France - The lethal threat of the National Front will have to be met with a working class counter-offensive

Apr/May 1997

Over the past decade, far-right parties have developed in several European countries, as ugly and threatening political by-products of the economic crisis.

In Britain, by contrast, despite the impact of the crisis, which has been in many respects more drastic than elsewhere, the far-right remains, so far, little more than a series of warring sects. There are certainly a whole range of reasons for this, but the main one seems to be the continuous rule of the Tory party over the past 18 years. For, during that whole period, this party has been a comfortable home for a vast array of reactionary politicians who, under a different government, might have gravitated towards the far-right.

But this situation may soon end with the return of the Labour party to office after the coming general election. Then, there will be much fewer incentives for the most reactionary wing of the Tory party to remain in its ranks. Some of these politicians may then feel that the time has come for them to embark on a new career by throwing in their lot with a far-right adventure and attempting to capitalise on the reactionary undercurrents produced by the crisis within society. An accelerating factor in this process, could then be the disorientation and frustration generated by the pro-business policies of the Labour party in power.

France provides a graphic example of such a process, with the rise of Le Pen's National Front under the left-wing governments of the 80s. It is important, therefore, for revolutionaries in Britain to understand the mechanisms which allowed the National Front to become a major force in French politics and to draw the lessons from it.

The influence of the French National Front today

In February, a series of events, which were widely reported in Britain, illustrated the influence acquired by Le Pen's National Front in French politics.

First came the National Front's victory in a local council by-election, in Vitrolles, a satellite-town of Marseille, in southern France. This is not the first time the NF has taken control of a local council. In the 1995 local election, Le Pen's party won a majority in the local councils of three towns in southern France, among which two are much larger than Vitrolles. But in the context of the run up to next year's general election, the Vitrolles by-election was given a particular significance by the media, as a barometer of the electorate and a warning that the next parliament may well include more than a few National Front MPs.

Then, later in February, there were a number of large-scale protests and demonstrations against the draft of a new anti-immigrant law - named after the current Home minister, Jean-Louis Debré. Not that there was, from the point of view of the ruling right-wing coalition, any real need for yet more anti-immigrant legislation. The host of laws inherited from the previous governments, including the Socialist party- led governments of the 80s, provided them with all the weapons they wanted, and much more, to police and intimidate immigrant workers. Their only reason for introducing further legislation was their constant need to run behind the National Front's xenophobic demagogy, again in the context of the run up to the next general election, in which the ruling parties will be competing with the National Front for the votes of a section of the electorate. And, once again, this underlined the fact that the NF has built enough political clout to influence the agenda of the right-wing parties.

Neither is this altogether new. For several years now, the NF's growth has been a real threat on the French political scene. Since its first breakthrough, in the 1984 European election, its electoral successes have fed on a combination of factors: the deep social degradation generated by the capitalist crisis, aided by the pro-business politicies of the left-wing parties while they were in office; a series of high-level corruption scandals involving all parliamentary parties, on the right and on the left; and, the resulting bitterness and suspicion towards politics in general, and left-wing ideas in particular.

In terms of numbers, the electoral strength of the National Front has been more or less stable over the past few years. But there has been one important, and potentially dangerous development - the growth of the NF vote and influence among the poorest layers of the population. This development is the direct product of the policies of the left-wing parties in government. These left-wing governments proceeded to distribute state subsidies and favours to the capitalist class and the rich, on a scale which no previous right-wing governments had ever dared to risk. And of course, when the right-wing parties came back to power, they just carried on along the same line, using their left-wing predecessors' policies as a justification.

As a result of this, a whole section of the working class has been pushed brutally into severe deprivation while left-wing ideas were discredited among this section and beyond. Many people among these poorer layers have become convinced that neither the right-wing nor the left-wing parties would ever do anything against the plague of unemployment. And this boosted the credit of the National Front among these layers, simply because it was the only party which had remained in opposition throughout the previous period.

The traditional parties paved the way for the NF's racist rhetoric

Since 1984, the whipping up of racist prejudices has been the main instrument for the NF to rally electoral support. Initially, this tactic was mainly successful among a layer of the right-wing electorate which is traditionally more responsive to this kind of demagogy, and in general to the mixed bag of reactionary ideas expressed by the NF. This layer was made mostly of middle-class voters who were becoming increasingly frustrated with the impotence of the traditional right-wing parties.

But already before 1984, the policies of the left-wing parties in government had started paving the way for the xenophobic demagogy of the National Front. When these parties came to office in 1981, it was estimated that around 300,000 immigrants were working in France "illegally", that is without the required residence permit. In August 1981, the left-wing coalition made its first and last gesture in favour of these "illegal" immigrant workers, by announcing that they would be granted legal status provided they registered before a set deadline. But at the same time, the left-wing government did exactly what it had criticised the previous right-wing government for - they tied the issue of a residence permit to having a proper regular job. For the illegal immigrant workers, many of whom were in casual or semi-legal employment, this legalisation process became a nightmarish race against time to find a proper employment contract.

Then, the following year, the government which also included ministers belonging to the Communist party, tightened the screw on all immigrants by introducing compulsory "residence certificates" - the same ones which were at the centre of this February's protest against the Debré draft law. This meant that, starting from 1982, anyone who wanted to invite a foreigner to stay in his place had to get such a certificate from the local council in order for his guest to be given an entry visa. Allegedly this was meant to ensure that residing foreigners would have proper accommodation. But in fact, it became a common pretext for turning down visa applications and, in particular, preventing immigrant workers from inviting their families to join them in France.

In 1982 and 1983 came the first large-scale redundancy programmes of the 80s, particularly in the car plants located in the Paris suburbs. The car industry employed a large number of immigrant workers who had been recruited directly in their own countries, in the 1960s, by the companies themselves. In February 1983, the massive job cuts triggered a series of strikes in these car factories. The response of Pierre Mauroy, the then Socialist prime minister, was to attack the strikers for being "manipulated by the ayatollahs".

At that point, the National Front already used its present racist, mostly anti-immigrant rhetoric, but its electoral support was still insignificant. And it was the policy of the left-wing government which, by pointing to the so-called "illegal" immigrants as a major factor in the then increasing unemployment, encouraged the rise of anti-immigrant feelings in the population and gave them a respectability which they would probably not have had otherwise.

Then came 1986 (the return of the right-wing to government), 1988 (again the Socialist party in office) and the final return of the right-wing parties in 1993. Each time, the new governments tightened the existing legislation against immigrant workers or, at least, made spectacular gestures to show that they were seriously implementing it. And each time this was done in the name of fighting "illegal immigration". It was this constant overbidding between the right- wing and left-wing parties which gave more and more currency, including within a section of the working class, to the idea that immigrant workers were somehow responsible for the unprecedented level of unemployment.

The advantages of this lethal game for politicians were obvious. It allowed them to divert the attention of the electorate, particularly of the working class, away from the real cause of the growing social crisis - the plundering of the economy by the bourgeoisie. While this cause was thus deliberately obscured, the capitalist class was able to prosper despite the economic crisis, by increasingly turning the screw on working people. And the electoral strength of the National Front went on growing, riding the increasing respectability of anti-immigrant prejudices.

The ambitions of the National Front

This being said, to describe the National Front merely as a racist party, as the British media usually does, can only be misleading, at best, if not a dangerous diversion from the real issues. The National Front is a lot more pragmatic and ambitious than that.

Le Pen is no more intrinsically racist than the average bourgeois politician. At least he is not racist when it comes to foreigners who are rich. He showed his keen support for Saddam Hussein's regime at the time of the Gulf War and maintain a good relationship with a some Third World oil barons too.

Le Pen's slogan - "Three million immigrants equal three million unemployed" - is obviously a cynical lie. But for all its crass stupidity, this slogan is just as much designed to be a diversion away from the real issues of the time as the anti-immigrant overbidding of the traditional parties is. It has allowed the National Front to appear to be more vocally and radically opposed to unemployment than any of the other parties, without ever raising the issue of the capitalists' responsibility. In so far as its policies seemed encapsulated in this slogan only, the NF has been able to capture the imagination of the most gullible minds in the poorer layers of the population - including among people who were not particularly racist - by giving them the illusion that the National Front offered a "new", "radical" solution to their hardships.

But for Le Pen, racism is no more than a mere lever to mobilise support without having to show the real nature of his aims. Because the National Front is not an ordinary party. True, a majority of its cadres are second-rate politicians who came from the traditional right-wing parties, because they felt that the NF could offer them a new, more successful career. Le Pen himself is a seasoned politician who has survived within the parliamentary system, or on its margins, since the 1950s. But Le Pen was also an officer during the Algerian war, and boasted proudly about the torture applied by the French army to Algerian nationalists. He was an MP for the now defunct "Poujadist" movement, a failed attempt at setting up a fascist party in the 1950s. Like him, the hard core of the National Front come from a far-right background.

The stronger the National Front feels, the less it will see the need to hide its real agenda behind the veil of its anti-immigrant demagogy. This has become more visible over the past year. Last September for instance, during a meeting of the NF youth wing, Le Pen was quoted saying: "We are probably about to live through a period of crisis. But crises are the midwives of History. Whenever a stalemate occurs, it is generally resolved by pushing human nature to its extreme possibilities in order to make way for a new era(..) There is no doubt that only the National Front can save this country from its present decadence(..) A time will come when all this will reach an end. There will be a revolution. The far-left is preparing for that time with the means that we all know(..) I believe you must prepare yourself for it too, because at one point or another the old worm-eaten structures of our system are going to collapse". Le Pen has certainly used such "radical" language in the past, but not so openly.

And what sort of "revolution" and "new era" is Le Pen referring to? On this there can be no doubt. Just after her election, the new National Front mayoress of Vitrolle made rabid attacks against immigrant workers - but in the same breath she attacked the unions. Mégret, Le Pen's right-hand man at the head of the National Front, explained recently in a public meeting that what is needed is "a society based on a hierarchy determined by personal merit and natural gifts" and that companies should return to a "feudal" internal regime with their workforces.

For all the NF's demagogy against unemployment, it does not intend to tie the hands of the bosses who are responsible for the mass redundancies of the past years, but on a contrary it wants to give them more "freedom" - that is more ways of squeezing profits out of the labour of the working class. And for all the NF's anti-immigrant demagogy, it would certainly be willing to allow the same bosses to import low-paid labour from the Third World, herded into sleeping quarters inside the factories themselves, as it is done today in the so- called "emerging economies" of South-East Asia and as many French companies have done themselves in the past.

The word "revolution", even used by Le Pen, means what it says - the seizure of power by force. And how would Le Pen free society of its present "decadence", if not by ridding it of all the forces which, according to him, are responsible for it - that is all the existing political parties (particularly those on the left but not only them), but primarily all working class organisations, particularly the trade unions which Le Pen has accused so often of taking the population hostage.

All the elements of a fascist policy are included in the short extract of Le Pen's speech quoted above, thereby showing that Le Pen himself considers such a policy as a possible course for the future. Of course, these are only words - for the time being. For these words to become reality, Le Pen would need much more than the millions of people who are currently prepared to vote for the National Front every now and then. On the one hand, Le Pen would need a different balance of forces in society to enable him to attract tens of thousands of people, particularly young people, who are desperate enough, but also determined enough, to be prepared to risk everything, including their own lives, for the National Front. On the other hand, Le Pen would need the bourgeoisie to fear so much for their profits, that they would want some way of crushing the resistance of the working class while being prepared, to this end, to face the significant problems attached to trusting their affairs to such dubious characters as Le Pen and his associates.

The situation in France has not reached this critical stage - on either of these two counts. But the National Front is preparing itself for all possible changes that may emerge as a result of today's situation. And the "radical" policy referred to by Le Pen in his speech, in fact a fascist policy, could become a credible option for him if the current economic crisis were to become significantly deeper - which is indeed one of the possibilities contained in the present situation.

The main parties and the National Front

The opposition of the right-wing parties to the National Front is purely tactical. The only reason why they are worried about the NF's high- profile is because the NF is bidding for the votes of a whole section of their own electorate. But at the same time, for them, as well as for the left-wing parties, Le Pen has become, primarily, a convenient alibi.

The main parties all agree on one thing - that it is possible to fight the National Front successfully at the level of political arguments - in the name of the "French republican traditions" or, in the case of the left-wing parties and some liberal politicians, in the name of anti- racism. Leaving the issue in the political sphere, allows them to conceal the deep-rooted social issues at stake, and the catastrophic role played by the capitalists' profit drive. As if it was possible to disssociate the political fight against the National Front from the social fight to change the balance of class forces! As if a rise of fascism, if it ever occurred, could be resisted by any means other than a mobilisation of the working class, on the basis of a programme which can offer a real solution to the present social degradation, particularly to unemployment!

In this respect, this February's protest offered a graphic example of the policy of the main parties.

The initiative originally taken by a few film directors to launch a petition against the further tightening of the "residence certificates" system, which was part of the draft Debré law, attracted wide support among intellectuals. The demonstration they called in Paris on February 22nd was a success, with 100,000 protesters, with many thousand more in other towns. The government did not back down, however, but only suggested the possibility of changing the way the "residence certificates" were administrated. In any case, the Debré law remained what it had been designed to be - an ostentatious way of tightening the screw further on immigrant workers. In the event, the ruling right-wing coalition proved more afraid of Le Pen and the possible loss of parliamentary seats to the National Front which might have resulted from the charge that the government was being "soft" on "illegal immigrants". More afraid of that, anyway, than of the tens of thousands of people, mostly intellectuals with liberal or left leanings, who demonstrated in the main towns of France.

As to the Socialist and Communist parties, they made a belated choice to take part in the Paris demonstration, but only once it had become clear that it was going to be a success. Their wavering showed that they were split between contradictory preoccupations. They wanted to please the left-wing voters who supported the protest, but they did no want to risk losing to the National Front the section of their electorate who are receptive to Le Pen's anti-immigrant demagogy. Likewise, they wanted to be seen as taking a high profile in opposing the government, but at the same time, they did not want to tarnish the image which they have built since 1981, as "responsible" government parties. The ultimate irony, of course, was that they ended up joining a protest against what was in fact the second leg of a law which they had introduced themselves in 1982, when they were in government!

The protest failed to achieve its aims. This does not mean it was wrong to stage it in the first place. Protesting is often necessary, and sometimes a duty, even when it is doomed to remain purely symbolic. The tragedy, in the present situation, is that the large milieu of intellectuals who initiated and staged this protest have nothing to offer the working masses in today's society - except to vote once again for the return of a left-wing government. The only perspective they have is yet another spell of the same social and economic policies, the same betrayals and the same scapegoating of immigrant workers which the Socialist party carried out during its ten years in office.

And these policies did nothing to attack the root causes behind the rise of unemployment - i.e. the profit drive and the capitalist market - nor to restrain the capitalists' ruthless attacks on the working class. Nor did these policies do anything to shift the weight of the sacrifices, which were imposed on working people, onto the profiteers. These policies have led large sections of workers to despair, by convincing them that the left-wing parties would never want, or be able to do anything to stop the rot - since these parties themselves kept repeating that the only way to fight unemployment was to ensure that no effort should be spared to boost the companies, their profits, and more generally capitalist profit as a whole. It is because of this that most workers today can no longer see any objective worth fighting for, except when they are left with no other option than to put up a desperate resistance against redundancies.

Ultimately, it is these policies which, by fuelling the growth of unemployment, spreading despair in the working class districts and disorientating the working class, have paved the way for the rise of the National Front, including among the working masses.

Fighting the threat of the National Front

The rise of Le Pen feeds on this mixture of impoverishment, social despair and unemployment. It can only be confronted through an attack on its root causes, by regaining some of the ground lost to the rich over the past decades, by forcing the capitalist class as a whole to dig deep into its accumulated profits to alleviate the most blatant of today's social ills - unemployment in particular. Speeches, marches, protests, are necessary to ensure that the attacks of the capitalists and its government, and the progress of reactionary ideas in society, are not left unopposed. But in and on themselves such actions can only be symbolic at best. To really counter the National Front threat, and the pressure it exercises in society, what is needed is a much more ambitious movement, aimed at the deep social factors involved, with a perspective offering a solution for society as a whole - i.e. a perspective which could become a credible basis for a counter-offensive by the working class.

Not that there are no strikes in France. But they are mostly defensive, isolated and confined to issues which are specific to the workers involved. Whereas to achieve gains which can benefit the working class as a whole, what is needed is a determined fight which spreads across the different sections of the working class. And such a fight will have to focus on objectives which can really change the social situation of the working masses, and weaken the economic domination of the capitalist class.

What could these objectives be? Back in 1995, at the time of the last presidential election, Lutte Ouvrière, the French organisation of the ICU, formulated such objectives in an "emergency programme".

Against unemployment, said this "emergency programme", companies, particularly those which are profitable, should be left with only one of two choices: either stop all redundancies or else face expropriation without compensation. All state subsidies to private companies should be ended and the government should be compelled to use the savings made to create jobs directly in the public services, by restarting the large-scale development of affordable public housing, and in general creating new activities which are useful to society as a whole. Of course, it would be necessary for all wages to be increased, and working hours reduced, to levels which are compatible with a decent life.

But more importantly, argued the "emergency programme", the working class should aim at giving itself the means to ensure that the social relationship of class forces will not be shifted back again at their expense; that the bosses will no longer be left free to do whatever they please, according to the needs of their profits. It is therefore vital that workers' control, and the control of the population as a whole, over all aspects of companies' management - their finances, their assets, how they use them, where their profits go, etc.. - should become a fundamental objective for the working class. This would involve, in particular, ending once and for all commercial and banking secrecy, which allows the capitalists to hide their theft, embezzlement and corruption from the eyes of the man in the street while victimising those employees who have the courage to break this wall of conspiracy. As long as the capitalist class, particularly at its highest levels, retains exclusive control over the economy, the working masses cannot remain protected from the madness of their profit-driven system. Only direct control over all aspects of economic life by workers can provide them with a real safeguard. And this control must extend to the entire operation of the state, from local government level to the very top of the state machinery.

And the "emergency programme" concluded that, for a class consisting of millions of people involved in every possible aspects of social activity, it would be possible to implement such objectives. But to implement them and, more importantly, to impose their implementation on the capitalists, will only be achieved through the collective action of the working class.

The objectives outlined by LO's "emergency programme" are not revolutionary objectives as such. They are merely the objectives which are dictated by the catastrophic situation created in France, and in fact throughout the industrialised countries, by the capitalist crisis. Building up the struggle to impose these objectives, however, will require a party representing the class interests of the working class, that is a revolutionary party which aims at overthrowing the capitalist system, a communist party.

Such a party does not exist in France, any more than anywhere else in the world. And yet, it is only through the struggle to build such a party, a struggle which cannot be separated from that of preparing the social counter-offensive of the working class on the basis of objectives such as those outlined above, that revolutionaries can hope to play their role in ensuring that the threat of the National Front is effectively checked and eventually defeated, and that, at the same time, the catastrophic slide into social deprivation produced by the capitalist crisis is effectively reversed.