But neither offers anything to French workers except more cuts and attacks on living standards
The first round of the French presidential elections last Sunday left capitalist commentators in an almost jubilant mood. A record turn out of 84% produced two clear winners for the second round in two weeks time. The right wing candidate of the UMP (Union for a Popular Majority) Nicolas Sarkozy, got 31.2 % of the votes, ahead of the candidate for the ex-social democratic Socialist Party (PS) candidate Ségolène Royal with 25.8% of the vote.
“The only surprise”, said one commentator in the French media “is that this election produced no surprises”. In one sense he is right; the pollsters’ predictions were accurate, though overestimating the support for the extreme-right wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2002, Le Pen plunged the French establishment into a political crisis by reaching the second round with 16.9%, beating the PS candidate Jospin into third place. That someone who describes the concentration camps as “a detail in history” could get this result send shockwaves throughout Europe. However, in this election Le Pen’s party, the National Front, lost 1 million votes in compared to 2002. It does not mean that the results reflect a “vote for democracy and a vote for moderation” as is claimed by the press in Europe.
Whilst one element in the high turn-out, and also the squeezing of the vote of the radical left was the general fear of a repetition of 2002, it is not the only element. The right wing candidate Sarkozy, with radical neo-liberal policies reminiscent of Thatcherism, mobilised the right wing vote and some layers of the middle and working class who think that France needs a hard man to push through radical change. In the last days of the campaign Sarkozy tried to win over a layer of workers to accept longer working hours and less social protection to stop an economic implosion. The idea being that the only defence against globalisation and international capitalism is to adapt oneself to the demands of the multinationals and make sacrifices in return for economic growth. This will lead to a further decline in living standards.
The surge for Ségolène Royal in the vote is largely explained by a strong anti-Sarkozy and anti- Le Pen mood then by genuine enthusiasm for her programme. The young and immigrant vote in the poor urban areas or “banlieues” went overwhelmingly to Ségolène Royal, even though many would undoubtedly have preferred to vote for more radical left wing candidates.
Up to the day of voting over 30% of the electorate had not made up its mind about who to vote for. This wavering, especially amongst women, young people and poor, represented the lack of any real alternative for the working class and people weighing up if they could afford to vote for the radical left or if they had to vote “tactically” against Sarkozy or against Le Pen.
Ségolène wants to go Swedish
Despite reports in the media, in the second round there is not a real choice between right and left, between capitalism and socialism. Ségolène Royal spoke of the need to change France and follow the Swedish model in which “both unions and business would be prepared to make sacrifices if they were assured of medium and long term gains”. Sweden’s social democratic governments in the 90’s received high praise from the European Commission because they privatised more, deregulated more and made more cuts in social provisions that any other European country. The policies of Royal will be a continuation of the 1997-2002 ‘gauche plurielle’ government (‘plural left’ of the PS, Communist Party (PCF) and Greens) who privatised more than the right wing government before it. This was the reason why the ‘plural left’ vote collapsed in 2002.
Whilst the votes of the PCF (French Communist Party) and LO (Workers’ struggle, one of the French Trotskyist organisations) got squeezed by the anti-Sarkozy vote and their own lack of appeal, Olivier Besancenot of the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League, another of the French Trotskyist organisations) received 4.11% or 280 000 votes more than in 2002.
The second round will inevitably be turned into a national referendum on Nicolas Sarkozy. Whilst we would understand people voting against Sarkozy and for Royal, the act of voting, even if blocking the way to the presidency for Sarkozy, is not going to stop anti-working class policies being implemented. What is needed is to prepare to organise the struggle against these policies in the street and in the factories. What is needed is an initiative being launched to build a mass fighting party on an anti-capitalist and genuine socialist programme as an alternative to the mainstream parties. Unlike LO, the LCR has made some declarations about this subject but has unfortunately, like in the past, not taken any practical steps. In 2002 the combined vote of LO and the LCR surpassed 9% and a real opportunity to build a new force was missed.
This new party can not be built from above, through talks between the leaders of the existing radical left organisations. The 1 May demonstrations could be a starting point in building action and struggle committees and start the process of building a new formation.
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