France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, suddenly and brutally decided to launch a second lockdown from the end of October, in a very hurried way, without giving at least a few days for the public services, the small shop-owners and the population to get prepared. Such a hurry betrays the feverishness the government is engulfed by. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, two elements have dominated the situation (apart from the pandemic itself).
Firstly, the poor state of the public health care system makes the situation worse, making it impossible to truly protect the population. Between 1993 and 2018, cuts have led to the loss of 83,000 hospital beds (83 % of which are in the public sector) while the population has increased by 8 million inhabitants in the same period and of course, the proportion of people aged over 65 has also increased. With more than 41,000 deaths from Covid-19, the country seems to have lost what constituted the pride of the workers’ movement and of workers themselves: – free, good quality public services.
Secondly, what makes things even worse is that from the beginning, all the decisions taken by Macron were to ensure that capitalist property and the profits of the big corporations would never be put at risk. Masks, testing and medical equipment (such as oxygen bottles) could have been produced in France. But that would have meant taking into public ownership some factories or re-opening them, and that has never been on the agenda. The cynicism of the ruling class and its government are crudely exposed but in the form of the bodies of tens of thousands of victims of the virus.
Even the lockdown itself is considered along the same lines, and faces widespread anger. Only the big companies (supermarket companies, delivery giants such as Amazon) are allowed to function, giving them a de facto monopoly on the market. The economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, ironically said that the scape-goating of Amazon should stop, as it only represents “20 % of the on-line trade; 60 % is made by large French companies”. In fact, it demonstrates that these companies will be favoured by the lockdown while small shops have been forced to stop their activities. At the moment, this huge share of the delivery market is still growing to a point that Amazon is putting more and more pressure on its employees, benefiting from the special laws established by the government under the “State of Health Emergency”. Extra hours without increased wages have become so common that the trade unions – CGT, SUD etc. – in Amazon are now calling for strike action as they successfully did in March and April this year.
A few days earlier, Le Maire was saying, “Amazon should not be the great winner of the present crisis” but “the local shops have to push in the direction of digitalising themselves”. That means entering a market which will make local businesses a pray for bigger companies. As Marx explained, capitalists get out from a crisis by exploring new markets and exploiting the former ones more deeply.
Even the so-called “economy package” of 100 billions of euros is mainly composed of help to big companies and the private sector. While each multinational is announcing lay-offs (such as 4,600 in Renault in France, 15.000 in total around the world) the money has been given (or “lent” for 0% interest rate) by the government. Nothing or very little for the public services. Even the Health budget for 2021 contains a new cut of €800 million for public hospitals. In High School Education, classes are composed on average of 29.7 school students, but schools are forced to keep going as normal, despite the need for health protection. The lock-down is just to diminish the pressure on the public hospitals to be able to pursue the capitalist policy of dismantling it.
All this is taking place at the same time as the economic perspective is now of a contraction of GDP by 11 % in 2020 and one million more people live below the poverty line. Unemployment is expected to reach 9.7 % in official figures at the end of the year.
Unable to protect the population and using measures that reinforce the big capitalist companies, the government has no idea of how to escape the possible explosion of social and political anger that is looming in the country. In fact, it is only because there is no real political opposition and the union leaderships do not organise protests that this tight-rope walker of a government can even maintain the illusion of conducting a coherent policy.
The need for a fightback
The terrible economic and social situation of millions of people is worsened by the suffocating mood flowing from the lock-down and the feeling of oppression that it reinforces. Added to that, the weeks before saw increasing anti-muslim racist propaganda from politicians of LaRem (Macron’s party) and the right wing. Many issues have become sensitive and a part of the youth, but not only them, can more easily fall into very pessimistic and violent moods and behaviour.
In this context, the far right, whether it is religious or political, can try to exploit the despair of some people, feeding it with reactionary ideas. It is that context that explains the different murders that have taken place of ordinary people by fanatic Islamist terrorists in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, near Paris, and in Nice, .
The government has added fuel to the fire, but also, in the case of the teacher of Conflans, done nothing to protect him, even when it was widely known that he had been receiving serious threats. Education staff are completely derided by this government. It cynically used a cut-down version of a letter by Jaurès -the greatest leader of French socialism at the turn of the 20th century and a primary school teacher himself – to mourn Samuel Paty, the assassinated teacher. It not only left out the whole part of the text reaffirming the strong opposition Jaures had against the system of exams and competition within the education system. But also, the government cancelled the two-hour debate that was initially set up on the Monday after the holidays between school students and teachers. The government was afraid that, because of the brutal decision to impose ‘Lockdown 2’ without any measures to help the schools, it could be transformed into debates on how to fight this policy.
Despite the difficulties, many local struggles have happened after the summer. But none of the unions has tried to set up a broad campaign to unify them or at least to support and try to extend them. At the same time that unionisation of workers has seen a small growth during this year, the union leaders maintain a ‘waiting-for-the-end-of-all-of-this’ attitude. Some unions, mainly in the CGT federation, try to organise events or meetings of fighting union activists, but it is still limited. There is no coordinating body or a real will to demand of the national union leaderships that they have a real policy of fightback including campaigning for a national day of action – strikes and demonstrations – in the first months of 2021.
The last municipal elections showed a complete collapse of Macron’s party but also a deep uncertainty. While the polls show Macron at a very low level of support at around 30 %, depending on when they are taken (it has increased after events such as the terrorist murders), it does not show an automatic transfer of support to another political force. The traditional right is still very low in the polls and discredited as Macron is in fact carrying out much the same policy. The Rassemblement National – far right party of Le Pen – is still high in the polls. For example, they show 24 % for Le Pen if the first round of the presidential election happened now.
The Parti Socialiste and the so-called ecologist party – Europe Ecologie les Verts -EELV – have no clear position on Macron’s policies. Sometimes they are against, sometimes voting in favour. In fact, both these parties are competing to have the leadership of the votes on the left but without having any left elements in their programme.
EELV leader, Jadot, is in favour of capitalism and against nationalisation or democratic planning of the economy. Faure, the PS leader, has no policy except bashing Melenchon. Their main concern is the next regional elections, possibly in June 2021 – expecting to win the first round on the left and then have a joint list in the second round. But as the EELV leadership has said, both nationally and locally, the only aim is to have an ecologist candidate – “The discussion on the programme will take place later”!
The Communist party, while having a mostly correct position in opposing Macron, is unable to put forward an independent position in front of this duo. In the municipal elections they made opportunistic alliances with either the EELV or the PS to keep local councillors elected. And then they will also participate in local cuts in public spending and services. In fact, even if the CP and, above all, CP activists are against capitalism, the party continues its policy of falling in line with the PS.
Within this framework, the only figure on the radar screen is Jean Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Insoumise (the movement ‘France Unbowed’). Even if his popularity is lower than at the time of the presidential elections of 2017, when he obtained 7 million votes (19.5%) on a programme putting forward reforms against capitalist policies, he is still considered the main figure on the left.
According to the recent poll of Elabe, Mélenchon is seen as the personality who represents most the future for the left – 21 % against 17 % for Anne Hidalgo the PS mayor of Paris. 20 % consider possibly voting for him at the next presidential election. This is far more than for any of the EELV or PS leaders.
What’s more, Mélenchon, despite real limits in his programme and his refusal of transform France Insoumise into a real fighting and structured party of the working class and “the people”, is still seen as the incarnation of a left opposition to Macron and capitalism.
Mélenchon has said he is ready to be candidate for the presidential election. He has launched an online poll – #noussommespour (#weareinfavour) – saying that he would accept becoming a candidate if 150,000 votes were reached. After only five days the target was already exceeded by 10%.
The second idea is to call for a new political force – a “People’s Federation”. Even if this call is not very clear and will certainly repeat the same mistakes as the FI – local committees of activists and a national body of leaders but without control over it) – it will again give the possibility to agitate for the idea of a new workers’ party and more – to discuss how to have a real fighting socialist programme.
It is in that sense that the Gauche Révolutionnaire supports the idea of a Mélenchon candidature. The rise in the polls a few days after his announcement shows a real potential for it amongst workers and youth and people suffering from Macron’s policies, the economic and social crises and the pandemic.
One of the key questions will be not only to prepare for this election but also to try to involve supporters into working class struggles – not just supporting them – and into discussion on the programme.
Mélenchon’s programme is strongly defending public services, affordable housing, democratic and environment-friendly economic planning and other very good points. It is clearly at a mass scale the only left opposition to Macron. But with the memory of the betrayal of the PS-PC government under Mitterand and the fact that capitalists will defend fiercely their private property and the exploitation of workers for their profits, we will have to argue how to go further than a reformist programme.
It is necessary to fight for socialist measures such as a public monopoly over energy, finances, health etc. under democratic workers’ control and management and bring that into the struggles of the workers and in their day to day concerns, to link them to the need to change society and fight for socialism.
The huge possibility of a mass revolt against Macron in France will have revolutionary elements within it but also big confusion. The need to have a revolutionary party, flexible on the tactics but firmly defending socialism through a mass revolutionary movement is linked to the correct attitude to gather as many workers and youth as possible in a mass new political force against all these parties that defend capitalism, from the Macron to the far right, the right and the PS-EELV pseudo-left.