Elections in France: Hollande, the fascists and the fightback

How much economic austerity and rabid Islamophobia is the next president likely to serve up to French workers, and what are the prospects for a radical left alternative? John Mullen reports from Paris.

The French presidential elections will take place in two rounds, on 23 April and 7 May 2017. Anyone who can get supporting signatures of 500 elected officials (from among the 47,000 in France) can stand in the first round. The two who receive the highest number of votes go on to the run-off. In 2012, on a high voter turnout of 80 percent, Nicolas Sarkozy for the right got 27 percent in the first round, François Hollande for the Socialist Party received 28 percent. Hollande won the second round. Since then, his dreadful record on unemployment, state repression and destroying workers’ rights has thrown his party and the whole of the left into turmoil.

The nature of public debate in any major election depends on the general balance of forces between the classes. In France over the last 25 years, the ruling class has gotten away with a series of attacks on the welfare state and on living standards. Minimum pension ages for most people were pushed back from 60 to 62. Staff cuts and recruitment freezes have become the norm in most public services.

But the high level of working class combativity since 1995 has made the attacks far slower than in the UK, for example, and occasional progress (such as the introduction of the 35-hour week or of health insurance for the poorest) has been possible. This is why, in debates today, no candidate, left or right, dares to propose that university students pay fees that cover the cost of hiring lecturers (fees are around A$410 a year for most), and no candidate is calling for the privatisation of passenger railways, just to take two key examples. Chipping away at workers’ rights and services has been the order of the day, but the ruling class is more and more desperate to accelerate the process. This is the general context.

The more immediate class context of the election lies in three series of events in 2015 and 2016. First, the horrific terrorist attacks on French soil, followed by a constantly renewed state of emergency, soldiers in the railway stations and increased police powers, but, surprisingly, not leading to a “national unity” or a durable increase in support for Hollande.

Second, the enormous creative movement of political strikes and protests last spring against Hollande’s labour law, a movement which faced harsh repression.

Finally, the vicious campaign of hatred against Muslims last summer based on a racist moral panic concerning full body swimsuits on French beaches. This last was the latest in a long series of often successful attempts to whip up Islamophobia. The general lack of a fight against Islamophobia from the left or the far left means it has some success: last June, polls showed 63 percent of French people said they felt Islam was “too visible” in France, and the same number declared they were “opposed” to the Muslim headscarf.

Hollande exits, Socialist Party shifts left

Although the movement against the labour law was inspiring, it went down to defeat because union leaders would not risk a general strike. The new law allows local “agreements” to undercut national guarantees on overtime rates, working hours and health and safety issues. Not daring to abolish national guarantees directly, bosses are relying on the fear of unemployment to push through harsh conditions locally.

The movement against the law was so widespread that even Socialist Party MPs dissented. The government then pushed the law through without a parliamentary debate by using a special “49.3” decree. For many, this was the last straw, and Hollande’s popularity plunged to a record-breaking 4 percent of positive opinions.

After that, there was no point in him standing for re-election, and though his prime minister, Manuel Valls, decided to stand on the government’s record, he was easily knocked out in the second round of the Socialist Party primaries on 29 January, losing to the left wing Benoît Hamon 59 percent to 41 percent.

The primaries drew 1.7 million voters in the first round and nearly 2 million in the second, as compared to 2.6 million and 2.8 million five years ago. Still, 5.5 million viewers watched the final TV debate between Valls and Hamon. To vote at one of the 7,500 primary polling booths, one just had to sign that one “identified with the values of the left and the Republic”. The primaries were a clear shift to the left and a defeat for the government.

Hamon had been a minister under Hollande, but resigned when the government’s right wing policies went too far. Hamon, however, is no Jeremy Corbyn. He was opposed to the labour law, although in an overwhelmingly parliamentary manner which didn’t involve actively supporting the strikes, and in general his record is that of a loyal left opposition who almost never voted against the Hollande government. Nevertheless, his resounding victory represents a real shift to the left among Socialist Party supporters, and the fact that he could get such a result while denouncing Islamophobia is encouraging.

Hamon draws more than 1,000 people to each of his campaign meetings, and has invited workers on strike and environmental activists to address the meetings. He is in favour of phasing out nuclear energy (three-quarters of the electricity consumed in France is nuclear). He also calls for France to accept far more refugees. Last August, in the midst of the Islamophobic panic about beach wear, he stood up for Muslims and denounced the way that “secularism was being instrumentalised”. He has been attacked by the Islamophobic wing of the feminist movement for his positions, and by some commentators as “the candidate of the Muslim brotherhood”. To his credit, he replies that to be insulted by racists is an honour.

So, clearly, Hamon stands for less austerity and much less Islamophobia than did Valls, though he does not stand for class struggle as such. He generally opposes new attacks on workers living conditions, and wants to abrogate the labour law, but is not in favour of rolling back recent attacks (for example, he does not support again reducing the pension age to 60).

The mainstream right

The right wing primaries last November drew 4.4 million voters. Widespread relief greeted the elimination of Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been planning a comeback. The winner was François Fillon, a Thatcher-style right winger, who gave his name to the vicious 2003 pensions law and who was prime minister between 2007 and 2012, overseeing deep cuts in public services. He says he wants to cut half a million public sector jobs and reduce immigration “to the strict minimum”. Recent polls show 13 percent “supporting Fillon” and a further 19 percent “sympathising with him”. The mainstream right wing is, then, likely to face the presidential elections with a single candidate, even if very much an establishment figure.

Marine Le Pen, the fascist candidate, has 14 percent “supporting her” and a further 12 percent “sympathising with her” in recent polls. Some international media are presenting her as the likely next president of France. This is not the case, but her popularity is very worrying, and her activity has encouraged sections of both right and left to move further into racist rhetoric, as well as priming the pump for racist attacks on the streets. The fascists were practically inaudible during the mass strikes last spring (since they are in favour of the millionaires, but want to win the support of the workers). They roared back into life with the “burkini” circus last summer, and Le Pen’s latest outburst is to demand that the children of undocumented immigrants be barred from going to school. Worryingly, the FN, along with fascists around Europe, managed to organise a continent-wide conference in Koblenz, Germany, in late January.

The FN has around 50,000 members. Marine Le Pen has pushed her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, out of the party, in the hope of presenting a less fascistic image. (Her father insisted on regularly reassuring the hard core Nazis within the FN by “accidentally” making comments about killing millions of Jews being a “detail”, and so on.) She has been fairly successful in improving the party’s image. The reality of her organisation is quite different, of course: the links with hard core, violent fascist gangs are quietly maintained.

The 11 local councils controlled by the FN since the municipal elections of 2014 have been trying to showcase it as a party of government. Several have stopped funding for human rights and antiracist groups and armed the municipal police force. All have made life harder for local Muslims, but generally the 11 councils have not shown a coherent approach. Some have raised rates, some have reduced them, some pay councillors more than before, some less.

One cannot say, then, that the FN does not have its problems. Of the 1,500 local councillors won by the party two and a half years ago, 30 percent have since resigned, and it does not seem that the activist base of the FN has yet built itself back up to where it was 20 years ago. Le Pen is far from having the strength to build mass meetings in every major town like Macron, the left candidate Mélenchon or Hamon can. Moreover, there is infighting between the modernisers, such as gay FN spokesman Florian Philippot, and those for whom anti-women and anti-gay traditionalism should be more fiercely maintained.

Neither left nor right? Macron

One ex-Socialist party candidate judged his chances better outside the primary elections, and declared his candidacy directly. This is Emmanuel Macron, ex-banker, recently minister of finance under Hollande, fundamentally a Blairite in economics, who claims that left and right no longer have any meaning. He got very high results in recent polls, which showed 11 percent of the electorate “supporting him” and a further 29 percent “sympathising with him”. At 39, he likes to portray himself as fresh, young and chirpy.

He gets thousands to his campaign meetings, though there are almost as many suits and ties as at right wing meetings. He speaks of his heroes (great businessmen and great French presidents) and the loudest applause is always for measures to “help entrepreneurs to invest” (such as reducing still further employer contributions for health and pensions). At meetings he calls on people to “think of the spring” and pauses to pay homage to the French army and police, yet also castigates those who, he says, have given in to panic after the terrorist attacks and fallen into “excessive authoritarianism” or anti-Muslim xenophobia.

He left the Socialist Party a few years back and has recently founded his own micro-party, called “Forward!” (En marche!), which has over 100,000 members already (though joining is free). Politically he is the same as Valls but quotes more poems, is less Islamophobic, and has a different strategy, thinking that the Parti Socialiste is no longer viable in its present form.

A class struggle candidate

Class struggle politics for a mass audience is represented by the campaign of radical left challenger Jean Luc Mélenchon. Polls recently showed 10 percent “supporting him” and a further 22 percent “sympathising with him”. A first class anti-capitalist speaker, Mélenchon talks in his meetings of ordinary people’s lives and the concrete suffering caused by neoliberal reforms, and he has as a priority educating people about how capitalism works.

“The only limit to exploitation is the resistance we put up against exploitation”, he likes to repeat, and, “The immigrant is not your enemy: the banker is”. He mocks the technocrats who see health care as only a question of accounting and not a question of human beings, and defends a radical humanism, which is a breath of fresh air in the fog of public relations and sound bites which politics has often become.

His campaign meetings are already huge, often filling overflow halls, with hardly a suit and tie in sight. On health care, he demands a 100 percent refund of what people pay to health professionals. He proposes nationalised medicine and pharmaceuticals companies. He stands for the banning of police use of tasers and flashballs, and the disbanding of the worst of the repressive police squads, the BAC.

The whole tone of his campaign is to encourage class struggle, at the same time as he claims that ballot box victories could give rise to a government which was on the side of the workers. All this is in a context where masses of workers, and of course Mélenchon himself, tend to very much overestimate what any left government could do for them without an uprising behind it. The ruling class would not sit back and let Mélenchon apply his program!

He is the only left wing leader to have had the guts to challenge Marine Le Pen directly, standing against her in her home town of Hénin Beaumont, an FN stronghold, in 2012, running a campaign that made clear links between anti-fascism and working class interests.

On Islamophobia, however, Mélenchon tends to waver. He has frequently denounced discrimination and xenophobia against Muslims, but also sometimes seems to believe the paranoid nonsense about a Salafist offensive threatening French culture. So, on the swimwear polemic, he denounced both those who sold the swimsuits and those mayors who banned them.

On international issues, Mélenchon’s left republicanism leads him to some dreadful positions, such as supporting France having nuclear weapons and believing in the potential for France to play a “positive role” in world affairs. He is against NATO and calls for a much larger military role for the UN.

Mélenchon’s organisation, la France Insoumise (Insubordinate France) is a loose network of many thousands of activists. Its future is hard to guess, but it could be a crucial factor in reinvigorating the radical left, even perhaps capturing the left wing of a disintegrating Socialist Party and the activist wing of a stodgy Communist Party.

Islamophobia

Austerity and Islamophobia are the two key questions in this election. Islamophobia is considerably worse in France than in many other countries, because wide sections of the left and even the far left support it under the guise of radical secularism. The right and centre find this incredibly useful, since they can set up Islamophobic diversions at any time, being sure that there will not be a serious campaign against them. The terrorist murders in Paris and elsewhere make their job even easier. At the moment, there are local campaigns lobbying to expel students who wear the hijab from some university departments, and, tragically, these campaigns are run by activists from lecturers’ unions or from radical left groups. In Lille University, a student was punished because it was alleged that she had been praying in the toilets!

The good news is that, unlike 10 years ago, there is a network of small but growing grassroots organisations ready to fight Islamophobia, even if with only occasional support from established left groupings. The “March for dignity” against racism, Islamophobia and police violence, on 19 March in Paris, will be a chance to bring the question of anti-racism to the fore in the election debate.

Who should I bet on?

So, who is going to be France’s next president? There are likely to be a number of surprises, so don’t spend too much in the betting shop. Recently, a new scandal broke: right wing candidate François Fillon was found to have organised for parliament to pay 800,000 euros over 10 years as salary to his wife as a “parliamentary assistant” – a job it appears she did not do any work for (even her official biographer didn’t know she held this post!). Fillon, who has always presented himself as whiter than white, may well lose votes on his right to the FN and on his left to Macron. The traditional centre-right organisations, which do not have a declared candidate, may decide to stand if Fillon is looking too much like damaged goods.

The capacity of Mélenchon’s campaign to bring out those of the working class who had previously abstained will be crucial, and is impossible to measure in advance. There will be pressure on the left for Mélenchon and Hamon to run a joint campaign, in order to ensure that the left is present in the second round. This is highly unlikely, both because Hamon understands that such an alliance could be the end of the Socialist Party and because Mélenchon’s electorate is not generally willing to give the Socialist Party “one more chance” merely because of an ex-minister candidate who is more left wing. Then, those close to the Socialist Party who wanted Valls to win the primaries may well vote Macron rather than the party candidate, Hamon. A number of MPs on the right of the Socialist Party are already suggesting they will do this.

In addition, large numbers of people who are against the right wing are likely to vote tactically in the first round of the election, in order, they hope, to avoid the humiliation of 2002, when the right and the fascists were alone in the run-off, and all left candidates were eliminated in the first round. If, near to the election, one of the three main candidates coming from the left (Macron, Hamon and Mélenchon) seems to be ahead in the polls, he will no doubt attract voters for whom he was in reality a second choice. The opinion poll figures cited in this article show just how many possibilities there are. Mélenchon rails against tactical voting, insisting that “if you leave your principles at the door of the polling station, don’t be surprised if you can’t find them when you come out again”, but his electors may not see things like that.

In 2002, the fact that the Front National got through to the run-off gave rise to a massive wave of antifascist demonstrations involving millions of people, with widespread protests every day for weeks, as well as a huge “tactical vote” for mainstream right winger Jacques Chirac in the second round. The antifascist groundswell helped ensure that the fascist candidate got no more votes in the second round than he had got in the first, but weakness and confusion on the left meant that this uprising did not leave in its wake the permanent national mass antifascist organisation that is so sorely needed. If the left is eliminated in the first round in 2017, it is to be hoped that a similar mass movement would explode. The worst possible scenario would be if the presence of a fascist in the second round of the presidential elections had become a banal, unremarkable event.

But three months is a long time in politics, and building the anti-austerity vote as well as supporting ongoing struggles against cuts and against racism gives us plenty to be getting on with. Revolutionaries need to engage with the other supporters of Mélenchon, joining with them in grassroots economic and political struggles. The main enemy on the anti-capitalist left in France today is the widespread sectarianism, whose expression is no doubt multiplied by the nature of social media, but whose roots are in the lack of clarity about what reformism is and about how it will always rise again from its ashes, as long as capitalism exists.

John Mullen is an activist in the Paris region and a member of the anti-capitalist grouping “Ensemble”.