France set to join Europe’s turmoil

Parliamentary elections strengthens Socialist Party’s rule

France is emerging from a period strongly marked by the elections on the one hand, and the worsening of the economic crisis on the other. Although France is not yet facing the grim austerity of other European Union countries, class inequalities and social polarization are deepening, and these were reflected in the election results.

After having cleared away former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, of the right-wing UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), voters slapped his government in the face by giving an absolute majority to the Socialist Party (PS). A number of influential ministers from the previous government lost their seats in the National Assembly. The right wing is passing through a major ideological crisis, as well as a crisis of leadership after the Sarkozy era. It has been weakened in its ability to stand as an opposition to the PS-led government of Jean-Marc Ayrault, appointed prime minister by the new president, François Hollande, especially since this position is being challenged by the far-right National Front (FN) as well.

The more right-wing direction which Sarkozy was trying to push on the UMP has faced resistance from the traditional conservative, more Gaullist, part of the electorate. It has also lost the support of a section of working-class voters whose living standards have been severely undermined in the last five years. On top of that, it has been punished by those preferring ‘the original to the copy’, by voting for FN leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections, and for FN candidates in the legislative elections.

The PS, which has won all the national elections during the past five years, appears strengthened. But some elements contradict this observation. Although the PS has emerged as the big winner in the general election, its score for May’s presidential election was not such a great victory over the UMP. Moreover, the low turnout in the parliamentary elections (43% in the second round) confirmed the growing rejection of traditional politicians and their opportunism. This suggests that this vote has a strong tactical character on the part of working class.

Despite its past record, the PS has not yet been fully exposed in the eyes of the population, in the sense that there is not a widespread consciousness that austerity is what will come out of its rule. Its local policy is based on nepotistic relationships, confirming locally the total bourgeoisification of the party, even though it can still receive the passive support of some layers of the population, especially in the suburbs. But the respite can only be temporary as the government’s room for manoeuvre, both economically and politically, is limited.

France is in a unique political situation in Europe. While many countries are ruled by unstable coalitions, France has at its head a hegemonic PS controlling the presidency, senate, assembly, most regions and local councils. But this hides a clever balancing act between the different trends of the PS and of its allies in the composition of the government. These will all be put to serious test as the blows of the economic crisis go deeper by the day. We got a glimpse of that during the recent controversy over the continued decline in the number of public-sector workers.

Measures such as the limits put on the salary of the ministers and the president, the increase of the ISF wealth tax, and other taxes on the rich, etc, are looked at positively by most people. Other measures, such as the increase of the minimum wage – limited as it is to 2% (€21.5) – the hiring of 1,000 teachers in primary education, and the announcement of talks with the trade unions, will also be considered positively, even though some workers see that they are clearly insufficient. The fact is that it is far from the violent attacks and the arrogance displayed by Sarkozy’s government.

On the other hand, although the PS has attempted to gain by expressing the anger against the severe destruction of industrial sector jobs under Sarkozy – the loss of 300,000 jobs in five years – it is rapidly facing a similar situation itself. Plans for restructuring, lay-offs and factory closures, which had been delayed by private companies because of the election period, are now back on the agenda.

The next step for the Ayrault government is the autumn budget. Few figures have been announced but, with the target of reducing the budget deficit to 3% in 2013, everybody knows that the public sector will be under attack, probably starting with the healthcare system.

These elections were also marked by a strong vote for the FN, which scored around 10% on average, with peaks reaching near 20% in its strongholds. Although this party lost a bit comparatively to the presidential vote, it has managed to gain two MPs. Without ignoring the racism factor involved, it is clear that the rejection of the traditional parties associated with the establishment (the ‘UMPS’, as the FN puts it), and the fact that it put a certain emphasis on social questions, also played an important role in its vote.

The Left Front had a vote slightly stronger than the Communist Party (PCF) won on its own five years ago (677,000 votes more) but was still way down on its presidential vote (1,115,600 compared to 3,984,800). These elections, however, were particularly undemocratic, and the Left Front saw its parliamentary group weakened. This low vote compared to the presidential elections is partially due to its rather conventional campaign, of a PCF-type, without consistent criticism of the PS. The dynamics around Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s campaign fell down, with the exception of Hénin-Beaumont, in the north-east, where Mélenchon stood against Le Pen.

In this area, disappointment is palpable, as the vote for Le Pen was very significant, and Mélenchon was eliminated in the first round. In this particular constituency, marked by unemployment and precarious jobs, the FN has been able to exploit the growing social misery over a number of years. Given the low weight that the Left Front has now in the parliament, and the fact that the PS has a parliamentary majority without it, the possibility for the PCF to enter the government is ruled out for now. Hence the possibility of a split within the Left Front will not be immediately posed.

The vote for Lutte Ouvrière and the New Anti-capitalist Party did not even reach 1%. The far-left is paying a high price for years of sectarianism and incorrect analysis of the situation, and for its inability to express the needs and aspirations of workers and youth on the political arena.

Although relatively quiet in France, at the moment, the economic situation is unstable on a European scale. Countries like Greece and Italy are in critical situations, while French banks are involved in rotten investments with these countries, which could affect them quite quickly. It is likely, therefore, that the small reforms and the few social gestures we have seen so far by the new Hollande administration will rapidly switch towards austerity. In a rapidly changing situation, the consciousness of the masses will catch up with the new realities. New opportunities to build a mass socialist force to arm the working-class movement will arise.

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June 2012