May 20, 1995
Jacques Chirac, the head of the right-wing Gaullist party, the RPR (Rassemblement Pour la Republique), has replaced the Socialist Party's Francois Mitterrand as President of France. Mitterrand had been elected as the candidate of the left 14 years ago. Chirac defeated Lionel Jospin of the Socialist Party by a margin of 52.6% of the votes against 47.3%. Chirac's victory seems to be a strong indication of the change in mood of the majority in the country.
The RPR candidate's success had been predicted for quite some time. Two years ago, a landslide had brought a right-wing majority to the Parliament. The number of Socialist Party deputies had been reduced by almost 80%. And since 1993, while the left in the person of Mitterrand, still controlled the presidency, the government had been in the hands of the conservatives, led by Edouard Balladur, a member of the RPR and a friend of Chirac ... until he began running against him.
So finally, the left was defeated. The electoral results were a kind of pleasant surprise for the Socialist Party which the polls had still predicted would receive less than 40% of the vote. Nonetheless, the left was defeated.
First of all, although Chirac defeated the Socialist Party, his victory can hardly be considered a defeat for socialism. It is difficult to find any traces of socialism in what Mitterrand's presidency did over its 14 years. It's exactly because the Socialist Party didn't fulfill any promises that the voters wanted to vote the S.P. out of office.
With Mitterrand's balance sheet, there was no reason for voters to elect a successor from the same party. Officially France has 3.3 million unemployed people, 12.3% of the active population. This is the highest rate among all the major industrialized countries. And it is 1.4 million more than in 1981, when Mitterrand took office. Moreover, beyond the official statistics, there are 5 million people who, in one way or another, are currently deprived of a real job.
Only a short while after Mitterrand's election, the government, made up of Socialist Party and Communist Party ministers, began an "austerity" program, that is, a freeze on workers' wages. After several years of inflation, this boiled down to a severe wage cut. Since then, real wages have been reduced under every government, both left and right. (From 1986 to 1988, and then again since 1993, it was under a government of the right. The rest of the 14 years, it was under a government of the left.) So the standard of living of the working class, reduced by unemployment and cuts in real wages, has gone down considerably. As a consequence, the profits of the capitalists have increased considerably. Despite the worldwide recession in the early nineties which lasted longer in Europe than in the U.S., profits are bigger than ever.
Finally, there was a series of scandals involving people from every major party, left and right. The S.P., including the entourage around Mitterrand himself, did not escape these scandals. These scandals probably delivered the final blow to the last shreds of trust that people might have had in the left and the S.P. politicians – if any remained after years of a policy directed against the working and poor classes.
This doesn't mean that the voters, especially from the working class, who were deceived and disillusioned by the left, put their confidence in the right. The results of the first round of the presidential election show the opposite. And this first round is more significant in showing something about the real feelings of the voters. The presidential elections in France take place in two rounds. If in the first round, no candidate gets 50% of the votes, there is a run-off between the two highest vote-getters.
In the first round, Chirac came in only second, with 20.8% of the votes, behind the Socialist Party's Jospin, who had 23.3%. Moreover, together, the candidates of the three big parties, Jospin on the left, and Chirac and Balladur on the right, received hardly more than 60% of the votes. With a turnout of 80% of registered voters, more or less the same as in previous presidential elections, less than half of all voters cast a ballot for the candidates of the three parties which have recently been in charge of the government.
The first to benefit from the voters' distrust of the traditional bourgeois parties and politicians was the far right leader, Jean-Marie LePen. He got a little more than 15% of the votes. This was just 0.6% more than what he received in the previous presidential election in 1988. But it was clearly more than his party, the National Front, won in various elections since then. The other notable characteristic is the large part that came from the working class. Certainly some regions, like Alsace, and the most reactionary petty-bourgeoisie, have voted for the right for a long time. Apart from them, his highest percentages, sometimes 25% up to 30% of the votes, came from the poor suburbs of the big cities, Paris, Lille, Marseille, Lyon, etc. These are districts where there is a high percentage of the unemployed, and also a high number of immigrants. Often, these were also districts that until less than 20 years ago had voted for the Communist Party.
Obviously Le Pen's rhetoric struck a chord among those who are demoralized and disappointed by the policy carried out by the left in the government. And they are angered by the worsening situation. LePen proposed a simplistic program to solve such problems like unemployment or crime which plague these poorest districts, playing on existing prejudices: "let's get rid of the immigrants, let's close France's borders, let's cut ourselves off from the rest of Europe." Never mind that these so-called solutions cannot be implemented or, if they were implemented, could not solve anything. For people who are disoriented and feel rejected, to vote for Le Pen is a way of sending a message, of expressing their hatred of the people for whom they voted in the past and who betrayed them once they ran the government.
So far the activity of Le Pen's party has remained essentially within an electoral framework. But during the campaign, LePen's supporters assassinated two immigrants, one in Marseille and one in Paris. These assassinations show that there is always the threat that LePen's organization can go beyond the electoral framework. If the social situation were to worsen, it wouldn't be difficult for the right to recruit troops to form fascist gangs ready to attack immigrants, militant workers or left organizations. This is especially true if unemployment continues to worsen the life of the layer of the poor that voted for LePen. And even if this doesn't happen in the near future, the success of Le Pen is going to weigh on Chirac and his government. In the recent past the leader of the National Front was able to exert pressure. In order to try to attract LePen's electorate, previous governments, including that of the S.P., took reactionary measures against immigrants.
The disillusionment and the discontent of the voters toward the major bourgeois parties has not pushed them just to support the far right. More important for the revolutionaries and hopefully for the future, a part of these voters turned to the far left. Arlette Laguiller, candidate of the Trotskyist organization, Lutte Ouvriere (Workers' Struggle), presented herself openly as a revolutionary communist, and received 5.3 % of the ballots cast, for a total of over 1,600,000 votes.
Certainly, this is not much more than one-third of the votes that went to LePen. But it is significantly more than what the candidates of Lutte Ouvriere or any other far-leftist had received in the past, either in a presidential or any other election. Arlette Laguiller, who has run three times before in the presidential elections, had previously received between 2 and 2.3%. This time she more than doubled those scores.
Besides that, the gap between the number of votes for LO and the number for the Communist Party shrank considerably. Even though the candidate of the former Stalinist party also improved his score compared with the previous presidential election, his vote of 8.7% is far smaller than the 20% or more that the C.P. got before its alliance with the S.P. and Mitterrand caused it to lose a major part of its electorate.
Certainly, Arlette Laguiller won many votes because of who and what she is – a worker, consistent in her ideas. But the program she defended in this campaign was also responsible for her votes. This program revolved essentially around the necessity of an emergency plan for the unemployed and the workers. In this issue of Class Struggle, we give an example of what Arlette Laguiller said, the translation of a brochure used during the campaign.
It is not an electoral program in the ordinary sense of the term. Nobody could be led to believe that Arlette Laguiller had the slightest chance of being elected. But as Arlette Laguiller repeated during her campaign, it is a program for the struggles that the working class needs to wage in the near future. More than one and a half million people voted for this program. This is encouraging for the prospects of the class struggle in France.
Moreover, during the weeks which preceded the election there was a wave of strikes. Many of these strikes were over wages, and some of them put forward a demand that is one of the points of the "emergency plan": a raise of 1,500 francs ($300) per month for everyone. In any case, the workers who went on strike showed that they didn't have any illusions about being able to change things through the ballot. They relied only on their own capacity to fight for their interests and a better life.
Immediately after the first round, Arlette Laguiller and Lutte Ouvriere issued a call to all those who voted for her, or those who looked to the program she defended during the campaign. They proposed to discuss with all those people who want to consider under what conditions a much bigger party than Lutte Ouvriere could be created; a party that will stand firmly for the political defense of the exploited.
Can such a party be created in the next months in France? This will depend on the determination and the willingness of at least a small section of those who voted for Arlette Laguiller and on the capacity of revolutionary militants to contact, regroup and organize them.
One thing is sure: there is a real necessity to build a party on such a class basis. It is necessary to oppose LePen and the potential growth of the far right, especially among the working class or the unemployed. It is necessary also to give a real prospect to the struggles of the workers, in order for them to have a chance to win "the third round", which will not take place in the voting booths, but in the plants and the streets. This is the third round for which Arlette Laguiller campaigned, and for which some strikes already laid the ground work. Many workers know that this "third round" is necessary. And this is exactly what the bourgeoisie and its political flunkeys, especially Chirac, fear.