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France: Presidential elections in a climate of crisis, Part 1

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“Since 1965 I have never lived through a presidential election like this. There are no more axes, no more rules”, says Socialist Party, PS, first secretary, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis. “Nothing is stable anymore. It is a great chamboule-tout (coconut shy),” adds PS MP Jean-Marie Le Guen. Indeed, nothing has been going according to expectations for the two major French parties, the PS and the Republicans (Les Républicains, LR).

Initially, everybody expected a duel between the current president, François Hollande, and the previous president, Nicolas Sarkozy but, within a few months, both were knocked out of the contest; Hollande by his unprecedented unpopularity and Sarkozy by the trail of scandals that accompanied his career. They were soon followed into oblivion by other major figures like Alain Juppé, Manuel Valls, Arnaud Montebourg and Cécile Duflot.

Today, the two leading candidates are not supported by either PS or LR and the prospects for the election in April are as open as ever. There is a real possibility that the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, could add to the series of populist reactionary victories after Brexit and Donald Trump.

This electoral mayhem facing the political élite reflects a much deeper instability and divisions in French society and points to two radically opposite consequences of the 2007-2008 financial and economic crisis; on the one hand the recent rise of FN and, on the other, the largest workers' movement against a left-wing government for years, the movement against the El Khomri law.

So, too, does the recent movement against police violence against young people, especially those from immigrant backgrounds. Serious disturbances broke out after four policemen, using a truncheon, anally raped Theo, a black youth, on February 2 in the northern Parisian banlieu of Rose-les-Vents. Subsequent internal investigation exonerated the officers, members of the Specialised Ground Brigades, BST, and described this barbaric attack as an “accident”. Such repression, and the total police impunity, continue under the “left” Hollande as they did under the right-wing Sarkozy.

A “socialist” President

In 2011, workers took to the streets in a great upsurge of class struggle to block another attack by Nicolas Sarkozy against pensions. Although they did not win, they severely weakened Sarkozy for the 2012 presidential campaign. Moreover, they pressured the major trade unions, contrary to their tradition, to openly campaign for the socialist candidate, François Hollande. He was elected on 6 May 2012 by 51.64 per cent to 48.36, becoming only the second Socialist President since 1958. On top of that, in the following the parliamentary elections, the Socialists won 280 seats.

Supported by the Radicaux de gauche (Left Radicals) and other smaller parties, the PS secured a comfortable parliamentary majority for Hollande, 315 seats. Thus, Hollande had no political pretext for not trying to carry out his programme, other than the fact that the bourgeoisie, French and German, did not approve of it.

That programme seemed to promise a distinctive break with Sarkozy and, indeed, the predominant austerity policy promoted by Germany within the European Union. He criticised the faceless financiers who he claimed had, “taken control of the economy, of society, and of our lives”. He claimed: “My enemy is finance”, and pledged that his would be a “presidency that would end privileges” (‘président de la fin des privilèges’), in contrast to Sarkozy's appointment of millionaire friends to high office. He even advocated that fetish of Attac, a European Tobin tax, “covering all the exchanges, all derivative products”, and a European “plan for growth”, based on progressive taxation and redistribution.

In fact, once elected, the new president ripped off the left mask of his election pledges with indecent speed and revealed his true face as a good friend of the bosses. In the decisive first years of his office, the radical left proved quite incapable of challenging him to stick to his pledges or of building a powerful left alternative to stop him when he did not.

The five years of Hollande’s presidency were thus marked by a series of attacks against the workers, such as the VAT increase, increasing taxes on households by more than €50 billion, whilst at the same time extending a major package of fiscal aid for the bosses (estimated at €40bn. per year). The weak recovery from the 2007-08 crash petered out and unemployment rose to 10 per cent, one of the highest rates in Europe. In addition, Hollande and his premier, Manuel Valls, launched a series of measures to abolish labour protection regulations. Together with the continuation of imperialist interventions in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa and racist measures such as dismantling Roma camps, this generated dissatisfaction, anger and a sense of betrayal in the working class and minority communities.

However, the worst was yet to come. After the terrorist attacks in 2015, a state of emergency was declared and prolonged again and again. Hollande tried, albeit without success, to pass a law borrowed from the far right toolkit, depriving terrorists with dual citizenship of their French nationality. While the practical effect of that law would have been close to zero, the real significance was symbolic: it was a way to stigmatise immigrants and to associate them with terrorists.

A few months later, in the spring 2016, Hollande, probably trying to prepare his re-election campaign, imposed the final piece of his labour deregulation, the El Khomri law. It was this that triggered a major social movement with over 15 days of strikes, blockades and mass demonstrations. This was the most serious mobilisation since the strike waves against the 2007 and 2010 attempts at pension “reform” under Sarkozy.

The Rise of Marine Le Pen and the FN

This series of betrayals contributed enormously to the deep discrediting and loss of trust in the traditional French parties. While the vanguard was disoriented, layers of the more isolated and desperate working class, together with the petty bourgeoisie, turned towards the populist and racist Front National, FN. During the Hollande years, the FN has risen to become the first party, with over 30 per cent of the votes in recent regional and European elections.

Echoing a phenomenon seen in the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, the FN vote is particularly strong in the French “rust belt” in the North, with Lille as its main city, a traditionally working-class and left-wing voting bastion. Here, most of the industries; mines, steel and textiles, have closed, leaving the area impoverished and with a high unemployment rate and attendant social problems. In the last years, under Marine Le Pen's leadership, the FN has increasingly oriented itself not just towards the urban petty bourgeoisie and the small farmers but to these layers of the working class.

She claims to defend public services; health, schools, post offices, and pensions, which have come under attack from successive governments. In doing so, she has appealed to what she calls the “invisible” people (she means the “native” French, of course) against “the system”. In themes that echo Trump’s campaign, she is promising to “restore our freedom and control over our destiny by giving the French people back their sovereignty”, and to “rebuild France” and “restore the country’s greatness”. She promises to slash the number of people entering France to 10,000 a year, about one tenth of the current number, to promote national identity in schools by language laws, and end birthright access to French nationality. She promises to give priority in employment to French citizens, imposing “an additional tax on the hiring of foreign workers”.

Le Pen also details various measures to protect French firms from foreign competition, despite EU rules. She wants to “free” French firms from “European constraints” and force the state to purchase from French companies. Foreign investment in the country would be strictly controlled, via an “Economic Security Agency”.

At the moment, she is credited with 25 percent of the vote in the first round. Her greater influence is largely due to the inability of the working class parties to propose any alternative to the continuation of neo-liberal “reforms” and, on the other side, to the weakness of the radical left. The growth of the FN represents a real danger for the French working class.

For decades now this party, with its historic roots in French fascism and far right populism, has been spreading its racist propaganda, according to which the immigrants are the real cause of all the evils: unemployment, criminality etc. These are of course complete lies but, without a serious political alternative, they convinced millions to vote for her as a solution. The FN has been able to latch onto and turn to its own advantage two historic weaknesses of the major working class reformist parties, the SP and the French Communist Party, PCF, French patriotism and republican secularism. The former goes back to the Tricolour waving of the Popular Front of 1936-1938 and the wartime resistance movement, while the latter is an accommodation to the dominant ideology of the French bourgeoisie.

Today, FN voters are no longer afraid of openly declaring their intentions and Marine Le Pen is gradually consolidating the construction of a party with thousands of officials elected in local elections. There also signs that the FN is making deeper inroads into French society. For the first time, the bosses organisation, MEDEF, has opened its doors to the FN to hear about its economic programme. A ring of well known intellectuals, including the writer Michel Houellebecq, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the journalist Eric Zemmour, for example, have openly defended racist propaganda. Their obsession is that French national identity is threatened by immigration and Islam. While they do not openly support FN, the impact of their propaganda is clearly visible, helped by the national trauma provoked by the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks and killings.

Whether or not Le Pen pulls off a shock victory in the second round, which would certainly top Brexit and Trump’s victory as proof positive of an international right wing tsunami, even as a loser she will have shifted the agenda of politics strongly to the right. Like Trump, she has done it in part by demagogic espousal of social and anti-neoliberal themes and highlighting of deprived areas and decayed industries. This is where the smug complacency of the established politicians of right and left rings hollow and tempts voters to knock them off their posts

Exposure and mobilisation against the FN, and the anti-immigrant and national chauvinist poison it is trying to inject into working class communities, must be an essential component of the programme of resistance the revolutionary left should be advancing.

The ‘respectable’ right

In autumn 2016, Les Republicains (the main right wing party) held their primaries. It was a race for the most anti-working class programme. The three main candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé and François Fillon had a very similar core programme; decreasing by up to 500,000 the number of state employees, returning to the 39-hour week, increasing the retirement age to 65, increasing VAT and implementing further attacks against the labour regulations.

Contrary to expectations, the winner was François Fillon, previously prime minster under Sarkozy. He is an utterly reactionary bigot, posing as a country gentleman, dreaming of becoming the French Thatcher. One of the reasons for his victory was the support he got from the reactionary movement “Manif pour Tous”, an alliance of socially reactionary forces, right wing Catholics and fascists, including Marine Le Pen's even more right wing niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, which organised four huge demonstrations in 2013 against the law legalising same-sex marriage, practically the only progressive measure introduced by Hollande.

In an interview, Fillon explained how he would implement his programme: a series of “executive orders” in July/August 2017 would be his “blitzkrieg” against social rights, reinforced by two referendums in the autumn to rally support for his bonapartist presidency.

For several months, given the discredit of the reformist left, the victory of Fillon looked completely certain but the situation suddenly changed when it was revealed that he employed his wife and two of his children on apparently non-existent jobs, with new revelations every week. Such election time scandals are of course nothing new in bourgeois politics and France makes something of a speciality of them. Nevertheless, the reaction to it this time has been very strong and it seems it would be very difficult for Fillon to impose sacrifices on the whole country whilst having shamelessly profited from the system himself.

An “outsider”, who could now make it into the second round, according to the polls, is Emmanuel Macron. Though now “outside” the two party system, he is a deserter from the Socialists, he is hardly outside the French elite since he is a graduate of the National School of Administration, ENA, and a protegé of François Hollande. By profession a banker and specialist in finance, he formerly worked for Rothschild and Co. Under Hollande, he was first involved in writing a long report on how to “reform” the French economic and political system, by attacking citizens' social rights, then, as Minister of the Economy, Finances and Industry, he started implementing his own recommendations. With his loi Macron, he deregulated the department stores, opening them on Sundays and then continued with a more general deregulation of labour.

The El Khomri law, aimed against the labour protection laws, was actually inspired by him rather than the minister after whom it was named. This abolished union restrictions on working hours and other protections for workers, leaving most of the regulations open to site-by-site renegotiation, where workers are clearly at their weakest and can be forced to accept harsh sacrifices under pressure.

As a candidate, he would like to continue this anti-working class task. For instance, he declared that more young people should “dream” of becoming billionaires. Also he has praised the Uber model as a way of giving a job to everybody, especially in the banlieues. Of course, he cannot propose all his plans openly, as he is trying to position himself at the centre and to attract voters from both right and left. Therefore, he masks them with a wall of attractive promises like the improvement of workers’ wages, by reducing the contribution to the social security.

In the same vein, unashamedly, he has titled his recent book “Revolution”. His central theme is to “free labour and the spirit of enterprise”. No wonder then that he is the favourite candidate of big business and finance or that he collected part of the money for his campaign in the City and has refused to make public the list of people supporting him. He is being boosted by the media, totally controlled by the same few big capitalists.

This is very similar to what Matteo Renzi did in Italy when he also claimed to be against the political “system”, only to try to impose both labour deregulation and his own agenda of undemocratic constitutional reforms. Standing without the PS support at the beginning, Macron attracts more and more PS leaders, like Ségolène Royal, eager to get a seat on the bus of the possible next president.

Another incarnation of the heritage of François Hollande, similar in some senses to Macron, is Benoit Hamon. While Macron embodies the bosses' best friend that Hollande turned out to be; Hamon represents the deception that Hollande practiced on French workers in order to get elected. He is a pure product of the PS school of bureaucrats, like many others he was trained in the ranks of the PS-controlled student union, UNEF, and represents a cynical move towards the left. At least this was his tactic to win the PS primaries in which many PS voters voted for him to eliminate ex-premier Manuel Valls, who was standing on a law and order ticket.

Hamon’s main promise is a universal income (revenu universel) for everybody. Although this sounds progressive and egalitarian, in practice it would prove less attractive. First of all, the proposed allowance of €600 is barely above the current benefit level, which is €450, and certainly would not represent an adequate standard of living. More importantly, it is ultimately a passive and demobilising alternative to mounting a serious fight by both employed and unemployed workers to reduce the working week and, thereby, increase the jobs available at real wages. Despite its apparent radical character, the universal allowance, taken by itself and not connected to other demands, is merely a way to make the worst aspects of capitalism such as precarité, mass unemployment and social exclusion, more acceptable without touching the core of the system.

The novelty of the situation is that Hamon seems far behind Macron and is not at all certain to be in the second round. The support of several PS figures for Macron, the refusal of Valls to support Hamon, indicate severe tensions between the two wings of PS, the bourgeois liberals, like Macron, and the social-democrats, like Hamon. It is even possible to imagine an open split between the two wings, or a general move of the majority of PS to the right, into a pure and simple bourgeois party, as happened in Italy with the Democratic Party.

The most radical candidate of the left is Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He made a personal decision to declare himself a presidential candidate over one year ago; thus presenting his own Parti de gauche (PG) and its ally the Communist Party with a fait accompli. No longer standing as the Left Front candidate, he launched his own campaign as that of a network where he alone makes the policies.

Its programme is a pot pourri of left-reformist demands, like sharing wealth among everybody (partage des richesses), increasing the minimum wage, reducing the working week to 32 hours, nationalising some banks and a massive programme of investment to boost the economy. Compared to his campaign five years ago, it is a populist and left nationalist one. Taking up his programme for a Sixth Republic, the platform calls for new citizens’ initiatives, use of referenda, rights to recall MPs, guarantees of media pluralism, the constitutional embodiment of the rights of people at work, protecting common property, “air, water, food, health, energy, the means of life”, lowering the voting age to 16 and, more dubiously, an obligatory nine months “service citoyen” for the under 25s, paid at the minimum wage.

What have gone are all references to the working class, replaced by “the people” and “the Nation” as against against the “élite” and the “caste of the privileged” and the front of parties is replaced by a “citizen-movement” or network called Unsubmissive France (la France Insoumise). This mélange is based on the neo-populist theories of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe and the practice of the Spanish Podemos and its leader Pablo Iglesias. In addition, Mélenchon declares himself to be “a French independentist” and proposes a return to national sovereignty, with measures like withdrawing from the European treaties and NATO, “a war machine at the service of North-Americans”, and implementing an ecologically and solidarity-oriented protectionism.

While some of these nationalist tendencies were always present in his ideology, it is clear today that he is trying to surf on the new wave of national chauvinism, after Brexit and Trump’s victory. A whole chapter of his programme is entitled “For the independence of France”, as though France were an oppressed and not an oppressor nation. It inevitably suggests that other imperialist powers, especially Germany, are the enemy, and leads him to abandon the defence of free movement for migrants. Mixing progressive reforms with this nationalist poison, this “populism of the left” can only weaken the class-consciousness of French workers and thus open the way for the populism of the right. A vote for Mélenchon is not a class vote in any sense of the term.

In Part 2 of this survey, Marc Lasalle will deal with the parties of the French “far Left”.