frontline vol. 2 issue 4.
The French elections
Murray Smith reports on the victory of the Right in France’s elections and what it will mean for French society and the French left. This is the complete version of an article that appears in edited form in the print edition of Frontline.
The French presidential election should be seen as a whole. It was of course possible to analyse the results of the first round (1) but they only took on their full significance in the light of the second round. What was at stake in this election was who would succeed Jacques Chirac as president. The candidate who was supported by the Medef (the French employers’ organization) and by the overwhelming majority of the French ruling class and their allies internationally, was Nicolas Sarkozy. Of course if Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal had been elected that would hardly have been a disaster for the French ruling class. Since the early 1980s Socialist governments have alternated with right-wing ones, both pushing forward the neo-liberal agenda of privatization, deregulation and attacks on social protection, as well as attacks on immigrants and democratic rights. The plural left government of Lionel Jospin from 1997-2002 was particularly effective in this respect.
Nevertheless, the ruling class wanted Sarkozy, and for reasons more than its usual instinctive preference for the Right. This was no ordinary election and Sarkozy was no ordinary right-wing candidate. He stood on a programme that was explicitly for change, for a break (“la rupture”) with the presidency of Chirac - who belonged, however, to the same party as him. And he defined very explicitly what he was proposing to change. He announced clearly that he was going to launch an offensive against what is left of the post-war consensus, of the gains obtained by working people after the Liberation in 1944. The London Economist, which has a fairly unerring instinct for the interests of its class in Britain and elsewhere, urged Sarkozy to be firm in “taking on unions, insiders [read: public sector workers and others who have some job security], pensioners and others with a stake in today’s over-protected system”. Which is just what Sarkozy has announced he will do.
Grim-faced, leading Socialist Party member Dominique Strauss-Kahn recognized on French TV on election night that the Socialist Party had suffered a serious defeat and pointed out that it was the third presidential election in a row that the party had lost – to the advantage of the Right. But this election was different. In 1995 Jacques Chirac won by promising to overcome the “social fracture” - and proceeded six months later to launch an attack on the social security system that provoked the November-December 1995 strike movement. In 2002 Socialist candidate Jospin was punished for his record in government by being eliminated in the first round. Chirac won the second round by a landslide, mobilizing a broad political spectrum against the far right National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. In both cases he won by presenting himself as something he was not – concerned with social inequality, a bulwark against the National Front – and in both cases his actions as president were in contradiction with his electoral discourse. This time Sarkozy won on an explicit and aggressively right-wing platform – neo-liberal social and economic policies only slightly nuanced by references to defending French industry and French interests in Europe, harsh law and order proposals and an aggressive assertion of the French nation and French national identity with strong racist undertones.
The election saw a high degree of polarisation, and a turnout of 85 per cent – a sharp break from the steady increase in the number of abstentions in successive elections since the 1980s. Sarkozy fully mobilized the vote of the traditional Right and most of the far-right vote – he took part of the National Front vote in the first round and most of the rest of it in the second round. But he made only very limited inroads into the left vote, which largely held up. Royal won 57 per cent of white collar workers and 59 per cent of blue collar workers – though Sarkozy won the votes of a majority of private sector workers, and also of the most low-paid workers. That is not a fact to be neglected, it may indicate a beginning of chipping away the sectors of the working class that are the least organised by the traditional workers’ movement, unions and parties. Among young people, Sarkozy won only 40 per cent of the votes of 18-24 year-olds (15 points less than Chirac in 1995). Indeed, Sarkozy had majority support only among the over-50s, with the notable exception of the 25-34 age group, of which he won 57 per cent. (2).
Significantly, Sarkozy gained his votes largely on a positive basis. According to the survey from which we have just quoted, 63 per cent of Sarkozy’s voters voted for him rather than against Royal, whereas 53 per cent Royal’s voters were above all voting against Sarkozy. Among those who voted for Royal, the sectors whose vote was most motivated by rejection of Sarkozy rather than commitment to Royal were blue and white collar workers.
As is often pointed out, the majority has changed at every legislative election since 1981, as voters rejected neo-liberal governments of both right and left. For presidential elections, the story is not quite the same. Mitterrand was re-elected in 1988, but that was after two years of cohabiting with a right-wing government and parliamentary majority. Chirac was elected in 1995 after two years of a right-wing government, but as we have pointed out, on a demagogic basis. Sarkozy, a minister in a government which has launched a series of attacks on workers, pensioners, immigrants and young people since 2002, and had many more victories than defeats, won by distancing himself from that government only in the sense of announcing a more thorough and consistent programme of attacks. Being elected in such conditions, especially since, as was likely, the Right has won a parliamentary majority (though, as we will see, less sweeping than had been predicted), represents a break in the sequence of alternating left and right governments. Faced with the chronic incapacity of the Left to offer an alternative rather than just alternating governments, the Right has seized the initiative.
If Sarkozy’s victory was bad news, it was no surprise. He led consistently in the opinion polls, both before the first round and between the two rounds. His first round score of 31.1 per cent was well ahead of Royal, who had just under 26 per cent. Furthermore, Le Pen won 10.5 per cent of the vote and another far-right candidate, Philippe de Villiers, won 2.2 per cent. Given that most of those votes were expected to go to Sarkozy, as they did, he approached the second round in a very strong position. What was Royal’s position? She had her own nearly 26 per cent of the vote. That was actually quite a high vote for an SP candidate in the first round. The problem, was, where would the missing 25 per cent come from? The reservoir of votes from candidates on her left who had been eliminated in the first round was far from sufficient, even supposing she won them all (she did win most of them). The total of the votes of the LCR’s Olivier Besancenot, Marie-Georges Buffet of the CP, Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière, unitary alternative candidate Jose Bové and Dominique Voynet of the Greens came to just over 10 per cent. So the left total was about 36 per cent. One reason for the low reservoir of votes on the left for the second round was that many voters who actually had more affinity with the radical left candidates chose to “vote usefully” in the first round so as to make sure there was no repeat of 2002, with the Socialist candidate eliminated.
This left the third candidate, the centre-right François Bayrou, who falsely portrayed himself as neither right nor left, in a pivotal position. Bayrou scored 18.5 per cent, nearly three times his score in 2002. Apart from his core base, many people voted for him on the basis of his presenting himself as new and an alternative to the two main parties: others, even some well to the left, just felt that he was better placed than Royal to beat Sarkozy. Royal assiduously courted Bayrou and his electorate between the two rounds, to little avail. The most she got was a declaration by Bayrou that he would not vote for Sarkozy. In fact, Bayrou’s electorate broke down in the second round to approximately 40 per cent Sarkozy, 40 per cent Royal and 20 per cent abstention.
Before moving on to the left candidates, a word about the Royal campaign. Early on in the campaign, she expressed admiration for Tony Blair – not exactly a vote-winner on the French Left. She would no doubt have liked be to the French Blair, and probably still would – her campaign was certainly the most right-wing of any Socialist presidential candidate in the Fifth Republic. But she forgot that Blair was able to be Blair because of two things. First of all Thatcher had carried out the neo-liberal/neo-conservative counter-revolution in the 1980s and smashed working-class opposition. Secondly, Blair’s predecessor, the thuggish Neil Kinnock, had effectively purged the Labour Party. So neither within the party nor outside it did Blair have to deal with any serious opposition. That is not the situation in France. So Royal had to adjust her campaign, tacking tack a bit to the left and a bit to the right, and ended up looking much less coherent than Sarkozy.
In fact the only effective way to combat Sarkozy was frontally, with a programme that systematically countered his – anti-liberal, and capable of countering his law and order and nationalist campaigns.
Unity and disunity on the left
No one could have seriously expected that of any Socialist Party candidate. But following on the victory of the ‘No’ in the European referendum of 2005, a ‘No’ largely brought about by the campaign for a ‘No from the left’ which involved a united front going from the left of the SP via the Communist Party to the LCR and also involving many independents, global justice campaigners, trade unionists, etc., there was a new situation to the left of the SP. The unitary collectives set up to run the referendum campaign survived it and in fact developed even further in 2006 in the perspective of a united anti-liberal campaign for the coming presidential and legislative elections. At their height, the collectives involved about 15,000 people.
As everyone knows, it did not happen, and the result was several candidates. Was this inevitable, and what would have been the potential of a united campaign?
First of all, was it inevitable? Chronologically, the first to pull out of the collectives, in September 2006, was the LCR majority (a substantial minority of the Ligue remained). The reason given was that there was insufficient clarity about participation or not in a future SP-dominated government. This was widely felt outside the LCR - and by the “unitary” minority within it - to be an excuse to get out and stand Olivier Besancenot as an LCR candidate.
Very few of the many articles and documents dealing with the movement of the collectives and the attempt at a unitary candidacy have been translated into English (3) and as far as I know none of the main documents of the collectives have. It seems useful to quote the passages concerning an SP-dominated government from a key document entitled “Ambition-Strategy” adopted by a national meeting of the collectives in September 2006.
"We will not be part of a government dominated by social-liberalism, which, by its composition and by its project, would not give itself the means of finally breaking with liberalism, would not respond to what people were waiting for. The Socialist Party, in particular, has adopted a programme which turns its back on a clear break with liberalism. It is out of the question, for us, to negotiate on this basis a contract of government whose action, letting people down once again, would lead ineluctably to the return of a harder Right"
"If we do not take part in the government, our group in Parliament will not take part in a majority made up to support this government, but will vote in favour of any legislative provisions going in the direction of the interests of the population. We will also use our parliamentary strength, along with all those who will take part in social mobilizations, to get a certain number of positive measures adopted or to get negative measures withdrawn; to translate our programme into law and reality. We reserve the right to judge and to discuss publicly how the government and its majority act in the course of the legislature".
In a document written in English to explain the point of view of the LCR majority (4), François Duval, a member of the Ligue’s Political Bureau, wrote:
“There was a single issue about which we were not ready to make a compromise. Not an unlimited series of pretexts: just one simple and single issue that needed - and still needs - an answer, a clear answer, an answer without any ambiguity. As you have surely understood it, the question we raised from the beginning of the process has remained the same: the question of the relationship with the SP, related to government and Parliament. And the answer we wanted to hear was: no, an anti-liberal candidate will not be member of a government led by the SP. No anti-liberal candidates for general elections, if elected as MPs, will either belong to the same parliamentary majority or support a government led by the SP.
We have not heard such an answer”.
And later on: “it [the document] does not clearly state that it will be impossible to join a SP government, nor to support it in the framework of a common parliamentary majority with the really existing SP, its programme and its leadership”.
I find it difficult to read the quotations from “Ambition-Strategy” above and agree that “we have not heard such an answer” or that the document “does not clearly state”. No doubt the formulations could have been sharper, but they do not seem equivocal. That document was voted for by a broad arc of forces including the Communist Party, which certainly had reservations about it and sought to leave itself a way out. So it is true that as Duval says, “the leaders of the French CP have a double-faced speech”. But the formulation of the document represented the feeling of the collectives on the question. As Duval also admits: “the main problem was not the average mood of activists from the anti-liberal collectives. A significant number of them more or less shared our point of view, even when they thought that we were exaggerating the importance of that issue. The main problem was ¬ and still remains ¬ the political approach of the CP”. In fact, the LCR (and it should have known this) was never going to get a cast-iron guarantee that the CP would never, ever, under any circumstances go into government with the SP. Whether, after the damage participation in government in 1997-2002 did the party, it was actually likely that they would repeat the experience this time is another question. And one which is now academic, as France faces the prospect of five years of a right-wing government. In any case, it is far from evident that on the basis of what was adopted in September, the LCR could not have stayed in and combated the CP, as many independents wanted it to do. That could have led to quite a different situation when the CP tried is takeover in December, which we now come on to.
The role of the Communist Party
The second and fatal blow to a unitary candidacy was the attempt by the CP, in December 2006, to impose its own general secretary, Marie-Georges Buffet, as candidate of the collectives. After the disastrous result of Robert Hue at the presidential election in 2002 (3.37 per cent) following five years in government with the SP, Buffet pulled the party back from the abyss, on a line that combined demarcation from the SP with a readiness to open out and work with other forces. The first notable dividend from this orientation was the result of the list led by Buffet herself at the regional elections in Île de France in 2004, where, coming from behind in the polls, she distanced the LCR-LO list, in spite of the fact that this list was headed by Laguiller and Besancenot. The second success was the leading role the CP played in the referendum campaign in 2005 and the way the party worked loyally with other forces, even sharing its TV time with them. Subsequently the CP participated in the unitary collectives and appeared to seriously think that it could get away with having Buffet adopted as their candidate. When that failed, Buffet carried out a change of alliances. She broke with the refondateur current, with which she had worked throughout the unitary period – a current that is very much in favour of working with other forces on the left and even of moving towards a new movement or party of which the CP would only be one component. She then formed a bloc with the partisans of Hue, who are advocates of a strategic alliance with (really, satellisation by) the SP, and with the so-called “orthodox” current, which stresses the party’s identity but whose orthodoxy does not exclude opportunistic deals with the SP.
Why did Buffet do this? Like many other aspects of the debate around this issue, the answer you give depends a bit on where you are coming from. The LCR majority emphasizes that the CP wanted to have a free hand to negotiate with the SP, and couldn’t be confident of that with a non-CP independent (or even a CP refondateur) as candidate. That may have been a factor. But a determining factor seems to have been the need to avoid a serious internal crisis with Hue and the orthodox wing if there was no CP candidate – with maybe even the threat of a wildcat Communist candidacy. The LCR majority predicted that the CP would never agree to support a non-CP candidate and that they would stand Buffet, and they turned out to be right. But there was a choice to be made, and the many people who thought it possible that the CP would make a different choice were not being irrational. In the light of the result of the presidential campaign, it is far from certain that Buffet made the right one. If the aim of the candidacy was to avoid a crisis in the party, it only succeeded in putting it off until after the election. It can be argued that if the CP had supported a unitary candidate who, it is safe to say, would have got substantially more than the 1.9 per cent that Buffet got, the party would have been in a better position afterwards – including from the point of view of negotiating with the SP over the legislative elections.
Buffet felt confident enough of her position to have her choices submitted to internal ballots of party members. In November they were consulted as to whether the party should propose – not impose – Buffet as candidate of the collectives. The result was 59,103 for, 2.663 against. A month later, faced with the refusal of the collectives to accept Buffet, another ballot was held as to whether she should be a candidate anyway. The result was 42, 365 for, 9.937 against. So Buffet became the candidate of an “anti-liberal unity” in which the CP united with itself. Or rather with part of itself, since the nearly 10,000 who voted against became the basis for the “Unitary Communists” current, which now functions in an increasingly autonomous way.
The withdrawal by the LCR and the failed takeover by the CP left the collectives in disarray. It is this context that must be borne in mind when appreciating the Bové candidacy which began to emerge in January, and which we will come back to later.
The total of the four serious candidates to the left of the SP was just over 8.5 per cent. The total of the LCR, LO and the CP in 2002 was about 13.5 per cent. If you deduct the CP from the 2002 total – a not unreasonable thing to do, since the party was still in government in 2002 – the LCR and LO still got nearly 10 per cent, as against 5.4 per cent this time – to which can be added Bové’s 1.32 per cent. The fact that the LCR more than held its own in a difficult situation should not conceal the fact that the radical left as a whole lost ground – a fact that was commented on with great satisfaction by the bourgeois media, which attached much more importance to that than to the LCR’s relatively good performance..
Two questions arise? Why, and what else, if anything, was possible?
First of all, why? This is another case where your answer depends on where you’re coming from. Roughly speaking, if you are coming from the LCR majority or the CP leadership, you emphasize the effect of the ‘useful vote’ for Royal (or even Bayrou). If you are coming from the unitary collectives, the minorities in the LCR and the CP, the Bové campaign, you emphasize the effects of the division on the radical left.
Both were factors. There is not the slightest doubt that the pressure to ‘vote usefully’ limited the vote for the radical left. That was, if you like, an objective factor, in that not even the best campaign could have completely eliminated it. But it seems equally obvious that the fact of having several candidates to the left of the SP actually magnified this tendency and that a united candidacy would have created a dynamic and got a better result than the sum of the parts. Not to everyone. Daniel Bensaïd has argued: “A unitary candidacy on a clear political basis would certainly have had a dynamic that would have been attractive for those who were hesitating, but experience proves that unity is not a simple question of addition, and that a part of the respective electorates of the CP, LO, and the Ligue would not have identified with a unitary candidacy. So we can seriously doubt that in the difficult conditions of this campaign such a candidacy would have had the cumulative result of 8.5 per cent” (5). I find the second part of this reasoning unconvincing. It is no doubt true that there were some sectors of the electorates of the CP, LO and the LCR who would not have voted for a unitary candidate, it is difficult to judge how many. But it seems reasonable to suppose that they would have been more than compensated by the number of hesitant electors who would have been attracted by a united campaign. I have never found convincing the wilder surges of enthusiasm by the partisans of unity, going so far as to predict that a unitary candidate could have got more votes than the SP. But I think he or she would certainly have got more than 8.5 per cent. Between 10 and 15 per cent seems a perfectly realisable objective. At that level, the relationship of forces on the left starts to change, and a serious marker is laid down for the future.
The candidates to the left of the SP
Let us look now at the candidates to the left of the SP. I leave out Schivardi as irrelevant and Voynet because the Greens may be on the left, more or less, but they are hardly to the left of the SP. So that leaves Besancenot, Buffet, Laguiller and Bové.
The most successful campaign was unquestionably Besancenot’s. He got 4.08 per cent, which was marginally less than 2002, but he gained 280,000 votes more because of the higher turnout. His meetings were big. Everyone’s were in this campaign because of the heightened politicisation, but Besancenot’s were frequently twice as big as in 2002 and sometimes bigger. He put across a clear anti-capitalist message, clearly independent of the SP, he was a very capable candidate, there was a professional campaign, an excellent web site, wide coverage in the media. Having decided to go it alone and run its own campaign, the LCR did it very well. In a situation where the overall vote to the left of the SP went down, it more than held its own. And it will no doubt recruit substantial numbers of new members. So in the terms set by its majority leadership, the campaign was a success. Whether from the point of view of building a credible alternative to social-liberalism it was the correct thing to do is another matter. It is worth noting the composition of the vote. It was high among young people – half his electorate was under 35, and he got 10 per cent among those under 25. He also got significantly above his national average among workers and the unemployed. But only 35 per cent of those who voted for Besancenot in 2002 did so again in 2007, 36 per cent of them voting for Royal, 17 per cent for Bayrou. However, Besancenot got 45 per cent of his votes from electors who did not vote in 2002. The rest of his votes mostly came from former LO or CP voters. While it is positive that he was able to appeal to new voters and those who did not vote last time, the high rate of turnover indicates that his electorate remains unstable.
Buffet’s campaign was a disaster for the CP. She came across as neither the candidate of anti-liberal unity she claimed to be, nor as clearly a party candidate. She lost both to the ‘useful vote’ for Royal and to candidates on her left. Vote against the Right? Might as well vote Royal in the first round. Anti-capitalist? Besancenot did it better. Unitary? Why not Bové? (In fact, leading party members campaigned for Bové). Within the party the result has been that Buffet’s new-found allies are turning on her, while her former unitary allies have organised themselves separately. An extraordinary party congress later this year is likely to be dramatic, but not necessarily decisive. The party is headed for a deepening of its chronic crisis, which Buffet only temporarily stemmed.
It is not worth spending too much time on the LO result (1.33 per cent). This very peculiar organisation, with all the characteristics of a sect, occupied for a period an important place to the left of the SP on the electoral level. It did so for a number of reasons, linked to the decline of the CP and the difficulties of the LCR at the time. LO made its breakthrough in the 1995 presidential election, when it got over 5 per cent. But its success did not change its character of a propagandist sect. It stood aside from the massive anti-Le Pen protests in 2002, denounced the European Social Forums and the global justice movement and did not take part in the campaign for a ‘No from the left’ in the European referendum. Its place has largely been taken by the LCR, which differed from it in all those respects and which puts across an anti-capitalist message that is more modern and less economist.
Finally there was the Bové candidacy – the most surprising and unexpected one of the campaign, which clearly irritated both the LCR and the CP. Bové had been one of the possible unitary candidates of the collectives in autumn 2006: he had withdrawn along the way – because he felt that he did not have enough support, because he knew that whatever happened the CP would veto his candidacy. In January there appeared an online petition asking Bové to be a candidate. The method has been criticised by quite a few people, notably Pierre Rousset and Daniel Bensaïd, as being fundamentally undemocratic. It certainly left something to be desired from that point of view. But we have to look at the context. The dynamic behind Bové’s candidacy in January was a lot of angry people from the collectives. I have never seen anything from supporters of the LCR majority or from the CP leadership which took into consideration the independents who had been left high and dry when those organisations decided to present their own candidates. What were they supposed to do? Go home and get on with their lives, choose between Besancenot and Buffet? Not much of a prospect. Whether these people represented a minority or a majority of the independent forces in the collectives is neither here nor there, though they won a majority at a national meeting in January They represented a force that was not ready to accept a fait accompli, and there were enough of them to launch the candidacy. And frankly, given the pressure of time, an online petition was one quick way, and maybe the only way, to break the logjam.
The first thing that was absolutely remarkable was that Bové obtained the 500 signatures of mayors and other elected representatives that were necessary in order to stand. His improvised campaign did in six weeks what it took the LCR and LO nine months to do. And it seems that only 15-20 of the signatures came from the unitary CP, and perhaps a few more from left Greens who supported him. What was the nature of his campaign? The LCR has sometimes referred to it as the “radical ecologist” campaign. That is somewhat inadequate – even Bové was a bit more than that, he was also a global justice campaigner, anti-liberal...And ‘radical ecologist’ really does not anything like cover the diversity of his supporters. The starting point of the campaign was to refuse the division brought about by the LCR and CP candidacies, therefore to be the unitary campaign. It was quickly described by the CP and LCR (including some of its minority) as just another candidacy or even a supplementary cause of division. That is going too far. The Bové campaign was not the unitary campaign. But it was a unitary campaign; It was the only one that brought together people from different backgrounds – part of the LCR minority, most of the Unitary Communists, dissident Greens, trade unionists, ecologists, militants from the collectives. The campaign showed the signs of improvisation, its web site was a nightmare, its communication in general was pretty erratic, but it got most of the main issues right, although Bové occasionally made somewhat eccentric statements, like proposing to appoint the freelance ecologist Nicolas Hulot prime minister... But the campaign had a definite dynamic. It won support from significant figures from immigrant communities and Bové spent a lot of time in the ‘banlieues’ where they live and which were the centre of the riots in November 2005. And especially towards the end, his campaign \attracted big meetings. To take just one example, the LCR rightly congratulated itself on attracting 4,000 people to its meeting in Paris in the last week of the campaign. But the same evening, Bové got between 4,000 and 5,000 in the southern city of Toulouse. Any serious analysis of the Bové campaign should look at its strengths as well as its weaknesses. In spite of its modest score of 1.32 per cent it would be a mistake to simply write it off as a failure. For those who read French, it is worth consulting the very frank and lucid balance sheet of the campaign by Jacques Perreux, Bove’s campaign director and long-time leading CP member (6).
Much has been made of the fact that Bové, between the two rounds, accepted a proposal from Royal to make a report on food sovereignty and that he made his call to vote Royal at a press conference along with her. He would also have spoken at the big SP rally at Charléty before the second round if his campaign team hadn’t stopped him. But his campaign team did stop him, and furthermore issued a communiqué calling for a vote against Sarkozy (not for Royal), stating that it had no illusions in Royal and pointing out it did not assume responsibility for Bové accepting the report proposed by Royal (7). Those who opposed the Bové campaign in the LCR and elsewhere largely publicised Bové’s statements around this time, which certainly show some political confusion, though nothing he did or said implies that he would have supported a social-liberal government. But the communiqué of his campaign team was virtually ignored.
After the victory of Sarkozy
There is now obviously a debate beginning on the French left on how to analyse of the situation after the victory of Sarkozy. Does it represent a move to the right? A change in the relationship of class forces? Is Sarkozy going to be the French Thatcher? It is perhaps useful to look at the original Thatcher. When she came to power in 1979, it was only five years since the last Conservative government had ended ignominiously, wounded and finally brought down by working-class opposition, of which the backbone was two national miners’ strikes. In the subsequent period class struggle remained at a significant level. The arrival in power of a government determined to take on the working class and the unions did not in itself change the balance of class forces. But it did give a serious advantage and the initiative to the most hardline sections of the ruling class. And it still took nearly a decade of class battles, which Thatcher won, taking on one section at a time and aided by the complicity of the Labour leadership. It was only when she took on the whole working class at once with the poll tax, and faced a movement largely led by revolutionaries, that she lost an important battle.
Sarkozy’s victory is not in itself a decisive defeat. There was no significant shift of left electors to the right, there was rather, as we have seen, a polarisation. But Sarkozy will use his position to push through his agenda and we have to look at the situation in which he will do it. It is no use just applauding the combativeness and the anti-liberal sentiments of French workers and youth. The balance sheet of resistance to neo-liberal policies is far from being only positive. A few victories, many defeats, some without a fight: overall the neo-liberal machine advances, we win the occasional battle, they are slowly but surely winning the war. It is surprising to read from the pen of Alex Callinicos, in an otherwise good article, that: “The last major attempt to push through neo-liberal measures in France was in 1995. It provoked a huge public sector strike that was the first in a series of social explosions that have stalled such plans” (8). Unfortunately, this is not quite the case: there have been constant attempts to push through major and minor neo-liberal measures and most of them have succeeded and have not been stalled by social explosions. The 2003 pension reform was a major attack and in spite of a movement that was broader if less intense than 1995, it went through. Its author, by the way, was François Fillon, who has now been appointed as Sarkozy’s prime minister. In a document written after Sarkozy’s victory, François Duval has recently written (in French) a very lucid and realistic contribution on the extent and limits of resistance to neo-liberalism and the relationship of class forces in France today (9).
In reality, after 25 years of attacks, the French working class is in a much weaker material position than the British working class in 1979. The big difference is on the level of political consciousness: contestation of the ruling class agenda, of neo-liberalism, is infinitely stronger, as evidenced by the 2005 referendum and also by the consistently high (over 60 per cent) level of public support for strikes and other movements of resistance. There is also much greater mobilisation and politicisation of young people. But overall, the situation is not favourable. And this mass anti-liberal consciousness has no credible political expression. In this situation, the ritual leftist rhetoric about the ‘third social round’ and general calls to resistance and defeating Sarkozy in the streets are of little use. There will be resistance to Sarkozy’s attacks, there is no guarantee that it will be successful. What is needed is to patiently build a social and political opposition to Sarkozy. Social and political. We will not just defeat Sarkozy in the streets, it is necessary to build a credible political alternative. In the first place, the lack of such an alternative makes social resistance harder. And secondly, if the only alternative to Sarkozy remains the social-liberal Left, then further disillusion and demoralisation are on the way.
After the first round of the legislative elections, it looked as though Sarkozy was in for a landslide victory. The parties supporting him got about the same number of votes as he had got in the presidential – on a much lower turnout - whereas the left vote went down by two million. The National Front vote was even further eroded. The Bayrou bubble burst – his party got less than 8 per cent. On the left the most striking result was for the Communist Party – it went from 700,000 votes to 1.2 million, though with big geographical disparities. It was in the party’s bastions, where it already had MPs and runs municipalities, that it got massive votes. The LCR got just over 2 per cent, LO less than one – with no element of proportional representation, neither of them had any hope of getting MPs elected.
The surprise came in the second round. The pro-Sarkozy parties failed to mobilise and the Left gained votes compared to the first round, especially in marginal seats. This was certainly a result of some voters starting to realise what Sarkozy’s programme was going to mean. In particular, the government letting slip between the two rounds that it was thinking of putting an extra 5 per cent on VAT was not exactly a vote-winner. So although Sarkozy has a clear majority, the SP and its allies got more than predicted, over 200 seats, and the CP and its allies won 19 – only two down from the previous parliament. As the daily Le Monde put it, it was “a warning addressed to Sarkozy”.
Now that the legislative elections are over, there will be debates and crises of varying intensity in all the left parties and movements. The internal struggles in the Socialist Party will start in earnest. Over and above personal rivalries, there will be a debate about the future of the party. Some will defend the status quo, some will argue for a thorough “social-democratisation” (really, bringing discourse into line with its neo-liberal practice) of the party and for an opening towards Bayrou and the centre-right. Some will argue for opening out to the non-Socialist left. The relatively weak forces of the SP left which participated in the unitary collectives until last December are likely to be isolated and left with little perspective in the party. And although for the moment there is no alternative that can act as a force of attraction outside it, the main leader of the most significant current on the left of the SP, Jean-Luc Melenchon, now openly evokes the possibility of a “divorce” from the party and cites the creation of the new “Die Linke” party in Germany as an example.
The forces of the radical Left have a considerable responsibility. It is unfortunately far from clear that they are capable of assuming it. The legislative elections saw around 500 candidates each from the CP, LCR, LO and the Greens (there are 577 constituencies, including the overseas ones). The motivation for this multiplication of candidates (there was an average of 13 per constituency) is partly financial (state funding depends on how many votes a party gets) and partly just self-affirmation by the parties. But it is not an encouraging sign for the future. The unitary collectives and Bové committees ran about 80 candidates under the label ‘Alternative Left 2007’of whom they said about a third involved real unity with other forces, and supported about 50 other unitary candidates, including unitary CP and LCR ones. Where they had local roots, unitary candidates did quite well, elsewhere they had mediocre results. The LCR ran about 460 candidates of its own and supported 40 unitary candidates, some of them under its own label. The number of unitary candidates was higher than might have been expected following the presidential campaign, but division prevailed.
As for the future…It is difficult to see the CP having either the will or the ability to take any positive initiative in the near future. Its comeback in the legislative elections is not enough to mask its deep crisis and its divisions over what direction to take. The LCR will undoubtedly be ready for unity in action against Sarkozy and may well be capable of taking some initiatives in this direction. But it seems unlikely, to say the least, that it will take any serious initiative towards building a broader anti-capitalist or anti-liberal force. It appears to be concentrating on recruiting from its successful presidential campaign, which it would be foolish not to do. Unfortunately, there appear to be quite strong tendencies towards de facto abandoning of the perspective of a broader party, or at least reducing it to just a larger version of the LCR. We will see over the next few months whether that is in fact the case, as the Ligue is also planning to hold a congress before the end of the year.
It seems unlikely that the forces of the unitary collectives and the Bové campaign will just disappear or disperse. There is a plan to hold a conference in the autumn. It can scarcely just reproduce the unity of a year ago, including the LCR and the CP, as if the presidential campaign had not happened – if for no other reason, neither the LCR nor CP leaderships appear to want that. Nor will it in itself constitute the unitary alternative that is necessary. At best, it may create a movement, a forum for discussion and action, open to members of the CP and the LCR and other organisations, as well as independents, which may be able to help bring that closer. But, overall, what might be called the “French paradox” – the contradiction between the level of social resistance and anti-liberal sentiment and the absence of a broad anti-capitalist party – is likely to continue for some time. And it is likely to become more acute as Sarkozy starts to apply his programme.
- See (in English) Daniel Bensaïd: “Assessment of the outcome of the first round of the French presidential election” (introduction to “The French elections and our strategic project”) IV online 388, April 2007. www.internationalviewpoint.org. Also two articles by supporters of the Bové campaign: John Mullen, “The Presidential elections in France: Polarization and Crisis” http://perso.orange.fr/john.mullen/2007elections.html and Colin Falconer, “Radical left vote falls in French election” , April 28, 2007: http://le-poireau-rouge.blogspot.com. And Murray Smith, “Crunch comes in French presidential elections”, Green Left Weekly, 3 May, 2007 www.greenleft.org.
- The figures are taken from the article by Eric Dupin in Le Figaro, 8 May, 2007, Ánalyse: un clivage gauche-droite renforce”.
- Those who read French will find practically all the important articles and documents, from before, during and after the presidential election, on the sites www.alternativeunitaire2007.org and www.europe-solidaire.org/.
- Francois Duval, “On the French Left, what’s going on?”, IV online 386, February 2007.
- Article cited in Note 1.
- Jacques Perreux, « Un score insuffisant pour bousculer le jeu politique, mais suffisant pour donner envie de continuer à innover : contribution a la reflexion », 11 May, 2007. It can be found on www.alternativeunitaire2007.org, and also on www.europe-solidaire.org/, under the shorter title, “Contribution a la reflexion”.
- Communiqué de presse du comité de campagne présidentielle de Jose Bové, « Battre Sarkozy ! » 1 May 2007, www.alternativeunitaire2007.org.
- "Is Sarkozy a signal that Europe is heading right?", Socialist Worker, 19 May, 2007: www.socialistworker.co.uk.
- Francois Duval, « Quelques remarques post mai 6, 2007 », on www.europe-solidaire.org/.