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From The Socialist newspaper, 10 May 2002

France - the Tasks Facing the Left

LE PEN'S crushing defeat in the second round of France's presidential election has shown the real balance of forces in France today. Despite his success in coming second in the first round Le Pen's forces are still in a minority.

Robert Bechert

Jean-Marie Le Pen's final vote was only 952,700 higher than in the 1995 Presidential contest. Despite the huge rise in turnout from two weeks ago, the far right's vote on 5 May was only 55,400 higher than the combined vote of Le Pen and his former deputy Megret in the first round. In some areas, like Alsace, Le Pen's vote fell.

5 May was not an endorsement of Jacques Chirac. In the first round Chirac scored 19.88% of the vote, so only 14% of the total electorate voted for him.

He is widely despised as corrupt - the Financial Times called the popular slogan "better a crook than a fascist" the "defining sentiment" of the second round campaign.

Le Pen's entry into the second round sparked off two weeks of nearly continuous protest. The overwhelming desire was to stop Le Pen before he got any stronger. This was a lively, energetic movement from below, with school students and students setting the pace.

The French ruling class was shaken by the first round on 21 April and its massive rejection of the main two parties through which it had ruled for 20 years. Chirac and Jospin gained only 36% of the vote. Chirac lost 685,200 votes since 1995 but Jospin lost 3,900,500.

Now Chirac has been re-elected as a Gaullist-type "Fifth Republic President", a man on the top of the nation, over and above political parties. The first round showed the weakening of the Fifth Republic's institutions, especially the presidency.

Huge pressure from the establishment, using the fear of Le Pen coming into power, even suspending publication of opinion polls, aimed to restore authority to the Fifth Republic's institutions.

In the mid-1930s France's ruling class debated using repressive or even fascist methods to crush the working class. Today, many bosses feared that a Le Pen victory would not only increase class conflict within France but also lose markets in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

That's why the ruling class joined in the massive anti-Le Pen campaign involving the main parties, the media, the trade unions, the bosses and sports stars.

But the ruling class also wanted to neuter the spontaneous protests. They feared that the mass movement would quickly lead to a more profound radicalisation.

'Plural Left' failure

ON 21 April the Trotskyists won 10.44%, 2,973,600 votes, nearly doubling their vote since 1995. Both the ruling class and the 'Socialist' and Communist Parties' leaders feared that this vote would lead to the creation of a genuine mass anti-capitalist party.

The ruling class tried to exploit the masses' mood for unity to defeat Le Pen and try to direct it into 'safe', Republican channels. They tried to mobilise support for Chirac in the second round. But Chirac had limited appeal.

The Financial Times said that "the left - can claim the bulk of the credit for mobilising the country". By the 'left' it meant mainly the leaders of the trade unions, Socialist Party, Greens, Communist Party etc.

But these leaders also gave the 1,300,000 strong 1 May demonstrations a 'national' rather than a working class, genuinely socialist character. This was part of a concerted effort to place the 'blame' for Le Pen's success on those who didn't vote or those who voted to the left of Jospin.

However, Jospin's support collapsed because of disappointment with his 'plural left' government, which was elected in 1997 after the neo-liberal attacks of the first two years of Chirac's presidency. The Jospin government was widely seen as different from New Labour in Britain, especially with the introduction of the 35-hour working week law.

But this law was used by bosses to attack working conditions and, the Financial Times commented, "provided a convenient smokescreen behind which more pragmatic policies, such as privatisation, could be introduced".

In the elections Jospin first denied being a 'socialist' candidate, and ended up saying he was the only candidate able to avoid events such as the general strike taking place in Italy. The 'plural left' cannot return even to a traditional reformist approach because of their links with the capitalists.

The 'plural left's failure to 'deliver' over five years was the reason both for dramatic fall in the support for the Socialist and Communist Parties, and the dramatic rise in the Trotskyists' vote.

Spoilt ballots

UNFORTUNATELY THE main Trotskyist organisations in France, the LO and LCR, took no initiative between the first and second rounds. There was no attempt to mobilise their millions of voters to take the lead in a socialist fightback against Le Pen and warn against supporting Chirac.

In today's situation Le Pen was certain to be defeated on 5 May. The LO and LCR should have used their support to argue against the idea of "national unity" against Le Pen. The LCR in fact called for a vote for Chirac. The danger is that an opportunity to lay the basis for a new, mass anti-capitalist party has, once more, been missed in France.

Nevertheless 1,758,850 went to the polls and spoilt their ballots, signalling their rejection of both Le Pen and Chirac. Gauche Revolutionnaire (the French section of the Committee for a Workers' International - CWI, the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party in England and Wales is affiliated) argued for this policy, explaining that activists needed to reject the call to support Chirac. In many working class areas there were high levels of abstentions as workers refused to vote for Chirac, for example in Lille 29.26% did not vote.

Chirac has appointed Raffarin, from the pro-capitalist Liberal Democracy, as acting Prime Minister until the June parliamentary elections. Raffarin was previously a minister in the Juppé government during Chirac's first two years in office, which launched attack after attack on working people.

If Chirac wins a parliamentary majority after his 5 May victory, that will signal a new series of attacks. Already Chirac has said he will "reform" the 35-hour week law; to make it what the bosses, not the workers, want. However in the run-up to June's elections he is also promising immediate tax cuts.

If the "plural left" win next month's elections then the stage will be set for a new period of "co-habitation" with Chirac, with the same results as between 1997 and 2002.

Socialist alternative

EITHER WAY, the scene is set for a further polarisation in society. Le Pen's defeat does not mean that the far right has gone away; on the contrary it will try to gain from disillusionment with either a Chirac or a "plural left" government.

The LO and LCR must not squander the opportunity, offered by the nearly three million Trotskyist strong vote, to build a new workers' party. They should jointly call for the formation of a new party, outline a basic socialist programme for the party and invite others from the left wing of the Communist Party (PCB) and other forces to participate.

Gauche Revolutionnaire (the French section of the CWI) will also try to reach the thousands of people that want a genuine alternative. One task Gauche Revolutionnaire has set itself is to help prepare a counter-offensive from the workers and youth to make new gains over wages, working condition etc.

The key to permanently stopping the far right is building a workers' alternative that will seriously fight to change society. The elections and mass demonstrations show that millions are looking for an alternative.

Gauche Revolutionnaire is both actively involved in the daily struggles and arguing for a single anti-capitalist, left candidate to stand in every area in June's parliamentary election.

This would be a concrete step towards creating a new mass workers' party to struggle for a workers' government that would implement a genuinely socialist programme.

Massive Anti-Fascist Protests in France

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In The Socialist 10 May 2002:

Step Up the Fight for Socialism

Kick Out the BNP

France - the Tasks Facing the Left

Massive Anti-Fascist Protests in France

Local Elections 2002: Highest Ever Socialist Party Votes

Organise Against the Nazis


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