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From The Socialist newspaper, 26 April 2002

French Presidential elections: Le Pen - Big Business Policies To Blame

THE POLITICAL earthquake in France has rocked all of Europe. Jean-Marie Le Pen's success, and the crushing defeat of Jospin, has shocked European rulers and alarmed workers and youth. Immediately tens of thousands came onto the streets throughout France to demonstrate their determination to block the road to Le Pen who they see as an out and out fascist. Protests have continued with thousands of school and university students striking and demonstrating.

Robert Bechert

These elections were a rejection of the parties that have ruled France since De Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. The two main parties, Jacques Chirac's RPR and the 'Socialists' gained 36.06% of the vote, while the 28.4% abstention rate was the highest ever. Less than 14% of the total electorate actually voted for Chirac.

This was the lowest score ever for a sitting President and means that, whatever the size of his likely second round victory, a re-elected Chirac will be seen from the start as a weakened figure.

But as well as Le Pen winning through to the second, decisive round on 5 May, there was an extremely important move to the left in this election. The combined vote of the three Trotskyist candidates reached 2,973,600, 10.44%, compared with 1,616,540, 5.3%, in the last presidential election seven years ago.

The combination of growing dissatisfaction in society and the policies of the leaders of the official workers' movement have produced a situation where there is both a radicalisation to the left and an attempt by the far right to use populist, racist and nationalist slogans to exploit this discontent.

Blairite policies

While Le Pen's success is a warning, it does not mean that the French workers' movement is immediately facing a decisive, crushing defeat. In terms of actual numbers the far-right vote increased by less than 900,000. In 1997 Le Pen got 4,573,200 (15%), while this year he won 4,805,300 (16.86%).

However the 667,120 (2.34%) votes won by the Mˇgret-led split off from the NF need to be added to see the far right total.

One survey showed that, compared with 1997, Le Pen's support among young people fell from 18% to 12%, his support among pensioners jumped from 9% to 19% and among the self-employed and small business owners from 13% to 30%.

Immediately after the vote attempts were made to blame Le Pen's victory on a "splitting" of the left vote. But Jospin's defeat was the result of his own party dramatically losing votes.

Fundamentally, despite some reforms, Jospin's "plural left" government was carrying out the same type of pro-business polices that have characterised the Blair government in Britain. In the last weeks before the election the government continued with privatisations, selling stakes in Renault, Thomson Multimedia and all of Autoroutes du Sud de la France (motorways in the south of France). This last sale was carried out under a so-called communist Transport Minister.

From the beginning of this campaign Jospin stressed he was not running as a "socialist" and many commented that there was not much difference between Chirac and Jospin.

The Communist Party (PCF), which sits in Jospin's government fared even worse in these elections. It suffered a virtual extinction as its vote disintegrated from 2,634,180 in 1995 to 960,750 (3.37%), its lowest ever percentage. Now the PCF will enter into a major, possibly final, crisis.

Spur of reaction

Generally these elections showed deep hostility and hatred towards the ruling parties. Le Pen weaved together a campaign that utilised the growing feeling of insecurity, alienation from the establishment, disgust at widespread corruption and a growing fear of crime. At the same time he attempted to give popular opposition to capitalist globalisation, the EU, and US policy a nationalist character.

With his appeals to "ordinary people, the rank and file, the excluded", Le Pen is attempting to replace the left as the alternative to the ruling elite.

Le Pen's advance is both a warning and also a symptom of polarisation. However this threat of reaction can spur on the movement. Protests in the streets have already started, but these need to be linked to building an alternative. To be able to both stop Le Pen's movement now, and in the future, the workers' movement has to show that it is seriously fighting for an alternative society.

The nearly three million votes for the 'Trotskyists' gives their organisations, particularly the LO and LCR, a big responsibility at this moment.

The LCR was the second largest party among youth winning 13.9%, more than Le Pen and only slightly less than Chirac. While weak among youth, the LO won 10% of the white and blue-collar workers vote.

Now both organisations have the duty to take real initiatives at this time. Their vote gives them the opportunity of beginning to create a new mass party of the French working class. Immediately the LO, LCR, the left from the PCF and others willing to fight must come together, nationally and locally, to plan the next steps in the protests which are already developing.

While the struggle will not, by any means, be only through the ballot box, the forthcoming general election can be an important rallying point. Steps need to be taken now to prepare a joint left list, fighting on anti-capitalist policies, for June's parliamentary elections - elections that could see a defeat for Le Pen as more people turn out to vote.

The likelihood is that Chirac will win the second round. The political establishment have rallied to defeat Le Pen. Undoubtedly sections of workers, immigrants and youth will vote for Chirac to stop Le Pen, widely seen as a "fascist".

Already some youth have demonstrated with posters "vote for sleaze not for fascism". This is entirely understandable, but while a "cordon sanitaire" may defeat Le Pen next month, it is the capitalist "co-habitation" politics of Chirac, Jospin and the rest of the ruling elite that helped open the way to Le Pen.

New workers' party

However there will be a section of workers and youth who will either vote blank or spoil their ballots. A strong showing of ballot papers rejecting both Chirac and Le Pen would be a warning of opposition to the capitalist policies which both advocate.

Undoubtedly the coming days will see a massive campaign against Le Pen, a campaign which will also aim to undermine the left by frightening people back to voting for the establishment parties.

France has entered into a new period. The whole country has been thrown into turmoil. Struggles have begun which could, at a certain stage, lead to a new May 1968, and an open challenge to the capitalist system itself. If these elections showed anything at all, they showed that the existing order of society has only minority support; the real debate is what is the alternative?

Thus the new struggles that have started will be accompanied by a debate within the workers' movement on the lessons of the Jospin government, its defeat and what to do next.

In this debate the Gauche Revolutionnaire (the French section of the CWI, which the Socialist Party in England and Wales is also affiliated to) will argue not only for the creation of a new mass workers' party but also that it should struggle for a workers' government that will implement a genuinely socialist programme.

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In The Socialist 26 April 2002:

Vote Socialist

May Day 2002 Fight For A Socialist Alternative

French Presidential elections: Le Pen - Big Business Policies To Blame

Celebrating May Day

13 million-strong Italian general strike

Sharon Maintains Military Stranglehold On Palestinians


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