France - Revolutionary communists and the presidential election

Apr/Jun 2012

British commentators seem to have been flabbergasted by the French presidential election whose first round has just taken place on 22nd April.

The Economist magazine put this astonishment in a nutshell in a recent issue. Its headline was "France in denial - the West's most frivolous election". Its front page showed a montage using a well-known painting by French Impressionist Edouard Manet, in which outgoing right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his main rival, Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, were having a picnic with a very naked woman - presumably what the tight-assed, but rather sexist, editorial board of the Economist considers as the summit of "frivolity". The magazine's editor expressed his amazement as follows: "What is most striking about the French election is how little anybody is saying about the country's dire economic straits. The candidates dish out at least as many promises to spend more as to spend less. Nobody has a serious agenda for reducing France's eye-watering taxes".

It is true, of course, that the French political scene is somewhat different from Britain's, which is really a one-party system masquerading as multi-party one, in which politicians carrying different labels all champion exactly the same programme of austerity against the working class. By contrast, if they want to get votes, French politicians do have to sound a bit more different from each other than they do here.

However, due to their obsessive infatuation with the "markets", it seems that British commentators are incapable of getting their heads round the simple fact that this is only a matter of form, not one of content. Here, politicians feel they can get away with shedding tears over the predicament faced by the "markets", claiming that they need to be "reassured", and still get votes because voters don't have any choice. But, when voters are given any kind of choice (as in the first round of the French presidential election, where there were 10 candidates), politicians do have to talk about the predicament faced by the voters themselves, in order to win their votes. Does it take to have been to Oxbridge to misunderstand that?

But once again, this is all a matter of form and by the time the second round of the French election takes place, on May 6th, everything will be back to a "normal" non-choice process, in which the two remaining contenders, Sarkozy and Hollande, will be wooing the votes of the electorate for the privilege of implementing exactly the same austerity programme for the benefit of big business.

The results of this first round more or less followed what had been predicted by opinion polls. Hollande came first with 28.6%, followed by Sarkozy with 27.2% (thereby winning the unenviable title of being the first ever incumbent president to fail to come first on the first round!). The third contender was the far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, with a record 17.9% of the votes, which is, in and of itself, a worrying sign of what the future may have in store, should the crisis deepen without a counter-offensive of the working class. Then came Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left Front (an electoral alliance whose main component was the Communist Party) with 11.1%, followed by Bayrou, a "centrist" candidate, with 9.1%. The other five candidates all polled under 2.5%.

Among these latter candidates, was Nathalie Arthaud, candidate of our French sister organisation Lutte Ouvrière, who won 0.5% and just over 200,000 votes. In the present context of crisis, what was important about Nathalie Arthaud's campaign was the fact that she was able to popularise a number of political objectives which will be needed in the necessary struggles that the working class will have to wage if it is to face up to the attacks of the capitalist class.

On this subject, the text that follows is the translation of an article published by Lutte Ouvrière in the March issue of its monthly journal (Lutte de Classe, No 142).

Why vote for a communist candidate?

Revolutionary communists have a long-standing, unambiguous view regarding elections in a class society - they cannot bring any real change. From a tactical point of view, however, in terms of electoral alliances, for instance, or in terms of which focus to choose for an election campaign, there is a large variety of possibilities, depending on the social and economic situation, on the current preoccupations of the working class electorate, etc..

For an array of different reasons, the presidential election has undoubtedly been the most politicised election in France, ever since the advent of the Vth Republic [i.e. since 1958 - Translator]. It is the only election in which all voters have to choose between the same candidates, thereby putting aside all the local issues over which politicians standing in local, district and parliamentary elections produce so much hot air.

The 2012 presidential election is taking place after several months of financial crisis. It follows a turn to a more overt austerity policy, against the backdrop of increasingly aggressive attacks by the capitalist class against the living conditions of the working class. These attacks are all the more aggressive, as the capitalist class, its politicians and its leading lights, are themselves disorientated by the somersaults of their own economic system. The panic they feel due to their impotence at controlling the financial crisis is all the greater as they know very well that the impact of this crisis on the productive sphere may be unpredictably devastating.

The economic slowdown is already perceptible. But from the point of view of big business a drop of a few percent in GDP does not represent a catastrophe as such - whereas, this may already spell catastrophe for the section of the working class hit by rising unemployment. One should remember that when the 1929 stock market crash eventually fed back into the productive sphere, industrial output fell by around 50% in the US!

The economic situation, rising unemployment, government indebtedness, all have an impact on the election campaign. Against this backdrop, it is particularly important that a policy aimed at representing the interests of the exploited classes should be heard.

Regarding the policies required by the crisis, there are only minor differences between the two contenders for the Elysée [the presidential palace - Tr], Sarkozy and Hollande. Their languages merely differ in a symbolic way, to reflect the traditional cleavage between left and right - and even more so today, as Sarkozy, in his attempt to attract the votes of a section of the far-right electorate, has switched to a "steer all the way to the right" mode. They do not represent two different political orientations, among which one might be more favourable. The gap between them only concerns the words they use, the demagogic rhetoric they aim at their respective electorate. The only points over which they openly disagree concern issues such as gay marriage, the right of immigrants to vote in local elections, euthanasia, etc..

But, regarding the war waged by the capitalists against the working class, in order to preserve and increase their share of the national income, Hollande does not side any more with workers than Sarkozy does. He has no suggestions as to stop big business from shedding jobs or delocalising, none either to protect the purchasing power of wages, which is the only source of income for the vast majority of the population. Nor does Hollande propose any measures affecting the wealthy. It is even hard to detect any real difference between the two candidates regarding the role of the state in the economy. When, in 1981, [Socialist party president - Tr] Mitterrand embarked on a series of nationalisations, he was not aiming at bringing down the power of big business, contrary to the nonsense peddled at the time by the Communist Party. Mitterrand's aim, on the contrary, was to help big business to disentangle itself from the nationalised industries in order to focus on other, more profitable activities. But even in this respect, there is no longer any difference between Hollande and Sarkozy.

Above all, it is clear that whoever gets elected will carry out a policy dictated by the interests of big business and the bankers.

For revolutionary communists, the problem is not just to expose the fact that the presidential election only offers a fake choice between various formulations of the same policy designed to preserve capitalist interests. Their problem is, first and foremost, to put forward a policy which can be used as a weapon by workers to defend their class interests

In this election Nathalie Arthaud is the only candidate who stands clearly as a revolutionary communist. Her election campaign is focused, therefore, around a number of objectives for the struggles that workers will have to wage against the capitalist class, in order to protect themselves against today's increasing material and moral degradation. These objectives are determined by the need to preserve the only source of income that is available to workers under this capitalist system - their jobs and the purchasing power of their wages.

• In order to cut unemployment, all redundancies must be banned without loss of pay for anyone; the State must create jobs in existing socially useful public services and in new public services created around activities in which private capital is failing, such as the construction of social housing to be rented at an affordable rate for households living on a worker's wage.

• A general increase of all wages to make up for the losses in purchasing power over the years and an automatic mechanism to protect wages and pensions against price increases.

• In order to demonstrate that the capitalist class can afford to fund the previous measures without having to face any kind of hardship, workers, and more generally the population at large, must exercise their control over all aspects of companies' operations. For a start, to uncover the waste and dirty tricks of the capitalist class, commercial secrecy must be lifted and everyone must have the right to scrutinise how companies and banks are managed.

Fighting programme or electoral programme?

Obviously, should such objectives be imposed on the capitalist class, this would shatter the very foundations of the dictatorship of capital over the economy. This means that they can only be achieved through struggles which will need to be massive, explosive and, above all, conscious. From this point of view, these objectives do not make up an electoral programme, but a fighting programme. The fact that they are put forward in the framework of an election campaign does not change their nature. Our only hope is that, thanks to the possibilities offered by the election campaign, this programme will be heard by more people than otherwise.

But then, since this programme cannot even begin to be carried out without struggles breaking out and since these struggles cannot be the result of an election, why would conscious workers have any positive reason to vote for Nathalie Arthaud in this election?

This question has been raised by many people, especially by workers who are receptive to the policy promoted by Nathalie Arthaud in this campaign and agree at least with some of the objectives she proposes for the future struggles, but who, at the same time, are planning to vote for a candidate like Mélenchon because they consider him more credible when it comes to expressing their feelings of revolt.

In addition, there are many people, probably many more, who will vote for Hollande on the first round, even though they have only a limited trust in him and his Socialist Party, saying that they want to ensure that there is no repetition of the 2002 situation - when the left-wing candidate was relegated by the far-right into third position on the first round, so that the second round was played out between the right and the far-right.

Despite opinion polls saying that Hollande should easily come first on the second round, there is no guarantee that this will happen. Many twists and turns may occur before the election. Traditionally, the majority of the electorate is right-wing and Sarkozy's increasingly right-wing rhetoric together with his venomous anti-working class demagogy (like, for instance, his proposal to organise a referendum over the tightening of entitlement to unemployment benefits), may rally behind him a right-wing electorate which is ravingly anti-working class.

On the other hand, there is no reason to think that Marine Le Pen might get more votes than Hollande, as in 2002. At the time, the Socialist Party's own electorate was disgusted and demobilised by the SP's record in government over the previous five years. Moreover, despite having supported its policy all along, the SP's former allies, from the Communist Party to the Left Radicals, did their best in the 2002 election to avoid taking their share of the blame for the Socialist Party's discredit. They distanced themselves from the SP by standing their own candidates in the presidential election at the last minute. As a result, the various components of the former "Plural Left" [the alliance led by the SP in government - Tr] failed on every count. First, because distancing themselves from the SP at such a late stage did not stop them from losing votes (it should be recalled that while the SP lost 2m votes compared to 1995, the Communist Party lost 1.5m votes). Second, because it was the internal in-fighting within the "Plural Left" which ended up destabilising the SP candidate and allowing the National Front to take second position.

Today's situation is entirely different from that of 2002. While it is not totally impossible that Marine Le Pen could make it to the second round, it would only be at Sarkozy's expense, not Hollande's. For the SP leaders to tell people that they should cast a "useful vote" in the first round today is just as fraudulent as their warning, in 2002, against the risk of a National Front victory on the second round of the presidential election, to justify the fact that the entire "Plural Left" was now supporting the right-wing candidate Chirac.

To believe in, and defend such a fraudulent argument is not a sign of coherent reasoning. It merely reveals a particularly poor form of electoral illusions.

The attraction of the "useful vote" for the SP candidate - who does not even create any illusions, unlike Mitterrand did, in 1981, for instance - is a kind of mirror image of the attitude of many working class voters who, out of disgust for the fake "alternatives" on offer, chose avoid the problem by abstaining.

The high level of abstention reflects, undoubtedly a disgust for the big parties which have been in office, but it also reflects a level of de-politicisation - rather than an expression of political consciousness.

An even more serious indication of this de-politicisation would be a sharp increase in the far-right vote due to a significant number of these disgusted working class voters choosing to join the traditional electorate of the far-right.

In the absence of any development in the class struggle, the experience of the masses is confined to receiving blows, being disappointed and resigning themselves to their fate. This can only produce passive gestures.

Even the votes for Mélenchon which might seem to reflect some degree of political consciousness, in so far as they express distrust for Hollande, bear the mark of this passive resignation. Because, although Mélenchon denounces the policy that Hollande is likely to implement, the only perspective he has to offer is a change in government. Ultimately, Mélenchon's policy comes down to arguing for a "good left-wing government", as opposed to the bad ones run in the past by the SP leaders. But this vague formulation - with whom would the Mélenchon's Left Front form such a government, if not with the SP? - becomes clearer when he adds that his model is Mitterrand. And while Mélenchon remains cautious about what will happen if Hollande wins the election, his Communist Party partners make no secret of their belief that it will pave the way for another version of an SP-led "Plural Left".

Of course, Mélenchon's score will carry some political significance - if only in terms of the hope that it may engender among left-wing voters. But making such an assertion is just making statement of fact, it is not adopting a militant position.

Asserting the existence of a communist current

This presidential election will only allow us to express ourselves. But this is quite important.

In many countries, the working class and poor have still to fight in order to gain this right. Even in France, the working class movement had to wage many struggles before a basic right like the right for workers to vote in elections, was recognised. But even today, this right is not fully recognised, since a whole section of the working class - immigrant workers - is denied this right, despite living and being exploited here. Just like the tax-based franchise of the early days of bourgeois democracy, today's franchise is still designed to deprive part of the poor classes of their democratic rights.

Despite a number of obstacles designed to make things more difficult for minority political currents, it is possible for the revolutionary communist movement to be present in this election, by using its militant resources. Our tendency has managed to stand our comrade Arlette Laguiller in six presidential elections in a row, and is standing Nathalie Arthaud in this year's election.

Working class voters will be able, therefore, to express their support for a working class policy - that is, if that's what they want.

However, while respecting democratic forms, bourgeois democracy has invented all sorts of means of weighing on public opinion. The main one, of course, is money itself and the fact that all the means of information are in the hands of the capitalist class. This can be just as effective in depriving the electorate of a real voice in the ballot box as the state repression of a dictatorship.

Indeed, instead of denying the working class the right to speak out, as dictatorships do, it is invited to censor itself by agreeing to "choose" between parties which all represent only the interests of the capitalist class.

In the past, when the working class movement was still emerging, elections involved political battles which this movement used to test its strength in the electoral field, by standing candidates and defending its policy against the capitalist class.

These electoral battles played a significant role in the construction of the Socialist Party, in the days of Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue [two of the founding leaders of the Socialist Party in the 19th century - Tr]. Just as the elections following the launch of the Communist Party played a rôle in the development of a class consciousness at the time. Of course, the more these two parties became institutionalised, and recognised as such by the capitalist class, the more this tradition got lost.

There is no point in trying to assess to what extent the present situation is due to the pressure of the capitalist class and to what extent it is due to the growing de-politicisation of the working class itself. The fact is that, today, one of the main political tasks that revolutionary communists have to undertake is to counter this process. This cannot be done abstractly, nor through lecturing people about their "democratic duties". Definitely not! It must be done by taking advantage of every opportunity, in particular opportunities such an election campaign, to argue that it is just not enough to be against the policy of the capitalist class. The ruling class does not care whether the policy which is implemented on its behalf, has any support among the population - it is the task of its politicians to deal with such problems. The US capitalist class is not bothered by the very low turnout in US elections. The rise of abstention among working class voters is not a sign of strength, it is an expression of weakness - a way of abandoning the political arena.

But the working class should not leave the political arena to the capitalist class and its professional puppets. It will only be able to play its historical role if it opposes its own policy to that of the capitalist class, up to the highest possible level in the struggle - by wrestling political power from the capitalists' hands.

No such thing is at stake, of course, in a simple presidential election. The class nature of political power is always determined on a much wider stage than that of elections. But, in order to be in a position to effectively challenge the rule of the capitalist class, the working class must be actively involved in every social and political sphere, in order to act as a counter-weight to the policy of the capitalist class, and to put its decisions into question.

At the very minimum, this includes having the will to use every political opportunity to express a class policy - and the presidential election is such an opportunity. This includes refusing to fall for all the usual electoral traps and all the petty blackmail - like the one that says: "vote usefully by voting for Hollande, since he can't be worse than Sarkozy". Never mind that such a statement makes no sense since Hollande will do what big business demands from him. The issue here is not his political label, nor what his personal preferences or wishes are - the only issue is the depth of the capitalist crisis and how big business wants to take advantage of it in order to attack the conditions of the working class.

Those voters who are satisfied with this endless game of ministerial musical chairs, in which a right-wing implementing a right-wing policy alternates with a left-wing implementing the same policy with just a slightly different choice of words - those voters should vote for Hollande right from the first round. But there is no reason why those who do not trust Hollande and agree with part or all of the demands that should be put on big business, should practice some kind of self-censorship by voting for the SP candidate in the first round. Because voting for Hollande, when there are other choices, amounts to writing him a blank cheque. And the day when Hollande decides to take measures against the working class, he will produce all these blank cheques and claim that he has a mandate from working class voters!

Ultimately, even though on a smaller scale, Mélenchon relies exactly on the same electoralist reflexes as Hollande does. He addresses himself to those in the reformist working class movement, among its activists and apparatuses, who do not want a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class, but who do not either identify with the policy of a Socialist Party which has long been a bourgeois party like any other.

But Mélenchon's perspective of a "good left-wing government", which has always been a con for the working class, is even more of the con given today's crisis. As the depth of the crisis increases - and with it, the capitalists' voracity - there is less and less space for a "good left-wing government" capable of providing any measure of protection to the working class at all. Instead, the only kind of governments we will have will be war governments - to lead the capitalists' war against the working class. What a lesson!

In Greece, finance capital never left enough leeway to allow the Socialist Party to wrap up the drastic demands of the bankers in a slightly less unpalatable reformist package. Having neither the political will, nor the economic means to put up any resistance against big business, not only had the Greek left to endorse the banker's demands by voting for them in Parliament, but it also had to enforce them.

The reformist current in the working class movement being what it is, it is predictable that a section of the working class electorate should identify with Mélenchon, while, in addition, having the illusion that by voting for Mélenchon they will have distanced themselves from Hollande and what he represents.

No voluntaristic policy can help revolutionary communists to by-pass, or overcome, the general state of mind among the working class electorate. But what they can and must do is to make sure that those who do not identify with the policy put forward by Mélenchon, let alone that put forward by Hollande, are able to express themselves.

Nathalie Arthaud is standing in this election precisely to allow this section of the working class electorate, no matter how small it may be, to have a real voice.

This section of the working class must express itself, first and foremost to show that it exists and that it is still holding a fighting banner. Before a social explosion creates the relationship of forces which will be necessary to wage a successful struggle for the vital objectives required to protect workers against job cuts, unemployment, the collapse of their standards of living, it is vital that these objectives should be discussed, agreed - and that they should become part of the collective consciousness of the working class.

This fighting banner may not rally many people today. Maybe. But the crisis may accelerate history in a formidable way. As the crisis deepens, it will certainly push new sections of workers into poverty. But we can also hope that it will push more workers to question the reasons for this catastrophic process and to look for the means to stop it. And when the exploited masses start asking these sort of questions, they will have the means to find the right answers. Revolutionary communists will need to find the ear of the masses who are forced into poverty by the crisis, without being dragged away from their task by those who are clinging to illusions, electoral or not, which are part of a long outdated past. Unfortunately those who cling most desperately to these illusions and spread them, are often activists in the reformist working class movement, political and trade-union activists. While it is necessary to try to convince these activists, this should not prevent revolutionary communists from reaching out to the sections of the working class who are hit hardest by the crisis.

This is where lies the link between the fighting programme put forward by Nathalie in this election campaign and the future struggles, which will certainly not be fought using ballot papers.

Conscious struggles do not fall out of the sky. The social explosion which will inevitably be sparked off by the capitalists' relentless attacks against the working class, will involve hundreds of thousands of workers, probably millions, in any case very large sections of the exploited masses. These struggles themselves and their built-in dynamic, will bring these large numbers of workers to the conscious realisation of who their enemies are - and who those who try to take them down the garden path are.

But in order for the masses to make such a judgement everyone's banner should be clearly raised. This is also why political differences must always be spelt out as clearly and explicitly as possible, so as to allow the masses to gauge the validity of everyone's policies and to change their choice of policy on the basis of the direct experience acquired in the course of their mobilisation.

There may be many ways to express the discontent of an exploited class which is still under the illusion that the ruling class and their politicians will come up with some sort of solution to the problems it faces. But the day the working class starts moving, it will need precise fighting objectives and activists to propagate these objectives.

A vote for the communist candidate Nathalie Arthaud and for the fighting objectives she defends will be no substitute for the energy of the fighting masses. But, depending on its size, it is in relation to these future struggles that the vote for Nathalie Arthaud could play a role. Just as it could represent a step towards building a revolutionary communist party. The class struggle is not determined by the electoral agenda and as the crisis deepens a party representing the political interests of the working class will become more necessary than ever.