frontline 7

Political earthquake in France

At the beginning of this year, the French presidential campaign looked set to be one of the most boring on record. In polls in February and March, between 70 and 75 per cent of the electorate said they could see little or no difference between the two main candidates, the right-wing President Jacques Chirac and the Socialist Party leader and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. But the unfolding of the campaign, the results of the first round and the massive anti-fascist mobilisations that followed were to make it the most dramatic campaign for twenty years. Murray Smith looks at the effects of a campaign that has shaken up French politics.

Of course, the voters weren't wrong about Jospin and Chirac. Since 1981 when the Left first won the presidency and a majority in parliament there have been alternating governments of left and right, with essentially the same policies. This fundamental political consensus was exemplified by the way Jospin and Chirac cohabited for five years (see note). It was underlined in the middle of the election campaign when they went together to the Barcelona EU summit and together agreed to raising the retirement age by five years and to the privatisation of gas and electricity.

The prospect of a second round run-off between Jospin and Chirac aroused little enthusiasm. So voters and the media increasingly turned their attention to the other candidates, with speculation as to who might be the third main. For a time Jospin's former Minister of the Interior, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, looked like occupying that role. He was getting between 10 and 15 per cent in the polls and even hoped to beat one of the two incumbents and make it into the second round. Chevenement ran a nationalist, populist and Eurosceptic campaign, trying to appeal to voters on both the left and the right. In the event he lost much of the support he initially had on the left and didn't gain any on the right. He ended up with 5.33 per cent. Then Arlette Laguiller of the Trotskyist organisation Lutte Ouvriere began to surge in the polls. Standing in her fifth presidential election (she got 5.3 per cent in 1995) Arlette was running on 10-11 per cent when National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was on 11-12 per cent, provoking speculation that she might even beat him and come third.


As things turned out not only was Le Pen the third man but he also edged out Jospin to take second place. Many people had prematurely and unwisely written him off when the National Front split at the end of 1998, Le Pen's lieutenant Bruno Megret leaving to form the National Republican Movement (MNR). Between them they only got 9 per cent in the European elections in 1999 and had only limited success in the 2001 municipal elections. Both of them even had trouble getting the 500 signatures of elected representatives necessary to stand for president. But it was a mistake to underestimate the underlying potential support for the FN, which showed itself with a vengeance in an election where Le Pen could deploy all his energy on the national stage to denounce the 'political class' and come across as the anti-establishment candidate.

Chirac played the sorcerer's apprentice by making the main axis of his campaign law and order, a longstanding theme of the FN. Jospin, instead of opposing this, tried to outdo him, as did other mainstream candidates. In the end it was Le Pen who benefited, many voters preferring the original to the copies. In other ways Jospin ran a clumsy campaign. Francois Mitterrand, who knew a thing or two about winning elections, once said that the Socialist Party had to win the first round of an election by appealing to the left and the second round by appealing to the centre. Jospin started out by explaining that his programme was 'not socialist': honest, but not very good tactics. His attempt to radicalise his campaign towards the end was too little, too late. He ended up with 16.18 per cent to Le Pen's 16.86, the worst result for his party in a national election since 1969. Chirac, who with 19.8 per cent did worse than any other incumbent president in the history of the Fifth Republic, didn't run a good campaign, just a slightly less bad one. None of the other candidates on the right got more than 7 per cent. On the government left, the Communist Party's campaign was one long funeral dirge and the score of 3.4 per cent surpassed their worst fears. Only the Green candidate Noel Mamere (who got 5.25 per cent) managed to come across as a left critic. His campaign echoed many of the themes of the radical Left.


The shock provoked by Le Pen's result has tended to cloud the real lessons of the first round. There was no landslide for the National Front. The centre of gravity of French politics has not moved to the right. What took place was a polarisation. On the far Right, Le Pen and Megret together won 900,000 more votes than Le Pen in 1995. On the radical Left, Arlette Laguiller (5.72 per cent), Olivier Besancenot of the LCR (4.25 per cent) and Daniel Gluckstein of the Workers Party (0.47 percent) obtained nearly three million votes, 1.3 million more than Arlette in 1995. The official Left lost 1.5 million; the traditional Right nearly 4 million. There were 3 million more abstentions.

This polarisation was not hard to understand. To quote the main slogan of the LCR on the anti-NF demonstrations, '20 years of anti-social policies, 20 per cent for the National Front' (it rhymes in French). Faced with the neo-liberal consensus, sections not only of the middle classes but of the working class and youth, those who are the most backward, the least politically conscious, the least linked to the organised workers' movement (or feeling abandoned by it), the most open to Le Pen's law and order, racist and 'jobs for French people' rhetoric, are turning towards the far Right. The most radical, combative and politically conscious sections of workers and youth are turning towards the radical Left.

Le Pen won more votes than any other candidate among workers and young people. The radical left cannot afford just to win voters from the traditional Left. It can and must also win over workers and youth attracted by the NF, many of whom previously voted for the Left.


The prospect of Le Pen being in the second round had the effect of an electric shock. Tens of thousands took to the streets on the Sunday night when the result was declared and for the next fortnight there were daily demonstrations all over France. The high point was reached on May 1 when there were up to a million demonstrators in Paris and comparable numbers in other cities. The cutting edge of the movement was a huge spontaneous mobilisation of youth, especially students and school students. For most of these young people these demonstrations against the National Front were their introduction to politics. The left parties, the unions and all sorts of even vaguely progressive associations mobilised their forces. The movement was in fact out of all proportion to any real fascist danger, but it was hugely positive.

In fact two things happened simultaneously. On the one hand there was this immense mobilisation of youth and of what in France is called 'the people of the Left'. On the other there was a concerted campaign by the French establishment: political parties of right and left, the media, the churches, the employers' organisation MEDEF. Intellectuals, actors, singers and sporting figures were all pressed into service. It was clear that the French ruling class and those who serve it really didn't want Le Pen. Why not exactly? The statement by the MEDEF was quite revealing. It explained that Le Pen's social and economic programme was unacceptable. Not a word about his racism or his fascist ideology: what worried them was that he wanted to take France out of the euro and adopt a nationalist, protectionist policy. That is not the policy of big French capital, though many smaller employers support Le Pen. The ruling class neither needs nor wants an FN government and if it did the present relationship of forces would make any such idea highly risky. In the whole two weeks between the two rounds Le Pen's supporters took to the streets just once and mobilised 20,000 on a day when the anti-fascists mobilised a couple of million across France.

During the movement right-wing politicians rarely took to the streets and were very uneasy about the scale of the demonstrations. In fact many of them have in the past collaborated discreetly with the FN past and will certainly do so again. That is where the real danger lies. What we have seen elsewhere in Europe (Italy Austria, Denmark) is not fascism coming to power but governments based on an alliance between the hard traditional Right and the far Right, where the latter has been willing to don a certain cloak of respectability and adapt its policies to suit the needs of big capital. Le Pen does not yet qualify, (though he ran a markedly more 'respectable' campaign this year than in the past), but that could change.

For the moment the strength of the movement and the fact that Le Pen only gained a handful of votes more in the second round than in the first makes any open collaboration with the FN hazardous. Chirac has recognised this by choosing Jean-Pierre Raffarin as his Prime Minister (and leader of the June election campaign). Raffarin has a more moderate image than the previous favourite for the post, the hard right Nicolas Sarkozy, who becomes Minister of the Interior. But the new government's programme has nothing moderate about it.


The ruling class campaign was not just to oppose Le Pen but to actively call for a vote for Chirac and against a blank vote. This was initially opposed by many on the left, including both the LCR and LO. After a week, the LCR changed its position, calling for a 'vote against Le Pen', which was more and more clearly presented as a vote for Chirac. The reason for this was not just the media campaign. The vote for Chirac was seen by millions of youth and workers as the best way to beat Le Pen. LO did not just refrain from calling for a vote for Chirac, but actively called on people not to vote for him. This isolated them and they were booed on demonstrations. The LCR's initial position of not calling for a vote for Chirac, explaining that he was no rampart against the far Right, while expressing understanding for those who intended to, was tenable but difficult for many members to defend. In the end 70 to 80 per cent of Besancenot and Laguiller voters voted Chirac in the second round, which Chirac won by 82 per cent to Le Pen's 18 per cent. There were 750,000 more blank votes in the second round than in the first. Formally it may have been correct to call for a blank vote. If Le Pen had been beaten with fewer votes for Chirac but 20 or 30 per cent of blank votes, Le Pen would still have been routed and Chirac would be in a weaker position today. But it quickly became clear that that was not what the vast majority were going to do. At that point it was important not to let the question of voting or not voting for Chirac divide the movement.

The radical Left is now faced with new and heavy responsibilities. First of all, to maintain the movement against the FN without making any concessions to the parties of right and left that are responsible for its rise. Secondly, to prepare to resist the attacks on pensions and health care and the privatisations that are coming no matter who wins the elections in June. And above all to build a new socialist party as an alternative to the bankrupt traditional Left. From this point of view the change in the vote for the radical Left is extremely significant. The breaking of LO's quasi-monopoly of the radical left vote is positive. The electorates of LO and the LCR overlap to a considerable extent, but not entirely. LO ran an honest but pedestrian anti-capitalist campaign, much as always. The LCR also dealt with questions like globalisation, women's liberation, gay rights, anti-racism and reform of the drugs laws, and attracted a younger electorate. Especially in the latter stages of the campaign, the need for a new party was clearly put forward. From the point of view of building a new party LO is a dead weight. It has just refused the LCR's proposal for an alliance for the June elections. The reason given was the difference over the second round of the presidential election, but that is widely seen as a pretext. The LCR may not have all the right answers but at least it is asking the right questions. In the June elections and in the battles that are looming it now has a big responsibility to take initiatives that can bring together the forces for a new party.


French presidents are elected by direct suffrage, in an election separate from the legislative elections. Although the function of president is the keystone of the political system the president needs a majority in Parliament to be able to act effectively. If he does not have such a majority he is obliged to preside over a government formed by the parliamentary majority where real power is in the hands of the prime minister.

This happened to Francois Mitterrand in 1986-88 and 1993-95. In 1995 Chirac defeated Jospin and became president, inheriting a huge parliamentary majority won by the Right in the landslide election of 1993. But in a demonstration that parliamentary majorities are a very uncertain indicator of the real relationship of forces, Chirac and his Prime Minister Alain Juppe were severely weakened by the mass strike movement of November-December 1995.

In June 1997, to try and restore his authority, Chirac called new elections, which unfortunately for him were won by the Left. Chirac then had to spend the last five years of his seven-year term cohabiting with Lionel Jospin's Socialist-Communist-Green coalition government.

Last year a reform was introduced to try and avoid this kind of situation by reducing the presidential term of office to five years and synchronising presidential and legislative elections.

The first test of this will be in the June elections. Chirac may win a majority, but there is no guarantee that he will, especially in the present volatile political climate.