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French election

John Mullen

May 11, 2012

Hundreds of thousands were on the streets of Paris on the night of Sunday 6th May to celebrate the fall of the monster, and they had every reason to be happy about Sarkozy’s defeat. Champion of tax cuts for the rich and public service cuts for the rest of us, his election campaign moved further right every day in the desperate hope of attracting the votes which went to the fascists in the first round. On the first of May he bussed in supporters from all over France to be filmed in front of the Eiffel tower while he demanded of trade unions “Put down your red flag, and serve France instead.”

So Sarkozy’s sacking is excellent news. If he had been re-elected, his plans for cuts and other attacks would have been accelerated many times over. He has already raised the retirement age and savaged our schools. It would have been open season on Trade union rights and workers’ conditions in general, and privatizations of pared-down public services would have been the order of the day.

In addition, some of the policies proposed by Hollande, first Socialist president for seventeen years, are very welcome – the right to vote for immigrants at local elections, immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, gay marriage, more nursery school places and a women’s rights ministry, to cite some examples. He is also proposing other modest reforms which are in the interests of workers – higher taxes for the rich (up to 75% for the filthy rich) and more social help for parents of school-age children. His programme pledges him not to continue privatization of electricity or the railways, to create 60 000 jobs in education, to limit rent rises, to defend public sector health services and to renegotiate European-wide agreements which impose ever harsher austerity policies. This week millions of immigrants are feeling that the police will be less encouraged to give free rein to their racism, and millions of workers are feeling that their pensions are less under threat. Hollande’s first decrees will reduce his own salary by thirty per cent and restore the right to retire at sixty to part of the workforce.

Reformist parties are contradictory animals: at the same time, Hollande has been wanting to reassure the more right-wing element of his electorate by insisting that there will be no more residence papers for illegal immigrants asking for them than there were under Sarkozy. And the Socialist Party, just like the right wing, has been involved in islamophobic scaremongering of late.

Low Expectations
Expectations on Left governments are massively lower than thirty years ago. No-one thinks that the lives of the 4.3 million unemployed in France, or the standard of living of the 3.3 million minimum wage workers will radically improve because of the new president. Hollande will keep in place the neoliberal reforms of universities and public utilities and will no doubt add more of his own. This is why the Socialist Party campaign didn’t raise much popular enthusiasm, and the main thrust of Left sentiment was “at least we’ll get rid of Sarkozy”.

Exactly how much the new president will do in the workers’ interest will depend on the mobilizations of the working class and its unions. Hollande insists he can improve social justice at the same time as reducing the national debt, but, if and when the financial markets get even greedier, his priority will always be to satisfy them first. At that point, workers’ struggle is what will count, even to make Hollande keep the promises he has made.

It is quite wrong to consider that reformist governments today cannot deliver reforms. They do tend to deliver ever smaller reforms in the workers’ interests and to donate ever more presents from public funds to the bosses. But they still reflect class mobilization and can be forced to hand over the goods. Ten years ago in France, a Socialist Party government introduced the thirty-five hour week, and brought in healthcare coverage for the poorest in society for the first time. Reforms are possible. This is why The Economist magazine, outspoken voice of neoliberal supporters of market dictatorship, is worried. “Mr. Hollande evinces a deep anti-business attitude”, they write, “nothing [in his past] suggests that Mr. Hollande is brave enough to rip up his manifesto and change France.” The Economist does not trust Hollande to decisively fight for the bosses. But they go on to outline what they think the future of France could be made of: “The response of the markets could be brutal.” “Do not conclude”, they squeal, “that Mr Hollande will impose tough reforms and demanding sacrifices on an unwilling public without having his own arm twisted” by the bond markets. In a vain attempt to “reassure the markets” it has been Left governments in Spain and in Greece who have introduced vicious austerity programmes. If push comes to shove, Hollande will be prepared to do the same. This is why the key element today is the building of working class confidence, organization and consciousness.

Polarization to the Left and to the Right
The deepening social crisis has led to a political polarization which is the essential feature of French politics today and which determines what anticapitalist activists need to be doing. Four million people voted for the Left Front, headed up by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Their dynamic campaign (several meetings of over a hundred thousand) put radical class demands back in the forefront of politics, and made a priority of denouncing the fascist Front National. Mélenchon called for the imposition of a ceiling on boss’s salaries, the return of retirement at sixty for all and a large increase in the minimum wage. “Let’s put finance back in its place” was one of the slogans, and many thousands of trade unionists and former left activists of all sorts joined in a tremendously exciting campaign.

During the two weeks between the first and second round, Mélenchon and his activists pulled out all the stops to make sure that Sarkozy suffered the heaviest defeat possible. Mélenchon in his meetings called for a new June 1936 (when two million strikers won important victories, including paid holidays for all), and laughed at the idea of joining a Socialist Party government as a minister. “If the Socialist party is saying of its programme ‘take it or leave it’, we’ll leave it!” he declared. The Front de Gauche, set up as an electoral coalition between the Communist Party, the Left Party and some smaller revolutionary or Red/Green groups seems to be becoming a new activist force in its own right. This is an excellent thing, in particular if antifascist campaigning is brought to the fore in a way it hasn’t been for the last ten years.

Not that the Left Front doesn’t have faults. Mélenchon’s calls for “a citizens’ revolution” and “a revolution through the ballot box” suffer of course from the difficulty that the world doesn’t work like that. But it is in the struggle that this can be clarified. It would be wonderful if there were millions of revolutionaries in France today, but there aren’t. What is new now is that there are millions of people who believe radical reform is possible to advance workers’ living conditions and standard of living, and who are prepared to fight for it.

The Left Front is also not good on islamophobia. Mélenchon loudly denounced the NPA a few years back, when one of the NPA electoral candidates was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Things may be getting better – he denounced the victimisation of Muslims several times during the campaign, and another leader of the Left Front condemned the instrumentalisation of feminist ideas by islamophobes. Still, a major re-think on anti-Muslim racism is required.

There is everything to fight for in the Left Front. One of its biggest member parties, the Communist Party, has frequently been much more interested in running local and regional councils, often passing on government austerity measures, than in class struggle. And Mélenchon’s left nationalist nonsense is a problem. There is no guarantee that the class struggle current will maintain the upper hand, and there may even be pressures for the Left Front to join a Socialist Party government after the legislatives. But the rise of this dynamic movement is the best opportunity for decades to offer the radical fighting Left alternative which is so sorely needed.

Revamped fascists
The other side of the polarization is the far right. The revamped fascist National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, got 6.4 million votes in the first round, the highest score in their history. On the ground, it has not yet been able to rebuild an activist organization as strong as the one it had in the late 1990s before antifascist activity put it under so much pressure that it split in two. But it is now recruiting again and there is no time to waste: a national, very broadly based, active antifascist organization is urgently needed. In the last thirty years the biggest antiracist and antifascist organizations in France have tended to fall into one or other mistake – either very broad but purely moralistic antiracist organizations which don’t try to stop the fascists organizing, or smallish networks based on purely physical opposition to the fascists or on “red antifascism,” which you can only join in if you have read half of Trotsky’s writings.

Anticapitalists gotta relate!
The main task for revolutionaries in France today is how to relate to the activists of the Left Front. One option is to ignore them because some of their ideas are confused or involve illusions in the possibilities of constitutional action. This is a disastrous mistake. What is needed is to get stuck in alongside them, not just in individual campaigns and strikes but also in a political and electoral bloc which, independent from the Socialist Party, fights to build class combativity and consciousness. Mélenchon has said he would welcome a broadening of the Left Front to include revolutionary organizations who want to join the alliance while maintaining their autonomy.

The strongest openly revolutionary organization in France, the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), which is always in there doing the legwork on rank and file campaigns and strikes, had a dreadful presidential campaign, concentrating on the fact that the candidate was “not a professional politician” but a manual worker, and having nothing specific to say to the millions attracted by the Left Front. When Mélenchon had over a hundred thousand at a meeting, there were no NPA leafletters or paper-sellers to be seen! But in a crisis as deep as today’s, workers under attack don’t care whether the candidate is straight from the factory or not! The NPA came over as sectarian, and out-of-touch, and its score dropped from 4% in the previous presidentials to 1.15% this time round. Once the first round results came through, the party made a call to vote against Sarkozy in the second round, and then seemed to close down for holidays. Meanwhile the Left Front was holding mass meetings calling for the heaviest possible defeat of Sarkozy, and for the building of the resistance, reminding Hollande of some of his positive promises, and of the Left Front’s demands which have to be fought for, against Hollande if necessary. The NPA paper simply commented that the success of the Left Front “can be seen as something positive, but we must bear in mind the limits of Mélenchon’s programme.”

As a result of all this, the NPA’s crisis has deepened and a sizeable minority current within it, the Gauche Anticapitaliste, will no doubt leave the NPA and join the Left Front, while maintaining political independence. This newish grouping will be heterogeneous, but promising, I think.

There will be legislative elections in June which the Socialist Party is most likely to win. The new Socialist government will come under attack at once from the financial markets, and will be immediately put to the test. The Left Front will be put to the test too: we will see if it can take a major role in organizing resistance to Socialist party austerity policies. These are exciting times: revolutionaries must be in the thick of the reconstruction, fighting, organizing and explaining, and not heckling from the sidelines.

John Mullen
John Mullen is a member of the NPA in the Paris area.
His blog is here:

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