Two years ago, an editorial in the Financial Times described France as being in a pre-revolutionary situation. That may have been an exaggeration, but it was certainly a reflection of the impasse of French society. Now that impasse has grown into a full-blown political crisis.
This, in turn, is a reflection of the upheavals throughout the rest of the capitalist world, where the post-war liberal consensus has collapsed. The next Presidential election – the first round on 23rd April – is set to be the most unpredictable in generations.
For decades, France has been ruled by traditional bourgeois parties, inter-spaced by Socialist governments. In the end, all have tried to place the burden of the crisis of French capitalism onto the backs of the working class, but were met with massive opposition from the working class.
“Voters have the feeling that mainstream parties from left and right have presided over a permanent state of economic crisis and mass unemployment,” says M. Garrigues. “This phase is coming to an end, with voters rejecting anyone associated with what is perceived as a failure.”
This endemic malaise was further deepened by Hollande’s abandonment of his left-wing promises right from the start of his mandate — regarded as another betrayal by many Socialist voters, while also failing to produce tangible economic results. These betrayals have served to upset the political apple cart.
Today, we are presented with an unprecedented crisis of the capitalist establishment. Following the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump in America, the French elections are unpredictable. There is turmoil in the traditional parties, which make the outcome uncertain, where anything could happen. Right Republican candidate, Francois Fillon, once the unassailable favourite after defeating the scandal-prone former President Sarkozy, has been embroiled in a scandal after accusations that his wife received more than €900,000 of taxpayers’ money for fake work she did not do. Despite his apologies, his poll ratings collapsed. The irony of this is that, as a good bourgeois politician, his campaign was based on a promise to “restore high moral standards” in politics! In a recent poll, less than one in four believed he was “honest”. However, his withdrawal would be catastrophic and therefore unlikely at this late stage. They are lumbered with him, intensifying the growing instability.
The new front runner is the pro-business “centrist” Emmanuel Macron, former Socialist economy minister and former Rothschild banker, who created his own party ten months ago. In a struggle between the capitalist crocodiles and the reptiles, this upstart hopes to gain from France’s disillusionment.
The ruling Socialist Party is in complete disarray. Faced with electoral annihilation, President Hollande ruled out a re-election bid, an unprecedented decision for a Fifth Republic leader. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Manuel Valls lost the Socialist nomination to the soft-left, who was also a former minister of Hollande. Given the disillusionment with Hollande and his government, Hamon will in all likelihood fail to make the run-off because he is, precisely, the candidate of the Socialist Party.
Given these difficulties, he may seek to strike an alliance with left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is polling at about 10 per cent, but that would be a poisoned chalice for Mélenchon. He came fourth in the 2012 election as the candidate of the Left Front, a union of radical parties including the Communist Party, by tapping into France’s long tradition of revolutionary politics through fiery speeches. He is running in this year’s race with the belated backing of the Communist Party and has instead created a new movement, “La France Insoumise” (Rebellious France), on a left-wing anti-austerity platform. This could become the focal point for a real Left alternative to the Right, if it succeeds in tapping into the disillusionment of the youth and working class generally. The IMT in France considers such an outcome the best option and is defending the programme of Marxism within this perspective.
The scandals gripping the bourgeois parties have thrown the race into chaos. The right-wing National Front is hoping to capitalise on this. Marine Le Pen is hoping to make the run-off in May. In order to become more respectable, Le Pen has sought to detoxify her party of its association with its anti-Semitic, xenophobic roots. It is emerging as a traditional right-wing populist party, which has built support on an anti-establishment, anti-immigrant ticket, attacking the EU, globalisation and the loss of jobs.
Out of bitter frustration, half of the blue-collar workers, lower-earning employees and low-skilled youths — about 40 per cent of the working population in total — say they back her plan to exit the EU and to clamp down on immigration, according to Cevipof surveys.
The responsibility for this lies squarely with the betrayals of the Socialist Party, the party of government, which has presided over mass unemployment and deepening crisis. Responsibility also lies with the capitulation of the so-called Communist Party, which has trailed after Hollande’s party. This bankruptcy arises from the failure of reformism, the attempt to work within the confines of a crisis-ridden capitalist system. This capitulation has helped to open up the way, at least temporarily, for the far-right National Front.
A reflection of the political crisis is the recent demise of key bourgeois politicians consigned to the rubbish bin of history. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, was eliminated. Then Alain Juppé, a former prime minister, was defeated for the nomination by Fillon. Now, as we have seen, scandal-ridden Fillon is in difficulty.
“The old world is crumbling,” says Dominique Reynié, head of Fondapol, a centre-right think-tank. “If Ms Le Pen were to face Mr Macron, who has not been tested in any elections, it’s the unknown. Macron’s polls are not reliable because he has no history in French politics.”
“It has never been that unstable and that uncertain,” says Luc Rouban, a Sciences Po Cevipof professor of politics. “We are witnessing a complete overhaul and a polarisation of the traditional French political offering. Meanwhile, voters’ behaviours have become so complex that pollsters and analysts have a harder time predicting them.” Whatever happens, France is set for a new era of unstable governments. “And mechanically this will reinforce the extremes,” adds Rouban. “The Fifth Republic is crumbling before our eyes.”
The threat from Le Pen has caused shock and dismay. Faced with the prospect of two right-wing candidates in the second round, some on the left have lost their heads by calling for “anyone but Le Pen vote”. They hysterically describe Le Pen and the National Front as “fascist”. However, this is incorrect, as it ignores the real essence of what Fascism is. Le Pen and the NF are certainly right-wing and politically, while they play up the issue of immigration and are anti-EU, there is no fundamental difference between them and the other bourgeois parties.
Fascism is altogether very different. Fascism is the mass movement of the enraged middle class, the lumpenproletariat, the peasants and even some politically backward workers, financed and organised by big business as a desperate last resort to prevent the socialist revolution. The role of Fascism is to mobilise a mass force to destroy all the workers’ organisations and atomise the working class. Using the frenzied middle class as a battering ram, with the support of the army and police, fascism extinguishes every single democratic right. This is certainly not the programme of today’s National Front, which is right-wing but not fascist. That does not mean we should not mobilise against them, but Marxists should also not fall into the mistake of confusing different phenomena. From this fundamental mistake can be made, such as presenting Fillon, or any other bourgeois politician as being preferable to Le Pen.
The idea of sowing illusions in any right-wing candidate as “the lesser evil” is a betrayal. All bourgeois parties are equally reactionary. We say no truck with the Right! The only way to fight reaction is by taking an independent working class stand and fighting any right-wing Presidency in the workplaces and on the streets.
Engels once explained that France was the country in Western Europe where the class struggle “is always fought to the finish.” Ever since 1789, the history of France has been a rich one of revolution and counter-revolution. The revolutionary general strike of May 1968 – when power was in the grasp of the French workers – still strikes fear into the hearts of the French ruling class, as they are perfectly aware of the revolutionary potential of the French workers. This is not the time to despair and seek salvation in this or that bourgeois politician. It is also not the time to seek salvation in a figure such as Hamon.
At present, Melenchon offers the most radical left alternative among the various candidates who will stand in the coming presidential elections – albeit with all his reformist limitations. Melenchon has the potential to create an important point of attraction on the left, around which a mass left force could emerge. At the present conjuncture, this is the road to go down for anyone wishing to build a serious alternative in France. The Marxists will play their role by giving support, but by also systematically pointing out the weaknesses and limitations of Melenchon’s programme. There is no solution to the present crisis within the confines of capitalist, and this applies to France as much as to any other country. As in 1968, what is required today is the socialist transformation of France. This time we need to carry it through to the end.