France: 2007 – between struggles and elections

Is it some historical joke that the Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate for the presidency of the French Republic is called Royal?

Apart from that, PS members chose the only candidate who in opinion polls seems able to defeat the right-wing candidate, Nicholas Sarkozy. But is there a big difference between the two?

Recent years have seen a number of struggles and political campaigns, such as the referendum on the European Union constitution in 2005. Growing opposition against the government’s neo-liberal policies has expressed itself in different ways. Although some successes have been recorded, the mainstream of government policy has remained the same. A new wave of attacks is being prepared, with pensions a prime target: the number of years people have to work and the specific pensions of rail workers and others.

Sarkozy’s long walk to become the sole right-wing candidate has been successful. He presents himself as the best candidate for the capitalists, clearly calling for a ‘rupture’: for a direct fight against the working class. Sarkozy has not put himself in the forefront at times of social struggle, but he is omnipresent in the media with clear neo-liberal speeches. He represents a sharp break from the Gaullist tradition of appearing to be above the classes while attacking the workers slice by slice.

Over the last few years, French capitalism has been set back internationally. Sarkozy’s main idea is to adapt the French economy to that situation. Unlike the Gaullists, who always seek to maintain France’s international position, the Sarkosists think that it is better to accept the share permitted by the new situation. That means, for example, trying to create huge multi-national corporations, but in a limited number of sectors. Also, the policy in terms of taxes is to push toward a more speculative economy. And a conscious policy of racist provocation, but with some help to immigrants who adapt themselves to the neo-liberal policies. That is combined with a very repressive attitude towards the social and workers’ movements, and the youth.

A lot of workers and young people see Sarkozy as a big threat. He is the more hated politician among the youth of the poor areas, the banlieue. For many workers, Sarkozy also appears as the bosses’ candidate. A certain polarisation flows from that which partly explains the successes of Ségolène Royal in the polls.

In the recent struggles and political campaigns, the PS has not taken many risks. Its support for the EU constitution has been given secondary priority since the struggle against the CPE (first job contract) last year. A mass movement of young people and workers stalled the government’s plans to implement this attack on the rights of young workers. But the PS congress last September overwhelmingly adopted a neo-liberal programme. Its choice of presidential candidate was not based on confronting the right-wing political agenda, but on ‘who can win against Sarkozy’ – but on the same terms. The most important issue was the media profile of the candidate.

Although on the staff of the former ‘socialist’ president François Mitterrand at the beginning of the 1990s, and in Lionel Jospin’s government, Royal does not appear as an ‘elephant’ – part of the old PS leadership group who have huge weight and influence. She has a regional base, always necessary in the PS, but does not appear as a national leader, and has a kind of non-bureaucratic aura. The two other candidates, Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, were ministers rooted in the 1980s.

Royal also has the advantage of being a woman who appears, from one side, very modern and, from the other, very traditional. She is not married, has four children, and her partner is PS national secretary, François Hollande. She appears very independent from him. At the same time, she always praises ‘family values’.

In the ranks of the PS, 81% of the votes went to Royal and Strauss-Kahn, both with neo-liberal positions. That shows the transformation of the PS internally. Although Fabius raised demands which were a bit more on the left (such as an immediate raise of €100 on the minimum wage), he is responsible for many of the neo-liberal policies of the past.

Up to now, the huge polarisation because of Sarkozy is pushing two types of electors towards Royal. Most have an approach of the ‘lesser evil’, thinking that attacks will be smoother under Royal than Sarkozy. Certainly, the tactic of the PS will be to put forward a few social measures to lighten some aspects of the capitalist offensive. For example, it says it will create 500,000 jobs for young people. Paid on the minimum wage, on private sector-type contracts lasting up to five years, these contracts appear less casual than the CPE. Of course, in the final analysis they are not: they would replace public-sector contracts, and would be renewed each year, meaning they could be cancelled. It is less brutal than Sarkozy. Nevertheless, it is this kind of policy – along with more vicious attacks, such as the Aubry law that officially reduced work to a 35-hour week but froze wages and introduced huge ‘flexibility’ – which led to the defeat of Jospin in 2002.

Workers and youth will cast a kind of tactical vote. The idea will be to avoid a Sarkozy victory without giving support to Royal. Such a situation has arisen mainly because of the absence of a candidate who could represent workers, young people and those fighting against neo-liberal policies.

Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) have been in a favourable position many times over recent years. But the strong disagreements between the two have made it impossible for them to take any meaningful joint initiatives. Both are presented and seen as revolutionary organisations, but LO and the LCR have refused to really challenge the union leaderships and create a new political formation in which a layer of the working class and youth could develop an independent political base.

It is always the rank and file and the unorganised workers who are pushing for struggle, and who have forced the unions to take part. For example, postal workers, mainly in Paris and its region, were on strike several hours a week throughout November and December but had to self-organise their strike with only the support of some local unions. The government is speaking of attacking the pension system, and has said that it will cut 5,000 education jobs. Already demos have been called. But it will certainly, once again, be up to rank-and-file workers to start the struggle if they are to get any results.

During the struggle against the CPE, neither LO nor the LCR put forward an alternative to the union leaders and the Communist Party (PCF). They followed the official organisations, the ‘days of action’, and did not launch any battles in bodies like the national student coordinating body.

On the political ground, they took no initiatives at all. Following the joint campaign against the EU constitution, ‘anti-neoliberal committees’ were formed which included the LCR, PCF, other left groups and individuals. From the beginning, the LCR said that it would lead to an ‘explosion’ if these bodies supported a candidate in elections. The PCF is seeking to transform these committees into support for its own candidate. In the end, all of this broke down and the LCR and PCF have their own candidates. All those who were hoping for a joint anti-neoliberal candidate have the feeling of being misled.

The presidential election will be a very important moment. In a recent poll, 83% of young people said that they had a lot or a certain interest in that election. Will there be struggles taking place in the same moment is an important question. What is clear is that the key issue is still the absence of a new workers’ party that could pull together a layer of young people and workers who have struggled over recent years and who refuse neo-liberal policies. This layer has no real means of discussing collectively the alternative to capitalism. This reduces the various struggles to being only about resistance, and not movements to formulate a common strategy.

Unfortunately, the LCR and LO will not change their attitudes in the next period. Nevertheless, a good vote for them would be very significant. It would show the persistence of an anti-capitalist vote, and the necessity and possibility of using it. Such a vote would also confirm that socialist ideas could be discussed if the necessary space to do that, a new workers’ party, were set up. It is clearly these ideas, and linking them with the workers’ struggles, that Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France) will put forward.

From Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Pary, cwi in England and Wales.

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February 2007