France: Elections punish Valls and Hollande

Department results show need for fightback against austerity and racism

The second round of the departmental election in France has confirmed the strong rejection of the Hollande-Valls governing majority (Parti Socialiste, elements of the Greens, and the centre-left) with just 25.5% of the total vote. The traditional right wing – the UMP in alliance with the centre-right UDI, despite the opposition to such tactics a few months ago by Sarkozy – gained 28 departments. It lost only one, and will now control 67 out of 98.

The abstention rate was unusually even higher in the second round than the first at just over 50%.

The National Front (FN) confirmed its very high score but only increased its support when it was against a ’Socialist’ or ’Communist’ Party candidate. However, 53 candidates of the Left Front (of the French Communist Party with the Left Party and others) beat the National Front in 53 out of 58 councils.

Part of the votes of the traditional right wing went to the FN, which won 22.5% of votes, but not enough to ensure it control over even one department. Nevertheless, it came first in 43 departments in the first round, clearly confirming the rejection of the two main political ’families’ – a definite stage of development in the politics of France.

Most of the youth, ordinary workers and unemployed, did not participate in these elections. The abstention rate was over 60% in many industrial or ’poor’ departments and up to 65% in the Seine Saint Denis, North East of Paris.

Social anger will be the real third round

After the first round of France’s local (departmental) elections, with a low turnout of just over 50%, the right wing parties of the UMP and UDI were ahead. The the far-right National Front (FN) went to the second round in more than half of all the departments. These results, like others such as the European elections, reflect the prevailing anger and disgust among ordinary people when faced with the government policies of Valls and Hollande and the corruption of the ruling class.

Ruling parties struggle

According to official results the right came out ahead in the first round of departmental elections. In the second round several departments were set to swing, or swing back, to the right after the right’s catastrophic performance under Sarkozy in 2008 and 2011. In every departmental election, a majority of the voters rightly punish the sitting government, whether Socialist Party (PS) or right-wing, for their anti-social policies, and that carries on. The PS first came up with a law to abolish the departments and then had to back down. So no-one really knows what the point of these newly elected bodies will be.

The right took advantage of the mood of frustration with the PS, arguing for a change of guard. It was perfectly logical for some voters to vote for UMP candidates, not knowing who to vote for, especially since the political programmes of the PS and the UMP were barely distinguishable. Even if the right has come out ahead it is not indicative of massive support, and they are hardly any more credibile than before. The scandals in the Essonne area, and Sarkozy’s problems over election expenses, have not been forgotten. All the right has managed to do is to re-energise their supporters, without making inroads into wider layers of society.

The Socialist Party were big losers. Taken on their own, they won only 14% of the votes. It is clear that Valls’ and Hollande’s policies face rejection from an ever wider section of the electorate. Officially the PS claim a 20% vote share by adding in the votes of miscellaneous left candidates, misleadingly in some cases since the Ecologist-Left Front lists are opposed to some of their policies. What is also clear is that they are holding on partly thanks to local roots and networks of elected representatives, despite widespread rejection of their local and national policies.

The Front National vote

The results for the Front National were in line with expectations. They are either the largest or second largest political force depending on whether one treats the UMP and UDI votes separately. In several areas scarred by unemployment and increasing poverty, such as the North, the FN polled very well, which indicates that they have developed a certain base in those regions. They raised voter participation a little but turn-out remained low in working class districts and regions. Furthermore, by presenting candidates in virtually every area, they filled a vacuum to some extent.

The FN managed to tap into the anger of the electorate by running a campaign with fairly vague statements on social issues such as ‘supporting families and lone parents, reinstating health care,rights, maintaining the value of pensions…’ without ever saying how and where they would get the money.

At the same time they kept to their classical programme such as the fight against tax fraud, an end to subsidies for political associations, re-establishing order in the secondary schools. A large part of their programme dealt with cronyism in government parties and corruption, with a good dose of the old promises about the priority for the French and, like others on the right, against special meals in the canteens for religious reasons.

In reality the Front National scored well but they had hoped for better, including winning control in more than two councils. The second round results gave them control in none. They managed to win over some voters disappointed with Hollande. But their programme does not question the root cause of people’s problems and so there is a limit to what they can achieve.

The anti austerity Left Front

In the face of the policies of Valls-Hollande, the Left Front lists challenged not only the policies of the government but also the right wing and the FN. They polled around 9% nationally and in some areas between 15 and 20%. That is a good score and a clear vote against austerity. But their campaign lacked combativity and clarity. The emphasis on ‘unity’ was not enough to impart the kind of dynamism to the campaign which would allow young people, workers and the unemployed to build a real, mass opposition to the policies of the PS. They failed to make a clean break with the PS, particularly by allying themselves with the Ecologists (EELV) who participate in government policiy, while trying to differentiate themselves without ever actually opposing it.

The councils in the country’s departments are responsible for running early years provision, social care for the aged and in-work benefits – in other words, many aspects of daily life. But the Left Front position statements and campaigns generally had little concrete to say about the need to increase the number of childcare places, the need for free transport, higher wages and welfare benefits, and the need to resist and start a fightback now against redundancies and public sector cuts.

All this was missing from the campaign, despite the fact that thousands of workers and their families are fighting back in the workplaces. Strikes for higher pay are becoming more widespread and the government continues to make cuts in the health service and the railways. The vote for the Left Front, who gained 176 seats, expressed a rejection of the policies of Valls and Hollande and the bosses from the left. The task now is to turn that rejection into something strong and determined as soon as possible.

A good start would be to mobilise for the 9th April, to make the day of action called by the CGT-SUD-FO-FSU trade unions into a day of anger – the anger of workers, unemployed, young people and pensioners against Valls’ policies, the Macron laws, low pay – make it a day of strikes and demonstrations!

The second round – and after

The second round was not decisive in the current political situation. But the question was asked : how can we limit the impact of the FN? In this situation, where there were two-way contests between the Left Front and the FN, we supported and campaigned for the Left Front candidate. In the case of two- or three-way contests involving the PS and the FN, while we would not campaign for a party (the Socialist Party) which pursues anti-working class policies, we called for a vote for the PS against the FN. In the case of contests between the UMP and the FN, some voted for the UMP under the illusion that there is a real difference between them – we don’t think so.

Beyond these elections, despite what the media want to say, a victory for the UMP-UDI and the FN is primarily a victory by default, given the lack of a serious opponent. The Left Front campaigned independently of the PS and had good results. They should draw the lesson that they need to stop considering the PS as a political partner in council chambers and elsewhere. The good results for the FN are yet another reminder that the FN could sour the situation and limit the possibility of a united struggle.

We need to organise immediately for a fightback against austerity and racism and defend the need to build a powerful political force of workers and young people to give expression to, and channel, their anger.

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