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Sarkozy is out; now workers need to fight for their programme

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Celebrations on the streets, in the Place de la Bastille and across France, greeted François Hollande’s victory in the second round of the French presidential elections. The Socialist Party (PS) was back in the Elysée Palace after seventeen years in the wilderness. People do have real reasons to rejoice.
First of all, Nicholas Sarkozy has been sent into political retirement. “Virer Sarkozy” (to get rid of Sarkozy) was the objective of millions who had simply had enough of “the rich people's president”, of his attacks on pensions, on the right to strike, on jobs in the public sector, his racist slurs against Muslims, Roma and immigrants.

Young people hated him because under him there were no jobs or only precarious ones, access to education was narrowed and its quality reduced by cuts in funding and teaching posts. Throughout his five years in power, ordinary people have seen a real decline in their living standards. Now, 13.5 per cent of the population are living below the official poverty line of 950 euros a month. One million more people are now unemployed than when Sarkozy became president. France now has a 10 per cent unemployment rate as compared to Germany’s 5.6 per cent.

But a tiny elite did very well indeed under Sarkozy. He governed for his friends at the top of the banks and the big corporations, giving then a “fiscal shield” to lower their taxes. The same protection was applied to the biggest monopolies, like Total-Elf, who are not paying a cent to the state despite their huge profits. No wonder France is running a big state debt and budget deficit.

Ironically, Sarkozy’s presidency was indelibly stained by his biggest victory – over the movement against his pension reform in 2010. This was a real popular uprising with giant demonstrations and strikes but, whilst it proved incapable of stopping the” reform”, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Sarkozy.

Workers, young people, sections of the middle class, turned to the ballot box to settle the score. The CGT, the main trade union federation, broke with its hundred year-old syndicalist tradition and campaigned from autumn 2011 to kick out Sarkozy. For the first time, they gave a clear indication on how to vote.

As the polls made it clearer and clearer that the incumbent was heading for a humiliating defeat, he flirted increasingly openly with the ideas and slogans of Marine Le Pen and the Front National (FN). He expressed his understanding of FN voters and proclaimed the party part of the Republic. He targeted immigrants, especially Muslims, for not integrating into French society, for causing housing shortages and a lack of jobs. “We have too many foreigners on our territory” ,he said, claiming he would cut immigration to 100,000 a year.

His campaign reached a veritable paroxysm of racism in the last days before the second round, with attacks on multiculturalism, a sickening flattery of French identity, and claims he would defend the national borders against hordes of migrants.

So, good, Sarkozy and his gang are out. But what are the prospects for the new President who, like Barack Obama, claims he represents change?

François Hollande is a true product of the PS apparatus. His rise began during the era of Lionel Jospin’s leadership (1997-2002). He was chosen as party secretary because he was a low-key figure, no threat to the many ambitious rival leaders of that party. His campaign was similarly downbeat. His 60 commitments are, with a few exceptions, a catalogue of vague promises. He has promised to create 60,000 new jobs for teachers, to create some jobs for young people, to tax the rich.

However, a repeated buzzword of his campaign was “redresser la France”. This has a very ambiguous meaning, to say the least. It can mean to set the country straight in an almost moral sense but it also means to sort out the books. Indeed, Hollande aims to return to the Maastricht budget criteria within five years.

All this ambiguity has a reason. Hollande knew he could win simply because the hatred for Sarkozy was so strong. He also knew that the economic situation is so bad that he might have to resort to some of the austerity measures applied in other European countries, like Spain or Italy. While he promised to renegotiate the EU economic treaties to introduce some Keynesian measures, it will be a hard fight to extract any change in them from Angela Merkel. On the other hand, he also knows that he will be faced with the demands of the masses for concrete measures to improve their lives. He has promised to replace austerity with growth as his number one priority

The direction of a Hollande presidency will be influenced in the immediate future by the outcome of the elections for the National Assembly, to be held in June. One important question is whether or not he will need the support of the Front de Gauche (Left Front) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This is a composite formation, including the Parti de Gauche (a split from the Socialist Party, headed by Mélenchon himself) and the French Communist Party (PCF.)

Mélenchon has already declared that he will not enter any coalition government with the PS. However, the PCF, which has supported PS-led governments for decades, has already started behind the scenes negotiations with PS for electoral pacts in the Assembly election and this could ensure that the party gains a significant number of MPs.

The outcome of these elections depends also on the fate of Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). The FN will be able to stand candidates in more than 200 constituencies, including in the second round. In many cases, this would imply a defeat for UMP candidates and, indeed, the FN is counting on this to bring about an “implosion” of the UMP.

The task for revolutionaries is to mobilise the working class to fight to impose the measures needed to improve their everyday lives: major increases in jobs, housing, wages and pensions and public services. While the trade unions will undoubtedly try to cease campaigning now, in favour of discussion, urging their members not to rock the boast now that they have a friendly president and government, experience shows that only vigorous class struggle will extract any serious reforms even from a PS president and government. When workers' pressure let up on Mitterrand in the early 90s, reforms ground to a halt and went into reverse.

The best example to follow is that of 1936, when workers went on strike and occupied their factories to obtain the reforms that the government of Front Populaire hesitated to adopt. To get the sit-down strikers out of their plants, they granted paid holidays and big wage increases. Revolutionaries today should try to initiate a large class struggle movement on the basis of an action programme to sweep away the austerity, to bring real growth in jobs, housing, improved education and health services and citizenship rights for sans papiers. This is a real possibility because there has been a rash of workers' struggles in recent months.

Throughout the winter, workers have been fighting against factory closures at Arcelor Mittal in Florange, PSA-Aulnay and Fralib (Marseille). Indeed, several large companies delayed announcements of job cuts or closures until after the elections so there could be a large wave of attacks in the coming weeks. Several hundreds of thousands of activists have marched in the CGT initiated days of action and on May Day. The high score (11 per cent) for the left reformist Mélenchon and his vibrant campaign also shows this determination and readiness to fight.

The New Anticapitalist Party, NPA, despite being upstaged by Mélenchon and receiving a low vote, can nevertheless play a vital role if it fights for a united front with the Front de Gauche and the members of the PS who voted for an end to austerity and for taxes on the rich. It needs to advance an action programme of demands that really meet the needs of workers, youth and the unemployed. It should also warn that, without a fight, no amount of pressure from within the institutions, such as Mélenchon and PCF promise, will be enough to win real gains.

The PS has already shown that it will manage the bourgeois state on behalf of the bosses and will not take any measures against them unless its survival is at stake. Revolutionaries should also promote forms of self-organisation from below to keep the control of the movement in the hands of the rank and file. However, given that reformists are in office, and could soon have all the levers of power, including the Senate, the situation is both challenging and full of potential developments.

Now workers have to push their “own” representatives to take the actions they need or face action by the workers themselves. It is in these struggles that the NPA could emerge as a new rallying pole for workers sick of austerity and the system - but only if the NPA separates itself from the semi-reformist Gauche Anticapitaliste and initiates a bold campaign for a “third round”, based on workers' struggles.