Jun 28, 2002
The following is the translation of excerpts from two articles written by our comrades in the French Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière (LO). These articles originally appeared in LO's magazine, Lutte de Classe, issues number 65 and 66. In these articles, LO discusses the recent French presidential and parliamentary elections, the significance of the results, and the positions that LO took.
After four rounds of elections this spring two for the presidential and two for the parliamentary elections the political landscape in France has been completely changed in parliament and in the government.
At the beginning of the year, the left held the majority in parliament, and President Jacques Chirac's reelection seemed unlikely. Today, Chirac, head of the main right-wing party, the UMP (Union for a Presidential Majority), has settled himself in for a new five year term as president of the republic, elected by a record number of votes. The left wing's presidential candidates, Lionel Jospin for the Socialist Party and Robert Hue for the Communist Party, received four million fewer votes than in the previous presidential election. As for the electoral results for the National Assembly, the right wing won 399 seats and the left only 178. Chirac's party, the UMP, has a majority of seats all by itself.
For the first time in more than 20 years, the right wing has all the governmental powers concentrated in its hands. Nonetheless, it cannot be said that this electoral shift to the right reflects major changes in public opinion in favor of the parliamentary right, and even less does it reflect a political upheaval. Let us emphasize that, while Chirac may have received an overwhelming majority of votes in the second round of the election, in the first round he received less than 20% of the votes. This is less than in 1995 when another candidate from his party, Edouard Balladur, was running against him.
In the first round of the parliamentary elections, the parliamentary right received 11,259,909 votes, improving their score from the 9,160,402 votes that they received in May 1997 after Chirac had dismissed the assembly but remaining roughly at the same level they had in 1993, when they received 11,192,828 votes.
The tempest in the political teapot does not come from political jolts in the country. Given the growing disgust for the political circus, left-wing voters simply stayed away from the polls, sickened by the cowardice of the left-wing leaders.
Once again the Socialist Party (S.P.) carried out a policy dictated by the ruling milieus of the bourgeoisie. This was nothing new. In the past, each time the Socialist Party succeeded in gaining control of the government, usually after a more or less long period of right wing rule, it betrayed the expectations or illusions of its electorate. The S.P. did this all at once during the Algerian War when Guy Mollet came to power, and it did so little by little, day after day, with Jospin and his predecessors during Mitterrand's terms.
This time, under the name, "the plural left," the Socialist Party formed a coalition government with the Green Party and, more importantly, the Communist Party. The Socialist Party needed the C.P. for political reasons, in order to gain support from the workers. In the parliament, the S.P. needed the votes of the C.P. deputies since the S.P. didn't have a majority by itself.
For five years, the C.P. was a reliable supporter of government policy. Its representatives didn't try to use the party's strategic position in the assembly to force the government to at least back off from its most anti-labor actions. So, it was no surprise that the C.P. paid a heavy price at the polls for being a part of the government.
On all major issues, Jospin's government implemented pro-boss measures, in line with the policies defined by its right-wing predecessors. The left-wing government continued and stepped up the right-wing's privatizations. While the left-wing government cut corporate taxes, income taxes of the upper classes, and the employers' share of social security taxes, it increased withholding taxes that workers pay for Social Security and other benefits. Without hesitation, Jospin carried out Balladur's earlier decision to increase the number of years workers had to work to get a full pension in private companies, and he didn't hide his desire to impose the same measures on workers at state-owned companies.
Like its right-wing predecessor, the left-wing government gave the bosses a free rein to carry out lay-offs. Even a measure presented as being left-wing, such as the 35-hour work week, was structured to benefit the bosses, since it opened up the possibility to allow more flexible working hours and to do away with a certain number of workers' benefits and rights. A brake was kept on wage increases. The bosses continued to replace more secure, full-time jobs with temporary and part-time jobs. This meant a drop in how much was paid to the workforce in relation to corporate revenues, and led to greater impoverishment of the working class.
From this government and its ministers who claimed to be "socialist" or even "communist," many workers received only attacks. These ministers and "left-wing" leaders seemed as disconnected from the working population, especially the unemployed and the millions of men and women forced to survive on 3,000 to 4,000 francs per month [$420 to $570 per month], as were the right-wing ministers and dignitaries a short time before. At least the right-wingers did not hide the fact that they served the rich!
The situation was even more difficult for the Communist Party. The Communist ministers played a minor role in the government. They were certainly not the ones who drew up the government's policies. But, it fell to the C.P. and its activists to carry out the thankless task of defending Jospin's policies among those who suffered the most from them, the working masses. In exchange for four minor ministerial positions, the Communist Party leadership put their activists in the situation that they had to defend pro-business policies inside the working class. So, it is not a surprise that the C.P. lost the most electoral influence during the five years that the Jospin government held power.
Obsequiously serving the bosses' interests while at the head of the government, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party cut themselves off from their electorate. The remaining C.P. activists found it more and more difficult to identify with those "minister comrades" who played up to the bosses and who satisfied themselves with the scraps that were thrown their way. Not only were the activists betrayed by their party's policies, but they had to defend and justify these policies in their milieu. This was an impossible task! In how many workplaces did workers greet Jospin's downfall with the words, "He certainly got what he deserved!"
Compared to the last presidential election, Jospin lost two-and-a-half million votes and Robert Hue lost one-and-a- half million votes in the first round. Even with this loss, Jospin could have made it to the second round, had it not been for the division between the different parties inside the "plural majority," as well as the candidacy of Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who had earlier resigned as a minister in the Jospin government. Although these candidates did not campaign in exactly the same way, they had been part and parcel of the same government policy over the previous five years. These parties all put up their own candidates in the presidential campaign as a way to stake out winnable constituencies for themselves in the parliamentary elections to come. The plural left was far too self confident. It was convinced that it could count on the support and votes of the laboring classes. So, the plural left presented itself divided in an election which all of its parties considered to be a mere formality.
All this carefree arrogance vanished on the night of the first round when Jean-Marie Le Pen nosed out Jospin to make it to the second round run-off against Chirac, who himself did not score a tremendous success.
Le Pen, the far-right demagogue, did not reach this unexpected position through a massive increase of far-right votes. Certainly, the 4,840,713 votes that he received in 2002 are the expression of a substantial electoral influence, which in itself is a real political problem, especially since a part of those votes come from workers' milieus. But his vote total in 2002 is not much more than what he received in 1995 4,571,138 votes when nobody dared pretend that he was "on the road to power."
In France, a conservative, reactionary tendency has always existed. From time to time, it has developed into a far-right wing political tendency. Part of the petty bourgeoisie happily rallies around the "work, family, country" banner as soon as it is unfurled. Before Lepenism was in bloom, there were other movements, like that of Robert Poujade or Charles de Gaulle's RPF in the 1950s. These earlier movements used rhetoric similar to Le Pen's and their methods were even more fascistic than those of the National Front.
More dangerous is the spreading influence of the far right in working class areas. Many of those living in public housing projects or downtrodden working class areas, who are on welfare or who are drawing long-term unemployment benefits, are pushed by desperation or a lack of individual or political perspectives to support Le Pen. And in large workplaces there exists a part of the workforce relatively small and not conscious but nonetheless there which feels that its only way to cast a protest vote is by voting for a reactionary millionaire.
This is one of the most serious consequences of the decline of the political working class movement, of the demoralization of the C.P.'s activists and its members, their disgust and disorientation with their party's leaders, who have abandoned their base and wholeheartedly thrown themselves into the defense of government policies each time that the Socialists have been in the government during the past 20 years.
The fact that Le Pen made it to the second round was spectacular and likely to upset public opinion. But then the Socialist Party, along with all the parties of the "plural left" and even some of the far left, turned this unexpected and spectacular political event into a political upheaval, an earthquake, a major threat. They brandished the possibility that Le Pen would be elected president and even that fascism would come to power.
In order to avoid having to answer to their militants or their voters for their past policies, the leaders of the left created a gross lie. With this trick, the very same people who carried out a policy that demoralized the working class to the point that an unconscious fringe would join with the traditional far-right voters, turned themselves into gallant fighters against Le Pen and the far right. The dramatic balance sheet of the past five years was swept under the carpet. Instead, they declared that stopping Le Pen from becoming president was a big emergency! Of course, in order to beat Chirac, who combined with the other right-wing candidates, had won 9.6 million votes, Le Pen would have had to win 5 millions more votes within two weeks. This was impossible and everybody knew it. But over the next two weeks, everybody imposed the Chirac vote on public opinion. And this is how Chirac, this right- wing politician, who was involved in a series of scandals, who is an open friend of big business, the leader of a political camp which is often hard to distinguish from the far right suddenly became known as the "final rampart" against the threat of the far right.
The tone was set immediately after the first round. It was almost as if, with Le Pen in the second round, Hitler was lying in ambush behind the door. On the evening of their defeat, Strauss-Kahn, Aubry and other Socialist Party divas announced that because of the National Front and Le Pen, the situation was so dangerous and threatening that they would vote for Chirac in the second round, either whole or half-heartedly. The Communist Party leaders immediately rallied to the same position, as did the Green Party and the Left Radicals.
The media relayed and amplified these lies. It presented the spectacle of the entire left-wing groveling before Chirac as if he expressed great democratic and republican virtues. Even a far-left group, the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) jumped on the bandwagon.
The leaders of the S.P. and the C.P. did not just support Chirac. They actively campaigned for him and made their respective troops do the same. The C.P. forced the officials of their party to convince people beginning with many of their own reluctant activists of the importance of voting for Chirac "to block the road to Le Pen." Never before did so many Socialist leaders, ministers included, participate in rallies. This unrestrained activism had two advantages. It gave work to activists or members who were shocked and demoralized by the results. And it prevented them from turning things over in their minds.
The S.P. dignitaries quickly shed their loser's outfits and dressed up as the white knights of the anti-fascist battle. It was anti-fascist because the campaign message of "blocking the road to Le Pen at the ballot box," in other words, preventing him from becoming president, quickly mutated into presenting Le Pen as the incarnation of fascism in France. Although he is a far right winger, fascism is not on the agenda today and certainly there are no fascist assault troops storming party and union offices on the road to power! But no one on the left or the far left who supported Chirac dared to discuss this problem. Their words hid reality.
For various reasons, the entire political arena benefitted from this campaign.
The main beneficiary, Chirac, quickly took advantage of the situation. He did not have to bother playing the "republican" leader. The left-wing big-wigs did the job for him. He did not even have to campaign, since the left-wing leaders campaigned for him at great length. Instead, he started to campaign for the right-wing in the parliamentary elections, and asserted himself as the right-winger he really is. He made veiled references in favor of the far right-wing. He took on some of their issues and appeared in public with politicians who had previously been involved with the far right. He did not even have to go out of his way to do this. Even before the first round, Chirac had made "law and order" the center of his campaign. A few remarks concerning immigration sufficed to complete Chirac's own Lepenist arguments.
While the right-wing rejoiced and started to hand out ministerial posts, the left-wing leaders delighted in debasing themselves. Each did this in their own way. Mr. and Mrs. ex-Socialist minister ran from TV interviews to newspaper interviews, wearing themselves out explaining why people had to vote for Chirac. The C.P. leaders were the best representatives of the Chirac vote among the workers and the working class, running from one demonstration to another. The Green Party seriously discussed whether or not one should wear gloves or a clothes pin on the nose when voting, combining stupidity with contempt.
They all proudly proclaimed their choice, transforming their own humiliation into a republican and democratic virtue. From time to time, they complained that the right-wing was not grateful enough for their sacrifice.
The result of this was visible at the demonstrations on April 26th and May 1st in Paris. On April 26th, an anti-Le Pen demonstration was virtually transformed into an enormous pro-Chirac rally. May Day was the most significant, despite the large number of demonstrators 400,000 in Paris or perhaps due to this. This demonstration had no link whatsoever with May Day, with what it has represented since the nineteenth century. A few red flags were drowned in a multitude of French flags.
It was necessary to rescue the French flag from being monopolized by Le Pen so they said! This flag, created during the French Revolution, had been sullied over two centuries of imperialist wars, and by all the colonial atrocities carried out by French imperialism. One had to look hard to spot the few banners or posters representing the working class movement or even its present-day demands.
The leaders of the parliamentary left and the leaders of the unions transformed the May Day demonstration into an anti-Le Pen one, and that became a rally for the election of Chirac. The ministers and dignitaries of the left-wing parliamentary parties, so incredibly disowned in the first round of the elections, were present alongside the young people who had come to protest against Le Pen. A disgusting show was put on by the ministers who, within their corteges or on the television, took it upon themselves to give moralistic lessons about "anti-fascism" to the young people.
It was not merely nauseating, coming from men who, by prostrating themselves before the bosses, had so greatly contributed to unemployment and impoverishment, thus leading to an increase in despair and the influence of Le Pen in working class neighborhoods. By making the demonstrators believe that this was the way to fight fascism, these politicians also jeopardized the future.
The caricature of a battle against the caricature of fascism ended, as was foreseeable, with a caricature of a victory on Sunday, May 5th. The newspapers were jubilant with the results. Their front page headlines announced: "France Has Won" (Le Parisien), "82% for the Republic, phew !" (Liberation), "The Immense Victory" (Le Figaro), or simply "Thank You" (France-Soir). Thank you Chirac, of course!
The die was cast. During the same evening that the Chirac camp celebrated its victory at Place de la Republique, the "left of the left-wing" including socialist left-wing activists, the Green Party and the LCR had a rally at the Bastille, washing their hands of what they had done. But their call for Chirac's resignation, on the very day they had helped to elect him, meant adopting the same attitude as the left-wing leadership which hoped to cleanse itself, after having voted for Chirac, before rushing to the parliamentary elections two weeks later.
But the leaders, ministers, representatives of the left had dug their own graves for the parliamentary elections. Why should people vote for them rather than for pro-Chirac candidates since they themselves called for the Chirac vote? All the more so since they presented Chirac as a protection against the far right danger.
It isn't so important that the left dignitaries so efficiently destroyed what was left of their credibility and that they paid for it by losing their elected posts. Much more serious was their pretense that the little political games the left played had something to do with the fight against fascism.
The far right which supposedly was "on the road to power" on April 21 got only 12% of the votes one month later and, given how the French electoral system is set up, had no representatives elected. Was it because the voters changed their mind a lot? Was it a miracle that the dramatic flood that had almost drowned France suddenly ebbed away in the same month? Or was all this due to the mobilizations around May Day as the LCR dares claim? Or much more simply, didn't the balloon that the Socialist Party and the media inflated suddenly deflate?
The far-right demagogue had certainly not been on the road to power. But if tomorrow the economic situation worsens and helps put the far right in that situation, how will the working class confront it? Certainly not by counting on the right wing parties! The leaders of the left sowed these illusions, but the laboring classes might be the ones who reap the bitter fruits!
After the second round of the presidential election, the die was cast for the parliamentary elections, all the more so since the left did nothing to mobilize the working class voters again. The Socialist Party, responsible to their bourgeois masters up to the very end, did not want to promise anything that could raise expectations and foster new hopes in the working population. Rather, after having lost the presidential election, the S.P. chose to lose the parliamentary elections as well.
In the first round of the parliamentary elections, the turnout was the lowest in that type of election in more than a century. In the second electoral round the following week, this record was then surpassed. Working class voters, that is, a high proportion of left-wing voters, stayed home in droves, leading to the defeat of many plural-left dignitaries.
In the first round of the presidential election, the candidates more or less claiming to stand on the far left received the following votes: Arlette Laguiller [Lutte Ouvrière] 1,630,045, Olivier Besancenot [Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire] 1,210,562 and Daniel Gluckstein [Parti des Travailleurs] 132,686.
Arlette Laguiller's electoral result, slightly superior to that of 1995, was essentially the same. This confirmed a stable voting base that expressed itself under different circumstances in other elections, such as the regional and municipal elections. These voters allowed LO to have some comrades elected to seats in some regional councils and municipalities. LO retained this electorate in the European elections, but it did not increase despite the agreement to run with the LCR.
The LCR ran Olivier Besancenot, after 20 years when the organization did not put up a candidate in this kind of election. The fact that Besancenot received a vote comparable to Arlette Laguiller was not really a surprise, since an electorate sharing the LCR's political approach exists. This could already be seen in the regional and municipal elections, even though these voters could not express themselves in previous presidential elections, since for a long time the LCR did not want to take the risk of failing.
The fact that these three candidates won a total of more than 10% of the vote led a number of far-left commentators to conclude that the far left could become a political force able to weigh on events, if only it would unite and even unify. Let us first make an important point: electoral results do not mean a group has a presence everywhere in the country, nor militants everywhere. But the militants are the ones who count when it comes to acting upon events, on a daily basis.
Even the hypothesis that if LO and the LCR ran a candidate together they could have added their votes together is debatable. But even if this had been the case, the problem would still have been: on the basis of what policy would this candidate win electoral influence?
For many voters, Arlette Laguiller's and Olivier Besancenot's speeches probably sounded similar. But they were not similar enough for the voters to avoid making a choice. Maybe except for a tiny minority, the choice was not very conscious. Maybe it was made in relation to certain stands taken by the candidates, or their behavior, or according to the preoccupations and sensitivity of the voters.
For example, our respective stands on the vote for Chirac in the second round of the presidential election were greeted by quite a different response in the petty bourgeois milieus that are the traditional electoral base of the Socialist Party than in the working class milieus. And within the working class, the reaction in the milieu influenced by the unions was very different than that from the rank and file workers.
In fact, the policies advocated by Arlette Laguiller and by Olivier Besancenot are not the same. The political difference was clearly expressed between the two rounds of the presidential election. Lutte Ouvrière refused to lend any credibility to the Socialist Party's campaign of lies. In order not to be cut off from milieus influenced by the Socialist Party, the LCR chose to align itself with and join the current that intended to vote for Chirac.
If we had made an alliance for the parliamentary elections, as the LCR had proposed before the presidential elections, it would have been impossible to run together in the parliamentary elections, given our different positions on Chirac. The difference between our two positions is significant. The LCR aligned itself behind the Socialist and the Communist Parties. The LCR not only called for a vote for Chirac in a hypocritical way it also participated in the Socialist Party's campaign of lies. It called "to block Le Pen's road at the ballot box." Adding "and in the streets" did not make their stand any better. Nor did the fact that they went on a demonstration the very night of the election "to wash their hands."
This divergence was serious, but limited. But it does reveal a deeper, more basic difference. Lutte Ouvrière's goal is to rebuild a true revolutionary workers' party in this country, a new communist party. The LCR's goal is a recomposition of the left, or "100% on the left," of the present governmental left which is discredited. Those two aims are not only different, they are incompatible.
It is out of the question that Lutte Ouvrière should renounce what it stands for the rebirth of a communist workers's party in France drowning in a different perspective which may have larger ambitions but would have very different results. To do this could give birth, if it were to succeed, to a new PSU [Unified Socialist Party] slightly to the left of the Socialist Party.
This is our main divergence not only with the LCR, but with all such currents emanating from the Trotskyist movement. To rebuild a revolutionary party, we need to be able to go against the stream, to resist pressures coming from other social classes, to put forward the necessary policy for the working class under all circumstances, even if it leads to isolation and even if it is momentarily unpopular. The LCR is constantly looking for easy ways, short cuts, alliances. It is thus incapable of going against the stream and being faithful to its own policy and ideas. To stress that point does not mean to be moralistic but to be political. The milieu that is able to understand and approve of the LCR's juggling, calling for a vote for Chirac without saying it openly, is not the same milieu as the one that needs a clear cut-policy easy to understand, speaking the truth in an atmosphere of lies.
The results of the presidential election were nothing to get excited about, especially since the parliamentary elections soon dampened any excessive enthusiasm.
In the parliamentary elections, the LCR as well as Lutte Ouvrière got noticeably fewer votes than in the presidential election. LO also received somewhat fewer votes than in previous parliamentary elections. In a situation in which the left was in overall decline, the voters for LO did not mobilize more than the other left-wing voters.
On the basis of the weak results that both organizations got, the LCR did a little better. Up to now the two organizations are too small, do not have enough militant capacity to be able to overcome by sheer will and activity an overall trend toward the right, as well as the deep discouragement among working class voters.
Of course we would have preferred better results in the presidential and parliamentary elections, not because we are preoccupied by elections and not even because a good result would have revealed that the workers are responding more to our policy. But if we had received better results in the presidential election that were witnessed by everybody and confirmed in the parliamentary elections, that would have given greater credibility to our organization, our choices and our activity. That would have facilitated the task of building the revolutionary communist party which is lacking, although this task involves many other things besides participating in the elections.
This only shows that we still have a long way to go to win over sympathizers and militants, to have a greater presence throughout the country, to gain a stable influence upon a significant part of the working population both in the plants and in the working class areas in order to create a party, a party able to permanently weigh on the political scene and to represent the interests of the working class there.