France - The "plural left"'s right-wing record and the presidential election

Mar/April 2002

In the coming three months, the French ruling coalition of the "plural left", as it calls itself (the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Greens and a few minor centre-left groups), will be facing two major challenges. On April 21st, the Socialist Party prime minister, Lionel Jospin will be the main contender standing against outgoing right-wing president Jacques Chirac in the presidential election. Then, on June 9th, the "plural left"'s small parliamentary majority will face its first general election since 1997.

It must be said, however, that whoever wins either of these elections is irrelevant in terms of the interests of the working population and the jobless. Indeed, the French political scene is not all that much different from Britain's, or that of any industrialised country for that matter. Over the past two decades, the policies of all French mainstream parties have become increasingly indistinguishable from one another. They share the same basic aim - to help the capitalist class to maintain its profits at the expense of the overwhelming majority of the population. These parties may well package their policies in different ways, but for the working class there is nothing to choose between them. The record of the "plural left" coalition during its past five years in office under prime minister Lionel Jospin, offers a graphic illustration of this.

From election promises to actual deeds

Jospin's own assessment of his term in office is of course very different from that of rank-and-file French workers. On the closing day of the Socialist Party's "summer university", last September, he stated for instance that his party could be "reasonably proud" of his balance-sheet "because we managed to face the reality without renouncing in any way our values and commitments. We demonstrated what a modern, left-wing economic and social policy can be. (..) Aren't we the most left- wing government in Europe?."

This is a view that is certainly shared by your average columnist in business papers like the Financial Times and The Economist here - although not by all, since some of them have expressed their admiration of Jospin's skill in disguising pro-business measures into alleged concessions to the working class.

But is that view shared by Renault workers, for instance? Hadn't Jospin pledged, three days before the second round of the 1997 general election, that "assuming the left gets into office, the representatives of the State, which is a shareholder in Renault, would demand that other measures should be considered" than closing the Renault-Vilvorde factory? However, during the week following his nomination as prime minister, the same Jospin declared that "as a government official, I cannot resolve what is essentially an industrial problem, adding subsequently that "the decision is not up to the government which has no direct grip on Renault." What? No "grip" on a state-controlled company? This was an obvious lie. But Renault-Vilvorde was closed down as originally planned without Jospin lifting a finger to prevent it.

From then onwards, whenever a redundancy plan or factory closure was announced, the government's leitmotiv was: "we are no longer in a state-managed economy." And it was again the same argument that was used when Michelin, one of the richest French companies, announced a wave of redundancies in September 1999.

Each time there was a reaction caused by such plans among the public, forcing Jospin to make a stand, he declared himself impotent. The fact is that his government never intervened against the thousands of so-called "social plans" (the euphemism used in France for redundancy plans on the ground that the state usually provides subsidies to the bosses by means of early retirement packages) which were carried out since 1997. Talking about thousands of such plans is no exaggeration: officially the employment ministry was given notice of more than a thousand plans per year in average during these five years!

There was even a significant rise in the number of redundancy plans over 2001, some being carried out under the pretext of bankruptcy. Just to mention the most prominent among them: Lu-Danone in the food industry, Marks & Spencer in retail, AOM- Air Liberté in air transport (and this was long before 11th September), Valéo in the car component industry, Moulinex the kitchen appliances manufacturer, Bata the Canada- based shoe multinational, etc.. In fact, last July, the monthly toll of redundancies due to "economic difficulties" reported by companies had already increased by 7.4%.

After Moulinex, a French multinational, filed for bankruptcy, Jospin felt he had to say something. But all he found to say was that "we must find solutions to help the workers of these companies and we will". Meanwhile his industry minister, Christian Pierret, was going round private companies which he tried "to convince to take on some of the Moulinex workers and it works since I have already found three which have agreed."

But behind this feeble attempt at pretending that the government was doing everything it could to help the redundant workers, it was giving the bosses a free ride. Indeed, despite Jospin's statement, a few months before, that "the logic of profiteering should not result in undermining employment", there was never any question of forcing companies to do anything.

And yet before the 1997 election, Jospin had pledged to make redundancy plans dependent on the authorisation of labour inspectors (these are locally-based civil servants who are in charge of seeing to it that the bosses abide by employment laws, with some powers to impose fines if they don't). But this never happened. The so-called "social modernisation" law, although it was presented by the media as a law against redundancies, included no provision that would have stopped companies from making workers redundant. It only provided for the union machineries to gain time by proposing alternative measures and seeking arbitration. But if no agreement was found, the employer remained free to carry out his plan regardless. Anyway, even these very tame provisions were cancelled out by a ruling of the Constitutional Council, an unelected body which is responsible for ensuring that all laws respect the spirit of the constitution and which has the power to overrule Parliament. It did so on the grounds that the provisions were an infringement on the "freedom of enterprise". But Jospin did not even pretend that he would do anything about this ruling.

Significantly, the "plural left" government always stopped short of really infringing on the bosses' right to do what they please in their own companies, regardless of the dramatic consequences for workers. It failed to use the obvious threat of stopping all state subsidies and procurements to these companies, not to mention the threat of requisitioning them, as governments do in wartime - even though it is a real war that the bosses are waging against workers.

This is to say that over its term in office the "plural left" government has done nothing with regard to Jospin's pledge to protect workers against the arbitrary attacks of the bosses. Instead, the real content of Jospin's "left- wing economic and social policy" has been to stop short of putting any pressure on the bosses, thus allowing them to do what they wanted, while handing them an increasing share of taxpayers' money.

Unemployment - myth and reality

Just like Blair, Jospin has endlessly boasted of his "success" in reducing unemployment. In fact this is what he claims as the main achievement of his government. According to official figures, the number of workers seeking work is supposed to have gone down by one million since 1997.

However such figures only conceal the reality. For instance, one survey shows that between January 1997 and January 2000, the number of workers seeking a part-time or a temporary job (who are not taken into account in the official job seekers figure) increased by 250,000. Likewise the number of workers on medical restriction working part-time but more than 78 hours a month, who are not counted either, increased by nearly 200,000. In fact, today, the official unemployment figures take into account only 47% of those workers who are not fully-employed, compared with 61% in 1996.

In other words Jospin's boasting of having reduced the number of unemployed by over one million, is a lie. Besides, even according to official figures, there are still two million unemployed which, in and of itself, is intolerable!

As to the jobs which have been created since 1997, they are hardly comparable with those which have been cut. Most of them are part-time, casual, low-paid jobs. Over 80% of the jobs created in retail since 1997 involve wages under £200 a week (1.3 times the minimum wage of £160) and in many cases even well under the minimum wage.

The number of agency workers has increased considerably - they made up 25% of all newly-hired workers in 1999 and 17% in 2000. Overall, between 1998 and 2000, their number increased by around 70%, reaching over 700,000 by now. In this respect, France now ranks only second to the industrialised world champion, the USA. However this number represents what statisticians call "full-time equivalents", whereas over a full year, agency workers only work a half full-time job in average. This means that behind this 700,000 figure there are in fact around 1.4 million agency workers earning anything between 30 and 50% of the weekly minimum wage in average. And most of them are not taken into account in the official unemployment figures.

Likewise, the number of temporary jobs has increased significantly under Jospin, reaching over a million today.

These casual workers - both agency workers and temporary workers - are always the first targets for redundancy. However, they are never counted in the bosses' official redundancy plans - under the pretext that the risk of being sacked is written into their contract. Companies can get rid of them legally without giving them any notice or compensation. This explains why former temporary workers have been in a majority among the newly registered unemployed over the past months, while the number of unemployed former agency workers increased by 43%.

The Jospin government did nothing to discourage the bosses from resorting increasingly to casual and part-time labour. Moreover, many of the jobs subsidised by the government have been in these categories - altogether 570,000 people were concerned by these subsidised casual jobs in 2001 and not one of them was included in the official unemployed head counts.

For Jospin's government, subsiding casual jobs was obviously a means to increase public funding for employers as well as helping them to push labour costs down at workers' expense. And it had the additional advantage of cutting the official unemployment figures, a method which was used concurrently with that of pushing claimants off the dole register under various pretexts. Thus, in 2000 alone, 231,000 claimants were forced off the register, compared with 85,346 for the whole of 1996.

In fact the only full-time jobs that the government ever created in order to reduce unemployment were the so-called "emploi-jeunes" (youth jobs), which were part of Jospin's election promises in 1997. These jobs were designed for the under-26s and those who did not qualify for any benefit in the 26-30 age group. The pay was set at the minimum wage, with the state paying 80% of it as well as all social contributions, for a maximum of five years. However, even on this account Jospin did not deliver what he had promised. He had pledged to create 700,000 "emplois- jeunes" within three years, half in the public sector and half in the private sector. However, when confronted with the bosses' reluctance, Jospin caved in, once again. As a result, not one such job was created in the private sector. In the public sector, only 277,500 "emplois-jeunes" out of the promised 350,000 have been created so far. But most of them are temporary jobs and there is no guarantee that they will remain once the 5-year limit is reached.

The consequence of all this is that despite the "economic upturn" during the first four years of Jospin's term and the alleged "drop in unemployment", millions of people have remained in poverty since 1997.

Three million people are still living on the lowest benefits, with nearly half having to live on the equivalent of £45/wk. In addition to these three millions, because of the rise of casual employment, 1.3m workers in employment have less than the equivalent of £77/w (for a single adult) to live on. And yet, two thirds of these deprived workers have been in a job throughout the year! Altogether, these two categories and their dependents represent 10% of the population - meaning that 6 million people live in poverty, including one million children.

In other words the "plural left" coalition has nothing to boast about as far as unemployment and poverty are concerned. And its record in this field is disgraceful considering the tens of billions of pounds it has awarded the bosses under the pretext of helping them to create jobs.

The "35h" laws - a bounty for the bosses

In this respect, the 35h laws - one of the main achievements of Jospin's term in office, according to him - were most significant of his political choices.

Indeed, these laws did not cost a penny to the bosses. The workers were made to foot most of the bill, with the state paying the rest, using its tax revenue and the resources of the social funds - i.e. partly again out of working people's taxes and social contributions.

Despite the government's claim that these laws were intended to improve workers' working and living conditions, their main purpose was to provide the bosses with considerable advantages - a cut in real wages, the introduction of flexible working and massive state subsidies.

In fact the bosses used the opportunity to freeze the wages of the existing workforce (under the pretext that the limited wage guarantee provided by the 35h laws amounted to a wage increase), while cutting wages for new entrants.

As to the introduction of flexible working, it was achieved using two devices. First, by a sleight of hand, the definition of what was a working hour was changed. All kinds of breaks which, so far, had always been included in the working day, were now excluded, so that in some companies (on Renault's assembly lines for instance), workers found that they had to work longer than before in order to complete their new 35h week! And second, the new laws allowed the bosses to impose a flexible working week, depending on the needs of production, with few constraints other than to ensure a 35h weekly average over a whole year. This kind of flexibility was precisely what the bosses had been demanding for years! And for good reason, since as a result, they no longer had to pay overtime or layoff pay. This flexibility also meant that there was no need for companies to take on new workers in proportion to the cut in the working week - in most cases, it was just a matter of reorganising working patterns to ensure that there would always be enough hands at any given time.

According to Jospin's own (dubious) figures, the implementation of these laws resulted in 240,000 new jobs. However, a simple calculation shows that a lot more jobs should have been created to compensate for the reduced hours of the six million workers covered by the agreements to implement the 35h laws by that time. So, even assuming that Jospin's figures are correct, the increase in production during that period was achieved by increasing the intensity of labour - i.e. the exploitation of the workforce.

The fact that so few jobs have been created should not come as a surprise, of course. The second 35h law amended the first one, by failing to make state subsidies to companies dependent on creating (or even saving) jobs. More recently, the government's decision to increase the legal maximum of overtime working to 180 hours per year for smaller companies shows that its objective has never been to reduce the working week. And in fact, its own figures show that, in June 2001, three years after the first 35h law was voted on in Parliament, the average working week is still 38.9 hours!

The "plural left" stance on this matter is illustrated graphically by its own implementation of the 35-hour week in the public sector. There is no question of increasing the number of workers anywhere. Even in the hospitals, where much publicity has been made around the recruitment of 45,000 new staff, the figures do not add up - this will not even make up for the employees who are retiring! This government which claims to be "the most left wing in Europe" does not care any more for the patients than it cares for the workers.

Not only did the workers pay the full cost of the 35h laws, through worse conditions and a cut in real wages (and sometimes in nominal wages as well), but the government has devoted its resources to compensating the bosses despite the considerable advantages they got out of the change. For each worker covered by 35h agreements, the bosses were awarded a subsidy ranging between £370 and £1,930 a year depending on the employee's pay, meaning a total state handout worth £11bn over a full year for the companies concerned, all paid by public funds!

In other words while the bosses are the main beneficiaries, the workers foot the bill for this so-called "social reform" - this must be what Jospin meant by "a modern, left- wing economic and social policy"!

Health cover on the cheap

One of Jospin's very few election pledges on which he actually delivered (within limits as we will see) was the CMU (Couverture Médicale Universelle or Universal Health Cover). It must be said, however, that compared to his many measures favouring the rich and the capitalists, the CMU did not cost very much - only £165m for a very limited health cover which, in fact, is far from being all that universal.

Of course, the CMU did provide health cover to the 150,000 people or so who, up to then, had no cover at all from the state system. However, the government chose to means-test the additional health insurance which had been included as part of the CMU for those who had no occupational health schemes (such schemes provide an additional cover for medicine and hospital costs over and above that of the state system). The minimum income threshold was set at such a low level that today, it amounts to £77/w, which is £1 below both the guaranteed retirement minimum and the full disability benefit for adults - meaning that the poorest pensioners and disabled, who would need such an insurance more than most, do not even qualify!

Before the CMU was introduced, various locally-run means-tested free health cover schemes benefited around 2.5m people. However, the threshold they used was different in different areas. In some parts of the country, it was higher than the threshold set for the CMU. As a result, theoretically, one million people should lose their entitlement due to the introduction of the CMU (although this has not happened yet, probably for electoral reasons). Even not counting those, the various restrictions added to the CMU mean that instead of covering 6m people as originally planned, it only covers slightly over 5m.

There would have been an obvious solution to this problem - by setting the means-tested threshold high enough to ensure that no- one would be deprived of proper healthcare due to lack of resources. But Jospin's ministers decided that this would be too expensive, even though the cost would still have been a pittance compared to the huge subsidies they were throwing at the bosses.

So, despite all the "plural left"'s good words, universal health cover is still far from being achieved. While the capitalist class is invited to loot the state coffers, the poor have to be content with what amounts to charity.

Elections without a stake

The record of the "plural left" in office speaks for itself. If this is the achievement of "left" policies, it means that whether "left" or "right" the policies offered by the politicians, whoever they are, go against the interests of the working class. But in fact, this is nothing new. Over the past twenty-five years or so, the policy of every government has been aimed at tilting the balance in favour of the bosses.

After their five years in office Jospin's and the "plural left" have nothing to show for themselves. Whatever new election pledges they may produce, they are unlikely to carry much weight with working people and the jobless. In fact, long before the election, Jospin's main argument, just like Blair's in last year's election, already rested almost entirely on the assertion that his rivals would be even worse. And he offers the assurance that, after all, France is relatively better off than most its neighbours.

To be sure, the right-wing parties are finding it difficult to overtake Jospin on his right. They try to appear different by packaging Jospin's policies in a different language. But the content is the same - more labour flexibility (under the pretext of creating more jobs, just like Jospin has already done); lower taxes for companies and the rich (but Jospin's finance minister, Laurent Fabius, has already made huge strides in this direction); less state intervention in the economy (but the bosses are unlikely to give up the state subsidies they have got used to); more private finance involvement in the state pension system (but Jospin has already announced he will deal with this as soon as the elections are over).

In the presidential race itself, the half-dozen traditional right-wing candidates (in addition to Chirac) are there only for the sake of being seen, in preparation for the general election. Their only purpose is to get just enough votes (and if possible more than their rivals) to be able to trade their support for Chirac on the second round against the largest possible number of safe seats in the next Parliament. And it shows, as no-one can honestly see any difference between these candidates - they are totally interchangeable. But in fact what they say today is largely irrelevant, as their future policies will depend entirely on the alliances in which they get involved in order to increase their share of the political cake

This is also true of Le Pen, the main far-right candidate. For the time being he makes a big show of his opposition both to Jospin and Chirac. But judging from a number of statements he made to the press, Le Pen may well be tempted by the possibility of taking part in some sort of right-wing alliance (necessarily with Chirac). Given the language used these days by some of the senior spokesmen of the traditional right-wing, Le Pen would not even have to give up his xenophobic demagogy and reactionary lunacies. And, after all, such tactics have been used profitably by his Italian counterpart, the former neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini, now a member of Berlusconi's government, and by Jörg Haider, in Austria.

Sitting apparently somewhere between the traditional right-wing and the "plural left", is Chevènement, a seasoned politician who has been a minister in three past Socialist Party-led governments. Instead of a political programme, he has a huge reservoir of demagogy. He woos the right-wing and far-right electorates with a language verging on xenophobia, while trying to appeal to disgruntled supporters of the "plural left" with populist language, anti-European slogans and pledges to put the French industry first. But his only reason for standing in this election is to position himself for the next presidential election, in 2007.

The same kind of rivalries for positions that exist among the right- wing parties can be found among the components of the "plural left" and even within each one of these components. The heavy weights of the Socialist Party use the opportunity of the presidential election to try to stand out against the others, in the hope that this will give them a better chance to boost their careers, should the "plural left" remain in power. This overbidding allows the Socialist Party to broaden its appeal without Jospin having to say anything - with some of these ambitious characters choosing to act as his left flank while others take the right flank. Once elected, Jospin will do what the Socialist Party hierarchy calls conveniently a "synthesis" - i.e. he will implement the policy of his right flank with the benediction of his left flank.

The other components of the "plural left" coalition - mainly the Communist Party and the Greens - play more or less the same role as the various currents in the Socialist Party. Since they declare even before the first round of the election that they will support Jospin on the second round, any vote for their candidates on the first round is effectively a vote for Jospin, regardless of their tame criticisms of his record (and it can only be tame since they were part of it all along). Of course, there are some tough verbal exchanges between the coalition partners as the election gets nearer. This is because they are busy reinforcing their bargaining position in the negotiations, which are taking place behind the scenes, to share out the constituencies in the coming general election and the seats in the future "plural left" government (assuming there is one).

From the point of view of electoral arithmetic, the Greens may seem in a better position than the Communist Party, since they scored better in the last European election (although not in the previous presidential election). And the Greens would love to pick up the crumbs which have so far been left to the CP by Jospin. However, the CP is infinitely more important for Jospin than the Greens. Indeed the CP still retains an influence in the working class which dates back many generations. It is still in a position to play a significant role in social events and industrial unrest (if only by trying to keep the lid on the discontent of the working class). The Greens, regardless of their recent electoral strength, which is mostly concentrated among the petty-bourgeoisie, is in no position to play such a role - no more than the Socialist Party itself. So, for the time being, Jospin is more likely than not to keep the Communist Party on board, as a guarantor of social peace and a left profile for his right-wing policies.

This is to say that there is absolutely no stake for the French working class in the coming elections, not any more than there was for workers in Britain in last year's general election.

Will the working class make its voice heard?

However, while no significant change has ever come out of the ballot box, elections can provide an opportunity to express an opinion. And the question is whether these elections will give French workers (at least those who are entitled to a vote) a chance to express clearly, that is from the point of view of their social interests, their opposition to the mainstream parties' pro- business policies?

Not every election provides such an opportunity. In Britain's general election last year, most voters had no choice other than to vote for one of the three main parties - that is, for pro-business parties. Of course, the result of this election was an unquestionable vote of no confidence in Blair's Labour government, since less than a quarter of the electorate voted for its candidates, while abstention reached an unprecedented level. But there was nothing to distinguish those voters, who made a stand against Blair's reactionary policies by abstaining, from those who abstained either out of disinterest or because the weakness of Labour's opponents did not leave them the slightest chance. So although Blair came out of the election significantly weakened, this did not reinforce the morale of the working class.

In France, however, there is a possibility that things could turn out differently in the coming elections. Unlike in Britain, the French revolutionary left has built a small but significant base of electoral support. Lutte Ouvrière (the French Trotskyist organisation whose political orientation Workers' Fight shares) has been standing candidates in every national election since 1973. In the last presidential election, in 1995, Lutte Ouvrière's candidate, Arlette Laguiller, won over 1.6m votes or 5.3%. The fact that this represented a relatively stable electorate was confirmed in subsequent elections, particularly in the 1998 regional elections in which Lutte Ouvrière won 4.5% of the vote on average and 20 regional council seats and in last year's local elections, where it won 4.3% and 33 local council seats.

Even more importantly, unlike in Britain, where the revolutionary left has stood in recent elections on a sort of "left" social-democratic platform in the hope of attracting more votes without antagonising the union bureaucracy, Lutte Ouvrière has always used elections as a means to promote uncompromisingly the need for the working class to use the weapons of the class struggle in order to achieve radical political aims.

In the coming elections, Lutte Ouvrière argues, among other things, that a mobilisation of the working population and the jobless will be needed to impose the banning of redundancies by profitable companies; the funding of the cost of maintaining workers in employment in any company threatened with bankruptcy by using the dividends accumulated over the years by shareholders; the ending of commercial and financial secrecy; the scrutiny by the population of the use public funds and private profits; the ending of state subsidies to the capitalist class; and the use of public funds to create real jobs directly, under state control, in public services and areas which are socially useful.

These are not, of course, election pledges, but objectives which could serve as the basis around which to unite large sections of the working class in a general fight back in order to reverse the balance of social forces in its favour. And the purpose of Lutte Ouvriere's participation in these elections is to allow working class voters to express their agreement with the need for such a fight back, as the only way out of the present rot.

A significant increase in Lutte Ouvrière's vote in the coming election would, therefore, be a warning to the capitalist class and their politicians. Such a vote, if it is large enough, could revive the energy and fighting spirit of thousands of working class activists who have given up the struggle, out of disgust for the policies of the so-called "traditional" working-class organisations. At the same time such a vote could boost the morale of hundreds of thousands of workers who will have had a chance to stand up and be counted on the basis of a radical opposition to the capitalist class and its attacks. And given that (just as in Britain), the lack of confidence of the working class in its own strength is a major obstacle to a fight back, this could make a lot of difference for the struggles of the coming period.

2 March 2002