By Greg Oxley,
Editor of the French Marxist magazine La Riposte
Last night, as soon as the results of the first round of the presidential elections were announced, spontaneous demonstrations took place in almost all major towns and cities. For the first time since 1969, all the left candidates, including the socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, were eliminated in the first round. The second round will be between Jacques Chirac, and the extreme-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen. About ten thousand demonstrators, mainly young people, flocked into Place de la Bastille and Place de la République in Paris. This morning, in Lyon, hundreds of school students marched out of their schools towards the city centre, shouting slogans against racism and calling for action against Le Pen's Front National. Jospin has announced his withdrawal from politics. The parliamentary elections will take place in June, raising the very real danger of the return of a right-wing government.
The right-wing parties are trying to hide their reactionary intentions. However, there can be no doubt that a new right-wing government would launch a full-scale attack against the rights and living conditions of the working people, against the public services, and against pensioners. Chirac has already announced his intention to "let people work as much as they like", which means, in plain language, overturning the gains included in the legislation on the 35-hour week.
This devastating defeat is the direct consequence of the policies carried out by Jospin, and also by the leadership of the Communist Party, since the victory of the left in the parliamentary elections of 1997. The policies carried out by Jospin over the last five years have been a confusing combination of half-hearted social reform on the one hand, and of reactionary counter-reforms taken from the sinister "plan" of his hated right-wing predecessor, Alain Juppé, on the other. Between 1997 and 2001, the French economy experienced fairly high rates of growth. Unemployment fell, but not to any great extent, in spite of the 350,000 "youth-jobs" directly financed by the state. Above all, stable, qualified employment lost ground to contracts with temporary employment agencies, part-time and low-paid jobs. Agency contracts doubled in number over five years, reaching the staggering figure of 750,000. Hundreds of thousands of workers who need full-time work are forced to accept part-time jobs, reducing their standard of living to the barest essentials. A recent study published by the CREDOC social statistics institution drew a clear parallel between the growing numbers of the "working poor" and the increased casualisation of labour. The "working poor", together with the unemployed, form a huge mass of people living below the poverty line, which did not fall in size during the years of the economic boom, and which includes between 5.5 and 6 million people. Now that the boom is over, the poorest sections of society will inevitably be hit even harder.
The introduction of the 35-hour week was undoubtedly the most important measure included in the election platform of the socialist and communist parties back in 1997. This proposal played a decisive part in the victory of the left in the parliamentary elections of that year. Today, five years later, the results of this measure are far from satisfactory. To date, the 35-hour week concerns only one worker in three. Of these, one third consider that the legislation has led to an overall worsening of working conditions and pay. The legislation included numerous concessions and omissions which meant that, unless the unions were strong enough to prevent it, employers could very often turn the new law to their advantage, taking far more back - through annualisation, flexibility, productivity agreements and the like - than they were forced to concede in terms of shorter hours.
Massive financial handouts were made to the employers from the state coffers, supposedly to compensate their losses as a result of the legislation. In 1999 alone, 104 billion francs was paid over to the capitalists in this way. Whereas the 35-hour week was supposed to create jobs, the government itself has consistently refused to recruit into the public services, leaving the workers to carry out the same workload in less time. This policy has created enormous resentment against the left government among public sector employees.
The socialist-communist government has carried out a programme of privatisation. Jospin has privatised more than Balladur and Juppé together. This scandalous policy - in complete contradiction to the resolutions voted at the congresses of the socialist and communist parties, has led to a serious deterioration of working conditions in the banks, industries and services concerned. The tens of thousands of workers, victims of closures, redundancies, fusions and other forms of "restructuring", like those of Danone, Bata, Péchiney, Moulinex, Air France, AOM-Air Liberté and many others, met with a wall of indifference on the part of the government. When Michelin workers appealed to the government in their fight against massive job losses, Jospin simply shrugged his shoulders and said that his government would not interfere with a decision taken by shareholders.
There are many more reasons for the loss of support for the government parties. For instance, the racist legislation introduced by previous right-wing governments has been left largely intact. The right to vote for immigrants, promised by the left since the 1970s, was once again shelved. A number of prominent representatives of the left parties have been involved in corruption, scandals. The foreign policy of the Jospin government has been no different to that of previous right-wing governments. The Arabic-Muslim community in France, particularly the youth, has been alienated by the flagrantly pro-Israeli stance of the Jospin government, for example.
Since 1995, the number of days lost in strikes has been constantly on the increase, in both the public sector and the private sector. Just about every sector of the economy has been affected by these strikes. The middle layers of society have also moved into action. Lawyers and even judges have been on strike. Gendarmes and policemen, customs officers, firemen, freelance nurses, doctors, and many other traditionally conservative sections of society have taken action, imitating the methods of the labour movement. This indicates the potential for changing society, but instead of basing themselves on these movements in order to struggle against capitalism, the socialist and communist leaders opposed them, and, on many occasions, sent in the riot police in order to teach the strikers a lesson. Striking Ministry of Culture workers, protesting against their notoriously poor working conditions, were severely beaten by riot police outside the ministry building. The workers have tried to push the government to the left.
In March 2000, Jospin was forced to retreat in the face of a sharp rise in the strike movement, involving teachers, Finance Ministry employees and workers in many other sectors of the economy. Undoubtedly, trade union resistance has prevented Jospin from going as far as he intended with his "pro-market" policies. But overall, half-measures, double-talk, slavish submission to the banks and the stock exchange, and hostility to legitimate demands of workers on the part of the government have created a deep-seated feeling of disappointment and betrayal among many traditionally socialist and communist voters. In spite of their criticisms and in order to defeat the right, many remained loyal to the Socialist Party, but the big increase in the number of abstentions, combined with votes lost to other presidential candidates on the left, was enough to allow Le Pen through to the second round, with 17% of the vote, just ahead of Jospin who scored 16%.
The Communist Party, with just 3.4% of the vote, has sunk to the lowest ever score in its entire history. This is the result of the support for the privatisations, some of which have been carried out directly under the authority of the communist minister, Gayssot, and of numerous other unpopular measures. What use is a "Communist" Party which agrees with privatisation and the market economy?
Jospin led a flat, uninspiring campaign, in which the question of "security" occupied the central place. We needed more police, harsher treatment for young offenders, and "zero impunity" for delinquents. He did promise an allowance for youth provided they accepted training schemes, and a series of measures against homelessness. By exaggerating the problems relating to delinquency and criminality, the Socialist Party campaign was lending credence to the propaganda of Le Pen. Jospin said he would protect pensions, although he left open the possibility of increasing the number of years' work required to gain full pension rights, and of an increase in the monthly payments made to the fund. In other words, in relation to pensions, as in relation to other questions, Jospin was in effect proposing a thinly disguised counter-reform.
The ultra-left candidates, taken together, attracted 10% of the vote. While it is true that the media pushed forward to some extent the Lutte Ouvrière candidate with the aim of further weakening the Communist Party, fundamentally the vote for the ultra-left candidates shows the revolutionary mood which exists among a wide layer of society. People are looking for a way out of the capitalist nightmare. In reality, none of the three sectarian candidates put forward anything like a revolutionary alternative during the campaign. Nonetheless, the vote they received is of enormous symptomatic significance.
Now, trade unionists, militant youth, and the working people of France in general are faced with the immediate prospect of a second round in the presidential elections, which will be fought out between two of their enemies, namely Chirac and Le Pen. Chirac is certain to win. Many left-wing people, shocked by the sight of Le Pen going through to the second round, will vote for Chirac. We do not recommend this course of action. After all, the difference between the two men is not so great. Chirac and Juppé introduced openly racist and discriminatory legislation in 1995-1997. The presidential election is lost for the left. The real fight will take place later on. Once the election is over, and especially if the right-wing parties win the parliamentary elections in June, Chirac will launch a vicious attack against the interests of the working class. Furthermore, the right-wing parties in government will play for the support of National Front voters. However, the French labour movement has a long tradition of struggle, and is in a fighting mood. Alain Juppé discovered what this means when, just a few months after taking office in 1995, he provoked the biggest strike movement since the revolutionary events of 1968. Things will be no different this time, except that the social explosion may well be on an even higher plane.
The struggle on the trade union front must go hand in hand with cleaning out the left parties of these hopelessly compromised and bankrupt socialist and communist leaders who have led us into this mess. The hundreds of thousands of youth and workers who demonstrate against the policies of these same leaders must deal with this problem for themselves. A fight needs to be opened up within the SP and the CP in order to re-establish the militant and revolutionary traditions of the past. The workers' parties do not need "pro-market" specialists, drawn from the ranks of the privileged and the wealthy and only interested in their own careers to lead them. They need honest, militant fighters for the cause of the working people, with a proven record of struggle, and a serious Marxist understanding of the tasks at hand. This is the way forward. Chirac has won this round, thanks to the false policies pursued by the leaders of the socialist and communist parties. We need to fight for a genuine socialist alternative. The future will be ours.
April 22, 2002
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