A French Left Revival from the Ashes?

— Patrick Le Trehondat and Patrick Silberstein

[The following article was written prior to the first round of the French legislative election on June 9. As the authors predicted, President Jacques Chirac's party won decisively and is expected to take a substantial parliamentary majority, setting the table for a new offensive against working class interests and social programs in the name of “modernization. --The Editors]

THE APRIL 21 first round of the French presidential election has upset the whole political and constitutional scene of the Fifth Republic.

The main performer of this play was the National Front (NF), Jean-Marie Le Pen's fascist-type party. In winning the ticket to compete in the second round, the far right upset a political system in which the governmental parties (right and left) were no longer seen as presenting clearly opposing programs.

The coming years will certainly be ones of political, social and institutional crisis in France. As we wrote in a previous article (ATC 97, March-April 2002), the NF's progress was a creeping, if underground, success.

Despite its 1997 split, the far right was still growing on the soil of three main crises of French society: social crisis (unemployment, underemployment), crisis of the political system, and crisis of the French nation-state strongly hit by capitalist globalization.

We can say that the low visibility of the NF during the previous few years was connected with its split, but was due mainly to the upturn of social struggle at a time when unemployment rates were decreasing, and strikes and movements were occurring.

During the last few months, the far right has grown in relation with the return of increasing unemployment, with many plants closing, abandoned by the Socialist Party-led “plural left” government. The world situation helped also: the aftermath of September 11 and the Middle East war favored anti-immigrant and anti-semitic campaigns as well as campaigns on internal security directly aimed against inhabitants of the underclass, mainly immigrants and “second-generation immigrants.”

Meanwhile globalization and the neoliberal buildup of the European Union, culminating with the common currency, have strongly shaken the popular classes as well as sectors of the petty-bourgeoisie, e.g. small farmers who have voted a lot for Le Pen for the first time.

As we can see generally in Europe, capitalist policies produce social disintegration and decay. These intersect with the failure of the various social-democratic policies as well as the lack of true left alternatives. This situation has opened the way for either the far right or traditional right, as evidenced in Italy, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and France (where voters ultimately had to choose between Le Pen and the traditional rightist incumbent Jacques Chirac).

In all these countries, variations of neofascism or national-populism become a true part of the reorganizing process of the traditional right wing.

The Future Left

However bankrupt the “plural left” policy was, the first-round defeat of Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin can be considered a tremendous defeat for the labor movement. As we have previously written, the 1997 election of the Jospin government was the political response to this strike, and this government has proven to be a failure.

The new Chirac government will be able to restart an openly neoliberal offensive -- first attempted in 1995 and stopped then by the general strike.

In the coming months, however, the most surprising thing could be that after this important defeat of the parliamentary left, a door seems open for a new beginning.

This will not come from a Socialist Party in a deep leadership crisis (after Jospin's withdrawal from political life) and unable to respond in the long term to the demands of its traditional social base. This is a Socialist Party hit by defeat, by a “Blairist” line and with further difficulties in finding any allies on its left.

Nor will it emerge from a demoralized Communist Party, which is torn between four “possibilities”: 1) to go on being a satellite of the SP; 2) to melt inside a wide “new” neo-social democracy; 3) to dream of going back to the golden age of French Stalinism; 4) to get involved in rebuilding a left perspective (a “radical pole”) with the revolutionary and alternative left and sectors of the social movements.

The left's revival could come from the new generations, awakened by the tremendous anti-fascist mobilizations following April 21. They are also involved in the anti-globalization movement, for example, and are in search of a political alternative to the governmental left.

Recent calls from the LCR (Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, the French Fourth International organization) as well as from independent sectors of the radical left and from sectors of the Communist Party to form a new “political gathering” of all militants who want to fight for an anticapitalist, ecological and feminist program could be the first key to unlock a new hope after the last decades of defeats -- even if the dark clouds of April 21 are still threatening.

Political Earthquake

In the first round, gaining 903,901 votes from previous results (growing by 3% of the total vote), the fascist pole -- divided into the National Front and MNR, another organization coming from a split of NF -- obtained the same number of votes as the Socialist and Communist parties combined.

On the night of April 21 the Socialist Party had lost 35% of its vote compared with the 1995 election, the Communist Party nearly 65%. The most important sector of former voters for these two parties choose to abstain or to vote for the three left-wing candidates.

On the far left, Lutte Ouvriere ran its famous leader Arlette Laguillier and received 5.72% of the total. This organization, widely viewed as sectarian in their relations with other revolutionary groups, has achieved a stable base of voters who are attracted by its populist style, but increased its 1995 showing by only 15,000 votes.

The LCR for the first time since 1974 had its own presence in a presidential election, having decided (after an unsuccessful try to form a front with Lutte Ouvriere) to present its candidate, 28-year-old postal worker Olivier Bezancenot. He won 4.25% of the vote, emerging as the real surprise of this election.

Campaigning around widely discussed major social themes, Bezancenot as an activist of the anti-globalization movement (he was present at the first and second world social forums of Porto Alegre) has been the fresh and dynamic face of an anticapitalist point of view.

The Green Party, which was a member of the SP-led government of Lionel Jospin, didn't suffer the same damage as the Socialist and Communist parties and won 500,000 votes with 5.25%. In all, the far-left and Green vote totalled 15.7%.

It could appear clear that the political balance sheet of government was the first cause of the electoral damage incurred by the left. But while this cause must not be ignored, the political earthquake deeply affects all established parties.

The right, divided among six candidates, lost 2,600,000 votes (20% of its previous total). In this situation, while the major parties (left and right) decreased in influence, the fascist pole took second place to win its entry to the second round.

In politics the quantity could become quality, and with a gain of 0.5% of votes, the National Front by itself won a central won a central place. For millions of people, the impossible was now seen as possible, the National Front could be a candidate for power.

Confronting this threat, each party chose a response corresponding to its political conception. Lutte Ouvriere decided to abstain on the second round; the LCR decided to mobilize in the streets and to be present with the youth who massively demonstrated day after day against the National Front.

These actions culminated on May 1, with nearly two million people in the streets. The LCR also called to defeat the fascist threat in the streets and with the ballot box, saying implicitly to vote in favor of Chirac against Le Pen.

The left, shocked by the first round, followed the youth in the street; and even against the will of Jospin government ministers joined the May 1 demonstrations. The Communist Party and Greens reacted strongly against the National Front in the streets and called for a vote to Chirac. Many activists took the spirit of their street actions into the ballot box, sporting clothespins on their nose or promoting the slogan “Vote for the crook against the fascist.”

The anti-fascist mood after April 21st was astonishing in its political creativity: neighbors organized going to the different rallies together; people displayed anti-fascist banners (“No pasaran”) in their windows; the walls of the cities were postered with thousands of anonymous posters and stickers warning about the fascist danger -- even cars were posted with anti-fascist stickers.

Young immigrants, the suburbans, the musicians, the Gay and Lesbian Asssociation, the AIDS Help Association and theatre groups were in the streets. The Partisan song from the anti-nazi era was reorchestrated in rap music. The web was full of jokes, cartoons, slogans, ideas, proposals, chats and discussions.

Faced with the hundreds of ideas for action on “how” to vote against Le Pen by choosing the lesser evil while openly demonstrating the disgusting choice, the Conseil d'Etat -- the institution that issues the constitutional regulations -- put out a statement reminding voters that it is strictly forbidden to wear distinctive signs inside the halls where balloting takes place: It is forbidden to vote while wearing plastic gloves or a clothes pin, with Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, dressed in the protective uniform worn in nuclear plants, etc.

The “citizen mobilization” was particularly strong among the lycéens (students from 15-18).

Even though reelected with 82% of the votes, Jacques Chirac (who only got 19.88% in the first round, the lowest rate since the beginning of the Gaullist republic in 1958) has received a weak mandate as president. A new stage has opened in the French crisis.

ATC 99, July-August 2002