France: has France moved to the right


The crowning of right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy was greeted by George Bush and Tony Blair. French workers, young people and those in the sprawling, run-down suburbs, on the other hand, are bracing themselves for severe attacks on living and working conditions. This article assesses the result and its implications.


Has France moved to the right?

After winning the presidential elections with 53% against Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate Ségolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy went on a little holiday. Reminding everyone that the photo calls with workers in overalls and hard hats had served their purpose for now, he holidayed on a luxury yacht owned by billionaire businessman and corporate market raider, Vincent Bolloré, who personally covered the cost. The neo-liberal politicians in Europe seem to have the same penchant for freeloading off their rich friends. Tony Blair gets Cliff Richard, a middle aged, Christian ex-pop star to invite him for his holidays. (As far as we know, Sarkozy has not yet accepted an invitation from Johnny Haliday for his next ‘sejour’.) The ex-prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, must have felt some admiration for Sarkozy’s brashness. He commented that "Sarkozy has taken me as a model".

The ‘boat people affair’ is a small reminder, if one were needed, of who Sarkozy is going to represent: the ‘jet set right’, the new rich made up of a small circle of people who have made billions leading France’s most successful private businesses. Defending his free holiday, Sarkozy declared: "I wish the French economy had a lot of Vincent Bollorés, Martin Bouygues, Bernard Arnaults, François Pinaults, that’s to say, men who are capable of investing to create jobs. It is not shameful to have worked hard, to have created a big enterprise, to create jobs".

Bouygues and Arnault, apart from having been witnesses at Sarkozy’s wedding, are respectively number 177 and 7 on the World’s Richest People list of the American magazine Forbes. Bolloré is number 451 and François Pinault 34. The talk about France being in an economic ditch does not apply to these people, neither does it apply to the largest 40 French multinationals which have made €96 billion profit in 2006 while wages and conditions of work for the millions deteriorated.

To start with… a 100-day war.

The sarkozy programme for the first 100 days will be a brutal attack on the rights of the working class and youth. In an interview with Les Échos, the sister paper of the Financial Times in France (13 February), Sarkozy was very precise about the kind of measures he will try to push through: "No minimum benefits without work in exchange, no papers to stay in France long-term if one cannot write, if one cannot read, if one cannot speak French, no increase in minimum pensions without consolidation of the pension system".

On top of this is the promise not to replace more than half of the civil servants who retire, pushing even more young people into the private sector with only part-time, low-paid jobs on offer. Over the past 20 years France has created a million public-sector jobs. France has a public sector that, even with its own problems, outperforms that of many other European countries.

In previous decades governments faced with mass movements have often used the public sector to create jobs and absorb some of the unemployment created by lay-offs in the private industry. For this we do not have to thank the altruistic tendencies of the French establishment but a calculated, and on a European scale not uncommon, practice of the private sector temporarily off-loading social tension on the state and thus the taxpayer. This was done under huge pressure from mass movements of the working class and trade union struggle. It was an attempt to give concessions to the workers from above, to prevent further eruptions from below. That France is ‘backward’ in neo-liberal terms – breaking down the concessions made to the working class in Europe throughout the post-second world war period – is a measure of how successful the workers have been in resisting the neo-liberal onslaught of privatisations and slashing of public services. To give but one example: at present, France still has twice as many doctors per capita than Britain.

Sarkozy wants to break this habit and take a neo-liberal leap in a quasi Thatcherite ‘revolution’. For the establishment this is necessary: if it wants to be able to compete on the European and world markets it has to force the French workers, youth, smallholders and layers of the middle class to join the race to the bottom. Many past governments, of the right and left, have tried over the last 20 years. None have completely succeeded. While there was some fear among the ruling elite in the run-up to the election that Sarkozy was going to be so brutal that he would provoke a backlash and open revolt, they rallied behind him and his plans for a ‘changed’ France.

Exorcising the devil of 2002

The french establishment is hoping that with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy it has finally exorcised the political crisis of 2002. Then, after five years of Gauche Pluriel government (the ‘plural left’ coalition of PS, Communist Party, Greens), Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right Front National (FN) plunged the French establishment into a political crisis by reaching the second round of the presidential election with 16.9%, beating PS candidate Lionel Jospin into third place. That someone who describes Nazi concentration camps as "a detail in history" could get this result sent shockwaves throughout Europe. While Jacques Chirac won the subsequent second round, it demonstrated the political bankruptcy of the main ruling parties. (Chirac’s vote in the first round was only 19.88%.)

When the centre-right government tried to use its electoral victory over Le Pen to introduce anti-working class measures it ran into determined resistance. Although it succeeded in pushing through pension reform in 2003, privatisation or part-privatisation of public services, including La Poste, EDF-GDF (electricity and gas) and a tightening of public spending, it led to more class polarisation and further undermined the main parties. By 2005 a leading member of Sarkozy’s UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) rather tastelessly said that "the centre-right and centre-left parties are like the twin towers. You know they will collapse but we do not know, yet, which one will go first".

One of the reasons why Sarkozy, like all the other main candidates, constantly talked about change and used the idea of re-founding the nation was to try and achieve a break with the past and rebuild the main party of the rightwing, the UMP. The political shift to the right of the PS allowed Sarkozy to refer to left leaders of the past, like Leon Blum and Jean Jaurès, not as representatives of the working class but as representatives of the ‘great French nation’. This message of national unity and the need to change worked in the election campaign. However, elections are a snapshot, a picture at a certain moment in time. When Sarkozy tries to put his ideas into practice, the goalposts will move.

Flexibility & the right to strike

All through the campaign Sarkozy appealed to "a France that wants to get up early", with a clarion cry that "those who work harder will earn more". Part of this is Sarkozy’s intention to abolish the CDI (open-ended contracts providing, in theory, a job for life) and CDD (fixed-term contracts), and replace them by a new system introducing more flexibility and make hiring, and especially firing, easier.

The already greater ‘flexibility’ in young people’s employment finds its expression through the growing part of CDD (accounting for 75% of new recruitment, 13% of all jobs) without leading to any increase in job creation. This idea, to accept longer working hours and less social protection to stop an economical implosion, found an echo among those parts of the middle and working classes which fall outside the relative protection of public-sector jobs. It is simplistic to conclude that this is a sign that France has turned to the right or that this means enthusiasm for ‘modernisation’, as is claimed in the media. These layers have been at the sharp end of the previous five years of neo-liberal reform by a right-wing government, coming after a PS-led government (1997-2002) that privatised more than all the earlier conservative governments together.

The notion, only defended by the most fervent free-market propagandists, that France is a ‘socialistic’ state, is a mystery to them. In fact, France is very much in line with Britain when it comes to flexible hours and low-paid jobs. When the current French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, tried to introduce the Contrat Premier Embauche (CPE) in 2006 – a law which would have meant that all workers under the age of 26 could be sacked, without warning or reason, at any time during their first 24 months – it was defeated by massive mobilisations on the street. However, under the Contrat Nouvelles Embauches (CNE), which was passed in 2005, all workers regardless of their age can be sacked without warning or reason at any time during their first 48 months in workplaces with less than 20 employees. This special contract is still in force together with a series of other ‘emergency’ contracts aimed at boosting a flexi-job market.

The introduction of the 35-hour week by the Jospin government was sold, and in part perceived, as a progressive measure among the left. The practical experience proved a cold shower for many workers as it also proved first and foremost an exercise in introducing more flexibility in the private sector. It made Saturday, for example, a normal working day for many people in the private sector and squeezed pay. Now that Sarkozy wants to abolish the 35-hour week and exonerate overtime from tax and national insurance, workers will see a tremendous hike in the working week against a drop in the indirect wages of workers (in the amount of contributions from taxes and national insurance going to social service and social security), leading to the abolition or reduction of pension payments, unemployment benefit and money available to finance public services such as transport or education.

A vital piece of the Sarkozy strategy is to attack trade union power. He proposes to impose a minimum service during strikes in transport and other public services. The threat being used is to privatise or allow private business to take over part of the public services if the trade unions do not agree to the introduction of a minimum service. Connected to this proposal is the idea of obligatory ballots in companies, universities and the civil service after eight days of strike action. If a majority votes to return to work, the trade unions would lose the right to mount pickets.

Sarkozy is determined to limit the period of negotiations with the trade unions, and thus the period of officially tolerated social struggle, to six to eight months. After that, the government would have the automatic right to take decisions regardless of trade unions and social movements.

How did Sarko ‘l’Americain’ win?

The second round of the presidential elections, like the first, was marked by a very high turnout. At 84% in both rounds it was way above comparable elections in Britain (61%) or the US (64%). This surge in voter registration and turnout was partly due to the politicisation in the banlieues (run-down suburbs) and working-class areas where many people voted against Sarkozy. In some areas, especially in the banlieues, voter registration went up by 9-10%. Many young people came out to take their revenge against Sarkozy who called the poor inhabitants ‘racaille’ (scum) in mid 2005, shortly before riots erupted over the death of two teenagers – they hid in a power substation when chased by the police for a random identity control. Another factor in people turning out to vote against Sarkozy was his pandering to the extreme right in trying to win over voters of the Front National.

A general mood of avoiding the result of the presidential elections in 2002 (when Le Pen beat Jospin and got into the second round) dominated the first round this year. This squeezed the vote of the radical left, especially because of the lack of a unified candidate and the lack of a post-election perspective to build a new force.

Nevertheless, the anti-Sarko mood and pressure in favour of a ‘useful’ vote failed to consolidate in favour of Ségolène Royal. Her lacklustre campaign, sometimes absurd proposals – that young offenders should be sent to ‘humanitarian’ military camps, and that everyone should have the French flag at home and celebrate ‘la patrie’ – and her attempt to be a ‘modern’ neo-liberal social democrat failed to galvanise people.

The economic policies of Royal were fundamentally the same as Sarkozy, the only difference her less aggressive approach to implementing them. The PS has never fully recovered from the debacle of the plural left government, the position a majority of the party took in favour of the EU constitution (subsequently defeated in a referendum in 2005), and its absence in the struggle against the CPE by the youth and working class in 2006.

As a demonstration of how far removed the current PS is from its position as a party perceived to represent the working class was the absence of any sizeable PS contingents on May Day demonstrations this year – a week before the final vote, and on which the mood was almost 100% anti-Sarko. When Royal visited striking Citroên workers in the Paris banlieue of d’Aulnay-sous-Bois earlier in the election campaign, her only comment was that management should negotiate with the workers. In an interview with the financial press Royal stressed that the most important thing for France was to heighten the competitiveness of industry and that one should "stop blaming companies for making profits".

The Communist Party (PCF) vote in the first round collapsed to a mere 1.93%. The PCF promoted itself as the left-wing partner of the PS. This strategy collapsed on itself because of the memory of the plural left government (1997-2002) which privatised more than previous right-wing governments. In the present crisis there is no space for a party which talks left but, once elected, continues with the same old policies.

Possibility of a PS split

The recriminations in the PS have started even before the June parliamentary elections. This has led some commentators to warn that a split between the ‘moderate’ wing and the ‘militant’ wing is not ruled out. What is almost certain is that there will be a change at the top. The present general secretary, François Hollande, the partner of Ségolène Royal, might be the first victim. Dominique Strauss-Kahn attacked Royal’s first round strategy because it failed to attract more support from the centre.

The general direction in which the so-called elephants – the PS grandees – are heading is the same road Royal is travelling: towards a complete re-foundation to make the PS more akin to New Labour in Britain and the Democrats in the US. In the ranks of the PS there seems to be very little opposition to this. At the time of the nomination for the PS presidential candidate, the two most neo-liberal candidates, Royal and Strauss-Kahn, received 81% of the votes from the rank and file. This showed the transformation of the PS internally. Although Laurent Fabius, who also contested the race, raised a few more left-wing demands (for example, an immediate hike of the minimum wage by €100), he has been responsible for many neo-liberal policies in the past.

François Bayrou, president of the UDF (Union pour la Démocratie Française – a party of the centre), got 18.5% of the votes in the first round. He concentrated on promises to renew politics, to be neither left nor right, and to deliver an ‘orange revolution’. He has since announced the creation of a new party, Mouvement Democrate (MoDem). As rainbow revolutions go, the colours seem to be fading fast. A sizeable group of MD members of parliament publicly thanked him but will be rallying to the UMP and the presidential majority in June’s elections. Baryou tried to stem the haemorrhaging of his group in parliament by trying to reassure MPs who want to maintain the alliance with the right. "In the future ‘Democratic Movement’ there could be a rightwing", he said, only to add: "On the condition that they do not give in to making aggressive statements".

With the rightwing of the UDF leaving Bayrou to link up with Sarkozy’s UMP and a potential right-wing split in the PS, a possible realignment of the political centre is posed. A new formation could be founded in which the rightwing (i.e. a large majority) of the PS links up with the ‘centrists’ of Bayrou to form a ‘democratic centre’. This could be an opportunity for those in the PS who want to complete its transformation to a bourgeois party and drop any reference to socialism or the political representation of the working class.

Preparing for struggles ahead

Being elected with 6% more votes than Royal, Sarkozy has won a strong electoral base. His vote was the highest for a Gaullist candidate – apart from Chirac’s run-off against Le Pen in 2002 – since Georges Pompidou in 1969. However, it does not guarantee him a free run nor expresses the polarisation surrounding his person and policies. According to Ipsos, the polling organisation, 18-59 year olds – those who work and pay most taxes – overwhelmingly voted for Royal. Sarkozy is president, in part, because of the unbelievably high percentage of the vote he got from pensioners. Amongst those over 70 he won 68%, with 61% of 60-69 year olds. The latest popularity poll gave Sarkozy 57%. This is lower than Chirac in 1995 who scored 67% in popularity polls in his first months in power.

The polarisation against Sarkozy was further demonstrated by the hundreds of small spontaneous demonstrations which took place throughout France minutes after the Sarkozy victory was officially recognised.

To the left of the PS only the vote for LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) held up. It achieved 4.08% (almost 1.5 million votes) thanks to the animated campaign of its candidate, Olivier Besancenot, who made the link between the attacks of capitalism against working-class people and youth with the necessity to prepare for struggle after the elections. The LCR has become the biggest party on the left, after the PS, and gained especially in working-class areas (obtaining between 5-10% of the votes).

Unfortunately, the need to construct a party capable of bringing together workers and youth, and directing a struggle against the next government did not feature in the LCR’s campaign. After the first round Arlette Laguiller (Lutte Ouvrière) and Besancenot closed this debate minutes after the first-round results were known by effectively calling for a vote for Royal. Incredibly, neither of the radical left candidates connected any demands for a future Royal government in return for the votes of the anti-capitalist constituency.

The question now is how to prepare for the struggles ahead as Sarkozy moves to implement his programme? The almost two million votes for Besancenot and Laguiller shows the enormous potential which still exists for the anti-capitalist left. A sizeable anti-capitalist constituency held its ground in the face of enormous pressure for a useful vote, i.e. a vote for the PS candidate to keep Le Pen out of the second round.

The LCR has the mistaken approach that a new, broader formation will come about through a merger of existing parties and organisations. As the result of LO’s slump to 1.33%, and the 1.32% for Jose Bové (an anti-globalisation activist), the LCR feels that there are no partners to start organising such a formation with. However, this disregards the millions of workers and youth who are actively looking for an instrument that could bring together the different parts of the working class which are under attack.

No time for complacency

The task of a new formation would be to actively lead battles, bring people together and work out a political programme that connects the day-to-day struggle and demands with the socialist transformation of society. It is clear that capitalism cannot offer a solution to the workers and youth of France. The proposals of all the pro-capitalist parties are to cut living standards, increase the working week and demolish the hard fought gains of previous struggles. Workers cannot afford to see their pensions go, to travel on privatised railways or take another pay cut. Workers need public housing, decent and affordable education and job security.

Some on the left and in the trade union movement may feel that the election of Sarkozy and the threats he has made to limit the right to strike or introduce the market in higher education are not causes for worry. A feeling may exist that, as with Chirac and Alain Juppé in 1995, the rightwing will be defeated on the street. However, we need to warn that there is no guarantee that this will happen automatically. If we can learn from history, so can the French establishment. After all, it has a rich history of failing to push through neo-liberal reform, and the pressure it is under to join up with the rest of Europe and restore the competitiveness of French capitalism means it will not be left to improvisation.

Sarkozy is preparing this struggle meticulously. He is inviting ‘lefts’ like Bernard Kouchner, founder of Médecins sans Frontières, to become the foreign minister in his cabinet. He invited trade union leaders for talks even before officially taking power. He will try and play private-sector workers off against the public sector and use every opportunity to create divisions.

The lack of a political formation representing the working class, and offering a socialist alternative to capitalist chaos, limits the capacity of workers to fight for their own class demands. It allows politicians like Sarkozy and Royal to sell their cuts to pubic opinion and say that there is no alternative. It equally allows the leaders of the trade unions to compromise with the government and accept anti-working class measures.

In the coming struggles workers and youth need to forge their own political instrument, a party capable of leading struggles, defending immediate demands and raising our horizons. Capitalism does not know a final pay-cut, a final austerity package or a last factory closure. Its economic crisis is endemic and it will keep coming back to demand sacrifices from millions of people to safeguard the profits of a tiny minority.

One of the main tasks of a new workers’ formation would be to put the question of who owns society and in whose interests society functions, back on the political agenda. Its aim needs to be to fight to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a democratically planned economy, under workers’ control and management, a society which works for the millions not the millionaires: a revolutionary socialist society in which future generations can write the next pages in the history of mankind.

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

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May 2007