First round of the presidential elections
France goes to the polls this weekend in the first round of choosing a new president. These elections come at an important conjuncture for the French establishment. It is hoping to leave behind 5 years of economic and political crisis and elect in the coming months first a new president, and then a new government to more successfully pursue its neo-liberal policies. To bring political stability to the government is a prerequisite if it wants to pursue its anti-working class and anti-poor policies and hope for a minimum of success.
The previous presidential elections in 2002 produced a nightmarish surprise and political crisis. The traditional governing parties were rejected by many voters. None of the candidates obtained more than 20% of the vote in the first round. As a result the leader of the extreme right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, sneaked into the second round run off against Jacques Chirac.
Even though Chirac was subsequently elected as president, the next five years were marked by weak centre-right governments, tremendous mobilisations and struggles of the working class against pension reform and the youth employment contract law or CPE, to give but a few examples. The French and European establishment lost its referendum on the European constitution and the world got a sneak view of the black and dismal side of capitalism in France, normally hidden from most of its own inhabitants, when the “banlieues” erupted in riots after police repression lead to the killing of two youths in a Paris suburb.
Candidates promise the same policies
In the 2007 campaign, surprises are equally possible, but for other reasons. The main candidates Ségolène Royal for the ex-social democratic Parti Socialiste (PS), Nicolas Sarkozy for centre-right Union pour la Majoritaire Présidentielle (UMP) and Francois Bayrou for the centrist Union pour la Democracy Français (UDF) have done their utmost to avoid campaign themes like employment, redundancies and wages. They have said they would adopt a more ‘pragmatic’, ‘non ideological’ (sic) approach. In their different ways they are all Blairite and share the same pro-market, neo-liberal approach.
John Lichfield, writing in the British based newspaper, the Independent (16 April 2007), summed up the general dilemma and the lack of political choice for the French establishment when writing; “The hungry M. Sarkozy scares people, even on the right. The dilettante Mme Royal disappoints people, even on the left. The likeable M. Bayrou fails to galvanise people, even in the centre”.
No wonder then that in the minds of many workers, youth, immigrants and the left two factors dominate the election campaign. The first; a fear that Le Pen will reach the second round for the second time. Opinion polls suggest that it will not happen but these polls have been wrong – especially about Le Pen – before. More than even in 2002, Le Pen has campaigned as a champion of the ‘little’ people against the ‘powerful’, the ‘well-off’ and the ‘corrupt’. In his official campaign material the word immigration is only used once. Of course, his declarations and content remain reactionary and racist while his economic policies are ultra-liberal promising, for example, tax breaks for the super rich, like himself.
The second mobilising factor for many, is the fear of Sarkozy, the super arrogant ex-interior minister who put oil on the fire of the riots in the “banlieues” by calling the poor inhabitants ‘racaille’ (scum). There has been a 9 to 10% increase in voter registration in the “banlieues” this year. Many youth are prepared to vote to punish Sarkozy. He is seen as a politician who hates the poor and the immigrants. His period as Interior Minister saw heightened repression and the introduction of shock troop policing in the banlieues. His law and order approach includes setting minimum sentencing for repeat offenders. He wants to introduce legislation to cut taxes on overtime hours and oblige young people not to refuse more than two ‘suitable’ job offers. He has also proposed to introduce anti-trade union legislation imposing a minimum service on the public sector to break strikes and relax rules on hiring and firing.
These measures make him not only ‘public enemy number one’ for the working class, with the possibility of spontaneous demonstrations and strikes erupting should he get a good score in the first round, but it also makes the ruling class jumpy. They fear the election of a candidate, who thinks it is “a good sign” to frighten most voters, would provoke massive movements and mobilisations from all oppressed in society. Sarkozy has tried to overcome the hatred towards himself by going even further to the right and using further racist provocations, anti-youth rhetoric and nationalism.
Economic crisis hits only the working class
This is while national unemployment figures stand at an average of almost 10%, rising to over 30% in the poorest areas around the big cities, and the minimum wage is still below 1000 euros a month. The relative stagnation of the French economy only exists for the workers and sections of the middle class. In contrast to widespread unemployment, lower wages and fast spreading flexibilisation of the workplaces stand the financial results of the 40 biggest French multinationals. For them 2006 has been a grand-cru with over 96 billion euros of profit
Airbus, the multinational aircraft manufacturer, has announced 10,000 redundancies across Europe. At the same time the Chief Executive of EADS, the mother company controlling Airbus, will receive a 8.4 million euros golden handshake. Once more, workers are paying for the mismanagement of the bosses and the enrichment of the share holders and the loss of 10.000 jobs is being rewarded with a bonus of 8.4 million for the person ultimately responsible.
During the election campaign different smaller strikes have taken place but the trade union leaders have never taken any initiative to develop these. The workers and poor have certainly not found any support for their main concerns in the campaigns of the main candidates. Ségolène Royal for example visited the strike in the Citroên car factory in the Paris banlieue of d’Aulnay-sous-bois only to comment that she thought that management should negotiate with the workers. In an interview with the financial press she stressed that the most important thing for France was to heighten the competitiveness of industry and that one should stop blaming company profits. She also stated that she would be the only candidate capable of making a dialogue between bosses and workers possible. In other words she would be the only one to contain strikes and protests.
It is doubtful that Ségolène Royal, even with the most willing collaboration of the trade union leadership, will be able to do this. Her party, the Parti Socialiste, has steadily lost authority since it was responsible for more privatisations while in the 1997-2002 ‘gauche plurielle’ (‘plural left’ of the PS, PC and Greens) government than the right wing government before it. The majority of its leadership was in favour of the European constitution. With about 30% of the electorate still undecided French papers have been carrying interviews with voters explaining why they cannot make up their mind. Most comments have been unfavourable of Ségolène Royal. One person who described himself as left-wing said, “Mme Royal appears to be totally incompetent, like she is lost in a world she has just come to discover”. Another voter explained: “I will vote for Royal but it will be with tears in my eyes.”
The radical left and the need for a new workers party
The radical left is present in this elections campaign with candidates from the Communist Party (PCF), the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), Lutte Ouvrière (LO), the Parti des Travailleur (PT) and Jose Bove, sheep-farmer turned anti-corporate campaigner.
Because of the national pressure to avoid a rerun of 2002 with Le Pen in the second round it is possible that the vote of the radical left is squeezed. But such a “lesser evil” vote will not mean expanding political support for Royal or, should she win, uncritical support for her presidency. Nevertheless it is possible that the joint vote of the radical left, with LCR and LO heading the results, could be anything between 7 and 9%.
In 2002 the candidates of the radical left (LO, LCR and PT) won 2,973.293 million votes between them in the first round compared with 4.61 million for Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party contender. An opportunity was lost then, and in the subsequent movement against Le Pen, to propose the building of a new anti-capitalist workers’ party. A formation that could have attracted new layers whilst building a mass force capable of giving a voice to millions of working class and young people. Such a formation would not be the simple sum of the forces initially involved. A formation that sets out to be a political alternative to the PS, the PCF and the trade union leadership could allow workers to work out their own strategy in struggle and their own class based, revolutionary socialist program. The LCR candidate Besancenot has vaguely alluded, in his electoral campaign, to the need of such an organisation. The fact that his meetings are very successful in attracting a new layer of workers and youth, proves the room exists to build such a force.
The limits that the LCR leadership has shown in relation to the need of a new party have been shown also in its failure to give a clear lead in the struggle against the CPE last year. With tens of 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.
Today given the high level of interest in elections but with 40% of the electorate undecided it is again necessary to put the creation of a new party on the agenda. Opinion polls have shown that people who hesitate who to vote for most are women, youth and working class voters. These are exactly those layers in society who have suffered most from the anti-poor and anti-working class policies of previous centre-left and centre- right governments. Whoever goes on to form a new government in a few months time will pursue the same policies. This again can lead to massive mobilisations. A high score for Sarkozy this Sunday could lead to a spontaneous movement in the banlieues and amongst young people in general. Having said this, as people go the polls, a last minute surge in the “anything but Sarkozy” vote could lead to an increased vote for Royal.
Crucial for any new working class formation in France would be to clearly state that capitalism can offer no way forward for millions of ordinary people. That we are building a working class party based on the revolutionary struggle for a democratic socialist society. A society that will collectively and democratically control and manage the main sectors for the benefit of the millions not the millionaires. With that programmatic approach combined with given a lead in the day to day struggle of working class and young people a new party could gather mass support in a relatively short space of time.
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 political system. 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