National Sections of the L5I:

French left fails the test

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By the time this paper goes to print, Jacques Chirac will have been re-elected President of the French Republic, most likely with a percentage of votes unheard of in democratic elections.

Since the first round saw the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, eliminated in favour of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the fascist leader of the National Front, mass demonstrations have taken place all over France.

The presence of Le Pen in the second round has opened up a crisis in France. The “political earthquake” that has hit the country has exposed the undemocratic nature of the Presidential elections: despite an abundance of candidates in the first round and a wide distribution of votes, only two candidates are eligible to stand in the second round. In this case, the “winners” of the first round together represent a mere 36 per cent of the vote. The majority thus lose out completely .

The mass demonstrations that have taken place almost daily culminating in the magnificent one million strong demo on the streets of Paris on 1 May are testimony to the anger that French workers and youth feel over an electoral system that permits a fascist to get through to the second round. However this anger has been rapidly channelled into a call to vote for the right-wing Chirac, a man who has been discredited as a crook and a liar.

Chirac is also a racist who not so long ago referred to the “noise and smell of immigrants”. While the desire to block the road to Le Pen is understandable and correct, workers and youth are wrong to think that a vote for Chirac is the answer. The pressure to vote Chirac has been gaining ground since the first round. The minority who dare to go against this false solution have met with increasing hostility.

To win the argument against the “Republican Front”, strong leadership and clear arguments from revolutionaries are necessary. Unfortunately, the two main revolutionary organisations in France, Lutte Ouvriere (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR - French section of the USEC) have proved incapable of providing this. Both groups responded to the results of the first round by making vague and confusing statements that were then ridiculed by the media, and subsequently changed. LO retreated into its traditional abstract sectarianism and the LCR was rapidly sucked into the “Republican Front”.

Lutte Ouvriere
LO’s election night statement went down particularly badly. Their candidate, Arlette Laguiller, concentrated on justifying her candidature rather than making a resolute attack on the FN and calling on workers to mobilise on the streets against Le Pen. This was then compounded by implying that there was no difference between Le Pen and Chirac. LO’s first advice to workers for the second round was shockingly complacent: no abstention, no vote for Chirac or Le Pen, workers should vote according to their conscience!

Since then, despite the increasing pressure to vote for Chirac, LO has decided to advocate a spoilt ballot paper.

However, the arguments put forward to justify their position demonstrate their inability to grasp the significance of Le Pen’s “victory” or to relate to the healthy anti-racist spirit of the demonstrators, to offer a strategy to combat the rise of racism and fascism and to defeat an offensive by Chirac and the right against workers’ gains.

LO’s “killer” argument in favour of a spoilt ballot is not so much principle as electoral mathematics. Chirac can win with the votes of the right alone, therefore he doesn’t need the votes of the left to beat Le Pen. There are two problems with this argument. First, it doesn’t address the argument of those who say that the left has to ensure that the percentage that Le Pen gets is so small as to minimise his electoral influence. Le Pen himself has said that anything under 30 per cent will be a defeat.

Second, it demonstrates a fatalistic acceptance of LO’s lack of influence in society and a refusal to take responsibility for their positions. A revolutionary has to take a lead and aspire to make a minority position popular amongst the majority.

If LO’s position was taken up by the mass movement, it would not be excluded that Le Pen could “win” the election, although the real balance of forces would be in favour of the radical workers and youth and a new situation would be opened up. LO, however, does not want to face such issues, since it sees them as a diversion from the economic fight of workers in the workplace, rather than its concentrated, political, expression.

LO have traditionally underestimated the danger of racism and fascism gaining a foothold in working class communities. Its economism leads them to downplay the specific struggles for the rights of immigrants (as well as women and other oppressed groups such as lesbians and gays). The economic struggle is seen as an automatic solution that will end the division of workers along such lines.

LO’s economism has led them for many years to refuse to take up the struggle for voting rights for immigrants, arguing that democratic issues were unimportant in relation to the struggle on the factory floor.

Its response to the rise of racism amongst the most marginalised workers is hardly any better. It points out that the existence of a mass workers party (such as the PCF – French Communist Party – in the past) is an important barrier against ideologies that divide workers. But a workers’ party that does not actively take up the fight against racism and nationalism leaves the most downtrodden and unorganised workers wide open to reactionary ideas.

The trade union struggle alone is not sufficient to break down divisions within the class. The PCF’s 70 years of pandering to nationalism poisoned the working class. That workers who previously voted for the PCF can swing to the FN shows the dangers of relying on pro-working class rhetoric and trade unionism to fight racism and xenophobia within the class.

Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire
Like LO, the LCR started off with an ambiguous position, which basically left it up to individuals to decide whether to vote for Chirac or not. The organisation did not call for a vote for Chirac, but would not call on people not to vote Chirac. This then gave way to a call for a vote for Chirac. In Rouge, the LCR weekly paper, the words “vote Chirac” do not appear.

However their leaders, when pressed have admitted that this is in fact what they are saying: “The Central Committee of the LCR confirms the position it adopted from the evening of 21 April and in this context underlines the necessity of blocking the road to the extreme right in the street as well as at the ballot box. This translates itself into voting against Le Pen on 5 May and preparing from 6 May the conditions for a ‘tous ensemble’ (united mobilisation) against the policies of Chirac.”

The LCR’s new position is a reflection of the aspirations of workers and youth to stop Le Pen from winning the election and to minimise his vote. It is calling for a vote against Le Pen, which is how the demonstrators view their support for Chirac – they are not voting for Chirac, but rather against Le Pen.

The vote for Chirac is being portrayed by the LCR as temporary tactical bloc with the “republican right” to keep out the far right. A massive victory for Chirac, they argue, will not be seen as legitimising his presidency. The more votes he gets, the more ridiculous he will look since many of his votes will come from a left electorate that has no confidence in him.

The LCR’s position is a flagrant break with the fundamental position of Marxists never to give support to bourgeois candidates: a position reaffirmed by Trotsky with regard to Germany and France in the 1930s when the threat of fascism was considerably greater.

Our principle is always to urge the working class to rely solely on its own independent forces and on allies won in struggle. The workers must never hand over their votes to the bourgeoisie.

But don’t we have to stop Le Pen? Yes indeed, but this is not the same as saying we have to help Chirac to beat Le Pen because he is a lesser evil. We do not accept for one minute the idea that fascism rules in France the moment Le Pen enters the Elysée.

Even if Le Pen were to win the presidency because of a massive spoilt ballot or abstention by workers, his democratic credentials with the masses would be nil and he would be the immediate target of a mass movement to bring him down.

The LCR’s alternative is to give Jacques Chirac a “republican mandate” to defeat fascism and hope he will not use it to attack the gains of the working class – if he can gain a majority in parliament in June. In fact this is like handing a loaded revolver to your most dangerous enemy.

No matter how weak and illegitimate Chirac appears today, his presidency will be strengthened by a massive electoral victory.

A challenge to his legitimacy has to come now not later, while workers and youth are mobilising in the streets. True, the LCR calls for such a mobilisation “on the Monday following” but it will not be massive for the simple reason that most people will say – the crisis is over, we stopped Le Pen, let’s give Chirac a chance or at best vote Socialist later to tie him up with another “co-habitation”.

If there is not a mass movement the end result of everything will be a strengthening of Chirac and the right – a right that will be more than ready to attract FN voters by hardening their positions on crime and immigration and that goes on to ravage the workers’ gains, give tax cuts to the rich, erode or eliminate the 35-hour week and so on.