France - After the general election

Jul/Aug 1997

The snap general election called by the French right-wing president Chirac, in May, backfired. The right-wing coalition which had been in government since 1993 was neatly defeated - at least in terms of seats. And Jospin, the Socialist party leader, took over as prime minister thanks to a narrow parliamentary majority which he owes to his coalition with the Communist party and a few other minor groupings.
We reproduce here an assessment of this election and the resulting political situation, adapted from an article published in the July issue of Lutte de Classe, the monthly journal of Lutte Ouvrière, the French organisation of the ICU.

The unexpected victory of the left-wing parties in the general election of May 25 and June 1 has created a new political situation. These parties find themselves in a position to take over from the previous right-wing government, not so much due to having increased their share of the vote but rather due to the demobilisation of the right-wing electorate and the voting tactics adopted by Le Pen's National Front.

The reality behind the result - no shift to the left

The figures speak for themselves. Although the size of the left-wing electorate has increased compared to the 1993 general election - which was particularly disastrous for the left-wing parties - it is still a minority in the country. In the first round, the total vote cast by the left-wing parliamentary parties together with that of the revolutionary left and non-aligned left-wing candidates, even with the addition of the Greens, only made up 44.28% of the electorate (with 11,217,626 votes), compared to a total of 51.25% for the right and far right (12,984,402 votes).

One way to claim that the left-wing parties have won an electoral majority is by ignoring the National Front and putting its vote in a separate category. Or else one might be so afflicted with parliamentary cretinism as to count only the number of deputies while disregarding the actual influence of the different parties in the electorate. In both cases, however, it is pure nonsense to celebrate the "defeat of the right". Such statements cannot conceal what really happened in this ballot, nor the electoral shift to the National Front - which won 3,785,104 votes (14.94% of the electorate) compared to 3,152,543 votes (12.42%) in the 1993 election.

Significantly, if we compare the results of the last three general elections - in 1988, 1993 and 1997 - the National Front has progressed each time. Of course, compared to the 1993 ballot, the Socialist party current (i.e. the Socialist party itself, the Radicals, the non-aligned lefts parties and Chevènement's recently created Citizen's Movement) seem to have made a spectacular progress, going from 5,109,440 votes (20.12%) in 1993 to 7,245,376 votes (28.60%) in 1997. But looking back just one general election should be enough to dampen any sense of triumph even among the most hotheaded Socialist party supporters. Indeed, this time round the Socialist party and its allies fell far short of their score in the 1988 general election (their previous victory), in which they won 9,169,708 votes (37.52%). They did not even get as many votes as they did in the 1986 general election - despite the fact that they lost that election and had to make way for the first "cohabitation" government with Chirac as prime minister and Mitterrand still president: in 1986, in fact, the Socialists and their allies won 9,102,771 votes (32.5%).

This is one the charms of the voting system in France: one can win an election which one lost nine years earlier with nearly 2 million more votes!

As to the results of the Communist party, they are not spectacularly good either. The 2,509,781 (9.91%) votes obtained by the CP in 1997 is certainly better than their 2,331,399 votes (9.18%) in 1993 - but singificantly less than their 2,765,761 votes (11.32%) in 1988.

Clearly, part of the right-wing electorate turned their backs on the parliamentary right in the first round to vote for Le Pen's candidates. This increase in the National Front vote enabled a larger number of FN candidates to stand in the second round. The three-way run-offs caused by this obviously favoured the Socialist party by dividing the right-wing electorate. Such is the key to the Socialist party's success!

The new ruling coalition

The main consequence, from which all the others stem, is of course that the Socialist party will be in office for some time. For how long? This is the first question, but it is difficult to answer it. The parliament's life is at most five years, which takes us up to 2002 - but that is also the year in which the next presidential election is due.

Whether the parliament completes its term of office or whether it is dissolved before 2002, it is obviously in the interests of the Socialist party leader Jospin, that the next few years should be as smooth as possible. For, at the moment, he is the main potential presidential candidate of the left wing, and it is not difficult to guess that he is keen to remain in this position.

But the next presidential election is still a long way off, and for Jospin the main priority is to face up to immediate tasks.

In the short term, the election victory of the left-wing parties has led to the hasty launch of a rehashed and downgraded version of the "Union of the Left" - although the Communist party leaders reject this term, and this new coalition is not even based on a joint programme of government.

Admittedly, the shaping up of the relationship between the Communist party and the Socialist party was accelerated by Chirac's decision to hold an early general election. But this acceleration was basically a push in the direction in which they were already moving, given the balance of forces between the Socialist party and the Communist party, and given the clearly-stated desire of the CP leader Robert Hue to get his party to take on "full responsibilities" - i.e. take part in government.

So there was no joint programme. There was nothing more than a hastily drafted joint declaration in which bombastic declamations and a mass of conflicting assertions can be found - in other words a jumble resulting from the desire of the Socialist party to avoid binding Jospin by too many promises and the desire of the CP to have an ambiguous text in which party members could find distant echoes of the Communist party's demands.

In any event, however, the programme was of little importance because the majority of the Communist party leadership was clearly in favour of government participation. Although for the first time a minority, including members of the party leadership, expressed opposition to the CP having ministers, and there was even some pretence at consulting party members, with the obvious verdict in favour of Hue's proposals.

In the end, Hue did not wait for any consultation before announcing on the very evening of the election victory that, whatever happened, his party was going to support a socialist government. There was no-one among the party leadership to question this statement - not even the "oppositionists" mentioned before.

And yet the Communist party was in a position to lay down conditions for supporting the Socialist party-led government. Indeed, the Socialist party had only 245 seats in parliament out of a total of 577. It therefore needed the support of the 36 Communist party deputies to get the parliament to endorse the new government.

Hue made no attempt to insist that Jospin should take up even some of the demands previously defended by the Communist party, moderate as they were, as a condition for CP support. No, Robert Hue handed himself over unconditionally, even if, when speaking to party members, some of whom were reluctant, he referred to secret meetings in the course of which Jospin had apparently made some mysterious promises to him.

So now the Communist party has ministers who are bound by government solidarity.

This is obviously a gift for Jospin, not only in terms of parliamentary arithmetic but, far beyond that, in political terms. The Communist party's reward for supporting the policy of the new government, including its most anti-working class aspects, was only three portfolios - two ministers and one secretary of state.

The agreement with the Greens was already fairly well advanced at the time of Chirac's decision to dissolve parliament. Thanks to the Socialist party, the ecologist movement, or at least its main current at present, has now been recognised as a "left-wing" current. Even though this will hardly have any significant consequences, given what the left-wing coalition is already anyway, it is nevertheless a departure from the Greens' past insistance that they were neither of the left nor of the right.

Green leader Dominique Voynet has been able to impose this line within her movement. And she has been rewarded for her troubles, as it happens thanks to the support of the Socialist party apparatus, since she now has eight deputies elected. This is considerably less than the twenty or so seats which her movement would have won on the basis of proportional representation, but more than would otherwise have been possible under the present electoral system - a system which the Socialist party does not seem to have any desire to change.

On top of this, Voynet is now a minister. She was even lucky enough to be able to announce measures such as the stopping of the construction of the great canal which was meant to join the Rhine and Rhone rivers, and the closure of a nuclear power plant at Creys-Malville. This allows the Greens to offer a semblance of justification for their presence in government, which they will have to pay for by toeing the Socialist party's line - a justification which they may have to give up at some point in the future, although it is much easier for a Socialist party government to take into account environmental concerns, provided they do not harm the bosses, than the vital demands of the working class, which necessarily go against the bosses' interests.

To be able to present his government as a "pluralist government of the left", Jospin simply had to rummage around a little on the scrapheap and salvage the old "Radical Socialists" - who, unbelievable as it may seem still exist - and Chevènement's Citizen's Movement.

Chevènement, who was several times a socialist minister under Mitterrand, has, as everyone knows, been trying to make his political fortune independently, basing himself almost entirely on nationalism reminiscent of the Third Republic and opposition to the Maastricht Treaty. Jospin's government is pro-Maastricht. Some of its members even took part in preparing the treaty. But Chevènement was not going to be stopped by such a trifle, especially with a top job as Minister of the Interior in the pipeline!

A government which the bosses can depend on

Yet Jospin had perhaps a more difficult task than reaching agreement with Hue or Voynet. He had to manage the "pluralism" of the socialist leadership itself. But his two successful coups - his decision to stand in the presidential election of 1995, which the other Socialist leaders had given up as a lost cause, and his success in the 1997 general election - have given him a lot more weight. The time was ripe to push aside the "elephants" of the party, and he proceeded to do so. Thus, willing or otherwise, people like Rocard, Fabius, Delors, Lang, Joxe and a few others were left on the deputies' benches without a post in government.

The appointment of a younger government, both in terms of age and seniority in the party, together with the number of women ministers, were certainly a media bonus for Jospin. The press obligingly hailed the "newness of the government", both in its composition and in its spirit. But Jospin also needed a few tried and trusted old charges, if only to confirm to the bosses and the bourgeoisie that Jospin has the right references.

And Jospin does indeed have very good "references". He was general secretary of the Socialist party from 1981 to 1988 and as such he was involved in all important decisions during the five years of the first socialist governments. Subsequently he was a state minister, apart from a short period under Bérégovoy, who was not interested in his services. And under the right-wing governments he tried to make a new career as a diplomat. People like Martine Aubry and Dominic Strauss-Kahn have also proven references - both of them have already been in government and given the bosses full satisfaction, the former as Minister for Labour (and also incidentally as daughter of Jacques Delors) and the other as Minister for Industry. Chevènement and Le Pensec, meanwhile, are old hands in the ministries.

The bourgeoisie's satisfaction was apparent not only in the various declarations made by employers' representatives but also on the Stock Exchange - share values showed no change apart from a slight upturn after the announcement of the new socialist government, despite its three Communist party members.

This is the team Jospin is going to govern with. For how long? Only time will tell. This mainly depends on the economic crisis, its seriousness and its consequences on the poorer classes.

In the four years between the historic electoral failure of the Socialist party in 1993, and its triumphant return in 1997, not only was the right- wing as a whole discredited, but also two successive right-wing governments, first Balladur's then Juppé's. It may not take long for Jospin's government to be discredited as well. At any rate, that is what the right-wing is already banking on.

The right-wing in opposition

For the right, 1997 has been a year of failure. And for the 148 deputies who now find themselves, if not unemployed, at least unseated from parliament one year earlier than planned, it is small comfort to reflect that if the elections had been held a year later things might have been even worse.

This failure, due, it must be stressed again, not to an irresistible rise of the left but to the National Front's tactic of standing in the second round in every constituency where it was possible, has caused an implosion of the parliamentary right. The fights between rival factions and cliques inside the two main right-wing parties - the RPR and the UDF - are probably far from over, even if they now seem to have settled down a bit. To a certain extent, this in-fighting is already about the presidential election of 2002 - at any rate in the sense that a politician aiming for the presidency needs many years not only to emerge out of these factional struggles, but above all to impose himself as the candidate of the right- wing as a whole, or at least as the single candidate of one of these two main parties.

No would-be president can be elected without the full support of a party apparatus. And although the parliamentary right only has two main political organisations, the RPR and the UDF, acting sometimes in unison and sometimes as rivals, it has at least half-a-dozen declared would-be candidates, not to mention those who have not yet announced their ambition and are waiting for one of the current rivals to slip up in order to do it.

To obtain the solid support of an apparatus, however, a politician needs to prove his worth, in particular through success in other elections. And the political agenda in France is such that, despite the general election being held early, 1998 is still a busy election year, with both cantonal and regional elections.

The cantonal elections are elections at departmental level to elect the members of the conseils généraux. For a long time, and especially since the laws on decentralisation, the conseil général has constituted, in each department, an important stronghold for the party controlling it. It has a budget to spend and certain prerogatives and powers. Power is almost exclusively in the hands of its president, elected by the majority party, and it provides many perks for the lower ranks of what the so-called "national representation", i.e. for local dignitaries and representatives of the petty and not-so-petty bourgeoisie.

The same is true, at a higher level, of the regional elections, which elect the regional councils.

So, after barely a pause to digest the general election defeat, the whole political caste is already setting its sights on these two elections, which, moreover, offer many more elected positions than the 577 seats in the French parliament.

That is why it is important for the UDF and the RPR to resolve the multiple crises of power in their organisations.

This is also, however, the reason why they are suddenly looking with a tender eye towards the National Front. Many candidates of the parliamentary right urgently need a solid transfer of National Front votes in the second round of elections in order to be elected.

For the regional elections, the situation is rather different. These elections are partially proportional, with lists of candidates competing in each department. Given this proportional system, the National Front will necessarily have elected representatives. As a result, with a rough balance between right and left, it is likely to find itself with the casting votes in the election for the top jobs in the regional councils themselves, including that of president.

That is why Bruno Mégret can, as he did in a recent interview in Le Monde, address himself to the parliamentary right, in the name of the National Front, to demand that the RPR and the UDF "recognise its legitimacy and introduce a disciplined national policy of mutual respect". In other words, he is asking for the parties of the right to stand down in favour of the National Front candidate if he is ahead after the first round. Otherwise, the general delegate of the National Front warned portentously, the RPR and the UDF are "doomed", squeezed out as they are between the National Front and the Socialist party.

It should be said, however, that these covert advances from the National Front were anticipated by the parliamentary right. The very day after the second round, in an editorial in the daily Le Figaro, Alain Peyrefitte, a former minister under De Gaulle, wrote: "France is still on the right, even though it voted for the left. As when it elected Mitterrand in 1981, it has brought Jospin to power only because of its own divisions. To prevent the next election from being a re-enactment of yesterday's stupid scenario, it is important to reduce the political split on the right".

And to make it perfectly clear which political split he is talking about, he demands that the parliamentary right should make the same kind of approach to the National Front as that which enabled Mitterrand to "bring the Communist party home".

In its dealings with the parliamentary right, the National Front presents itself at the same time as a federating force for the right-wing in general, torn apart as it is by factional struggles. Thus Mégret asserts that the National Front is "ready to open our doors very wide", addressing himself to those in the RPR and the UDF who "have convictions very similar to ours". But then, of course, whether the National Front succeeds in this respect is another question.

For, unless there is a considerable change in the political situation, it is not certain that the National Front can attract even a majority of those in the parliamentary right who are closest to Le Pen's reactionary ideas. Indeed, certain aspects of "LePenism", particularly its populism and open anti-semitism, are probably off-putting to sections of the parliamentary right's electorate. The existence of a movement like that of De Villiers is, to some extent, a reflection of this.

But electoral support for the National Front may increase still further at the expense of the RPR and the UDF. It may even split off a whole section of its electorate. It is not impossible that the recomposition of the right will involve a rapprochement between a section of the existing RPR/UDF and the National Front, while leaving another section which may either continue to hold its current position on the right or join a possible Socialist party-led coalition, if Jospin decided to dispense with the support of the Communist party, or even with that of the small fringe constituted by the Greens and Chevènement's movement.

Such is the political landscape shaping up after the general election. In its present form, it offers no comfort to the working class. For one thing, the left in government will conduct exactly the same policy as its left and right-wing predecessors. By comparison with the previous socialist governments, which were in power under a President who was also supposedly on the left, the advantage for this government is that it can invoke the necessities of "cohabitation" with a right- wing president, or the fragility of its parliamentary majority, in order to conduct a policy which does nothing to satisfy workers' most urgent demands.

Besides the fact of having a government of the left which does not dare to take any radical steps to reduce unemployment, and is therefore incapable of attacking the very basis for the development of the National Front, is an ideal situation to open the way for the National Front.

It is very difficult to say even today what direction the National Front's development may take: whether we will see the emergence of a large parliamentary party with far right ideas, incorporating or dragging along the existing parties of the right, or whether it is the fascist aspects of the National Front which will mark its future development. Even the first of these possibilities would be a worrying development for the working class and its interests. The second would be a deadly danger.

But the history of the future has not yet been written. The working class has not really intervened politically for a very long time. It has not, however, been defeated. If the working class were suddenly to make its presence felt, even simply through economic demands, in and on itself this would inevitably transform the existing political situation.