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France: A choice between the Plague and Cholera

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In the end it wasn’t only in France that adherents of the two winners of the first round of the country’s presidential elections were celebrating but their equivalents right across Europe. Emmanuel Macron, the new star in the sky of European liberalism, received 23.86 per cent of the vote and goes forward as the favourite in the second round on 7 May. Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the racist, right wing populist Front National, was second with 21.43 percent.

With just 19.94 per cent, François Fillon, the candidate of the bourgeois right, the Republicains, did not make it into the second round. This amounts to a historic defeat for the traditional bourgeois parties and for Gaullism. Furthermore, they will draw little comfort from the even more crushing defeat of the Socialist Party. Its candidate, Benoit Hamon, scored just 6.35 percent. Indeed, the Parti Socialiste may be on the verge of disintegration, a punishment it well deserves for the policy of the outgoing President François Hollande and his Premier, Manuel Valls.

The fact that there is no left candidate on the ballot for the second round, no candidate who is based on the organised working class, class struggles or anti-racist mobilisations, is a serious warning for revolutionaries and the entire workers' movement.

So, on May 7, there will be one candidate who is an openly racist and right wing populist, and presents herself as an opponent of the establishment, and one who is a direct representative of that establishment, who does not want to be either left or right, but simply in power. His alternative to nationalism, protectionism and racism is neo-liberalism, European imperialist unification, and "democratic" power politics. For the working class there is nothing to choose between the two of them.

The Left cut short
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of La France Insoumise, Rebellious France, who came fourth on 19.62 percent, undoubtedly made up a lot of ground on the three front runners in the last few weeks, and that could be seen as considerable success. Nor can it be denied that he rallied a large percentage of the young, the exploited and oppressed. According to a survey of 3000 people, carried out by the BVA Institute after polling stations closed, he came first among 18-24 year-olds, with 27 per cent, ahead of Le Pen. They were neck-and-neck amongst white collar employees with 26 per cent and those on low income, 28 per cent.

More worryingly, according to a poll of 4700 people conducted by Ipsos on Friday and Saturday, Mélenchon was well behind Le Pen among blue collar workers, 24 per cent to 37 percent. However, according to Le Parisien, La France Insoumise came number one amongst the unemployed, at 31 per cent, and was relatively well supported among voters with more academic qualifications, 20 per cent, compared to 30 percent for Macron and 24 for Fillon.

Mélenchon was helped by three factors. First, he could present himself as an opponent of the establishment. Secondly, he was supported by important parts of the organised workers' movement, such as the French Communist Party, the Parti de Gauche and some of the trade unions, especially the CGT. But, thirdly, he campaigned as a republican patriot and a populist, rejecting the terms “left”, “socialist”, and “working class”, in order to be acceptable to bourgeois and petty bourgeois voters.

This move towards populism and nationalism could be seen on several key issues; the question of fighting racism, anti-Islamic statements, nationalist rejection of the EU, praise for French “independence” from Germany and support for nuclear armament. The repeatedly extended state of emergency, used to ban demonstrations and harass workers' struggles, was for him a subordinate issue.

Above all, it could be seen in his positions on immigration, which he regarded as a problem to be solved by persuading immigrants not to come to France. His message to them was, “Stop saying you are lending us a hand, because we already have enough help. Above all I would say, you must stop leaving your own countries.” (Le Monde diplomatique English ed. 1 April 2017).

This bourgeois side is no accident. For Mélenchon, France is not an imperialist country. He might try to counterpose his own French “patriotism” to Le Pen’s “nationalism”, but it remains a rejection of internationalism. No wonder his rallies are overwhelmingly dominated by the French tricolor. He is simply blind to the effect this has on those of North African and Sub-Saharan background, who see it as the flag of their historic oppressors. His social and economic reforms and proposal for a new, democratic, Sixth Republic, might seem like a barrel full of honey but it is all ruined by a lot more than just a spoonful of imperialist patriotic tar.

Now, the Communist Party, the Parti de Gauche and also Mélenchon are working on a "broad resistance movement" against Big Finance for the parliamentary elections in June and beyond. They want to launch a new project, a France Commun, a France of the Citizens, that will also embrace the Green Party, as large a part as possible of the Socialist Party and the bourgeois Republicans.

Instead of mobilising class politics against Le Pen and Macron, they are to be opposed by a “citizens' movement”. This is reformism borrowing from populism. Although Mélenchon was undoubtedly supported by many unionised workers, members of the Communist Party, the Parti de Gauche and disappointed Social Democrats, it was not just his slogans that were programmatically further to the right than his last presidential campaign. Behind them, as with Podemos in Spain, was the idea that only a cross class movement could provide the basis for a “new Left” and that this would have to borrow heavily from nationalism in order to take the wind out of the sails of the Front National. This is an adaptation that will undermine class consciousness and class solidarity as well as political independence from all bourgeois forces.

By contrast, the candidate of the New Anticapitalist Party, NPA, Philippe Poutou, CGT secretary at the Ford car plant in Aquitaine, was the only one to take a stand against racism, the state of emergency, nationalism, and French imperialism. He rejected all expressions of national unity after the terrorist attacks in Paris, just before the presidential elections, blaming them on the wars in the Middle East that were supported by France under Sarkozy and Hollande. Last, but not least, he emphasised the priority of the class struggle starting in the work places, in the schools and universities and on the streets against whoever won the Presidency. He called for united action and mobilisations against their attacks on workers' rights and cuts to the public and social services. In the television debates, in which he scored heavily against Le Pen, Fillon, Macron, and Le Pen, he was the only candidate who refused to be photographed with the whole gang.

The vote for the NPA was undoubtedly squeezed by Mélenchon’s populism, which was seen by many as a progressive alternative to both bourgeois neoliberalism and FN racism. Nonetheless, with 1.1 percent, about half a million votes, Poutou received almost the same share as in 2012 when he won 1.15 percent.

Unlike Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvriere, who won 0.7 per cent, Poutou focused on the central issues of the class struggle, including the threat of racism, and the fact that the real struggle begins in the factories and on the streets. It has to be said, however, that his election material was relatively weak in presenting a socialist programme for government, for a revolutionary workers' government that would break with capitalism. Here, Arthaud was more explicit, if abstract. Ultimately, what his result shows is that the NPA has not advanced over the last five years but has effectively stood still, despite the historical crisis and the disintegration of the Socialist Party and the strike movement in Spring 2016.

However, in his first statement after the election, Poutou showed the potential that could be unleashed by those who voted for him, and where the programmatic and perspectival differences from Mélenchon lie. Addressing the voters of the NPA, LO, and Mélenchon, he called for the establishment of a new party, “which represents our interests, which will fight both our daily battles and for the abolition of the capitalist system, for the project of a society free from exploitation and any form of oppression”.

In short, he proposed the construction of a new, anti-capitalist workers' party. This initiative is undoubtedly to be welcomed and differs qualitatively from Mélenchon's project of a cross-class “citizens' movement”. What will be decisive in such an alternative for the NPA, however, will be that it not only drives it forward decisively, but also learns the lessons of its own history, its own failure.

At its own inception, the NPA left open the question of what its programmatic foundation should be. Of course, it was inevitable that a new party, which wanted to involve larger masses and fighters from different political traditions, would need a period of programmatic discussion and clarification, but the founders of the NPA did not organise that discussion. They contented themselves with the role of moderator between the various currents. This actually prevented those currents from growing together into a unified party. Instead, every new political challenge led to the different tendencies developing their own responses.

Whether or not the NPA, or its majority, will learn these lessons and, with a new start to the building of a class party, will stand for a clear programme and an organised discussion of an action programme for that party, is certainly doubtful in the light of its history, but that is what revolutionaries should call for in the NPA.

Neither Le Pen nor Macron!
The attitude to the second round elections on 7 May represents a first test of any organisation’s seriousness about building a party independent of all wings of the bourgeoisie and willing to fight them all intransigently. In the face of a possible, albeit unlikely, election victory of Le Pen and a further strengthening of the Front National, there is already an enormous pressure to vote for Macron or “for democracy” in the second round. The Communist Party has already taken this position, declaring a vote for Macron virtually a civic duty.

Across Europe, racist, right-wing, ultra-right and fascist forces regard Le Pen as a voice for their nationalist and extreme right-wing policies, and for breaking up the EU along national lines. This reactionary response to the capitalist unification of Europe must undoubtedly be opposed but that will not be done by voting for Macron. The candidate of French finance capital and the European Union establishment, is not a “lesser evil” that can be used to defeat Le Pen and save French workers from “fascism”, even if Le Pen and the FN were indeed a full blown fascist party. In the longer term, as a figurehead of French and European imperialism, in fact its preferred representative, Macron is the ideal candidate to strengthen Le Pen’s bridgehead in the working class, the lower middle classes and the devastated old industrial regions of France.

As President, Macron will attack the public sector, he wants to get rid of 127,000 jobs, and privatise state enterprises. He is planning a reform of unemployment insurance along the lines of Germany's Agenda 2010, and wants to push for the militarisation of the EU. Against that, Marine le Pen would pose as the only serious defender of the working class. Eventually, she would break through the electoral popular front against her. Thus, the many calls for a cross-class block of all the parties against the FN actually play right into her hands as the only real opponent of the establishment. A vote for Macron, no matter how “critical”, can only downplay the threat he would represent as President and make the task of building a working class party that stands against nationalism and imperialism more difficult.

Poutou has already declared during the election campaign that he will not call for a vote for Macron against Le Pen. This will certainly bring a lot of hostility, and not only from the ruling class but from intellectuals and reformists who, for the rest of the year, will go along with state racism, deportations or Islamophobia. The fact remains that class independence at the polls is a prerequisite for building an internationalist workers' movement and resistance to Macron, or Le Pen, on the streets.

One thing is clear. In the election campaign and even in electoral defeat, the Front National remains a formidable reactionary force that needs to be crushed. Despite a victory for Macron, the struggle against state racism, deportations, police harassment of the youth of the banlieue, and fortress Europe will have to be stepped up.

The prospects for such a struggle are not as bad as the election results might suggest. The failure of the Gaullist and the crushing defeat of the Socialist Party also mean that a President Macron (or even Le Pen) cannot be sure of any parliamentary majority. The next government could start on a weak footing, especially if it has not received a huge electoral mandate for its attacks. This can be an advantage in the fight to build up resistance on the streets and in the factories and to take the initiative to politically rebuild a fighting workers' movement.

The movement against the “loi Macron” of last year will have to be relaunched against the measures to “reform” and “modernise” the French economy by strengthening the employers against their workforces, restricting wage increases and privatising services. This will require the formation of a workers' united front rooted in the workplaces and communities, uniting unionists with the immigrant communities, forming the coordinations we have seen in previous mass movements. Such councils of delegates elected at assemblées générales (AGs) can ensure the union leaders do not sabotage or sell out the struggle.

But the strongest form of unity that French workers need, one that can pose the question of power in society, of a workers' republic, is a political party. All the forces of the militant and revolutionary left, in the unions and amongst the youth, need to take up Poutou’s call for the founding of a new working class party and for that party to be based on an action programme of resistance that ends in the overthrow of capitalism.