France: The decay of Sarkozy’s government

Racism, corruption, economic crisis and class struggle

The old hunter’s adage, “Never trust a wounded animal”, finds an appropriate illustration in the recent gestures of the Sarkozy government in France. Indeed, the circumstances in which French capitalism finds itself – characterised by an explosive combination of crises – have pushed the ruling establishment to resort to the old weapon of racism.

Since the end of last month, a fierce witch-hunt against Roma people has been underway throughout the country. It is part of a major racist crack-down on supposed “crime”, stigmatising immigrants, and pushing ahead with further deportations. Wider legislation to that effect, involving plans to take away French citizenship from people of foreign origin who have been criminalised, will be presented to parliament next month. The measures are nothing but a desperate attempt to divert attention from the government’s own failure to solve the numerous problems accumulated by years of pro-capitalist policies, and, above all, to try and break the rumbling and crucial class battles to come.

On 26th July, the American newspaper the ‘New York Times’ commented: “Mr. Sarkozy is wobbling at home with a current 61 percent disapproval rating in national polls; a running sore of a scandal involves a key cabinet minister, cash gifts, special favours and France’s richest woman; and massive street demonstrations are likely in September against a reform of the country’s retirement and pension system.”

The political clique in power in France has been shaken by a succession of scandals, contributing to a tumbling of Sarkozy’s support in society to record low levels. This is against the background of a continuing industrial and public finance crisis. The weakening of the ‘strong man’ Sarkozy and his government is also fed by the anger against the pension counter-reform, a cornerstone of the new battery of austerity measures. The French budget deficit is approaching a record level of 8% of GDP. Reducing it below 3%, which the government is planning, would imply tearing 100 billion € from the pockets of working people over three years, something the French ruling class has never done in its history. 45 billion € in public spending cuts are already planned, involving the elimination of 100,000 civil servants jobs (through the non-replacement of one out of every two retired workers), cuts in healthcare, freezing of funds allocated to regional governments, cuts in various social benefits, etc.

Yet, the word “austerity” remains taboo in ruling circles, out of fear that the very notion of austerity would fuel protests. French Prime Minister, François Fillon, who in early May, just after announcing a public spending freeze, was proclaiming that “there was – and will never be – an austerity plan in France”, created outrage amongst politicians by talking of France’s “budgetary austerity” in a speech during an official visit to Japan.

Austerity for the poor, ‘profits recovery’ for the capitalists: the ingredients for a new recession

Figures have recently been published by ‘Pole Emploi’, a governmental employment agency, highlighting the real massacre of jobs which has taken place in France throughout the economic crisis. The year 2009 was the worst in this respect since the Second World War. 256,100 jobs were destroyed (a decline in total employment of 1.5%), with 168,200 lost in the industrial sector alone. It is as if, on average, a factory of 700 workers was closing every day.

Meanwhile, the profits of big French companies are moving in the opposite direction, reaching sky-high levels, especially in the banking sector, and, for some, even recovering their ‘before-crisis’ profits. The profits of 28 out of the 40 biggest French companies publishing their biannual results have increased two and half times compared to the same period last year. There is no contradiction in that: this spectacular amount of profits has been mainly generated on the basis, not of a rise in productive investment, but thanks to the massive reduction in industrial jobs and the super exploitation of the remaining workers, combined with state aid to the financial sector.

This stresses the one-sided aspect of the economic ‘recovery’ that the French economists, opinion-makers and politicians are talking about: “the new virtuous circle of growth”, as Economy Minister Christine Lagarde described it, is only “virtuous” for the rich and big share-holders. Most serious economists are pointing out that the weak 0.6% GDP growth recorded in the second quarter of the year is unsustainable, because, essentially, it is due to restocking operations, while the level of domestic consumption keeps going down. At the same time, the ordeal planned by the government for workers and ordinary people, targeted as the ones who have to pay the bill of the deficit burden, will only worsen the shaky ground upon which this so-called ‘recovery’ is based. Sarkozy’s pre-election promise, to be the “purchasing power” president, has been, and is continually being revealed as its exact opposite: a president hijacking purchasing power from the poor in favour of the rich.

A government of the rich, for the rich

A recent spiral of scandals has hit key cabinet ministers, taking on political dimensions. This includes allegations that Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, benefited from illegal party donations for the 2007 election campaign from Liliane Bettencourt, 87-year-old billionaire, heiress to the ‘L’Oreal’ cosmetics empire, and Europe’s richest woman. Eric Woerth, the Labour Minister in charge of the pension reform, has been at the heart of this controversy, having allegedly used his power, when he was budget minister and national treasurer of the UMP, and his wife, a personal financial adviser of Bettencourt, to help the latter evade paying taxes.

Liliane Bettencourt

This storm of scandals is not only unveiling the luxurious and decadent life of the politicians in power (it has, for instance, been revealed that the secretary of state for the Greater Paris region, Christian Blanc – who has since been forced to resign – spent €12,000 of taxpayers’ money on Havana cigars) and the close connections between them and the capitalist class. They are also exposing the weakness and decrepitude of the present government, which creates a void in which the masses could step in. Noticeably, Jean-Francois Coppé, president of the UMP group in the National Assembly, declared, just after the 24th June day of trade-union action, that there was at present in France “an unhealthy atmosphere of the night of 4th of August”, (referring to the episode of the 1789 French Revolution when the National Assembly formally abolished the feudal system, and eliminated many clerical and noble rights and privileges).

It was in this in “unhealthy atmosphere” that measures limiting the expenses of political leaders, ministers and state secretaries were announced in June, supposedly in order to show that “everybody is making belt-tightening efforts”. Indeed, luxury jets, five-star hotels and presidential hunts are not very good publicity when the same politicians are trying to convince ordinary people that they are living ‘beyond their means’ and are casually portraying civil servants as ‘privileged’ workers. “I have decided that the lifestyle of the state should be vigorously reduced, the state must be exemplary”, declared Sarkozy at the time, the same President who raised his own salary by 170 % just after taking up office, and is well known for his luxurious lifestyle, holidaying on the yachts of his billionaire friends.

Sarkozy is now also suggesting abolishing the “cumul des mandats”, the common practice in France of simultaneously holding a number of political positions at various levels of national and local government. This, if implemented, would constitute a new political bombshell, which would face fierce opposition, not only from the opposition parties, but from some of his supporters too.

The new war against ‘insecurity’

Faced with an accumulation of problems, Sarkozy needed an instrument of diversion, in an attempt to switch off one fire by lighting another one. Two outbreaks of youth rioting – one in the small Loire valley town of Saint Aignan, in which travellers attacked a police station after one of their people was shot dead by a gendarme, the other in a poor suburb of the South Eastern city Grenoble, where a 27-year-old from African origin was killed in a shoot-out with police following the robbery of a casino – gave him a pretext to launch a crusade against immigration and ‘insecurity’, directly associating the first with the latter.

The statement by the Minister of Industry, Christian Estrosi, “French or thug, you need to choose” (in other terms: either you are French, or your are a thug…and so an immigrant) sums up the new ‘policy’ of the French government, a copy of the classic rhetoric of the far-right National Front (FN). In the aftermath, the FN was quick to point out that: “The new tone of the President of the Republic and his administration has only one merit: bringing an official confirmation of the criminal character of some immigration, a truth for which the National Front has been persecuted for three decades.”

Sarkozy and his party suffered an important defeat in the March regional elections, while the FN, partially benefiting from the anti-Sarkozy mood, secured a ‘resurrected’ 12% of the vote in the first round. Sarkozy’s electoral success in 2007 depended not least on drawing a section of working-class and poor voters, still disgusted by the memorable bankruptcy and anti-working class measures of the previous ‘plural left’ (Socialist Party, Communist Party and the Greens) government (1997-2002), away from the FN. He is now dreaming of reproducing the same tactic in anticipation of the 2012 presidential election campaign: stirring up racism and anti-immigrant policy to a new level, and trying to recapture the FN’s electorate in the process. But this has little chance of success. As the American website ‘Foreign Policy’ recently commented: “Three years ago, Sarkozy’s electoral campaign unified globalization – friendly business people, pro-modernization portions of the governmental and bureaucratic elite, and parts of the lower classes. Now the alliance has frayed; at the hint of any single reform, their separate lobbies set upon one another.”

In other words, the real class nature of Sarkozy’s government has been brought into the open before the eyes of the masses, polarising its original supporters on class lines. The middle-class layers have not escaped this process. According to ‘Le Monde’, just after the regional elections 41% of the liberal professions and white collar workers, and 46% of the ‘intermediary professions’ (craftsmen, storekeepers…) expressed their disaffection with Sarkozy and his government (in 2007, 62% and 82% of the same layers were in favour of Sarkozy).

Hence, if a clear working class resistance, and a party to organise it, are not built in the next period to defeat Sarkozy, a real risk is that the only ‘opposition’ drawing benefit from this general disaffection, and from the racist tune of the government, could be the far-right itself.


In a speech in Grenoble at the end of July, the president announced he would wage a “national war” on crime, announcing new measures mainly targeting immigrants. This includes, among other things: the possibility of revoking the French citizenship of anyone “of foreign origin” convicted of acts of delinquency, notably if “endangering the life of a police officer, a soldier or any other person of public authority”(despite the fact that, in the two cases mentioned above, the killers have been the police themselves); threats to punish parents whose children miss school by cutting their child allowance payments; the installation of 60,000 new surveillance video-cameras by 2012; etc.

The government has also moved into a drum-beat campaign against the Roma and travellers, with the intention of dismantling half of the estimated 600 Roma camps in 3 months time. These measures have already started: more than 50 of these camps have been destroyed in three weeks, with the expulsions of their occupiers mainly to Romania and Bulgaria, where they will inevitably face even worse contempt, poverty and discrimination. The French authorities have even started to take the fingerprints and other biometric data, to make sure they do not come back.

“We have not the vocation, we, the French, to integrate 2.5 million Romanian gypsies” stated French State Secretary for European Affairs, Pierre Lellouche. This is nothing but a pure distortion, playing on fears, distortions and racial prejudice: there are estimated to be 400,000 travelling people in France, and the great majority of them are French citizens who have been living in the country for generations. When it comes to original ethnic Roma, while being the biggest ethnic minority in Europe, there are, altogether, only about 15,000 in France, generally coming from recent immigration from Eastern Europe.

Moreover, since Sarkozy’s government set up quotas for the expulsion of immigrants, this latter category has represented an easy ‘reservoir’ to fill these quotas: about a quarter of the deportations in the last four years have targeted Roma (about 10,000 last year alone) according to official figures. This shows the endless mockery made by capitalist authorities of the existing laws about the ‘freedom of movement for E.U. citizens’, supposedly stating that the EU citizens are allowed to move freely across member states.

In France as elsewhere, the Romas are most of the time forced to live in deplorable insanitary conditions because of the discrimination and oppression they have historically suffered. This is what motivated their move in the first place. As one Roma commented in the French newspaper, ‘Liberation’: “In Bulgaria, there is nothing for us. If we left, it was because we had no work, no school, and we had been evicted from our house. My two kids never went to school in Bulgaria, because of the lack of money, but also because of the discrimination of the local administration”. This policy of systematic discrimination is reproduced by the French state authorities: “And here, in practice, they put up so many roadblocks that it is almost impossible for us to work. And afterwards we are ‘accused’ of living in poverty… Everything is organised so that we cannot integrate”.

Since 1990, the so-called ‘Besson law’ requires the state to build adequate accommodation for all travellers in every locality with more than 5,000 inhabitants. 58% of the local authorities concerned never applied this law, rejecting this population installing their camps in slum-type areas, near landfills, waste dumps, or between railroads and highways.

As has happened in Italy before, the racist climate propagated by the government is providing a ‘blank cheque’ for racist attacks against Roma and immigrants in general, subjecting them to additional racial abuse. Three encampment areas of Roma travellers have already been vandalised near Toulouse in recent weeks. And again, as in Italy, the so-called ‘left’, namely the Socialist Party (PS), despite verbal denunciation and indignation against the new measures, is in practice following them. In Anglet (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, South-West), the PS local administration sent the CRS (anti-riot police) to dismantle a Roma camp, while the PS mayor of Carrières-sous-Poissy (Yvelines, North), has written personally to Sarkozy himself to ask for the expulsion of Roma from his department. “As a left official, and in the interests of public safety and security, I asked for their removal and deportation as soon as possible”, he explained. The historic failure of the so-called ‘left’ parties is such that they seem not to have anything to counterpose to Sarkozy’s policies other than competing on his own terrain.

While not on the same scale, elements of the racist measures initiated by the government are reminiscent of the Vichy regime and the Nazi occupation during WWII. Specific measures, treating some targeted communities as second-class citizens, were also a feature of the French regime’s policy during the Algerian War, notoriously illustrated by the massacre by the Parisian police, in October 1961 of hundreds of FLN-supporters demonstrating peacefully against a racist curfew imposed on “Algerian Muslim workers”, “French Muslims” and “French Muslims of Algeria”.

Mass arrest of Algerian people – Paris, October 1961

While, in July this year, the government classified the remains of the former concentration camp of Roma in Montreuil-Bellay (Maine-et-Loire, West-Central France) as an ‘historical monument’ in commemoration of the persecution of Roma by the French authorities between 1941-1945, it is currently stepping up a violent campaign of raids against those same people. This demonstrates in a detestable way the amount of hypocrisy and cynicism attached to this government. And this is without mentioning the fact that Sarkozy, who comes from a half-Hungarian background, has a “typically Roma surname”, according to the main spokesman of the Roma community in Austria – called ironically…Rudolf Sarkozi.

The CWI calls for an immediate end to all violence, persecutions and discrimination against the Roma, travellers, and all minorities; stop the stigmatisation of foreigners, in particular the Muslim community, the Arab and North-African youth; for the end of all deportations of immigrants; for the application and extension of the law aimed at providing proper infrastructure and sanitary services for all travellers; for the end of the destruction of encampments without providing, by voluntary agreement, decent public housing and sanitary services for the families involved; for the concrete application of the freedom of movement for all categories of citizens; no to the proposed withdrawal of nationality from people convicted of crime; for the defense, extension of and free access to public services; for decent jobs and living standards for all, regardless of origin, sex or religion. No to second-class citizens – equal rights for all!

The scarecrow of the “national war against insecurity” is nothing but a crude attempt to foment racism within the ranks of the working class, and a diversionary manoeuvre destined to eclipse the social battles which are going to take place in the very next period. This last point is demonstrated by the fact that the government decided to present its draft law on ‘national security’ before the Senate on 7th September, i.e. the same date chosen by the trade unions for a national day of action and strikes against the pension reform.

But these measures are not only a smokescreen to overshadow the real battles. They are also, from the government’s side, an effective step to prepare them. Indeed, the new ‘security’ measures are also a preparation by the state to strengthen its muscles against the working class, anticipating the rising social anger which could lead to explosive battles in the coming period. Sarkozy, feeling that his social base is slipping away from under him, is trying to regenerate his image as the ‘first cop of France’, taking further steps in the direction of a more repressive state, similar in some respects to De Gaulle’s attempts after taking power in 1958. The increasing tendency to nominate police officials as prefects in local departments and regions is going in the same direction.

The violence of the CRS being deployed in neighbourhoods against immigrants, travellers and Roma, will be used against workers on strike or youth protests tomorrow. That is why stopping the new racist measures of this government, and organising effective action to support and mobilise the victims of this policy, must be integrated with the fight-back against the attempts to make workers and poor pay for the capitalist crisis. They represent two faces of the same policy. Such a response is necessary and urgent from the whole trade union movement and the left organizations, to prepare the basis of a united struggle which, by developing its own dynamic, could have the force to defeat this government and its agenda of misery, racism, division and repression.

More than 50 organisations, including the trade unions, have called for massive demonstrations on 4th September in Paris as well as in many other French cities and towns. The CWI and its French section, Gauche Révolutionnaire, are campaigning for a massive presence in the streets during this important day of action. We understand that without a clear pole of attraction on the left, which gives concrete answers to social problems and to the crisis of capitalism, some sectors of the population could still share a passive approval of Sarkozy’s clamp-down on ‘insecurity’. But this has nothing to do with what the government wants us to believe.

In recent weeks, the capitalist newspapers, in France and internationally, have largely commented on an opinion poll implying that there is an “overwhelming popular support” for the new measures of Sarkozy. Yet, opinion polls are like perfumes: you can smell them, but never drink them. Indeed, what kind of credit can be given to a poll that was carried out by an institute (IFOP) of whose vice-president is Laurence Parisot, president of the Medef (the bosses’ federation) and organised by ‘Le Figaro’, a newspaper in the hands of Serge Dassault, a big industrialist, Senator of the UMP and personal friend of Mr. Sarkozy? It was this same Figaro which implied, in the beginning of 2010, that ‘a majority’ of French people supported the pension reform. The big mobilisations of the working class in May and June gave a first answer to such a biased statement.

Interestingly, another poll – much less publicised – carried out by the CSA institute and the weekly magazine ‘Marianne’, in different conditions, and with more precise questions, revealed a totally different picture. It gives for example a proportion of 73% of people considering that inequality and social problems are the cause of the rise in criminality, as well as a strong majority (69%) judging the policy of Sarkozy ‘inefficient’ in terms of fighting against insecurity.

Eight years ago, as Interior Minister, Sarkozy had already declared a ‘war against criminality’ and promised inhabitants of urban areas a ‘life free of fear’, etc. But he didn’t change anything. On the contrary, growing layers of the population have drawn the lessons from the past years, and are less inclined to succumb to Sarkozy’s siren of ‘law and order’, while understanding that the real battle will take place on the social front in September. They have seen that the only ‘efficient’ side of Sarkozy’s policy has been in destroying jobs and public services, in protecting the interests of the rich, while on the other hand, social insecurity has exploded, especially in the poorest areas. Statistics show that Sarkozy’s repressive policy in terms of improving security has been a total failure. For instance, in the last five years, the attacks against “the physical integrity of persons” (robbery with violence, physical threats, blackmails) have increased by 16%.

Who is really to blame?

While pretending to combat delinquents and criminals, Sarkozy is actually protecting the real ‘thugs’ and criminals: the big business looters. They are the ones who control the economy and concentrate in their hands an increasing share of the wealth, pushing entire parts of society into social deprivation, and forcing some of the most alienated sections into criminal activities and delinquency.

Sarkozy has a lot to say about introducing more control on supposedly ‘social profiteers’, while big fiscal fraudsters are hiding fortunes in tax heavens, with the help of this same corrupt government. Brice Hortefeux, the Interior Minister, is talking about introducing special controllers to check the fiscal situation of the travellers, bringing up the old cliché that they drive in big luxurious cars to pull their caravans. On the other hand, in July, the former accountant of Liliane Bettencourt confirmed that she had “never been subjected to any tax audit since at least 1995.” This shows the double-sided and profound class-motivated policy of Sarkozy: one policy for the rich, another for the poor.

It also says a lot about the real meaning of his demagogic gestures in the aftermath of the explosion of the financial crisis, pretending to engage in a fight against the ‘financial sharks’, against tax heavens, etc. This is nothing more than a gigantic bluster to try and fool ordinary people and, in practice, to protect his big business backers and friends, while adopting increasingly repressive methods against the victims of his policy and the ones who are trying to contest it.

The working class and the fight back

Sarkozy has decided to inflict a serious blow against the working class, and is ready to use every means for that purpose. But he doesn’t necessarily have the means to carry out his own intentions: his government is passing through a major political crisis, and, among the poor, the working class, and especially the youth, the idea of getting rid of it is gaining momentum. The scheduled government reshuffle in October is hardly going to change this course. Faced with this weakened government, the working class and youth could gain more confidence to take the road of struggle. September will be a crucial test in this respect.

Like a dying barking dog, Sarkozy is trying to take back the initiative. However, even among the right wing and within the ranks of the UMP, numerous voices are expressing concerns about the ‘new turn’. Not because they are concerned about the fate of thousands of immigrants and Roma families, or about the attacks on civil liberties, of that we can be sure, but because they are concerned that the continuing provocative attitude of Sarkozy will lead to uncontrollable explosions from below.

As described by ‘Foreign Policy’: “The streets of France could soon play host to militant labour unions, rebellious farmers, striking civil servants, and rioting youth in the banlieues.” Not surprisingly, the main criticisms of Sarkozy’s more recent policies have been coming from the ‘Villepinists’, the dissident group of the UMP led by the ex-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin; the same Villepin who, in April 2009, was expressing his fears of “a risk of revolution” in France, and who in June this year created a new political movement called ‘République Solidaire’, a sort of ‘social right wing’ opposed to Sarkozy.

A number of right-wing politicians are now trying to distance themselves from Sarkozy, for fear of digging their own political graves. They think that this latest racist crusade initiated by Sarkozy is unnecessary, bringing fuel to the fire, and that the collaborative attitude of the trade union leaders could be sufficient to defuse the detonator of the next explosions, i.e. the social mobilisations of the autumn.

On this last point, they are probably correct as far as the intentions of the trade union leadership are concerned. In an interview on July 11th, Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the CGT, warned the government, urging it to amend its draft on the pension reform, “or else we will have a major social crisis in the autumn.”

The working class of France, this “traditionally anti-capitalist country” as the British paper ‘The Guardian’ commented recently, could potentially bring this rotten government to its knees, given a determined leadership, able to give confidence to the mass of the population and to overstep the boundaries of the union leaders’ conservatism. At this decisive moment, the building of a party which intervenes consistently in the class struggles, in the workplaces, in the trade unions, and argues for a clear programme of socialist change, is a burning task. The unfolding struggles will offer many opportunities to fulfil this task. The members of Gauche Révolutionnaire, the CWI in France, will put all their weight to assist this process, in the great class confrontations that are likely to erupt in the coming period.

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August 2010