France: Chirac victory

Chirac’s victory in the second round of the French National Assembly elections has been widely presented as a further part of a European swing to the political right.

The second round of the French National Assembly elections

Chirac’s victory is not the end of story – prepare for struggles and build an alternative

This is the first time that a single party, Chirac’s UMP, has held an absolute majority in the French parliament. But sometimes appearances can be deceptive. The UMP is little more than a loose coalition hastily thrown together in the last few weeks. There is no certainty of how long the UMP’s constituent parts will stay together if this government enters into crisis. But this is not even the right’s biggest parliamentary success. In terms of seats, the right won a bigger victory in 1992 (then composed of two parties), gaining 472 seats, compared to 399 now.

There is no doubt that amongst many people in France there are now fears about what this new right wing government will mean for them. Already the new administration has started a "law and order" offensive, which potentially targets immigrants. Many workers and youth see more social cuts appearing on the agenda and foresee themselves entering into struggle against Chirac’s plans.

More serious commentators are aware of the limits to this victory. Just two months ago, Chirac received less than 20% of the vote in the 21 April, first round of the presidential elections. He was widely seen as totally corrupt and desperate to continue enjoying "presidential immunity" so that he could avoid criminal investigations into his past. Two weeks later, Chirac was only re-elected because the mass mobilisation against Le Pen, the candidate of the far right, was channelled into the campaign to vote for Chirac on 5 May. When re-elected President, and following the early resignation of Jospin’s ‘Plural Left’ government, Chirac seized the initiative and worked to strengthen the right through the parliamentary elections.

Right gained at expense of ‘Plural Left’

The right’s subsequent parliamentary victory is more a rejection of the policies of the previous Plural Left government than overwhelming support for Chirac. On 16 June, excluding the National Front, the total right vote came to 11,206,000, which is 586,300 less than they won in the second parliamentary round in 1997. As in the recent presidential elections, the vote for the Socialist Party (PS), the Communist Party (PCF), and the Greens and their allies collapsed. Their vote went down from 12,387,400 scored during the 1997 second round to 9,613,600 now. The Plural Left (now renamed the ‘United Left’) lost 22.4% of its 1997 vote, which is just one indication of how its record in government alienated wide numbers of people.

Many voters are now demonstrating their frustration by simply voting against, or not voting for, those in power. Every parliamentary election in France since 1978 has seen the existing government defeated.

The vote last Sunday also saw abstentions jump to 39.71%, the highest ever in a French national election. This compares with an abstention rate of 28.9% in 1997’s second round. A further 986,000 voters (4.36%) went to the polling booths and cast blank votes. Significantly, for only the third time, the number of abstentions increased between the first and second rounds. In previous elections, the numbers of people voting has increased for the second, decisive round.

There is a growing rejection of the main establishment parties and a search both for means to protest and for an alternative. Nearly three million voters (10.44%) supported the Trotskyist candidates and 19.57% opted for the extreme right during the 21 April first round presidential elections.

A repeat of 1995-97?

These facts show that Chirac’s massive parliamentary majority does not mean that the right now has carte blanche to do what it likes. Since only 30.46% of the total French electorate voted for the right, Chirac’s government is actually a minority. Immediately after the election, one commentator spoke of the Chirac government being, "built on sand", its future "depends on the patience of the French voter – not just Chirac supporters, but the voiceless rump so neatly alienated by the political establishment. They may not remain voiceless for long."

Understanding this, Chirac will probably try to be cautious and seek to avoid an early confrontation with the working class and youth. He remembers all too well 1995, when months after he was first elected president, a mass workers’ movement in the streets defeated the attacks launched by his government. This defeat prepared the way for Chirac’s five-year isolation in the Presidency after the Socialist and Communist parties won the 1997 parliamentary election.

But Chirac will soon have to face key issues, such as the size of July’s increase in the legal minimum wage, the scope of his promised tax cuts and the growing pressure to cut back public spending. Chirac may attempt to postpone facing some of these issues, perhaps using privatisation as a way to finance some areas of government spending. But sooner or later there will be confrontations between workers and this new government. Expecting this, many activists are already starting to prepare themselves for a repeat of 1995 to 1997.

However, alongside this preparation for new struggles many workers and youth will be asking what is the real alternative to the right wing. The PS has held either the Presidency or run the government for all but two of the last 21 years, but the result has been the highest ever vote for Le Pen and the re-election of Chirac.

The mass media, after first concentrating on Le Pen, are now emphasising the scale of Chirac’s victory as a sign that Europe is turning rightwards. They consciously downplayed the Trotskyist vote and try to hide the fact that this year’s four French election results were mainly a rejection of the pro-capitalist policies carried out during five years of ‘Plural Left’ government.

Need for new mass workers’ party not disappeared

A very important feature of April’s first round presidential vote was that it showed, as part of a political polarisation, that a leftward radicalisation was also taking place in France, with the Trotskyist vote nearly doubling compared to 1995. Unfortunately, the policies of the major French Trotskyist organisations meant that the opportunity to start building a new, genuinely socialist, force in France was missed. For activists however this question of a new workers’ party has not disappeared.

The struggles of the French working class against attacks planned by Chirac and co. will not simply be a repeat of 1995. The scale of the recent Trotskyist vote showed that increasing numbers of workers and youth are drawing radical conclusions, from both their experience of struggles and the Jospin government. There will be a determination by those who voted Trotskyist, and also from many Communist voters and others, to break out of the cycle of struggling against right wing governments only to see their replacements carrying out basically the same policies.

In these circumstances, the call of Gauche Révolutionnaire, the CWI section in France, for the building of a new, campaigning, genuinely socialist party in France will gain a growing response.

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June 2002