France: the winding road towards the presidential elections

60% of the population think all politicians are corrupt

Recently everything in France has been seen through the kaleidoscope of the Presidential elections due to be held in April 2007. The "élection présidentielle" will be followed by "élection législative" or elections for parliament on the 10 June. These will be the first national elections since the French working class and youth were central to defeating the European constitution in a referendum; the revolt of the banlieues (poor suburbs) in November 2005 and the defeat of the de Villepin government over the introduction of the CPE, or first employment contracts.

The gulf between the government and the political elite and the majority is society is so large that 60% of the population think that all politicians are corrupt. One opinion poll found that the attitude of middle class people towards corrupt politicians is a lot softer than those of the working poor who are at the receiving end of the neo-liberal policies. The right-wing UMP (Union for a Popular Movement – Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), government is an isolated government, defeated on the streets, which has drawn back in the cosy debating chambers of the parliament. There it finds itself shadow boxing with an opposition, lead by the PS (Socialist Party – Parti Socialiste) equally detached from society. A measure of this iron wall between the traditional political parties and the population, especially the popular masses in the suburbs, could be seen during the riots in November last year. The government declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. The opposition had no other option than to accept the facts created on the ground by the government.

Prepared to resist three general strikes

The main right wing contender for the presidential elections is present interior minister, and president of the right wing government party UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarko, as he is nicknamed by the media, is promoting himself as the strong man the France ruling class needs to confront the workers movement and to introduce more pro-business ‘reforms’. Most of his proposals, for example the proposed overhaul of old-style stable job contracts (CDI), are vigorously supported by the employer’s federation MEDEF although the latter doesn’t, at this stage, dare to break with the other pro-capitalist candidates. Sarkozy is promoting himself as the defender of the big French multinationals. Incredibly he has declared that he will be prepared to sit out three general strikes to defeat the trade unions if its is needed to introduce anti-workers legislation. This statement filled parts of the French ruling class with fear and widened the political divisions within the UMP. After the debacle for the ruling class with the introduction of the CPE many around the present-day president Chirac, and his ally de Villepin, are afraid that a loud mouth like Sarkozy will provoke instant class hate and opposition.

Jean-Louis Debré, leading UMP member and president of the National Assembly, was quoted in the French press saying that he would rather vote for Ségolène Royal, the most likely candidate for the PS, than for Sarkozy in the second round of the Presidential elections. The opposing political views of how to implement neo-liberal reforms are illustrated by the attitude of the different camps towards the trade union leaders. Just as Sarkozy is playing with the idea of introducing Tatcherite anti-trade union laws, Chirac and de Villepin are talking about the need to strengthen social partnership as a way of locking the trade union leadership into the process. The Chirac wing of the UMP which sees itself as continuing the policies of De Gaulle is adopting a strategy of appeasement towards the trade union leaders, hoping that this is will be more productive in introducing neo-liberal reform. This strategy has been very successful, only challenged in cases were the rank and file of the unions decided to take action as for example in the struggle against the privatisation of the electricity and gas company EDF-GDF.

The PS has entered the pre-election campaign on a high. Its main candidate Ségolène Royal is leading in the polls. Starting the campaign as an outsider she has overtaken her male rivals in the PS like Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) and Laurent Fabius. When the last televised debate between the PS candidates failed to produce any clear political differences Royal quipped that she at least could see one important difference, she is in line to be the first female French president ever. For the majority of the voters Ségolène Royal is an unknown quantity, a woman different from her male rivals who are the dinosaurs of French politics. Royal has described herself as a political mix between Blairite and Swedish social democratic policies, to the right on issues of law and order, and although speaking about fairness and equality, to the right on economic issues. Although many people remember the fact that the last PS government, under the leadership of Jospin, privatised more public services than the two right wing government before it, the fear of a Sarkozy presidency might push people into a vote for Royal as the lesser evil or might switch alliances in the second round and vote tactically for Royal to keep Sarkozy out..

The French press compare Ségolène Royal to Michelle Bachelet, newly elected as the first woman to be president of Chile, The comparison could prove to be more apt than they imagine. Hardly two months into her presidency, Bachelet lost her image as progressive woman leader by raising the retirement age for women and brutally attacking the school students and students movement.

Weakness of the French economy

The companies of the CAC40, the French equivalent of the FTSE, have racked in enormous profits over the last couple of years. The top 40 French companies have seen their profits increase with 36% in 2004 and 30% in 2005. Even with the tremendous defensive battles of the working class fencing off most of the reforms, the impact of privatisation and measures to push down wages have had a profound effect. This year alone 15.000 jobs in the public sector have been scrapped and another 8.000 in the education sector. The introduction of the 35 hour week by the Jospin government has lead to important changes in working conditions. On the one hand it has removed job security from many jobs while introducing more flexibility and a higher work rate. Officially the working week went from 39 hours to 35, on average though workers have seen a reduction of only two and a half hours, in the textile industry the average reduction was only one and a half hours. While the 35 hour week has brought some benefit for management and middle management, on the shop floor it has intensified workers’ exploitation. In the Michelin tyre factories, for example, the 35 hour week has meant extra days off for management while for workers’, Saturdays became a working day like any other day of the week.

Now the employers’ federation, MEDEF, is starting a campaign to abolish the 35 hour week. The bosses want to consolidate the gains in flexibility and extend working hours. The French workers have seen their share of the national wealth drop considerably in the last 4 years. Wages have gone up by a mere 1% on average while jobs in industry are disappearing. According to a study by the Financial Times, the French economy is losing the battle with its European and world competitors.

This British based paper calculates that this has cost the French economy 700,000 industrial jobs. France is also losing the battle on the international markets. France’s share in the global export market is melting away at twice the rate of the US economy and three times faster than Germany. This is particularly bad news because the French ruling class has traditionally attempted to protect its own industrial basis. Until now the malaise of the French economy has been hidden behind a boom "light" based on consumer debt and a British style housing boom. However this is unsustainable and further deindustrialisation will fiercely cut the available income of the French working class and further undermine the authority of the French elite. Before it comes to that it will provoke battles with the industrial working class, mainly employed in the private sector, who up until now have been supporters rather than participants in the battles with the government.

The situation in the banlieues

As the first anniversary of the large scale riots in the French suburbs approaches next Friday, attention will return to this issue after 12 months of neglect. Unemployment in Clichy-sous-Bois, the Parisian suburb where riots started after the death of two teenagers, is still at 23.5%. Youth unemployment stands at 32% in a community where 47% of the inhabitants are under the age of 25. Many commentators are bracing themselves for a repeat of the violence and protests to mark the anniversary. In all of France, 480 incidents of violence against the police were recorded for September alone. There are signs of a more organised approach in the suburbs to confront the hated and oppressive police. Youths in Epinay-sur-Seine called out the Brigade anticriminalité (BAC), a specialised force known for its heavy handed tactics and racist language, two weekends ago with a fake call about a car burglary. When the BAC sent three officers in a patrol car they were ambushed by 30 young people with base ball bats, rocks and metal bars. Such is the rage of the unemployed, the permanently oppressed and the unorganised in the suburbs that rough justice and revenge against the hated police could become a new feature, a part of everyday life just like the relentless passport controls by the police. These methods isolate the youth of the estates and prevent them finding a political basis to build an alternative. The room to do this exists as is shown by the hike in the number of people who have registered to vote in next years elections.

The interior minister, Sarkozy, responsible for the spread of the riots in November 2005, has responded by bringing in more oppressive laws. A new law "to prevent delinquency" voted in on the 21 September fines parents €750 or £502, if their children are absent from school or receive a warning for bad behaviour from the school. It also provides a mechanism to suspend social benefits if problems reoccur and young people who commit a crime can be imprisoned from the first offence committed.

The radical left and the need for a new workers’ party

Unfortunately, the run up to the new presidential election sees a repeat of the run up to the last presidential election of 2002 amongst the radical left in France. While LCR and LO have repeatedly achieved very good electoral results, in 2002 they had a joint result of more than 10%, they haven’t been able to attract a large layer of workers who are still under the influence of the PS and the leadership of the PCF. LO will stand its own candidate, Arlette Aguiller, and produces its own theoretical justification to stand in isolation. Behind workerist rhetoric they comment that since this period is characterised by a weakening of the workers’ movement nothing can develop. In this way a reason is found not to give a lead in movements, to simply repeat the directives of the trade union bureaucracies and to abstain from a new initiative that could bring workers together.

The LCR has also repeated its own pre-electoral strategy. It is zigzagging between the PCF leadership, a unity candidate coming out of committees against the European constitution and presenting its own candidate.

The struggle against the CPE clearly showed the limits of both the LCR and LO. With thousands of youth involved in a struggle for the first time both organisations failed to formulate a strategy to develop the movement. The LCR wrote in its paper about the need for a general strike but busied itself in practice signing joint statements with the PS in which this was absolutely not proposed. LO simply repeated the proposal of the trade union leaders. A clear appeal to organise and build for a general strike on the basis of an action plan and local organising committees could have played a decisive role in lifting the consciousness and the organisational capacity of the movement. Linked to the question of the need for a revolutionary socialist program, this would be worth 20 general appeals to construct a new force. Built in the heat of the battle, it would have shown in practice that a political alternative to the PS, the PCF leadership and the trade union leaders is possible.

The PCF is positioning itself as the defender and protagonist of a unity candidate growing out of the campaign against the European constitution. On the basis of a program of fighting demands, breaking with capitalism, such an initiative could fill out and provide a political point of attraction for thousands of workers and youth who are not prepared to vote for the lesser evil of Ségolène Royal.

However, the draft program is very limited and the overwhelming control by the PCF apparatus over the local committees might turn away unorganised youth and workers, breaking the initiative before it has had time to find roots in local communities and go beyond the – rather older – intellectual milieu of the French anti-globalism movement. The PCF leadership finds itself in the worst of both worlds, as the main allies of the PS in the ‘privatisation’ government of Jospin, it has not been able to recover and win back the support it had lost. At the same time it will not be able to cash in on a vote for the lesser evil like the PS will. The PCF hope to find a "unity candidate" and to use the campaign to stand under its name in the parliamentary elections in 2007 and the local elections in 2008. In this way it might recover some of its votes by hiding behind a "unity candidate" campaign. Those like the LCR who entertain the notion that it is possible to break the PCF leadership away from its political alliance with the PS do not challenge the political basis of the PCF-PS alliance. This is not only a question for the PCF leadership of winning parliamentary seats and expanding its political power, it is also a question of program, perspectives and confidence in the working class struggle as the tool to change society. The PCF leadership, sometimes paying lip service to the class struggle, has fundamentally rejected the idea a force capable of leading a revolutionary change of society.

Gauche révolutionnaire, the CWI section in France, is convinced that courageous and determined struggles by the youth and workers of France can forge a real alternative to the present party political system. We believe that a fighting party, defending the rights of workers and youth, against this and future governments, can lay the foundation for the socialist transformation of France and the continent. GR members will campaign for the formation of such a party while continuing to lay down fighting traditions in present struggles as they unfold. A new workers party would first and foremost bring together the most conscious and fighting representatives of the working class and youth and act as an instrument of struggle, and a laboratory to test ideas and experiences, on the basis of a socialist program

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October 2006