France - Jospin's anti-working class policies give a platform to Le Pen and a springboard to Chirac

May/June 2002

The first round of the French presidential election, on 21st April, produced a largely unexpected outcome. Chirac, the outgoing right-wing president topped the poll, with just under 20% of the votes. But the second position was won by Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right Front National, with 16.9%, beating Jospin, the Socialist Party candidate and current prime minister, by a mere 0.7%. According to the undemocratic rules of the French presidential election, this meant that in the second round, voters would have the "choice" between the semi-official representative of big business and a raving far-right demagogue - a choice between plague and cholera!

However, this blatant lack of choice was paid no attention, rather it was the fact that Le Pen had made it to the second round that took centre-stage. All of a sudden, the spectre of a "fascist threat" hanging over France was raised. Never mind the fact that given the 30.6% of the vote won collectively by the three right-wing candidates on the first round, Chirac could rely on a comfortable majority over Le Pen, without having even to count at all on left-wing voters - who were certainly not going to vote for Le Pen anyway.

The politicians and the media were responsible for this sleight of hand. As soon as the first estimates were announced on television, on the evening of the ballot, one after the other, all the main parties issued melodramatic statements calling on people to vote for Chirac in the second round, "to stop Le Pen" and "defend the Republic." At the same time commentators and representatives of the ruling "plural left" coalition were busy covering up the real causes behind Jospin's poor score. Of course, they did not blame Jospin's losses on his policies during his five-year tenure in government, nor on the fact that the Socialist Party's three partners in government had stood candidates against him. Instead they blamed the low turnout and the 11% of the electorate who had voted for far-left candidates - dismissing contemptuously their votes as "protest" votes. But above all, they focused their interventions on the "new catastrophic situation" created by Le Pen's score.

The next morning the papers followed suit with huge headlines such as "the Le Pen bomb", "the earthquake", "the shock", etc.., presenting the score achieved by Le Pen on the first round as a watershed and implying that there was a serious danger that Le Pen might win in the second round.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of youth had taken to the streets across the country in order to express their disgust at Le Pen's repulsive mixture of racism and reactionary garbage. Undoubtedly, this was a genuine reaction on the part of the vast majority of these protestors, and a healthy one. But the main political parties had their own agenda, which was not that of most of the protestors.

There were indeed more and more statements by both left-wing and right-wing politicians indicating that their eyes were already set beyond the second round of the presidential election, on the general election due on 9th June. In the name of "stopping Le Pen" they were now advocating not just a vote for Chirac on the second round of the presidential election, but joint candidates in their respective camps for the first round of the general election. The so-called "republican front" allegedly aimed at "stopping Le Pen" was merely a cover for politicking. The aim of the exercise was clearly to frighten the electorate, including the discontented, into voting for these joint candidates so as to get as many MPs elected on the first round as possible (which requires winning at least 50% of the vote, otherwise a second round takes place and the winner is the candidate who gets the largest vote).

The political blackmail underlying the "stop Le Pen" slogan also became increasingly visible in the demonstrations that carried on every day thereafter in most large towns, with the groups associated with the "plural left" partners linking vociferously what they called the "fascist danger" to their shameless "vote Chirac" slogan - which did not necessarily represent the feelings of all demonstrators but certainly contributed to the general atmosphere, if only because of the footage of the demonstrations which were shown everyday on television.

Facts and fiction about Le Pen's "threat"

So what are the facts about the far-right vote in the French presidential election?

In this election, Le Pen won 4,805,307 votes (or 16.9%). But his scores in the two previous presidential elections were 4,571,138 votes (15%) in 1995 and 4,375,894 (14.39%) in 1988. So this is only a marginal increase evenly spread over a period of 14 years - but certainly not a watershed!

However, to refine this comparison one should take into account other candidates which, in each of these elections, stood for the same kind of anti-immigrant demagogy and xenophobic nationalism. This year, there was another far-right candidate, in fact Le Pen's former right-hand man, who polled 2.3% of the vote. So altogether, the far-right won 5,472,430 (19.2%). In 1995, however, another far right candidate, de Villiers, polled 4.7% of the vote, bringing the total score of the far-right that year to 6,014,373 (or 19.7%). This means that, since the last presidential election, the far right has actually lost votes, both in absolute terms (minus 541,943) and in relative terms (minus 0.5%).

So, while the far-right vote remains high (but this has been the case for many years now), it has not actually increased, but slightly decreased. And the only thing that can be said about Le Pen is that he has slightly increased his share of this far-right vote, which, in and of itself, cannot by any stretch of imagination turn him suddenly into a "threat."

To put things into perspective, it should be recalled that the existence of a significant far-right current in public opinion goes back a long way in France. In 1951, for instance, De Gaulle's RPF (French Popular Union) was a short-lived but powerful and militant attempt at mobilising this current on the basis of populist nationalist demagogy. Later on, in the 1950s, Poujade's UDCA (Shopkeepers' and Craftsmen's Defence Union) was another such attempt. In 1956, Poujade was able to win 2.5m votes (12%) in a general election, with Le Pen winning a seat as a UDCA MP. In the early 1960s, at the end of the Algeria war, there was another attempt to set up a far-right party, this time behind a terrorist organisation, the OAS, which was then fighting against De Gaulle's plan to withdraw from Algeria. It never materialised into an electoral party, mainly because its base of support - the former French settlers in Algeria who came back to France after Algeria's independence - found no difficulty integrating quickly into an economy which was still expanding.

Even in periods when this far-right milieu did not have any independent political expression, it influenced French politics by other means - if only through its influence among the cadres of the state machinery, in the police and the army, or even among the ranks of traditional right-wing parties, like De Gaulle's own party in the decade following the Algeria war. This is why, today, some of Le Pen's cadres originated from the ranks of Chirac's RPR, while some of his henchmen came straight from the shady agencies set up by the French state to keep control over its former African colonies.

During the 1970s, the far-right electorate was virtually absorbed by the traditional right-wing parties, with openly far-right candidates in national elections polling less than 1%. Then the Socialist Party came to power in 1981 and, shortly afterwards, came the return of large-scale unemployment. It was against this backdrop that the far-right re-emerged suddenly onto the electoral scene, in the 1984 European election, with Le Pen's Front National winning over 2 million votes and just under 11%. Since then, the rise in unemployment and casualisation, together with the resulting rise in poverty and petty criminality, has provided Le Pen with plenty of ammunition - and his electorate has never ceased to increase, albeit slowly and with various ups and downs as the figures above show.

So far, the Front National has been unable to play any role on a national level because the election rules have prevented it from winning seats in Parliament, due to their bias in favour of the large parties. Nevertheless, the existence of this large far-right electorate has heavily influenced the policies of the main parties, both left and right-wing, as they were vying for the far-right votes by making more and more concessions to the prejudices of that electorate. This was illustrated by the anti-immigrant measures taken both by left- and right-wing governments in the past and, during the run-up to the latest election, by the way in which both Jospin and Chirac focussed their campaign on law and order and "zero tolerance."

And this is not the only way in which the far-right electorate has had an impact on the political scene. It should be recalled, for instance, that in the 1997 general election, Jospin and the Socialist Party only won a majority because the Front National split the right-wing vote in the second round in many constituencies - which makes it a bit rich on the part of the Socialist Party leaders to blame the "new catastrophic situation" created by Le Pen's score, just because they have been defeated this time round!

Supporting Chirac cannot be a way to fight Le Pen

This is to say that Le Pen's score is neither a watershed, nor the expression of a fascist threat, but the continuation of a long-standing factor which weighs on French politics. It is obvious that the existence of this far-right electorate and its consolidation over the years is a potential threat for the French working class. In particular it can become a powerful a lever in the hands of a Le Pen, who is a lethal enemy of the working population, someone whose policy, despite his populist demagogy, is to serve the interests of big business, just like Chirac admits openly or Jospin does hypocritically, but by using dictatorial methods if he is given the chance. But this potential threat has been there for a long time now. And it is no more a threat today, just because Le Pen has beaten Jospin into second place on 21st April, than it was a month ago, a year ago, or ten years ago.

The leaders of the main parties are perfectly conscious of this, of course. Their dramatisation of Le Pen's score is just a pack of lies and a cover up designed to serve their own agenda.

Chirac and his side have an obvious interest in presenting themselves as "bulwarks of democracy" against Le Pen. This is a unique (and unexpected) chance for Chirac to be elected with an unprecedented score despite the many convictions for corruption which have been hanging over his head for years. Moreover this may allow him to boast of the support of a large section of the working class electorate despite being a noted mouthpiece of the Medef, the French equivalent of the CBI.

As far as the left-wing parties (the Socialist Party, the Green Party, the Communist Party and the Left Radical Party) are concerned, brandishing the "fascist threat" is a convenient way to justify their shameless endorsement of Chirac and, by the same token, to try to divert attention from their responsibility in the continuing existence of a large far-right electorate for such a long time. [On the record of the "plural left" in government, see the article we published in issue #43 of Class Struggle]

Ironically the same left-wing parties which contributed to pushing Jospin into third place in the first round, by standing candidates against him, are now falling over themselves to support Chirac unconditionally on the second round. Yet, by doing so, they are effectively endorsing in advance Chirac's future policies. And what kind of policies can be expected from this representative of big business, if not more attacks against the working class, and probably an intensification of these attacks on the strength of such a unanimous endorsement?

In reality, by supporting Chirac the left-wing parties deprive themselves of any means of convincing Le Pen's voters or potential voters that they are voting against their interests. Of course part of Le Pen's electorate is made of reactionaries who dream of a "strong state" which would turn the screw on the working class and possibly impose a reactionary straightjacket on society as a whole. But unfortunately many of Le Pen's voters are also part of, or close to the working population - people who are misled by Le Pen's demagogy and fail to see that, in reality, he is their worst enemy.

Of course, if Le Pen has captured the votes of so many people for nearly two decades, it is often because they have been disgusted by the policies of the left-wing parties when they were in office. As a result these parties are not in the best position to change the minds of these voters. But if they were really serious about fighting Le Pen, the very least they could do would be at least to try. But instead, by aligning themselves behind Chirac, the left- wing parties can only reinforce Le Pen's false image as the only radical opponent to the system as a whole.

The left-wing parties' alignment behind Chirac in the name of fighting Le Pen exposes how little importance these parties attach to their political differences with Chirac and the right-wing. It is therefore a fraud, which is all the more deceptive because the dividing line between the traditional right represented by Chirac and Le Pen's far-right is more often than not a matter of circumstance and political expediency rather than a matter of principle.

Indeed, it should be recalled that Chirac built his political career, in 1976, by launching the RPR as an updated version of De Gaulle's old far-right RPF of the 1950s. At the time, Chirac presented himself as the representative of a "hard" right as opposed to the "soft" right represented by the then president Giscard d'Estaing. Subsequently, Chirac never had any qualms about wooing racist prejudices among the electorate. So, for instance, when Chirac came back to power in 1986, his Interior Minister embarked on a series of demonstrative gestures, including packing immigrants into charter planes to deport them and the introduction of a series of anti-immigrant laws.

There is no saying, therefore, what Chirac might borrow from Le Pen's catalogue of reactionary measures once he is in power, whether in terms of repression against immigrants, in terms of law and order and, of course, in terms of legislation against the working class. Like Le Pen, Chirac has often said, for instance, that he was in favour of curbing the right to strike - something that he has never dared to do but which he would feel more confident to risk if, thanks to the left-wing parties' support, he was able to pose as the "president of the nation as a whole". Besides, what guarantee is there that Chirac will not, at some point, try to secure the support of the far-right electorate by co-opting Le Pen or some faction of his party in government, as it was done in Italy, in Austria or in Denmark?

The future will tell what course of action Chirac chooses towards the far-right. But which ever choice he makes, Chirac's election will not be a way to stop Le Pen's ideas. Rather it will open various ways through which these ideas could be implemented by the top spheres of the state.

Fighting Le Pen and his ideas, therefore, cannot be done through the "anti-Le Pen" front which justifies the left-wing parties' support for Chirac on the second round of the presidential election, nor through any other front of this type which may be formed later by these parties. Indeed, the Socialist Party and the right-wing parties are just as responsible for Le Pen's continuing influence. Supporting them cannot help to fight Le Pen, it can only pave the way for a further strengthening of the far-right.

On the contrary fighting Le Pen would involve helping to rebuild the confidence of all those workers who have been disgusted and confused by the betrayals of the left-wing organisations and parties which they trusted, so that these workers regain a willingness to fight collectively for their class interests and, by the same token, so regain their loyalty to the values of their class.

The "plural left" disowned

All the noises made around Le Pen's result only conceal the only really new development in the first round of the presidential election - namely the drop in the Socialist Party votes.

This drop can be measured by comparing the 4,610,749 votes (16.2%) won by Jospin this time to his 7,097,786 votes (23.3%) in the 1995 presidential election - not to mention the 10,367,200 votes (34.1%) won by Mitterrand in the 1988 presidential election! The Socialist Party leaders may well still keep boasting about their "achievements" in government, but the fact is that Jospin has paid the price of five years of pro-business policies against the working class.

Jospin's losses and the increased abstention (+6.8%), show clearly that a large part of the working class electorate no longer wanted Jospin and the policies he represents. The view of Jospin simultaneously admitting his defeat and announcing his decision to retire from politics was highly symbolic. It exposed the cowardice and paralysis of a Socialist Party which proved incapable of sensing the increasing frustration of the working population because of its obsessive concern for the interests and wishes of the privileged classes.

Of all the components of the "plural left", the Communist Party paid the highest price for Jospin's policies in office and the four ministers it had in his government. In the 1995 presidential election, when the electorate of the CP had already shrunk considerably, compared to what it used to be two decades before, its candidate, Robert Hue, won 2,632,430 votes (8.64%). This time, the same candidate won only 960,757 votes (3.37%). Losing over 60% of one's votes can only be described as a rout. This also reflects the fact that a section of those who reject Jospin's policy belong to the CP electorate, particularly its working class electorate.

Above all the CP's rout means that the policy of its leadership has been disowned by its supporters. However, it is not so much the fact that the CP participated in Jospin's government which has been censored, but rather the consequences of this participation - the total subjection of the CP's policy to Jospin's choices; the endorsement by the communist transport minister of a long list of privatisation measures; the communist MPs' loyal support to the government whenever Jospin was uncertain of winning a vote, even on legislation which the CP had criticised (for instance on the 35h law, with all the pro-business measures it included).

When the CP joined Jospin's government in 1997, Hue promised that there was no question of its ministers going "once again through the failed experience of 1981- 94", a period in which communist ministers in a Socialist Party-led government had endorsed a long series of measures against the working class, including a wage freeze and the steel plan, which resulted in thousands of redundancies in the steel industry. However, despite these promises, the CP went through the same "experience" and it "failed" again. Once again it endorsed a long series of anti-working class measures and, this time, a large part of its electorate censored the policy of its leadership by voting for other candidates or abstaining.

During this year's election campaign, Hue devoted a lot of time to attacking Arlette Laguiller, the candidate of our French comrades of Lutte Ouvrière. When he did not relay various slanders and insults against Arlette (which was most of the time), Hue counter-posed his "political realism" to the "utopian" objectives that she defended in the election. One can only measure today the worth of this "realism" in Hue's own terms - i.e. in terms of votes - since Arlette's "utopia" and consistent opposition to Jospin's policy over the previous five years allowed her to obtain nearly twice as many votes as Robert Hue. And if nothing else, this showed at least that it was possible for a candidate who stood clearly as a communist to win the electoral support of a sizeable layer of the working population on the basis of a programme of radical objectives aimed at stopping the bosses' offensive.

The scores of the far-left

There were three far-left candidates in this election, all Trotskyist: Arlette Laguiller for Lutte Ouvrière, Olivier Besancenot for the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League, French section of the United Secretariat) and Daniel Gluckstein for the PT (Workers' Party).

Arlette Laguiller won 1,630,244 votes (5.72%) compared to 1,615,552 votes (5.3%) in 1995. This represents only a small increase both in absolute and relative terms.

The stability of Lutte Ouvrière's electorate, at least since 1995, is all the more remarkable because it has shown a consistent support for the programme of radical objectives defended by Lutte Ouvrière for a number of years - including the control by the working population over the operation of companies; the end to commercial secrecy; the banning of redundancies by companies which make a profit and the confiscation by the state without compensation of all companies threatened with bankruptcy; an end to state funds being used to subsidise private companies and their allocation to create real, useful, jobs in the public sector; etc.. This stability is also remarkable because, even when they do not support communist ideas themselves, these voters are not bothered by the fact that Arlette claims to be a communist.

Olivier Besancenot, the LCR candidate, won 1,21,694 votes (4.25%). This confirms the electoral support won by the LCR in last year's local election, thereby showing that this organisation has a significant electorate of its own. Since the 1974 presidential election this electorate never had a chance to reveal its existence because the LCR chose to support other candidates in the subsequent presidential elections (1981, 1988 and 1995) rather than stand its own. For instance, in 1995, the LCR supported without distinction Arlette Laguiller, the CP candidate and the Green candidate. But the fact that the LCR was not standing a candidate did not mean that there was not a potential electorate for its ideas. The score it won in 2001 and this year are there to prove it.

Finally Daniel Gluckstein for the PT won 132,702 votes (0.47%), a small but not insignificant result.

Whereas in 1995, Arlette Laguiller was the only far-left candidate in the presidential, this time voters had a choice between three far-left candidates. And indeed, contrary to the nonsense floated with utter contempt by a number of politicians and commentators, those who voted for the far-left candidates did not do so merely as a "protest vote". Not only did they make a political gesture with regard to the left-wing parties which went beyond merely abstaining or spoiling their votes, but they made a political choice between the various programmes.

Some would argue that a better choice would have been for the three organisations to stand a joint candidate. This might be the case in an election in which there is something at stake, unlike in this presidential election - for instance the possibility of having MPs or MEPs elected. But in this presidential election there was nothing to gain for the far-left, by standing a joint candidate. There are even reasons to think that a joint candidate would have gained a lower score than the total won by the three Trotskyist candidates this time, which is more or less double that won by Arlette Laguiller in 1995. On the other hand, this election offered revolutionaries an opportunity to present publicly their ideas on a national scale in front of the working class. In such a case, rather than presenting a joint platform, which, of necessity, involves all sorts of compromises and does not represent accurately the policies of any of the allied groups, it makes more sense for all components of the revolutionary left to present their ideas separately, so that the working class can judge for itself. The issue here is not to use such an election as a means to fight for the "leading position" among the far-left, but rather to enhance the political landscape by having a choice of policies addressing the concerns of different social milieus. And indeed, in this election, voters were therefore able to make a choice on the basis of the various programmes rather than just voting for the fa-left label.

That being said, of course, elections have their limitations. In and of itself winning votes for one programme does not constitute a step forward for a revolutionary organisation. Beyond these election results, what will really count for the future is the ability of each component of the revolutionary left to build a significant influence in the working class and in its future struggles.

28 April 2002