Up to the end of the ‘official campaign’ (after which the publication of polls and articles in the media is forbidden), all commentators predicted a big victory for the UMP (president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party) and its allies of the Nouveau Centre (NC).
Some polls suggested a blue wave of up to 470 seats. Even Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former Parti Socialiste (PS) finance minister and a contender for PS presidential candidate, said on national radio that 120-140 PS MPs "would be a good resistance".
In the end, the results surprised everybody. The UMP won 323 seats (compared to 359 in the previous parliament), the PS 205 (compared to 149). The centre is now split into a pro-Sarkozy party, the NC, and the more neutral Mouvement Démocrate (Modem), led by another presidential candidate, François Bayrou. The NC fell from 29 to 20 seats, with four for Modem. The Parti Communiste (PCF) held onto 4.5% in the first round and 15 seats after the second, giving PCF and its allies 18 (21 before).
These results show what was clear from the presidential elections and the first round of the parliamentaries: the social base for Sarkozy is very weak but the lack of a clear left alternative shows that there is not strong support for the PS. This is reinforced by the very low turnout (60% but down to 40% in working-class and poor areas). Sarkozy is still attempting to accelerate his neo-liberal agenda but, at the same time, is less certain that it will be easy.
After Sarkozy’s victory in the presidential election, a certain demoralisation was dominant, combined with real anger in some layers of society. For the first time, small demos took place in every city to show opposition to Sarkozy. These were harshly repressed by the police. None of the main left organisations – from Lutte Ouvrière (LO), Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) to the PS – nor the unions backed these demos. The PS even condemned them, as did the student union. Even LCR spokesperson and candidate, Olivier Besancenot, condemned "individual violence" without speaking about the state violence.
This demoralisation was partly due to the fact that, as soon as the first-round results were known, the PCF, LO and LCR rushed to call for a vote for the PS candidate, Ségolène Royal. This led to an over-focus on the second-round result and allowed Royal to campaign for the centre ground. The main debate was not how to use this polarisation to prepare for struggle but only, will Sarkozy win or not? The question of what kind of policy would Royal endorse was completely put in the background. This pressure of a ‘lesser evil’ vote was wrong. Although, of course, we have to be very flexible in our approach to workers and youth who voted ‘tactically’ for Royal against the super-arrogant Sarkozy.
Even worse than that, the LCR did not use its result of over 4% to push proposals and initiatives for a new workers’ party. It let the vote for Royal be the only way of opposing Sarkozy, missing an opportunity to start building a tool to prepare real class resistance.
The real reason for the partial setback for the UMP was the ‘TVA sociale’ – a rise of 5% in value added tax alongside a lowering of corporation tax. This was only published in a study, but government minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, was forced to give details by Laurent Fabius, former PS prime minister. This gave the PS the chance to deal with price rises and pose as a ‘left’ opposition, with little political danger.
This shows that as soon as social issues arise, Sarkozy’s majority can collapse. That is why he is pushing ahead with his programme: restricting the right to strike, taking steps toward privatising universities, increasing health-care costs (a €10 ticket per person per year for access to doctors and hospitals), and attacks on work contracts.
Sarkozy’s idea is also to implicate the traditional left in his policies. He will give the PS presidency of the finance commission in the National Assembly and his government includes some former PS members and radicals, such as Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Médicins Sans Frontières.
Sarkozy is pushing the bosses’ organisations and trade unions to start discussions. The unions have accepted that even though this will lead to betrayal – as in 2003 when the CFDT accepted the government’s counter-reform on pensions, despite mass strikes.
Discussions have been held between trade unions, student unions, and university presidents. It was soon apparent that the proposed legislation was very far-reaching – many universities could quickly become autonomous, able to raise their own finances, etc, a clear step toward privatisation – so the unions and student unions were forced to raise their voices. Now the government has accepted the need for further talks. It is, of course, a manoeuvre. At the same time, it shows that the government is not that confident of confronting student strikes or movements.
Sarkozy is the best president for the capitalists. With him, there is the possibility that the president is much more in charge of the government than before. Cynically, Sarkozy said that the PS has ‘abandoned Jaurès’, that is, it is not a workers’ party anymore. As an echo, Royal said that she lost the election because she was forced to defend things such as the 35-hour week legislation (that created huge flexibility and pay freezes), and the minimum wage at €1,500. Her programme would have meant a real raise of just €50 over five years. She is one of the leaders who want to transform the PS into a bourgeois party like the US Democrats. Royal has always said that Tony Blair was her model.
Other PS leaders want to go in an even more clearly pro-capitalist direction. Strauss-Kahn suggested that the word ‘socialist’ should be abandonned. Many are speaking of a refoundation of the left that has not won any major elections since 1997. This could lead to a new party more in the centre. It also could have a temporary phase of integrating elements from the PCF and Greens on the model of the DS in Italy. On 23 September, the PCF, PS and Greens held national councils and all of them had motions calling for refoundation, dissolution, etc. The period ahead could be one of big transformations in the traditional left, with splits on the right and left.
LO and LCR seem to be determined not to play a key role. Having missed opportunities between 1995 and 2003, LO has collapsed electorally. The LCR speaks of the need for a ‘new left force’ but never deals concretely with it. No public meetings have been planned or party documents produced. The LCR called for a vote ‘to defeat the right’ in the second round of the parliamentary elections, showing that it does not have a consistent analysis of where the PS is now. Hoping for mass struggle in the autumn, the LCR has postponed all decisions to December or the beginning of 2008.
Its internal divisions reflect the existence of very different trends inside it, and create a difficulty to promote a clear project. It never explicitly refers to socialism except in a few congress documents. But it is a point of attraction due to the anti-capitalist profile of the young postal worker, Besancenot. Many youth and workers have contacted the LCR to join the ‘party of Olivier’. This shows the potential for a new anti-capitalist party. A big mistake would be for the LCR to think that it can attract and organise this layer merely by relaunching itself as a new formation. Any split on the left of the PCF or PS, even on a very confused programme, could take the advantage away from the LCR and the possibility of a new independent anti-capitalist party.
Gauche Révolutionnaire considers that the situation is very open. Anger against the capitalist establishment is still developping. From this could flow a mass strike movement – like in 1995 when Alain Juppé and Jacques Chirac were defeated by a public-sector strike, despite holding a 450-seat majority in the assembly – or more isolated and desperate action.
The lack of an alternative has been the main problem. We campaigned in the parliamentary election on the need to prepare the resistance to Sarkozy, for a new anti-capitalist workers’ party, and for a genuine socialist alternative. In Rouen, despite the presence of LO and LCR candidates (who refused any kind of agreement), we got 405 votes (1.14%), more than LO, LCR and the PCF in the area we stood in.
Now, youth and workers have to prepare. The university ‘reform’ and the right to strike will be key issues in the next months. A 1995 scenario is still possible. That would be a huge opportunity to make a clear link between the struggles and the possibility of a new workers’ party, and the necessity of socialism as the only alternative to capitalism.