The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

France:
After the Presidential and Municipal Elections

Oct 31, 1995

The following article is a translation of an article written by our comrades, the French Trotskyist organization, Lutte Ouvrière. It appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of their political journal, Lutte de Classe.

On the 17th of May, François Mitterrand handed over the Elysée Palace to his successor, Jacques Chirac. After 14 years with a socialist president, France today is headed by a man of the right. But the change was hardly abrupt. The socialist president and the right-wing parliamentary majority and government had already "cohabited" for the last two years, as well as during the earlier 1986-1988 period. Moreover, the policy conducted by left-wing and right-wing governments has been so similar for so long that the change in presidents means virtually no break in continuity.

Neither did this transition from a long socialist presidency to a right-wing one indicate a sudden shift of opinion in the electorate. Mitterrand's victory in 1981 did not result from a swing to the left in the electorate, but from the division of the right: many Gaullist voters preferred to vote for Mitterrand in the second round rather than allow Giscard to stay in the Elysée for another seven years.

The issue is not so much that the right became significantly stronger; but that the Socialist Party, which had been in government for a total of ten years out of the fourteen years of Mitterrand's presidency, had become completely discredited with its own electorate. The parliament produced by the elections of 1993 – in which the right had a bigger majority than at almost any time in French history – was less an indication of a powerful swing to the right than an expression of the disappointment, even disgust which the Socialist Party inspired in its own voters. During its long years at the head of the government, it conducted a right-wing policy, cringing in the face of the bosses. It was incapable not only of answering the crucial problems facing workers and society as a whole, particularly unemployment, but even of keeping the most insipid of its promises.

Nobody doubted that the right was going to win back the presidency. This feeling probably contributed, in fact, to the comic episode of the duel between Chirac and Balladur, i.e. between two leaders of the same RPR party. In the end the right had a narrow escape. Not that this new internal feuding was ever likely to cause another electoral defeat (even Jospin stated afterwards that he had never believed he could win). But if the two right wing candidates (two RPR candidates, to be precise) had faced each other in the second round, this might have completely split the party. The fact that the first round eliminated Balladur suited Chirac fine; what Chirac didn't appreciate was that he himself only came in second.

Jospin, the SP candidate, came in first in the first round. In the second round, he came in much closer than the early polls would have suggested, with 47.37% compared to Chirac's 52.63%. Two years after its overwhelming electoral collapse in the general election, the Socialist Party came off better than it could have hoped.

The same thing was true of the municipal elections, which immediately followed the presidential election. There was no "Chirac factor" causing a right-wing landslide in municipal councils. Admittedly Marseilles fell to a right-wing mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, after having been run by the socialists since 1953. But in Paris, which Chirac counted as his stronghold, the Socialists won six of its twenty wards, having previously held none.

Other than these movements from the so-called "classic" right to the "traditional" left, and vice versa, the electorate seems to have remained very stable. Although there were significant political changes, they did not come from the respective scores of the major parties currently alternating in power.

For the French Communist Party, this year's elections did not mark any major changes either. The rapid decline in the CP's electorate had already taken place earlier, at the beginning of the eighties, when the score of the CP fell from over 20% in 1979 to 15.34% in the presidential election of 1981, then 11.2% in the European election of 1984 and a little under 10% in the general election of 1986, reaching its lowest ever result of 6.76% for André Lajoinie in the presidential election of 1988.

With a score of 8.7% in the last presidential election, the new general secretary of the CP, Robert Hue, could congratulate himself on having stopped the decline, and even slightly improved the CP's score. The Communist Party campaigned against unemployment and for higher wages, using fairly radical terms, at least in meetings where Hue was speaking to a relatively militant audience. Hue denounced the fact that an increasing part of the working class was being "excluded" from the job market, and even from housing.

It didn't take long, however, for Hue to demonstrate how much his radical language was really worth, since he rallied behind Jospin in the second round. A section of the communist electorate, and above all the CP's most active working class militants, did not approve of his support for Jospin. Of course, Hue qualified his support with many verbal warnings. But however much the CP leaders promised their most skeptical supporters that there was no question of repeating the mistakes of the past and joining in a new "Union of the Left" to implement the bosses' policies, they took the very same road as before. In fact they have never abandoned this road, which began with their call to vote for Mitterrand in the first round of the 1965 presidential election. For the past thirty years, the CP's support for the SP has been a factor causing it to lose ground to the SP.

In the municipal elections, the CP fared less well than the SP. The Socialists lost some municipal councils, but won control of others. The Communist Party lost more towns with a population above twenty thousand than it won: twelve losses, representing a total population of around 640,000, including Le Havre, with its population of 200,000; compared to only six gains, the biggest of which was Nîmes with a population of 130,000. And even in cases where the losses are due to unfortunate circumstances rather than a real loss of votes, the result is no less serious for the CP, whose party machinery needs the material and human resources provided by municipal government strongholds.

While the CP's electoral support has stabilized – albeit at a very low level – it continues to lose government posts at every level.

The CP is, in fact, losing out in every respect. Not only is it no longer one of the "major" parties, those which hold positions of power either centrally or locally, but also it is no longer the main pole of attraction for popular discontent. For a whole period of French history, despite its reformist Stalinist evolution, the CP was viewed as an opposition party. It was a focus (of real or imaginary radicalism) for those opposed to the system. This is less and less the case.

The CP left the "Union of the Left" government in 1984. But during Mitterrand's second term, when the Socialist Party no longer had an absolute majority in parliament, the CP supported the government in critical votes (if only by refusing to oppose it in those no-confidence votes which could have brought it down). It may thus have been formally in "opposition" ever since 1984, but the CP has been unable to regain even a significant fraction of the credit it lost.

The success of the National Front is largely explained by the fact that there is no longer a credible focus of radicalism on the left, even in electoral terms.

The 5.3% Vote for Arlette Laguiller

The usual political game was slightly altered by two phenomena, the importance and extent of which are obviously not comparable: on the one hand there was a 5.3% vote for our comrade Arlette Laguiller and, on the other hand, a 15.3% vote for Le Pen.

In her campaign, Arlette Laguiller defended the idea that urgent and immediate measures had to be taken for the five million people in an economically insecure situation in the country, for the working class as a whole and for the population in general. She proposed that the tax on manufacturers' profits be reinstated to 50%, instead of the 30% it has been for the last several years; that the bosses be forced to maintain employment, and that their property be confiscated by the state if they refused to do so. She argued that the state must stop constantly subsidizing the big manufacturers and banks, without asking anything in return; that it stop offering them handouts and stop granting them tax cuts and reductions in their social security and social welfare taxes. None of these gifts to the big capitalists has stopped the hemorrhage of jobs, but they put a huge drain on the welfare budget. She proposed that the state should, on the contrary, directly hire people to work in hospitals, schools, the post office, the railways, etc. She stressed the fact that the working class and the population as a whole should impose their control over the economy and state policy.

She explained, of course, that genuine changes would result not from the ballot box but from the social and political struggle of the working class, on its own ground, in workplaces and in the streets, as it attempted to do in 1936 and in 1968 without winning a decisive victory.

These ideas hit home. They were approved by 1.6 million voters. They had, of course, been highlighted by recent economic and political scandals; by the fabulous profits being made by the big companies within a context of widespread unemployment; and by the fact that the three main candidates – Balladur, Chirac and Jospin – were all responsible in one way or another for the situation of the past fifteen years.

Those who made the gesture of voting for Arlette Laguiller were, of course, primarily expressing their discontent. But they were not doing so in a neutral way. This discontent was expressed in a vote for the far left. Arlette Laguiller's vote was highest in the working class areas or suburbs of large towns. These voters voted for a candidate who has long been known for her revolutionary communist convictions, and who did not hide them during her campaign. This strengthens our belief that revolutionaries can make their voices heard even during the present period by standing for Marxism, class struggle and communism, in short for all the so-called "outmoded ideas" which the bourgeoisie's various spokesmen have tried to bury a thousand times – in vain.

One million, six-hundred thousand votes – more than a million better than its best previous score – is obviously a significant result for a small organization like Lutte Ouvrière. But compared to what the current situation requires, it is completely insufficient.

Commentators were taken aback by the fact that Arlette Laguiller insisted, both before and after the results were announced, that a rise in the far left vote would not change the political situation in France if it remained under 10%. This proves only that media commentators do not understand very much. More than ten per cent of the vote – i.e. around four million voters or more – would have indicated a considerable change in the electorate, particularly in the working class electorate. Ten per cent would not have been just a symbolic success, or simply an event attracting the attention or sympathy of a section of the working class. It would have been a shock, a shock underlining the proposals Arlette put forward in the campaign. It would have shown that a considerable social force supported these proposals, a force large enough to turn them into an objective to fight for.

This was not the case.

The 5.3% vote for a far left candidate marked public opinion only in the immediate aftermath of the first round. It gave our small tendency a certain amount of credibility, but it has not changed the political situation. It cannot be compared, unfortunately, with the score obtained on the far right by Le Pen.

While Arlette Laguiller obtained 1,600,000 votes, Le Pen obtained 4,500,000. This was also, to a large extent, a protest vote by the popular electorate, but one which expresses a deep confusion and represents a considerable threat for the future.

The National Front Establishes Itself on the Political Scene

The scores obtained by Le Pen and the National Front in the first round of the presidential election of April 23rd, and in the two rounds of the municipal elections which followed, are the most significant facts in these elections. The National Front has admittedly done little more than confirm that it is a major political tendency. But time, unfortunately, lends it additional weight. The National Front is now an established part of the political scene.

In the first round of the 1995 presidential election, Le Pen broke the 15% barrier for the first time, after having obtained 14.4% in the 1988 presidential election, 13.9% in the 1992 regional elections and 12.7% in the 1993 general election. Some other significant figures: he won more than 20% of the vote in some ten cities with a population over 100,000 (Nice, Marseilles, Nîmes, St.Etienne, Metz, Perpignan, Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Toulon). And this vote was confirmed and its effects amplified in the municipal elections.

Le Pen benefitted from certain favorable circumstances, such as the division of the rest of the right into a number of slates – in a situation where the electoral system gives the slate with the largest minority of votes after the second round a large majority of seats in towns with more than 3500 people.

The National Front came out of these municipal elections with more than a thousand municipal councilors (which, in fact, is not that many since there are several hundred thousand municipal councilors in France) and with control of three municipal councils, one large one (Toulon) with a population of 160,000, and two smaller but important ones, Marignane and Orange.

The main political problem lies not in the increase in Le Pen's electorate, nor even in the risk that the municipal councils his party has won will serve to anchor their further progress and possibly to radicalize the National Front's attitude – although all of this is dangerous. The increase in votes is, in itself, relatively limited, a far cry from the National Front's dramatic rise in the mid-eighties, when the far-right electorate shot up within a few months from an insignificant minority to more than ten per cent. But Le Pen at that time drew nearly all his support from the electorate of the conventional right (along with most of the main figures in his party). Even today, the majority of Le Pen's support comes from this traditional right-wing electorate. And the best known figures who benefitted from the swing to the National Front in municipal elections are people who were growing old in the shadow of Giscard or Chirac before they found a springboard for their political careers in the National Front.

The main political problem raised by Le Pen's success lies elsewhere: in the fact that the part of the working class and poor which traditionally supported the right is sliding toward the far right, and toward racist or xenophobic demagogy. This weighs on the morale and consciousness of the poorer layers of the population. More serious still, this trend is eating into the working class electorate which identified loosely with the left, if only by voting for it.

Opinion polls are only of limited value. But a Sofres survey suggests that Le Pen won 8% of workers' votes in 1984, 19% in 1988, 21% in 1994 and around 30% this year.

There is no need for opinion polls, however, to see the state of confusion in the poorest and most run-down areas of French cities. Le Pen's results per polling station are enough! Admittedly, social segregation is not so great that there are no shopkeepers, foremen, policemen and sections of the petty bourgeoisie living in the poorer areas or in public housing, and Le Pen certainly gained support from such voters. But an increasing section of the working class population – exasperated by the drastic consequences of unemployment and low wages, by the difficulty to find housing and medical care or obtain a half-decent life for their families – is falling into the trap of swallowing all the garbage which is the far right's program. This section of the working class responds, in particular, to the proposal that all they need do in order to have a decent life is to attack those even less fortunate than themselves, sending the immigrants home.

The National Front's new councilors hold up the idea of "national preference" as a program. This has enabled Le Pen, Mégret and a few others to make a show of radicalism by declaring that they are prepared, in towns where the National Front won control of the council, to go beyond the law and apply the so-called "democratic legitimacy" given them by the municipal elections. They contrast their so-called "democratic legitimacy" with the "administrative legitimacy" of the prefects (the official functionaries appointed by the central government to head France's administrative districts), and they say they are prepared to defy the prefects. Of course, this "legitimacy" was bestowed on them by the ballot box in places where their elected representatives were elected with no more than 40% of the vote.

The National Front mayors of Toulon and Marignane have already committed themselves to greater legalism, verbally at least, than Le Pen and Mégret. Only time will tell what they will really do – or be prevented from doing through fear of popular reactions. But the central government already has moved to flatter the anti-immigrant sentiments of the population with a few gestures – albeit only symbolic ones. Barely two days after the second round, Chirac and Juppé organized a round-up of Muslim fundamentalists, the main motivation of which was to outflank the racist far right.

The slogan "France for the French" has always masked the fact that French people are not all equal, that a small minority flaunts the same wealth as ever while others are condemned to poverty. Some French people have swollen bank accounts and luxury residences, while others struggle to pay their rent on public housing or are thrown out on the streets when they default. Le Pen is very careful not to delineate these class differences and the inequalities between "French people". Instead of emphasizing the fact that the poverty of part of the population results from the accumulation of colossal and wholly French fortunes at their expense, the far-right demagogues divert workers' resentment against their neighbors of Malian or Moroccan origin, or even against the Algerian baker accused of "taking bread from their mouths"!

Le Pen is a true far-right demagogue and a true enemy of the working class. His demagogy nonetheless attracts some working class support and electoral success because the demands of the bosses, supported by the anti-working class policies of successive governments of right and left over the past twenty years, have provoked serious discontent. On top of unemployment and poverty, there has been an endless series of scandals and cases of corruption, with politicians from the right and the left, members of the "establishment", corporate directors and businessmen being convicted or even imprisoned. The National Front has fed on this popular discontent.

In the face of the real danger represented by Le Pen's consolidating his popular electorate, the leaders of the traditional left will be no barrier, whatever they say. They are responsible for the anti-working class policy whose effects are leading disillusioned workers to support Le Pen. When some of the leaders of the traditional left express regret that a greater barrier against Le Pen was not formed by setting up a "Republican Front", i.e. systematic electoral alliances between the left and the traditional right, this indicates clearly enough that the supposed Socialist opposition to Le Pen is little more than a bluff.

The way in which certain Socialists present the problem speaks volumes in itself. According to them, the need is for "complete unity" against the National Front, between Socialists, Giscard supporters and Chirac supporters, as was the case in a few towns in the recent municipal elections. What they propose is therefore a kind of fusion with the right, even more open than before, in other words an even greater confusion between left and right, the only result of which would be that the population would see even less difference between supposed left-wing and right-wing politicians. With regard to the election in Toulon, for example, some socialist leaders expressed regret that the Socialist Party did not agree to step down and call for a vote for the candidate of the conventional right, a friend of a crook like Arrecks who was discredited in the recent scandals.

It goes without saying that such a policy will not only be no barrier to Le Pen; in fact it can only strengthen him by further alienating the popular electorate from the established left-wing and right-wing politicians, all of whom are seen as being responsible for and accomplices in the scandals.

The Need for a Party of the Working Class

The threats which hang over the working class for the coming period are both material and political, and the two are closely linked.

The new government is carrying on with exactly the same policy as the previous ones. The bosses continue to receive reductions in the taxes they pay, including for retirement, unemployment and other social welfare programs. Taxes for everyone else are increasing. Not only will these measures fail to reduce unemployment, but social welfare programs will end up completely drained of funding because of all the siphoning off of money to the bosses.

The material situation of growing sections of the working class is already drastic. But the situation will continue to get worse if radical measures are not taken soon. The influence of the far right among the poorer population is a result of increasing poverty. But this already harmful influence could become a factor hindering the struggles of the working class, thus aggravating poverty.

Those who advertise all sorts of magic potions against Le Pen while "forgetting" where his influence comes from are lying in the same way they lied when, in government or as supporters of the government, they backed policies which impoverished the working class. They bear an overwhelming responsibility for the fact that the working class, deceived, betrayed and deprived of perspectives, has not been able to combat the dangers which hang over it.

The working class will react, sooner or later. The incredible cynicism of the bosses, who are continuing to cut jobs and announce "restructuring" even in this period of successful business; and the nerve of people like Gandois (a boss with a social conscience, we were told!), when they demand ever more concessions from the government, will eventually lead to an explosion of anger.

This explosion of working class anger is essential. Unless it happens, unless the bosses are really scared, nothing will change. But an explosion of anger is not enough. The working class needs to react politically. It needs a political party: not an electoral party, but a party which plays a part in social struggles, which initiates them, which knows how to and wants to organize them, unite them and make them victorious, consciously using workers' strikes and demonstrations as a political weapon.

Such a party does not exist at present. Even if many of the CP's working class militants will have a part to play in a future party genuinely representing the political interests of the working class, the CP itself long ago passed the point that it could have been reformed enough to play this role. The Socialist Party is not even worth mentioning in this respect.

The far left groups, meanwhile, are too small in numbers and insufficiently implanted in workplaces or in the different regions of the country to claim to be such a party, even if we disregard the fact that some of them, in following the dominant political fashions among the petty bourgeoisie, have forgotten what revolutionary communism is and what a party for the working class represents.

From this point of view too, from the point of view of building a party, we believe that the 5.3% vote obtained by Arlette Laguiller was insufficient to create the shock which might have precipitated things, both in the ordinary sense and in the chemical sense. Nevertheless, Arlette Laguiller launched an appeal on the evening of the first round to all those who voted for her candidature, and to all those who were tempted to do so but eventually gave in to the illusion of "useful" voting and voted for Hue or Jospin; she called on all these voters to contribute to the building of a party representing the political interests of the working class.

We can expect no miracles from such an appeal. But it sets a militant objective, a political objective. What is certain is that a political party for the working class is not only a historical necessity (it has been so for decades!) but also a short-term necessity to face up to the threats hanging over the working class.