France: Candidates spar in election campaign

Volcano of class struggle ready to erupt

As we post this article on France, the recent brutal shootings in Toulouse have left the country in a state of shock. The CWI unambiguously condemns those terrible actions. These events could potentially affect the development of the presidential election campaign in the next days and weeks. The article below, which addresses and explains the main features of the elections, has been written before these dramatic killings.

On Sunday 18 March, the anniversary of the Paris Commune, around 100,000 people (according to most media reports), chanting the Internationale, marched through the streets of Paris in response to the call of the candidate of the Front de gauche (Left Front), Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to “re-take the Bastille” and start a “civic insurrection”. His speech to the demonstration was full of references to France’s revolutionary past. Mélenchon stated that his electoral campaign desires to “open the breach towards the French volcano that all Europe is waiting for”.

If, on the surface, France appears relatively calm in comparison with the storm of mass protests and general strikes that have unfolded in Southern Europe, the lava of the French ‘volcano’ is indeed boiling. This year’s presidential elections are taking place against the background of looming and widespread social anger. At the moment, this finds its expression in a sharply polarised electoral landscape, of which Sunday’s Left Front gathering in the capital is only the latest, and probably clearest, manifestation.

Significantly, all the candidates in the presidential election campaign have been seen on TV standing in front of, or inside, the big industrial workplaces that are in danger of closure, surrounded by the media. Never before have presidential candidates been so keen to visit factories all over the country, in the attempt to present themselves as ‘working-class friendly’ politicians.

Sarkozy pretends to "defend French factories", while hundreds have closed during his mandate


People who want to vote do not necessarily expect big changes from the polls, but many are willing to use these elections to get rid of the hated Sarkozy and give him a strong slap in the face. Hence, Sarkozy’s camp is desperately trying everything to recover from his low poll ratings, including trying to play “the people” against “the elite” – as if Sarkozy was not an integral part of the latter – by multiplying blunt racist provocations to win back voters from the Front National (FN), or engaging in a populist ‘anti-Europe’ and protectionist turn, after having profiled the President as the saviour of the continent and of the common currency.

For two years, Sarkozy has lost more and more support in the population. Since his election in 2007, his electoral base has been severely restricted. The successful pulling of a whole section of the working class electorate towards his campaign, as he managed to do five years ago, seems now out of reach. In a poll at the beginning of February, only 12% of manual workers and 17% of white-collar workers declared they would vote for Sarkozy in the first round.

The supposed “President of Purchasing Power” is now largely identified as “the ‘bling-bling’ President”, only friendly with the super-rich. The declarations of his multi-millionaire wife Carla Bruni stating that the presidential couple “live very modestly”, or of his Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, pretending that Sarkozy lives a life of “extreme austerity” have only added to the insult that Sarkozy’s lifestyle represents in the eyes of the millions of people who have suffered under his rule from an endless series of attacks on their living standards.

Eight million people in France are now officially poor. Since Sarkozy came to power, unemployment has gone up by 20%, but three million unemployed people have disappeared from the official state figures, written off the lists and left without any financial resources. A large part of the population is worrying about social issues. A survey published on 23 February by ‘La Croix’, a Christian newspaper, announced that 79% of the people interviewed felt their country was in a “full crisis” with 66% declaring they will have to cut back expenditure on essentials in 2012.

Francois Hollande’s campaign

Within this context, the Socialist Party (PS) candidate François Hollande has understood that something had to be done to catch up with the large discontent which exists in society. Hence a bit more of a left tone can sometimes be heard in his campaign.

Hollande paints himself as the candidate of “change” and “unity”, and tries to put more emphasis on growth than on austerity in his rhetoric. He argues for the creation of 60,000 teaching jobs if he is elected, and stands in favour of cancelling €29 billion worth of tax breaks introduced by Sarkozy. He has also surprised a lot of people – including in his own team of advisers – by suddenly arguing for a 75% tax on people who earn over €1 million a year. He promises to separate retail banking activities from investment banks, denounces bankers’ pay as ‘indecent’ and targets the world of finance as his “main enemy”.

However, this is only one side of the coin. When he visited London at the beginning of March, the PS candidate, in a press interview, stressed the fact that “The left has been in government for 15 years during which we have liberalized the economy, opened the markets to finance and privatisations. There is nothing to worry about.” Hollande clearly defends the European Union project and the need to reduce budget deficits. He wants to make clear he is a quiet and responsible administrator, seriously committed to balancing the country’s books. For instance, his extra 60,000 teachers pledge is not based on rising public spending, but just on limiting hiring in other, already understaffed, sectors.

Hollande tries, on the one hand, to be seen as more left and more popular but, on the other hand, not losing credibility before the markets which he does not want to alienate for that matter. Hence the more ‘leftish’ proposals of his electoral programme are regularly ‘corrected’, sometimes completely contradicted, by more right-wing moves, aimed at reassuring the capitalist class – as well as the right-wing in his own party – about his intentions.

Hollande’s proposals to raise taxes on millionaires can gather a certain support, seeing the enormous class anger which exists amongst French voters against the ultra-rich elite. The obscene profits of the 40 biggest French companies quoted on the stock exchange (which reached €73.5 billion in 2011), or the 24% rise, last year, of executive bosses’ pay (already the best in Europe) can only provide arguments for proposals such as these.

As socialists, we are obviously in favour of every measure which goes in the direction of a fairer redistribution of wealth. But it is important to understand that even if those taxes are implemented (which is far from certain), as long as the ownership of the main levers of economic activity remain in private hands, the owners of capital will not hesitate to use their economic power to undermine measures like this, notably through threatening the flight of capital. That is why Hollande’s proposals to ‘tax the rich’ could be short-lived or might not even see daylight at all. The humiliating U-turn towards austerity engaged by the PS-PCF government of François Mitterrand in 1983, two years after having taking office, is a graphic example showing that a policy of social reforms, while leaving capitalist rule over the economy unchallenged, is absolutely unsustainable. Though 58% of the French population considers that Francois Hollande ‘represents change’, it is easier for him to capitalise on a hated president than to deliver once in power, especially in the context of an economic crisis in which the ruling classes everywhere are engaged in a bitter class war against the workers and the poor. Not less significant, according to a poll, 61% of the people who will vote for Hollande explain their votes with the idea of beating Sarkozy, and only 39% supporting Holande’s project !

The neo-liberal record of the PS in government during the ‘plural left’ years of 1997-2002 was one of privatisation going even further than what the right-wing had achieved when it was in power before. Similarly, the legacy of his party in regional administrations is a warning that the pendulum of the PS could swing back to the right very quickly.

Nevertheless, under working class pressure and some expectations that Hollande would deliver ‘something different’, he might try to win some time by delivering a few concessions and limited social measures in the early stages of his presidency. His declared aim to re-negotiate the European fiscal treaty has raised worries among the European establishment about possible moves in this direction, which could bring him into some conflict with the ‘orthodox’ austerity advocated especially by the German ruling class.

When it comes to the workers and the youth, some sections will vote for Hollande just to strike a blow at Sarkozy, whatever they think of Hollande himself. For the moment, these layers are mainly trying to limit the consequences of the crisis for themselves and their families, and their main concern is who is the best candidate to win against Sarkozy? In most opinion polls, Hollande used to lead in both the first and the second rounds until recently. However, the polls of the main survey organisations suggest that the gap between him and Sarkozy is now lessening, some even putting Sarkozy ahead of the PS candidate in the first round. One recent poll put Sarkozy at 30% and Hollande at 28%.

If there is a remobilisation around Sarkozy, it is much more from the apparatus of his own party – the UMP – than a real wave of enthusiasm in society. In practice, he has won few new voters since the official announcement of his candidature. Still, these developments, combined with the scepticism among some layers because of the legacy of past PS policies and what are quite broadly seen as Hollande’s ‘vague promises’, have increased the questioning of some about the PS challenger being sufficiently strong to even win against Sarkozy. Though not the most likely prospect, a Sarkozy victory cannot be ruled out. Such a scenario would undoubtedly open a huge crisis in the ranks of the PS, as well as a new phase of explosive class confrontation in the country.

Mélenchon and the Left Front

Also, new upsets have risen in Hollande’s camp, as another candidate is increasingly creating a ‘splash’ in the presidential campaign and complicating an easy PS victory in the first round; namely Mélenchon.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

For most radicalised working class layers who have been trying to fight back for five years against Sarkozy’s policies, the question around the elections is a double one. It is not only about how to sack Sarkozy but also how to put forward at the same time a real alternative to the capitalists’ policies represented more or less by the main establishment candidates.

Within this context, Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left Front, is seen by a lot of workers as the only left candidate. About 300,000 copies of the Left Front’s programme (“The Human First!”) have been sold within a few months.

The Left Front was formed by an alliance of the Communist Party (PCF) and Mélenchon’s smaller party, the Left party. Modelling himself upon ‘Die Linke’ in Germany, Mélenchon’s career has important similarities to that of Oskar Lafontaine, a leading figure in that organisation. Mélenchon is a former member of the PS and was former prime minister Lionel Jospin’s national education minister for professional education between 2000 and 2002.

A lot of workers – especially those coming from traditional working class areas and from a PCF background – as well as a noticeable layer of youth, are attending his huge rallies. Noticeably, in his rally on Sunday, a number of delegations of workers coming from workplaces currently engaged in industrial battles were present.

The dynamism and attraction of his campaign is reflected by the fact that, while for the first time since 1974 the PCF doesn’t have a candidate of its own, the candidate this party supports is getting an echo much beyond the PCF’s traditional electorate. While Mélenchon was still at 5-6% last September, and 3.5% one year ago, he received 11% support in the last opinion poll [A new one, published on March 22 by the newspaper ‘Les Echos’, put him at 13%, just half a percent behind the National Front (FN) far-right candidate Marine Le Pen –]. In comparison, in the last presidential election five years ago, the PCF candidate Marie-Georges Buffet only received 1.93%.

Mélenchon combines republican rhetoric influenced by the French revolution with a mixture of working-class aims. He calls on the people to “take power”, arguing for a “civic insurrection”, a “citizen’s revolution” and other similar radical-sounding slogans which, though being vague, are getting a positive echo among those layers of workers, activists and young people who are looking for something left, more radical and different from the ‘glossy’ and demagogical character of Hollande’s campaign.

Challenging the idea that the working class has to pay for the crisis of the system and to accept austerity policies, attacking the financial markets and the mass media, talking about ‘ecological planning’, women’s and abortion rights, Mélenchon opens a number of doors for a debate that the ruling class is not necessarily keen or enthusiastic to bring into the spotlight. He argues for a rise in the minimum wage to €1,700 and retirement at 60 years old, for the nationalisation of the profitable oil company Total and other energy suppliers. The class character of the arguments used by Mélenchon to attack the FN, unmasking this party’s pro-business policies, also contrasts with what has been heard generally in the last decades from the main French politicians.

In the present crisis of political representation for the working class, reinforced by the failure of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) to offer a response to this problem, genuine socialists cannot ignore these developments but should, on the contrary, engage in comradely dialogue with those layers of workers and young people who look sympathetically towards Mélenchon’s campaign.

At the same time, it is also necessary to point to the political weaknesses and limitations of his programme. Although Mélenchon mentions capitalism, and calls for “an end to the privileges of capital”, his proposals fall short of providing a real way of finishing with this system, and do not draw a comprehensive picture of what the alternative to the system should be. In reality, his programme reflects a certain attempt to target mainly speculative, financial capital, rather than challenge the capitalist functioning of the economy as such. Reclaiming France’s revolutionary heritage, Mélenchon tempers his reference to the red flag, the Internationale and the Paris Commune with the tricolour flag of the bourgeois revolution, the French Republic and the Marseillaise. On the one hand, Mélenchon refers to the solidarity with the struggles of the Greek people and others, raising some elements of the necessary internationalist outlook; on the other hand, the ‘French republican’ side of his rhetoric, particularly emphasised during his speech in Paris last Sunday, could be an obstacle to address especially layers of the immigrant population. Many people present at the demo on Sunday didn’t miss to notice the weak and abstract content of the speech Mélenchon delivered.

Rather than arguing for the taking over by the working class of the banks and big companies, Mélenchon’s project argues in effect for a mixed economy, through limited nationalisation and a stronger public sector. Also, if we fundamentally agree with the general idea that working people should “take power” and if we are in favour of a common struggle, addressing the broader working class, to campaign towards this aim, unfortunately we believe that such a slogan from Mélenchon is simply to gather support for himself in the elections rather than a commitment to build a serious fight by the majority to challenge capitalism and build a socialist society.

This being said, we still believe that a big vote for Mélenchon will be an unmistakably positive sign for the working class and would move ahead the debate on how to build the fightback and which policies are needed against capitalist attacks. If, at the moment, the core of activists keeping Mélenchon’s campaign on its feet are essentially PCF members, the other component of the Left Front, the Left Party, remaining mainly an electoral label, that does not mean that it will necessarily remain the case. We have to follow carefully what will become of this support in the coming period. A broad public appeal by Mélenchon, following a large vote, to join actively the fightback and to transform the electoral success of the Left Front into a new mass working-class party, would probably resonate in the minds of many workers, young people, unemployed and pensioners, and would encourage the continuation of what remains a urgent debate in the present situation (a debate which had somehow been temporarily ‘muted’ because of the disastrous course followed by the NPA): how to build a mass political organisation that can stand for the millions and not for the millionaires.

However, any new initiative in this direction will have to draw the lessons of the experience of the NPA. What the working class needs is not an electoral machine, but a democratic and fighting instrument to help build its own struggles. An instrument which stands uncompromisingly on the side of the workers and the oppressed, challenges the inertia of the trade union bureaucracy, and develops a programme which links the struggles of the working class with a real political strategy to end the dictatorship of the 1%.

The NPA and Poutou’s campaign

Today there is no substantial support for left organisations like Lutte Ouvrière or the NPA, previously the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR). They poll around 1% combined, instead of nearly 10% in 2002 and over 5% in 2007. This reflects the inability of these parties to build on their past electoral successes or to address new layers of workers and young people. The NPA has had no noticeable profile during the last period, and refuses to propose a real anti-capitalist strategy, based on the struggle against sackings, calling for nationalisation under workers’ control of the key sectors of the economy, and arguing for a socialist society. The withdrawal of Olivier Besancenot as the NPA presidential candidate was an indication of the NPA leadership’s refusal to take advantage of the very favourable political situation.

The candidate of the NPA, Philippe Poutou, has a good profile as a representative of working-class struggles and aspirations. He is an industrial worker, a trade unionist in the Ford car factory in Bordeaux where they have succeeded in defeating a redundancy plan. His candidature could have been an expression of workers’ aspirations to finish with this system, although not sufficiently offensive against capitalism. However, the lack of a real party behind him, the fact that his candidature is not known on a mass-scale and the absence of any serious perspective for developing the NPA as an independent political instrument for the working class and the youth will necessarily limit Poutou’s appeal. (For a more in-depth analysis of the NPA, see our previous article here).

Danger of the FN

Disgusted at the disastrous results of the pro-capitalist policies of the establishment parties, another section of the working and middle classes will vote for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the FN, who has attempted to play down the neo-fascist links of her father, expelling some neo-fascist elements from the party. Marine Le Pen has had some electoral success, especially in the de-industrialised North, by presenting herself as the ‘candidate of the workers’, denouncing the political elite (the ‘UMPS’ as she calls it) and the rotten ‘mafia-style system’, and, above all, blaming immigrants for the crisis through an enormous racist campaign, targeting Muslims in particular.

Some sections of workers, young people and the poor, especially those who do not feel they are represented (people from the poor areas of the cities, second and third generation migrant families, etc.) will not go to the polls at all. The level of abstentions, which grows at each election, will probably be high in the first round, though the volatile situation and mood which exists, as well as a certain pressure to go for a ‘useful vote’ to kick Sarkozy or Le Pen out of the second round, can temper this among some layers (notably among those still influenced by the spectre of what happened in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen eliminated Jospin, the PS candidate, and entered the second round). However, at this stage, the FN is not seen as strongly as in 2002 as a way of rejecting government policy and is unlikely to repeat that outcome.

Marine Le Pen with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen

Important but isolated struggles

Although the electoral campaign is now making the headlines and dominates the political situation, workers’ struggles have not stopped. Indeed, another face of the crisis is the struggles which are taking place inside the industrial workplaces against closures and sackings and in the public services against cuts. Battles in a lot of companies (like Peugeot and Lejaby) have been in the media headlines for two months and local struggles are developing. The non-replacement of one out of every two civil servants who leaves their job is having a huge effect on public services, especially in the healthcare sector and in education. Since the announcement in February of the next primary education budgets, parents and teachers have been struggling against cuts in the nursery and primary schools. In some cities, organised action is continuing to save classes and decent public education for children. Sometimes, a whole village or city is involved. It is the same with some hospital cuts or closures of clinics. Strike actions, including one-hour strikes, have been developing in Renault Cleon for two weeks and in other industrial workplaces such as at the LME steel plant near Valenciennes, in Northern France. Postal workers are also engaged in several places in a real wave of struggles, some very long, of more than 50 days, in the Paris region.

Despite all this, there is a crucial lack of any linking of the struggles for a serious fightback on a national scale. In the emblematic Petroplus refinery in Petit Couronne (near Rouen), workers have organised their own struggle since the end of December 2011 with the involvement of the CGT union’s group of the local départmente and important support from the local population. All the main presidential candidates have visited the workers. But the main leader of the CGT, Bernard Thibault, came only on 10 February – near the end of the battle – to argue basically to “put pressure on the politicians”. While the situation of Petroplus workers is very similar to many across the country, the CGT leadership has never called for a real day of national strikes against sackings, cuts and the austerity agenda.

More generally, there has been no call from the union leaders to struggle together, nor a call for a day of national demonstrations. Nevertheless, huge potential exists. On 29 February, the ‘European Day against austerity plans’, there were tens of thousands on the streets despite no call to strike. There is real potential for a mass response from the French working class and youth. But for the moment, it cannot find a collective expression.

We do not know what the election results will be, but what we know for certain is that the working class and youth in France have not lowered their heads. Struggles are continuing and at this stage, the crisis is an accelerator for the class struggle and for political radicalisation. The elections will be used by layers of the working class as an opportunity to reduce attacks on their lives and living standards. But for substantial change and to stop the attacks on living standards, jobs and public services, a real struggle in the streets and workplaces will have to be conducted. As more and more will draw this conclusion in the coming period, the audience to hear our socialist programme will grow, along with the chance to test it in the concrete development of the struggles which are coming.

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