French council elections: left victory dampend by right gains

The results of the municipal elections in France, whilst marking a setback for the right-wing parties in Paris and Lyon, are nonetheless a very serious warning for socialist, communist and trade union activists. Greg Oxley, of the French Marxist paper La Riposte explains how the pro-capitalist policies of the Jospin government have failed to arouse any enthusiasm amongst the workers and youth.

The results of the municipal elections in France, whilst marking a setback for the right-wing parties in Paris and Lyon, are nonetheless a very serious warning for socialist, communist and trade union activists.

The victory of the left in Paris, putting an end to a century of right-wing domination, was a direct consequence of the crisis and divisions within the right-wing parties. Such a victory seemed unthinkable until the recent period. Just twelve years ago, in the municipal elections of 1989, all twenty electoral districts in the capital were won by the right. The loss of the capital has dealt a crushing blow to the morale of the ruling class, and will undoubtedly lead to further splits and conflicts within the right-wing parties over the coming months and years.

The former Mayor of Paris, Jean Tibéri, came into office when Jacques Chirac, who formerly occupied the position, won the presidential elections of 1995. Over the last few years, Tibéri was hounded by the courts in relation to a whole series of corruption scandals. The revelations which led to charges being brought against Tibéri, and against many other right-wing politicians, were part of a general process of demoralisation and disintegration of the right-wing parties, which have still not recovered from the defeat of the Juppé government by the general strike by public sector workers in 1995 and the victory of the left in the parliamentary elections of 1997. Seeing that Tibéri was in a weak position, the leadership of his party, the RPR opened a vicious campaign against him, expelled him, and nominated Philippe Séguin in his place as their official candidate. But in the first round of the election Séguin completely failed to mobilise traditional conservative voters. He won only 18% of the vote in the district where he stood. Tibéri only managed to win 13% of the all-Paris vote for his lists of rival candidates, but this was enough to further weaken Séguin, forcing the RPR leaders to impose a last-minute compromise with the man they had expelled just a few months earlier. The confused in-fighting between the different factions of the right-wing camp favoured the left, leading to the victory of the socialist candidate Delanoë in the second round.

In Lyon, it was also the division of the right-wing camp which opened the way for the victory of the left. Nonetheless, in the country as a whole, leaving aside Paris and Lyon, the results are not at all good for the left parties, reflecting the growing exasperation of workers with the pro-capitalist policies of the Jospin government. Out of the 583 towns of more that 15000 inhabitants, the left suffered a net loss of 42 after the second round, including 23 towns of more than 30000 inhabitants.

It is quite clear that the policies of the Jospin government, supported by the leaderships of the socialist and communist parties, have completely failed to arouse the enthusiasm of workers and youth. The abstention rate was over 33% on the first round. In many of the more working class towns, the abstention rate was often as much as 48%. The election rallies organised by the socialist-communist candidates were poorly attended, and even Prime Minister Jospin found himself speaking to much smaller audiences than in previous campaigns. The increase in support for the Ecologist Party and, in some areas, for alternative left candidates, reflects the growing discontent in relation to the main left parties. Significantly, a number of key personalities in the government such as Elisabeth Gigou, Minister of Labour, Jack Lang, Minister of Education, and Jean-Claude Gayssot, the communist Minister of Transport, were defeated.

The Communist Party (PCF), in particular, has paid a heavy price for the slavish support for the pro-capitalist policies being carried out by Jospin government. The vote for PCF-led lists in almost all former PCF strongholds has fallen sharply. With the victory of the RPR in Nîmes, the PCF has lost the last town of more than 100000 inhabitants under its control. In former PCF strongholds such as Pantin, Aubervilliers, St. Denis, Ivry-sur-Seine, support for the PCF is now clearly declining sharply. In Drancy, for instance, where the municipal council has been under PCF control since 1935 (except during the nazi occupation of 1940-44), the right-wing candidate won a clear majority in the first round. Whereas the PCF controlled 41 towns of more than 30000 inhabitants after the 1995 elections, it now controls 31.

These trends show that the divisions and crises that have shaken the right-wing parties, which have helped the left to some extent, are nevertheless not sufficient to eliminate the danger of a return of a right-wing government in next years parliamentary elections. The economic boom which has been underway since the end of 1997 has failed to bring about any significant improvement to the living standards of the working people in France. The few gains that have been made over the last period have been won by strikes and struggles on the shop floor and in the streets, which have forced the government to make concessions on some issues. In general, however, working conditions and pay have worsened since Jospin came into office. Now that the economic boom is fading out, the downward pressure on living standards and public services will undoubtedly increase. French workers have shown their determination and their willingness to struggle many times over in recent years, but the present situation in France raises the urgent need to replace the pro-capitalist of both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party by genuine workers leaders to lead the fight against capitalism.