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France: Macron weakened, RN rising, increasing class struggle

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France has had a long season of elections. It started last autumn with the presidential campaign, including primaries in the major parties, that generated a xenophobic, anti-migrant climate. While Macron's re-election came as no surprise, the subsequent general election confirmed several important developments that will shape political life going forward. For the first time in twenty years, the party of the newly elected president will not have an overall majority in parliament. This might seem normal in many countries, but it was seen as explosive in France.

The Fifth Republic, created by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, has a constitution that concentrates executive power in the hands of the President, not parliament. Socialist president François Mitterrand even wrote a pamphlet denouncing it as the “the permanent coup d’état”. Of course, once elected president himself, he found this quasi-monarchic power quite convenient. Nevertheless, because the parliamentary and presidential elections could be years apart, sometimes the president faced a parliament with a majority of opponents, resulting in the famous “cohabitation” between a left wing president and a right wing prime minister or vice versa.

In 2002, President Jacques Chirac carried through an electoral reform synchronising parliamentary and presidential terms. This was intended to ensure a newly elected president a comfortable majority. In Emmanuel Macron's first term, this was indeed the case and parliament played only a subordinate role of approving the measures decided by the president.

This time, however, the majority of voters, especially those of the working class, decided differently. Macron’s alliance is 44 MPs short of a working majority. Workers were clearly fed up with Macron's cynical lies. In 2017, he had posed as a candidate of the left and many believed him. Once in power, however, his real character as the “president of the rich” was revealed. He abolished a tax on wealth, pushed through reactionary reforms of secondary schools and universities, and attacked the pension system, unemployment benefits and the public sector in general. This time many voters decided to stop him, using whatever means were available.

This strong pressure from below was the main force behind the alliance of left parties in the Nouvelle Union Populaire et Sociale, NUPES. NUPES, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his movement, La France Insoumise, but including the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Greens, and other minor groups. After long weeks of negotiations, they agreed on a left reformist programme of 600 measures, under the main slogan, “Mélenchon Prime Minister”.

The vote for NUPES was massive in most cities and especially in the working class areas. For instance, in the Paris area, the deputies elected were in almost equal numbers from NUPES and from the Macron camp, with no seats for Le Pen's Rassemblement Nationale, RN, and almost no place left for the traditional right wing. In Seine St Denis, an immigrant and impoverished prefecture north of Paris, all the constituencies elected a NUPES candidate. Important figures from the social movement, like Rachel Keke, leader of a successful strike of cleaning workers in the Ibis hotel chain, were elected on the NUPES list. However, the resulting 131 elected deputies is far from a majority in parliament, which was Mélenchon’s aim.

During both rounds of the election, Macron and his party focused their attacks on NUPES rather than on the RN. This cynical manoeuvre, aimed at minimising the number of NUPES deputies, put an end to the historic “republican front” policy of voting for any "republican" to stop RN and Le Pen. As a result, the RN campaign made a breakthrough, from just 8 deputies in 2017 to 89 now.

Apart from being the result of Macron’s cynical opportunism, this success reflects the increasing spread of overtly racist propaganda in the country. During the presidential campaign, Eric Zemmour, another racist candidate, was instrumental in this. The “great replacement” theory, that is, the grotesque lie that the French population is being replaced by immigrants, is now common in the media and even among mainstream politicians.

Compared to him, Marine Le Pen appears responsible and even respectable. However, a serious glance at her programme shows that she shares the same ideology and goals as Zemmour. That many workers voted for Le Pen to express their anger against Macron is a result of the failures of reformism both in office and in opposition. The spread of racist, xenophobic, and utterly reactionary ideas, at a time of economic crisis and instability, presents a looming danger to the French working class in the coming years.

Will Macron be able to govern for a full term? In the aftermath of the elections, he reconfirmed the government of Elisabeth Borne, a technocrat and former employer, including several ministers from the right. In his Bastille Day interview, he made clear that he will press ahead with his programme of neoliberal reforms: delaying the pension age to 65, from 62, cutting benefits for the unemployed, in short, work more, less taxes. Having rejected forming a government of "national unity" or a coalition, he expects to obtain support in parliament, on a vote-by-vote basis, certainly from Les Republicains (the Gaullist right wing party) and possibly from a sector of the Socialist Party.

In the context of an economic slowdown and inflation, large state debts, the war in Ukraine and possible new pandemic waves, this might actually help him in his Bonapartist role of rising above parties. In the event that parliament becomes a roadblock, as president he has the power to dissolve it and call new elections. This latter scenario is quite likely in the short term.

Despite the success of NUPES, the French left is in a very weak position. While Mélenchon claims that NUPES stands for a “break with capitalism”, his programme contains no such break and is just a catalogue of toothless reforms, far to the right even of Mitterrand's "common programme of the left" in the 1980s. His proposal for the coming months is totally in line with his populist aim. He proposes “popular caravans to help the citizens with their political and social rights” and a “great march against the high cost of living”. He mentions the “families of the people”, the unemployed, the poor, the forgotten but never the working class or its struggles.

His aim is to dissolve the working class into a “popular block” along the same line as Podemos. Marches, caravans and other mobilisations will clearly only serve his aim to come to power by parliamentary means at the head of this new popular block. Nothing more should be expected from this long-standing member and Senator of the Socialist Party, a minor figure in the neoliberal government of Lionel Jospin in 1997, and a devoted admirer of François Mitterrand.

What kind of political confusion then has led the leadership of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) to the following analysis?

"Heterogeneous and subjected to the pressure of parliamentary negotiations and the self-preservation instinct of each of its components, NUPES is not stabilised, but it could be a step in the process of the recomposition of the left. We wish to play an active part in the building of a unitary framework for the struggles and a programme to break with the neoliberal order, while keeping our political and organisational independence.

“Everywhere possible, we need to propose continuing to build a framework of united struggles for the demands of the workers, of the popular classes, for ecological goals, in defence of public services, against the far right, and to discuss an alternative to capitalism.” (Anticapitaliste 07/07/2022).

Despair about the NPA’s own future and, indeed, about the very possibility of a revolutionary solution, has pushed the majority towards accepting a common bloc with Mélenchon as the only perspective, baptising it the “recomposition of the left”. In recent years, several rightward splits of NPA have already taken this line in practice and are now in the NUPES coalition.

While the NPA correctly insists that “struggles are decisive” it never criticises Mélenchon’s dangerous populism. It never mentions that Mélenchon has never actually initiated or led any extra-parliamentary struggles, but only tagged along with them and then exploited them for his parliamentary aspirations. Notice also that the NPA, born as an anti-capitalist force, now speaks only of a “break with the neoliberal order” and presents the alternative to capitalism as just a matter for discussion.

What is clear is that the NPA itself is both heterogeneous (almost half its members reject the leadership course) and yields repeatedly to its ill-advised instinct for self-preservation at all costs. More crises and splits are probable in the coming months.

Despite the weakness of its leadership, the working class is responding to the attacks with renewed struggles. In recent months, numerous strikes have erupted, mostly in the private sector: railway workers, airport and airline workers, big private companies like Total (oil) and Thales (military industry), but also insurance companies, aircraft, agrobusiness etc. Most of these struggles, triggered by inflation and low wages, have forced the bosses to make sizeable concessions on wages.

The deepening of the economic crisis and inflation might trigger more struggles and create the conditions for a nation-wide protest wave, uniting the private and the public sector in the struggle against the bosses and attacks by the government. It is urgent for the radical left to propose a programme of struggle that is not restricted by the political aims of NUPES and the TU bureaucracy and which unites the working class against the racist ideology designed to divide and weaken it.