France: A crowded presidential race – what should the Left do? 

France Insoumise presidential candidate, Mélenchon, in 2017 (Photo: MathieuMD / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The weekend of 4-5 December was an important turning point in the race for the presidential election in France. The first round takes place on 10 April 2022.

 The right-wing party, Les Républicains (LR), officially designated its candidate in the person of Valérie Pécresse – president of the greater Paris region, Ile de France. Pécresse was a minister in the government of Nicolas Sarkozy and a firm defender of neo-liberal policies. At that time, she promoted new steps in the privatisation of the universities by implementing measures to diminish their national funding by the public budget. She pushed universities to seek more private finance and put staff and students into a capitalist-type competition.

During her current presidency of the Ile de France, Pécresse also attacked the public education system (secondary schools) and the public transport system. She viciously denounced bus drivers’ strikes. They were fighting against low wages and bad working conditions. Pécresse advocates steps towards the privatisation of the RATP – the huge public transport system of Paris and its suburbs.

Only 69,000 Les Républicains members voted for Pécresse out of a membership of 140 000 (who are mostly upper-middle class and bourgeois). By choosing this candidate, they have decided to push in favour of a more right-wing policy against workers and public services. This is partly due to the fact that President Macron already occupies the traditional ground of the right.

Pécresse presents herself as two-thirds Thatcher and one-third Merkel. She hopes that elements of the right wing electorate that voted for Macron will come back to her party. She said, “It will be Macron or us”, hoping that many voters will try to get rid of Macron by voting her into the second round instead of him, and without fear of electing a far right candidate, such as Le Pen or Zemmour. Because of the large amount of publicity Pécresse has received, she was on 17 % in mid-December polls.

Race on the far right

For years, the capitalist media has spoken about the scenario of another second-round run-off between Macron and the far right Marine Le Pen of Rassemblement National (RN). But the RN has continued to decline in popularity. It did not give genuine support to the struggle of workers in the 2019-20 movement on pensions. Le Pen officially said she was in favour of retirement at 60 years, but most of the RN party activists were against and she came out against strikes. 

The RN was already undermined by the radical left candidature of Mélenchon in 2017. He has shown much more of a way forward for those who are fed up with politicians and their system than the RN which has no real social and economic programme for change. Le Pen’s party has still scored considerable votes but less in both the municipal and the regional elections than previously. Doubts are raised even among far right supporters over the capacity of Le Pen to beat Macron. She is now at 16.3 % in the polls. 

This is one of the reasons for the emergence of another far right candidate, Eric Zemmour. He was already a polemicist in a big media group owned by the billionaire, Bolloré, and also in the pages of Le Figaro. Using this audience and the numerous friends he has in the media, Zemmour prepared a “pre-campaign”  before announcing his official candidature at the beginning of December. His first meeting gathered more than 10,000 participants and showed the support of many Catholic right wing politicians.

Zemmour’s economic programme is very close to those of Pécresse or Macron – a mixture of neo-liberal measures (such as the age of retirement at 67) and demagogic pronouncements about the standard of living being too low (without speaking about the level of wages). But the main theme is a permanent anti-Muslim, anti-black and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Even when asked about the environment, Zemmour spends half the time speaking about the danger of a migrant invasion, an Islamisation of France etc.

When Zemmour speaks about the so-called “Christian roots” of France it is regarded by many as somewhat amusing since Zemmour is a converted Christian with origins in the Berber-Jewish community of Algeria. He went to Armenia on 11 December, this year, to utilise the dramatic events in the Karabach province to accuse Islam of threatening so-called Christian civilisation.

Zemmour is, in fact, playing a very toxic role in the political debate, pushing ahead hate against Muslims and Blacks. But it is because this rhetoric has been used by so many politicians before him (from Le Pen to leaders of the Parti Socialiste) that space even exists for islamophobic rhetoric. Zemmour is nevertheless very useful for Macron since he scores an average of 13.8 % and undermines Le Pen. But it is not ruled out that, when the real political campaigning starts at the beginning of February, Zemmour could overtake Le Pen. This could mean a point of polarisation in the presidential debate and boost racist sentiments in society.

Officially, Macron is still not a declared candidate. He said in an interview on 15 December that he still has his presidential tasks to carry out before running in the election. Nevertheless, Macron said that he has “ambitions for the country next April”. Still polling at just about 24%, Macron is expected to win any second round in the polls.

Macron actually has a majority of the population against him because he has attacked public services, workers’ rights and conditions, and governs on behalf of the very rich. But this opposition is not based on a programme, despite the struggles that have taken place. The fact that Macron has been in charge during the Covid pandemic has maintained an element of support for him, especially among the middle class.

“Governmental left” –  not an alternative

The Socialist Party (PS) drew very wrong conclusions from maintaining its position in the regional elections, last June, as it was general stability on the basis of a very low turn-out. They imagined that the purgatory they have suffered after each time they have been the government party was over. But the hatred for this party of betrayers in the service of capitalism is still very strong.

Despite the fact that the PS candidate, Anne Hidalgo, is Mayor of Paris, she is polling just 4.1 %. But it is also the party’s incapacity to distinguish itself politically from Macron, who was Finance Minister under their government, that explains the continual collapse in elections. Some people, especially young voters, may still vote for the PS, hoping for a better policy. But for the majority of workers, it is out of the question. The PS leads in many city councils that are implementing, without any criticism, the legislation decided by the Macron government that will force council workers to work at least one more week in a year for the same salary.

A partner of the PS is the so-called environmentalist, EELV (Europe Ecologie – les Verts). Its presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot (on 6.5% in the polls), is in favour of “European capitalism and European social welfare that are not the same as the American or Chinese ones”. Refusing to blame capitalism for the environmental crisis and being against nationalisation, Jadot is nothing other than a liberal democrat painted green!

Of course, due to the growth of the climate movement, the EELV candidate is getting a certain audience, but at no time has he pronounced himself to be in opposition to Macron’s policies. Even if he was making gains in the polls because of a PS collapse, he would not be a challenge or real opposition to Macron and certainly not a real campaigner on climate and environmental issues.

A workers’ and socialist alternative to the bourgeois circus

To the left of the PS and the EELV, the Communist Party (CP) has decided to go on its own, changing its policy of 2012 and 2017 when it supported Mélenchon of the FI (France Insoumise). Despite some official declarations, this change is not a step to the left but more a sectarian approach against Mélenchon’s movement and a way to put itself in a position to negotiate with the PS for the parliamentary elections next June.

The CP candidate, Fabien Roussel, is at around 2% in the polls. He is still getting support from a layer of the working class but with no chance of playing a real role against Macron or in the class struggle. Roussel’s campaign is a mixture of classical demands about rising wages, taxing the rich etc. and outright reactionary measures. He supported the right wing police unions at their demonstration in May and has declared in favour of hiring 30,000 more police personnel.

The only reason the CP is presenting a candidate is that their leaders and cadres see policy only in terms of electoral results. This sees them making alliances with France Insoumise and (in the majority of cases) with the PS. The CP could have played a role in pushing the Mélenchon campaign in a more open and collective way, involving workers and youth but it is incapable of working collectively even in its own ranks. In 2017 the CP decided to support Mélenchon only three months before the elections. Now it will clearly go alone, getting a low score with the only objective that the CP has its own placards and is trying to get new members filling in membership applications.

On the far left, some candidates such as Philippe Poutou for the NPA and Nathalie Arthaud for LO will once again participate, scoring between 0.5% and 1.1%. They will not be trying to address themselves to the electorate of Mélenchon in any other way than saying, “Mélenchon is a reformist and he will betray us”.

France Insoumise must organise and prepare for battle

Mélenchon has been the constant target of the capitalist media and even the State. He represents the worst scenario for the ruling class and is under attack regularly. In 2017, he got 7 million votes, coming first amongst the youth and in the working class areas. It was at a time when a lot of workers and youth were very disillusioned with the PS-EELV Hollande government.

Today, the situation is less simple. Mélenchon is at an average of about 10% in different polls, and his first mass public rally was good but not huge, with just 5,000 participants. His programme is on workers’ demands – raising wages, lowering working time to create jobs, defending public services…attacking the rich (with more taxes). It also elaborates considerable detail on the question of economic regulation and environmental issues.

For many workers and those who live in working class areas, Mélenchon is still seen as the real opponent to Macron and to the far right. In fact, getting Mélenchon in the second round would be a nightmare for the bourgeoisie and for the racists, and a real step forward for working people. That is why Gauche révolutionnaire – the French section of the CWI – has unanimously decided to support the Mélenchon candidature.

This does not mean that we agree with all the FI’s proposals and slogans, as explained in the special pamphlet discussed and adopted at Gauche Revolutionnaire’s national conference, last month. However, we think that Mélenchon’s candidature can still be a good vehicle to rally workers, youth, pensioners, and the unemployed against Macron.

The weakness of the France Insoumise in the aftermath of the campaign in 2017 was its refusal to transform itself into a real political party. It left thousands of activists who joined with just a click on the internet with no structures to organise themselves against the attacks of Macron.

As Gauche Revolutionnaire warned at that time, the speed of events will go faster than the electoral agenda. It was more the case than we could have imagined. The covid pandemic saw very restrictive and repressive measures, especially against workers, being taken by Macron. Despite the good work in opposition by the 17 France Insoumise MPs, nothing was really organised on the ground, in the workplaces, and at a regional level. This made it impossible to really discuss collectively how to fight and what to fight for.

Secondly, the programme of Mélenchon, even if he himself refers sometimes to Marx and other revolutionaries, and often attacks capitalism, is not aiming for socialism, even in a broad sense. This weakness can alienate some of the best layers of the workers and youth that have drawn the conclusion that a revolution is necessary to overthrow capitalism.

At the same time, the left tone of his campaign, and his clear call to support workers’ struggle, for many people puts Mélenchon as the candidate of the anti-capitalists and anti-racists, of anti-sexism, and as the camp of the workers and the youth. We are in support of a discussion of all the forces on the left of the PS and EELV to support Mélenchon and take their place in the campaign with their own political material.

In such a campaign, we not only support all the demands in terms of public services, wages, housing etc. but we also go further. We support demands for the complete nationalisation of the health system and of the education system.

We campaign for workers to struggle for these measures but also to fight for socialism – the taking into public ownership of the main means of production and distribution (big companies and factories, banks etc.) to democratically plan the economy to satisfy the needs of all with a clear comprehension of environmental issues.

Such an approach already has found an echo among members of France Insoumise. GR activists participate in some areas in France Insoumise organisation and in the election campaigns of the FI. But we also turn towards non-organised workers and youth who are looking for an alternative.

The numerous struggles on the question of wages and working conditions that have occurred in the last three months will certainly continue after the December holidays. They will create an even more favourable ground for a campaign against Macron’s policies and against capitalism itself.

A majority of the population is fed up with the current situation of low wages, bad housing, and, especially for the youth, complete uncertainty in relation to the future. It is our task to outline a perspective and champion the need for a new party of the working class and youth, fighting for a real future – fighting for socialism!

Postscript:

Considering their big difficulties in creating a breakthrough, the Parti Socialiste leaders are thinking of other possibilities, including sponsoring the idea of a “left primary” that would involve the different left candidates. But this has already been rejected by Mélenchon and Jadot. Going along with that suggestion, a former Hollande justice minister, Christiane Taubira, announced that she is thinking of becoming a candidate. While she is a personality in the identity politics movement, she has never been a socialist, even in the Parti Socialiste sense – never fighting for workers’ demands. Taubira, in fact, will be more of an excuse for the PS to not run in the elections if Hidalgo is still trailing low in the polls – AR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

        

 

 

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