France - Four months of socialist government

Oct/Nov 1997

Three months after the 1 June general election which resulted in an unexpected victory for the left-wing parties, we reproduce below an assessment of the situation in France published in the October issue of Lutte de Classe, the monthly journal of Lutte Ouvrière, the French organisation of the ICU.

Jospin's government is beginning its fifth month in office. So far, according to former president Giscard d'Estaing, Jospin has made a "faultless" run. This compliment is all the more significant as it comes from one of the right-wing's leaders. It must be said, though, that Jospin has managed to maintain his rating in opinion polls, so far - whereas the rating of his predecessor, Juppé, had already begun its irresistible decline at this equivalent point. According to the same polls, Jospin's ratings improved slightly among the traditional right-wing electorate without going down among left voters.

The socialist government may therefore consider that it has been doing well so far, following the unexpected victory of the left in the last general election. The future, however, is fraught with danger, both in terms of the situation of the working class and in terms of the general political situation. In fact both are interlinked.

An economic policy which follows from that of the previous governments.

The new government has made only a few U-turns. But this is primarily because in the run-up to the election Jospin was careful not to make promises to waged workers - who make up the bulk of the left electorate. Even then, the few breaches of promise are quite significant. Within the first days of his government Jospin let down the Renault-Vilvorde factory workers. Then he bowed to the employers' pressure and backed down on the issue of the 35-hour week without loss of pay. The resumption of the privatisation process at Air France and France- Telecom has shown the new government's will to submit to the bosses' agenda. Finally, Jospin's refusal to make the largely symbolic gesture of repealing the Pasqua-Debré laws against immigrants, revealed his sensitivity to the pressure of the right and his desire to keep reactionary voters happy - a desire which is as disgusting as it is stupid.

The government's draft budget includes a few measures which result in very minor irritation for the bosses and the wealthy. But then he had no other choice in order to fund the few derisory measures (mostly the Aubry plan which is supposed to subsidise the hiring of 350,000 unemployed youth in precarious jobs over the next five years) which are supposed to express his determination to fight unemployment. He also made a gesture by suppressing entitlement to the French equivalent of Child Benefit to those whose earnings are above a certain level. What will be left of these limited measures after going through parliament remains to be seen, however. Their announcement alone generated some turmoil both among the business milieu and within the ranks of the right wing. Coming from the leaders of the main right-wing parties, who always claim to speak up for the interests of families, savers and tax-payers, this is a bit rich! But then these leaders have to try to make up for their humiliating defeat in the election.

What is really at stake, however, is much more important than the usual parliamentary squabbles - it is the political future of the country and its impact on working people.

By following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Jospin exposes himself to the same impotence in countering unemployment and for the same reasons. Fighting against unemployment calls for radical measures. It means being prepared to take as much as is required out of the capitalists' profits - which are still going up this year after an already record year in 1996 - in order to create new jobs or to share the existing jobs between all workers without loss of pay. It requires a policy which makes a priority of protecting the interests of working people and those of the overwhelming majority of the population (bringing down unemployment is not only in the interest of the already large numbers of the unemployed and their families, it is also in the interest of the overwhelming majority of the population). But Jospin's policy is exactly opposite to this. His priority is to protect the interests of the large employers. It is the same kind of policy which has resulted over the past years in a large transfer of income Fran the working classes to the bourgeoisie while failing to even slow down the continuous rise of unemployment. The continuation of the same policy can only increase the deprivation of a very large section of the population.

Judging by its draft budget, the government is relying on a recovery. This may be a possibility, but it is primarily wishful thinking, in that the government has absolutely no control over it. In the recent period, the American recovery fuelled optimistic speculation. But a recovery does not necessarily spread like a flu epidemic. In this case, it is all the more doubtful as the present very relative recovery in the United States was achieved at the expense of its imperialist rivals through an economic war which is becoming increasingly tough. Besides, the fate of the "miracle" economic growth in south-east Asia, after the devastating currency crisis which shook this region, shows that a recovery is often not much more than a short-lived transitional phase between two crises.

Even if a recovery were to take place in France, as some economic institutions have predicted, there is no guarantee that it will result in lower unemployment. For the bosses will first try to increase production without increasing productive investments, and in any case without increasing their workforces, at least as long as they can afford to do so. In this respect, the way in which they protest as soon as a law reducing working hours without loss of pay is even considered, is quite significant. The capitalists are determined to retain and consolidate the gains they made over the past years. They want to be able to lay off workers or increase working hours to crazy levels, according to the level of orders. And before an increase of orders can force them to take on new workers rather than relying solely on overtime, they have some elbow room to play with. Besides, even then, given the ground gained by the employers and the generalisation of the various forms of precarious employment, they will only create precarious jobs. The resulting reduction of unemployment would therefore also be precarious.

Assuming that the economic situation improves, the credit of the socialist government will be strengthened among the sections of the population which are in a position to benefit from this improvement. It will also be able to balance its budget more easily. But there can be no guarantee of a significant drop in unemployment, and therefore of a significant reduction of poverty.

Threatening political consequences for the working class as well as for the whole of society

But surely the situation is not worse with a socialist government than it was with the previous two right-wing governments? True, but there is a difference - which is, precisely, that it is a left-wing government.

There have already been serious consequences for the working class after the two periods in which the left was in government - the first between 1981 and 1986, initially with the Socialist and Communist parties together and then with the Socialist party on its own, and the second between 1988 and 1993. The policy of these left-wing governments involved massive redundancies, a wage freeze and a host of welfare cuts. It resulted in getting workers to bear the brunt of the crisis. The consequence was, in addition to a reduced standard of living for the working class, demoralisation and political confusion in its ranks. For a whole period, this demoralisation has been a decisive factor in reducing the ability of the working class to defend itself against the repeated attacks of the bosses. Even today, the working class is still paying the cost of the demoralisation caused by the left in government, its unfulfilled promises, its servility towards the bosses at the expense of workers. Politically this demoralisation resulted in the loss of influence of the Communist party but also the rise of the National Front, both in terms of influence and electoral weight.

Today, however, the consequences could be much more severe, if only due to the long persistence of this demoralisation. Jospin's policy is neither better nor worse than that of his socialist predecessors like Rocard, Fabius, etc.. What is different is the fact that the National Front has much more influence today. A blatant failure on the part of the socialist government, together with the discredit of the right-wing parties, would open a large avenue in front of the National Front.

In the first round of the last "cantonales" by-elections (to elect members of the "conseil général" of a "canton", something similar to a county council in Britain) on 21 September, which concerned five "cantons", the National Front increased it scores, very significantly in two of them. In the Mulhouse-Nord "canton", in eastern France, the National Front candidate topped the poll by far, with 44.6% of the vote, while in the Blanc-Mesnil and Epinay-sur-Seine "cantons", both in the Paris suburbs, the NF candidates won 25.8% and 23.6%.

These are only "cantonales" by-elections, but the indications they provide are closer to the reality than that of the opinion polls, and they certainly show in which direction things are moving.

For the time being, the National Front remains a far-right party, whose influence is primarily electoral, just as the other right-wing forces such as De Villiers's grouping or even the RPR and UDF. The NF's strategy relies on winning positions through the ballot box, in the town councils, the "conseils généraux", regional councils and in Parliament and Senate (or at least that is what the NF would like since they have only one MP so far and no senator). This strategy, however, does not exclude alliances with right-wing parties. In fact, for years it was these parties, not the NF, which refused such an alliance, opting instead for distancing themselves from Le Pen, including in the second round, in order to force voters to choose between them and the National Front.

Today, however, an increasing number of respectable politicians in the RPR and UDF are demanding, openly or more deviously, the right to choose among the possible alliances, including one with the National Front. Indeed these politicians have learned their lesson from the last election, in which much of the losses experienced by right-wing parties were caused by the fact that on the second round many right-wing candidates had to face a National Front candidate, in addition to their left-wing opponent.

Refusing alliances with the NF on the second round used to work in favour of the RPR and UDF when they were stronger than the National Front in electoral terms. But since the latter's influence kept increasing while that of the RPR-UDF coalition was shrinking, right-wing politicians, who are neither strong on principles nor on ideology, are increasingly tempted to opt for an alliance. This temptation is all the stronger as, having lost the general election, these politicians need some comforting in the coming regional election. There are very practical reasons for this too as alliances are necessary to gain key positions in the regional councils. And there are many material incentives attached to these positions as, since the decentralisation laws, the regional councils manage huge budgets and offer good possibilities of acquiring many useful ties with businesses.

In other words, as the National Front's electoral influence increases, so does its pressure on right-wing parties and, indirectly, also on the entire world of politicians.

And even if the NF's influence only expresses itself through the ballot box, it is applying an increasingly reactionary pressure on society. In itself this pressure represents a danger for the working class in so far as it is fundamentally opposed to its interests.

The ambiguous character of the National Front also includes the other possible direction for its evolution. If the crisis worsens, the evolution of the social situation could be such that the bourgeoisie becomes convinced that it needs a fascist party. In that case, if in addition the social situation can offer the necessary troops for such a party, from among the bankrupt layers of the petty- bourgeois and the poorest sections of the population - troops who feel they have nothing left to lose and are prepared to sell themselves, then Le Pen's party would be a possible candidate for this role.

If the situation began to move in this direction, the socialist government - particularly with its communist party ministers - would become a target as well a means of mobilising the fascist troops against this government but also, beyond it, against the left-wing parties and the working class.

To hope that the socialist government can eliminate this threat would be an illusion. There is a direct link between, on the one hand, the deliberate impotence of this government to take from the capitalists the funds required to protect workers and the whole of society against unemployment and its consequences and, on the other hand, the growing influence of the National Front. Only a reaction from the working class, a return of its militancy both in the fight for its material interests and in the political field, could act as an effective antidote against these threats.

No-one can predict whether an upturn in working class militancy will occur sooner or later. The various calls for industrial action issued by the union confederations over the coming weeks may provide some indication on this. But this will only be an indication, because the actions announced so far cannot even constitute a serious warning to the bosses, nor really boost the energy of the working class as a whole. While it is obvious that everything should be done to ensure that the strike days and demonstrations organised at France-Telecom, in the railways and maybe - but this is not even certain at the time of writing - on the day of the "conference on jobs and wages" convened by the government, are supported as massively as possible, it is no less obvious that these actions alone cannot change the relationship of forces. To achieve this, a follow-up will be needed, with a fighting plan and objectives which can unite workers around their vital interests. These objectives will have to be chosen so that they can really allow the working class to use capitalist profits and the fabulous fortunes built up by the wealthy thanks to the crisis, to protect itself against the reduction of its standard of living and against unemployment. At the same time these objectives will have to put into question the absolute control that the bourgeoisie has over the economy.

We are not at this point yet. But to reach it is certainly the most important task of the coming period.