuine anti-capitalist and socialist forces, but with a strategy to achieve socialism, not merely to maintain the status quo or go back to some ‘golden age’ of the 1970s.

Election facts

THE FIRST ROUND saw a rejection of the establishment parties. 29,498,009 people voted (71.6%) but the 28.4% abstention rate was the highest ever (21.63% in the last presidential elections in 1995, nearly two million votes more). Spoilt ballots numbered 995,550 (from 888,810).

Chirac had the lowest ever score for a sitting president with 5,666,440 votes (19.88%) – 14% of the total electorate – while Jospin’s vote collapsed to 4,610,740, against 7,101,990 for the PS in 1995.

The combined Trotskyist vote was 2,973,600 (10.44%) – 1,616,546 (5.3%) in 1995. The LO vote was 1,630,244 (5.72%) – 1,615,546 (5.3%) in 1995 – while the LCR polled 1,210,694 (4.25%). The Parti des Travailleurs vote was 132,702 (0.47%). The LCR was second-largest party among youth with 13.9% (just below Chirac). LO won 10% of workers’ votes.

The PCF vote evaporated, with 960,750 votes (3.37%, its lowest ever percentage), from 2,634,187 (8.64%) in 1995. The Greens vote was 1,495,900 (5.25%), from 1,011,370 (3.32%) in 1995.

Le Pen’s vote was 4,805,300 (16.86%) but Mégret received 667,120 votes (2.34%). Therefore the total for the far-right was 5,472,420 (19.2%). In 1995 Le Pen received 4,573,200 (15%) but another far-right candidate, De Villiers, got 1,443,186 votes (4.74%). So the total far-right vote then was 6,014,324 (19.74%).

One survey said Le Pen’s support amongst youth was 12% (down from 18% in 1995), amongst pensioners 19% (from 9%), and small business people 30% (from 13%).

The second round saw a large rise in turnout to 32,577,810 (80.14%). Chirac received 25,316,647 (77.71% of all votes cast including blank votes) while Le Pen got 5,502,314 (16.89%), only 55,400 more than in first round. In some areas, for example Alsace, his vote fell.

Blank votes were 1,758,849 (5.40%). There were also high levels of abstentions in some working-class towns, for example, a 29.26% abstention in Lille.

This article will appear in the June 2002 issue of Socialism Today, the monthly journal of the Socialist Party (England and Wales CWI section)

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June 2002