France - The revolutionary left and the March local elections

May/Jun 2001

In March this year, local elections were held in France. And just because Paris and Lyon were taken over for the first time ever by the ruling Socialist party-led coalition (the so-called "plural left", which includes the Communist party, the Greens and a small splinter group of the Socialist party, the MDC), the British media portrayed these elections as a success for the four-year old Jospin government. However the results tell a rather different story. Above all, these elections showed unquestionably the disgust of a very significant part of the working class electorate towards the government's policy. And this was expressed, in particular, by a significant increase of the far-left vote across the country - something that few journalists bothered to even mention here.

We publish below extracts from an issue of "Lutte de Classe" (#57 - March-April 2001), the journal of the ICU's French organisation Lutte Ouvrière, in which our French comrades draw the balance sheet of these elections.

But before this, let us say a few things concerning the background of these elections as well as the workings of the French local councils and electoral system, which are rather different from what exists in Britain.
Historically, the state machinery is more centralised in France than it is in Britain, so that French local councils have fewer responsibilities than British ones - for instance education, most of public health and the benefit system are entirely operated by central government. On the other hand, although the local representatives of the French central government can exercise a veto on local councils' budget decisions, this is a rare occurrence and, by and large, the government exercises less control in the way local councils spend the money allocated to them than has been the case in Britain over the past two decades.
One particular feature of French councils is the post of mayor, who is elected by councillors. This is not, like in Britain, an honorary position. In fact the mayor holds in his hand an almost dictatorial power over the operation of the council. This is partly due to his statutory rights and partly to the election system itself.
All French local councils are entirely re-elected every six years (so that the previous local council election was in 1995). There are neither wards nor ward councillors. In every town with a population of 3,500 or more, candidates in local elections have to stand as part of a full slate including as many candidates as there are seats in the council. In middle and large towns this means that each slate must include between 30 and 60 candidates, depending on the size of the town.
The election can have one or two rounds. If on the first round one slate gets more than 50% of the vote, there is no second round. The winning slate automatically gets half of the council's seats. The rest of the seats are then allocated proportionally to all the slates with at least 5% of the vote, including the winning slate. If no slate wins 50% or more, there is a second round. Only the slates which have won at least 10% of the vote in the first round are allowed to participate in the second round. They can also merge between the first and second round (which often justifies all kinds of political manoeuvres and behind- the-scenes deals between the various parties). On the second round, the winning slate is the one that gets the largest vote. Seats are then allocated in the same way as in the first round. Finally, once the council is elected, the council elects its mayor who then appoints his deputy-mayors, who will be in charge of specific aspects of the council's operation and are really only accountable to the mayor.
This system is obviously designed to ensure that councils are always dominated by a large majority led by the mayor (for instance a council which is elected on the first round has a built-in majority of 75% of the seats at least). As a result it favours the larger parties in a way completely disproportionate to their actual electoral influence.
To conclude this introduction, it must be said that there were a significant number of slates in this election which were standing, more or less clearly and openly, in opposition to the Jospin government and on its left. Most of these slates were linked to the three main French Trotskyist organisations.
Among them, Lutte Ouvrière (LO), which has been standing candidates in election since 1971, had 128 slates under its own banner, covering 109 towns (some towns like Paris, Lyon and Marseille are divided up into several local government units even though these towns have one single mayor) and about 15% of the electorate.
Besides, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist League - LCR) gave its support to 91 slates running under various labels. So did the Parti des Travailleurs (Workers' Party) which supported more or less publicly over 150 slates, although a large number of these were in very small towns.
As to the Communist party, in most towns its candidates stood as part of a joint "plural left" slate supporting the government policy. However in a few towns, where the local organisation of the CP opposed their party's participation in government or, more often, where local activists were bitterly opposed to the future mayor imposed by the CP's allies in the "plural left" coalition, the CP stood independent slates. However there were too few cases for this to provide any indication of the real strength of the CP.

The stakes in the local election

The March local elections involved two issues for the leaderships of the main political parties.

The first issue for them was to prepare for next year's presidential and general elections - the most important ones for these parties. A significant shift in the local elections would have put the winner in a better position for next year. However, the March election result was neither clear-cut nor conclusive, because it can be interpreted in many different ways.

The second issue for the main parties was the stakes involved at local level - i.e. which one of them would take over, lose or retain control of local councils. Indeed controlling the municipality of a main town - and even smaller ones - provides the ruling party with a political influence which can be used as a springboard for winning other positions, not to mention a significant economic leverage, to which politicians are certainly not adverse.

Indeed the large and medium towns' local councils manage relatively large budgets. To take just a few examples: the southern port of Toulon, with a population of 166,442, has a municipal budget worth over £140m; Nantes (277,728) has a budget of over £240m; Toulouse (398,423) has £360m; Issy-les- Moulineaux, in the Paris suburb (population 52,000) manages £124m. As to the Paris municipality, it is awash with money with over £3.1bn (more or less equivalent to Livingstone's Greater London Authority budget but for a much smaller population).

For a towns' ruling party the control of such a large budget very often entails managing the tendering out of contracts to private companies for the building and maintenance of official buildings, streets, public transport, sewage, for the supply of water, and many other activities. Besides, in many towns, the municipality is the largest employer either directly or indirectly through ancillary services (school canteens for instance). In addition many of the 300 or so "HLM" bodies [more or less equivalent to British Housing Departments, except that they also build and maintain council estates - Class Struggle] are also controlled by local councils.

From the point of view of the bosses local government budgets are a real bonanza. In some industries this is even their main source of income: multinationals like Vivendi and Lyonnaise des Eaux built their wealth on municipal funding before expanding their activities to many other areas.

From the point of view of the municipalities themselves, their budgets give them the means to distribute favours among local businesses.

All this results in a web of ties between mayors and capitalists, while allowing the mayors to develop a political patronage.

The balance of forces goes to the right

In the weeks leading up to the election, the ruling majority had been led - presumably by the opinion polls - to exhibit much optimism about the outcome. However, this optimism did not prove justified neither by the first, nor by the second round. On the first round the balance of forces proved to be on the side of the right wing parties. Of course the "plural left" increased its vote to 44.9% compared with 40.8% in 1995, whereas the right wing parties' vote dropped to 46.9% compared with 53.5% in 1995. However the right-wing did still better than the "plural left". Even adding the far-left votes to the "plural left" score and the far-right votes to the right- wing score, one still gets 46.9% for the left and 50.5% for the right.

Another comparison made only on the basis of the towns with a population of 15,000 or more (which may be more accurate as the political alignment of many candidates in small towns is often rather blurred) gives a similar result: 43.13% for the "plural left" and 45.24% for the parliamentary right.

It must be noted that it is not possible to measure the evolution of the electoral influence of the various components of the "plural left" since only the Greens stood independent slates in a significant number of towns. In most cases there was one single "plural left" slate, and only occasionally a rival slate put up by one of the coalition parties.

The fact that the left only represents a minority among the electorate is nothing new. If the 1999 European election (where the turnout was abysmally low) is left aside, the gap between the total right-wing vote (including the far-right), on the one hand and on the other, that of the left and far-left, was more or less the same in the 1997 general election and in the 1998 regional election. In 1997, the rivalry between right-wing and far-right candidates led a number of the latter to stand in the second round, thereby allowing "plural left" MPs to get elected and Jospin to become prime minister.

In any case, although the leaders of the ruling coalition had to tone down their optimism on the evening of the first round, they could still hope that rivalries within the right-wing camp would limit their losses in terms of seats and councils. As it turned out, however, they were wrong.

Following the second round, the number of towns with a population of 15,000 or more controlled by the "plural left" dropped from 301 to 259, whereas the number controlled by the right-wing parties increased from 278 to 318. As to the far-right, it kept 3 of the 4 councils it previously controlled.

Of course two large towns, Lyon and above all Paris, went over to the "plural left". For the ruling coalition this was comforting, in so far as these are number one and three among the country's largest and richest towns, not to mention the political importance of winning the position of mayor of Paris. But as far as votes were concerned, in both towns the right-wing won a majority of the votes - this small "miracle" being due to the peculiar electoral system used in both towns (as well as in Marseille).

The abstentions

The ruling coalition blamed its setback on the high- level of abstention (the CP, in particular, pointed to the level of abstention in working class areas which was, indeed, quite high). Overall, abstention was far lower than in the 1999 European election and the 2000 referendum. But it was high, with 38.7% abstaining in the first round, against 30.6% in the 1995 local election and 35.1% in the 1997 general election.

There is no evidence, however, that the result would have been very different with a higher turnout. However the level of abstention has a political meaning. It shows that an increasing section of the electorate has lost any interest in the alternating game between the right and the left - a game in which the government's policy remains the same even when the party in office changes.

Right from the first round, the highest levels of abstention were found in working class towns and districts. There were some fairly significant examples among the councils located in the Paris suburbs. The most abstentions were found in working class areas, usually controlled by the CP: Aubervilliers 51.9%, Saint- Denis 53.46%, Stains 56.08%, Drancy 50.84%, Bobigny 55.87%, Villejuif 51.91%, Vitry 52%, Gennevilliers 50.02%. The lowest levels of abstention, on the other hand, were found in more middle-class towns: Saint-Maur 30.9%, Le Plessis-Robinson 34.62%, Issy-les-Moulineaux 35.64%. However, it must be said that Neuilly, which is a symbol of wealth, was somewhere in between with 46%.

The increase in abstention compared to the 1995 local election was also more clear-cut in working class towns (although it was also important in some richer towns): it went up from 29.47% to 50.02% in Gennevilliers, from 24.59% to 51.91% in Villejuif, from 24.24% to 52% in Vitry!

In the second round, the turnout was higher with abstentions dropping to 34%. But this higher turnout benefited the right-wing parties more the "plural left". In a number of towns, the "plural left's" share of the vote went down in relative terms and sometimes even in absolute terms. This means that those who voted for one or another of the left-wing slates on the first round did not vote for the "plural left" - usually the only remaining left-wing slate - on the second round.

Where the far-left slates were unable to stand on the second round, a section of their voters abstained. But in many cases a section of the "plural left" electorate abstained out of dislike for the candidate who would become mayor if its slate was elected (a section CP voters abstained when the prospective mayor was an SP member and vice-versa, not to mention the cases in which Green voters felt better represented by the right- wing parties than by the "plural left").

To sum up, the importance of abstention on the first round, its social nature and its evolution between the first and second rounds show that a section of the electorate censured the ruling coalition, or at least expressed its disappointment - and this phenomenon was more visible in the working class areas.

Lutte Ouvrière's scores

The vote of censure against the ruling coalition was obviously most visible and explicit in the towns where there was a slate opposing the government from its left (i.e. those of Lutte Ouvrière, the slates entitled "100% left" supported by the LCR and those linked to the PT). In fact one of the significant developments in this election was the increased vote won by these slates.

In the first round the 128 Lutte Ouvrière slates in France (there was also one in Réunion, a French dependency in the Indian Ocean) won an average of 4.37% or 120,347 votes. This result is significantly higher than in the 1995 local election.

We can only make a precise comparison in the 49 towns where Lutte Ouvrière had slates in both elections. In these towns LO's score was 39,879 votes (2.81%) in 1995 and 55,515 votes (4.31%) this year.

This year LO was present in 109 different towns (in addition to 19 slates in districts of Paris, Lyon and Marseille). In 62 of these 109 towns LO's slates won 5% or more, including 8 in which they made more than 10%. On the first round, 30 LO candidates were elected (including 11 women) in 22 towns.

On the second round, LO was able to have slates in three towns under its own banner and won another 3 seats. So that in total 33 LO local councillors were elected in 25 towns.

In this kind of election the number of seats won reflects the share of the vote only remotely. If there is no second round, for instance, a slate may be able to win a seat with just 5.5% of the vote in one town and have no seat with 8% or 9% in another, depending on the number of slates having won 5% or more. On the other hand, if there is a second round, no slate with less than 10% of the vote can be present on the second round (and therefore win a seat) unless it merges with another slate in return for a seat (but in that case it must not be too choosy about the politics of its bedfellows).

Despite this LO won 33 seats under its own banner and without merging with any other slates.

The slates "run" or "supported" by the LCR

To use the LCR's own words, this organisation "ran" or "supported" 91 slates under various labels: "100% left", "All together on the left", "For a different left" and, in some cases, according to the LCR's paper Rouge, "more localised labels" - like, for instance, "Plural Bagnolet" in the Paris suburban town of Bagnolet. These diverse labels were designed to portray these slates not as LCR slates, but instead as slates which were "open", in which the LCR was just one, more or less visible, component. The LCR's role was sometimes predominant, sometimes not, but in any case the LCR's associates were not required to agree with all the LCR's ideas nor even to show any particular solidarity towards the LCR.

From this point of view the LCR's first attempt to have a significant profile in local elections has been a success. These comrades have found the electorate they were hoping to find by joining forces with various milieus which did not wish to appear publicly under a political label or behind a programme too close to that of the LCR.

If Paris, Marseille and Lyon are counted as one single town each, these 91 slates were present in 77 towns. In 40 of these towns they won 5% or more of the vote and they won over 10% in 13 towns.

On the first round, the LCR won a total 93,182 votes (4.52%) and 26 seats in 18 towns. The LCR won, therefore fewer votes than LO, which was to be expected since the LCR has fewer slates, but its share of the vote in the towns where it stood was slightly higher than LO's.

Where the LCR was present but not LO, the LCR won 6.21% of the vote. Where LO was present but not the LCR, LO won 5.37% of the vote. As to the 44 places where both the LCR and LO had slates, the LCR won 3.71% and LO 3.63%.

So, even though LO's scores cannot really be considered as a significant benchmark, this is nevertheless a real success for the LCR, from an electoral point of view.

Indeed the LCR managed to "run" or "support" slates (even though some can hardly be described as LCR slates) in which candidates coming from all kinds of backgrounds were involved (campaign activists, ecologists, anti-globalisation activists, etc..). But in addition the LCR did find an electorate which identified with the label of its slates - in other words who see themselves as part of the left [in the French sense, that is the parliamentary left - Class Struggle] and not outside of it.

The LCR was hoping to test its policy in the election and this test was successful. Undoubtedly this will reinforce the current of the LCR which is in favour of changing its name. The last time this issue was discussed by an LCR conference, there was a majority in favour of changing the LCR's name, but not the 2/3 majority required by its constitution to make such a decision. One can expect that this 2/3 majority condition will be met when the opportunity for discussing this issue arises again.

Some comments

The first reaction of the activists in the LCR who were in favour of achieving unity at all costs between the LCR and LO in these local elections, was to add the scores won by both organisations. Thus François Olivier wrote in Rouge: "See what results we would have achieved if we had run joint lists." The point is that if LO did not stand jointly with the LCR it was due to the fact that its long-term policy is different. This was visible in the course of the negotiations between the two organisations and it was illustrated by the way in which both organisations stood their slates, under which banner and with what kind of candidates.

The LCR was adamant that if there were to be joint slates they should not just be called LCR-LO, because it wanted to involve other political milieus - which they call "associatifs" [more or less equivalent to the milieus around single-issue campaigns in Britain] - who would not be prepared to join a slate called LCR-LO. The LCR finally agreed to this common label but only provided it could be mitigated locally by allowing other currents to express different views in the election mailshots.

LO was against this proposal because it would have made it impossible to show clearly, like in the LO-LCR European election slate, where it stood politically. The LCR refused categorically to use the same approach as in the European election and its June 2000 conference endorsed this position.

Another obstacle was that LO was against calling for a vote for the "plural left" on the second round. The LCR, on the contrary, wanted to issue this call even before the first round took place. And the only concession they made was to propose that each organisation publicly takes the position it wished to take. In fact this was what many of the slates linked to the LCR did, by not taking the same position on the second round as the LCR itself. However, in this world in which the weakest are usually those who suffer most from betrayals, political clarity is indispensable.

Another disagreement - which was not discussed in writing but was nevertheless raised - was over the possibility of merging the joint slates with those of the "plural left" on the second round. LO considered that doing so would have amounted to betraying the policy agreed jointly. One cannot criticise the government parties on the first round, win votes on that basis and then, for the second round, approach the same government parties cap-in-hand begging for seats, regardless of whether that is what one's voters wanted.

In any case the LCR stuck to its political choices since it "ran" or "supported" 91 slates which did not stand under the LCR label, but under a label referring in various ways to the "left" - a vague formulation these days, as the word "left" is either discredited or no longer has a clear meaning.

These slates did not present themselves as part of the far-left and not even as being outside the government left - but as part of this left.

On the second round the LCR called for a vote for the "plural left" slates. Some of the slates it supported did not, but others wnt even further by merging with "government left" slates including one led by a member of the MDC, Chevènement's party [Chevènement is a former Home and Defence minister of Mitterrand, responsible among other things for most anti-immigrant legislation and his party is staunchly nationalist and anti-European in the name of French "sovereignty"].

An understandable reaction - although not the most thoughtful politically - is then to say: had there been joint "100% left" slates supported by the LCR and LO, they would have gained all the votes won by the slates linked to the two organisations and a lot more seats would have been won.

On should add that there would have been a lot more LCR councillors because LCR slates would have been in a position to merge with "plural left" slates in many more places.

But let us look at the issue again: would the votes won by LO have gone to joint "100% left" slates? Obviously not. The LCR knew this, since it chose not to stand its slates under its own name but chose instead to "support" slates standing under various labels and with candidates coming from a variety of backgrounds. Many of those who voted for these slates would not have voted for LO. And it is likely - and this is to be welcomed - that many of LO's voters would not have voted for such slates either.

The odds, therefore, are that the disagreements between the LCR and LO have actually led to more people voting for the slates they put up or supported, than would have been the case, had the two organisations stood jointly.

The electoral success achieved by the LCR may also result in some political success for these comrades. But this is not the kind of success that LO wishes to have.

LO's objective is to build the workers' party that the working class needs - a party which, in every circumstance will stand for the political interests of working people and which will not just define itself as being "on the left", as a critical supporter of the government left, but as an opponent of this left.

This may not be easy, but there is no other choice.

It may be easier today to bring together ecologists, anti- globalisation protesters and others, calling them "objectively anti-capitalist" when they do not even see themselves that way. But LO does not wish to go down this road. The relative success achieved by the LCR, by equalling LO's election scores, is not the kind of success that LO wants to achieve. LO does not consider this as a success, from the point of view of the building of a proletarian revolutionary party, that is a party which is 100% communist and not "100% left".

Therefore LO considers it has no reason to regret its decision to stand independently in these elections, quite the contrary. LO has a different policy from that of the LCR and an electorate which is not quite identical either. The LCR succeeded in winning over a section of the electorate on its first attempt. The future will tell whether it manages to retain this electorate and whether this success has positive consequences for its organisation.

LO's slates included many single-issue campaign activists, because LO's members are not numerous enough to have activities in every fields and, as a result, they do not set up or run such campaigns. They support these campaigns when they can, if only through their participation in demonstrations and help on a local level. However the campaign activists who were on LO's slates did not demand that they should not run under LO's banner. They were not embarrassed to be seen as LO candidates, rather than candidates "supported" by LO. Some will consider this as a nuance. However this is a fundamental difference.

In any case, LO's results showed that it is possible to appear boldly and openly on the side of the working class, to stand for the political interests of the working population and on the basis of a communist perspective, while increasing one's electoral scores at a time when the support for the two main parties, whose policies have deprived the word "socialism" and "communism" of any meaning, is receding.

This lesson was confirmed by these local elections and by all the elections that have taken place since 1995. In the period to come, it will be increasingly taken onboard by all those who do not want to give up the fight for the overthrow of the capitalist society and its transformation into a communist society in which the main means of production will be used to serve the interests of the world population as a whole rather than those of profit.

from Lutte de Classe #57 - 23 March 2001