France: Lessons for the left from the 2014 municipal elections

In the recent municipal elections in France the right wing did well, mainly at the expense of the Socialist Party which pays a heavy price for carrying out draconian austerity measures at national level. Unfortunately, in many towns the Front de Gauche (Left Front) split, with the Communist Party forming an alliance with the Socialist Party, and the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) presenting joint lists with the Greens.

In the Presidential elections of 2012 the Front de gauche had won a reasonable amount of votes that it could have built on and thus provide workers and youth in France with a credible left alternative to the governing Socialist Party.

What determined this fiasco was purely and simply the desire of the party apparatuses to win – or better, to hold on to – as many seats as possible. The PCF leaders having come into conflict with the leaders of Melenchon’s party, the Parti de Gauche, in many municipalities feared that alone they might not even go above the threshold required to get candidates elected.

Thus we had the scenario of the two main components of the Front de Gauche, the Communist Party and the Left Party, breaking their alliance and each of them forming joint lists with parties that were in the government carrying out austerity measures. This was a fiasco from beginning to end. Any radicalised, angry worker or youth who wanted to vote against the parties of government had the choice of voting for one or other of the left oppositionist parties which would have meant voting for lists that contained the very parties they wished to vote against!

This explains the record level of abstentions, with close to 40% not bothering to vote for anyone. It is widely considered that the bulk of those abstaining were left-wing voters disgusted by all this.

The result was a Socialist Party heavily punished in the polling stations, but those who gained were the conservative UMP and the far-right Front national of Marine Le Pen. The right wing took around 150 towns, the Front National won 11 and the Communist Party lost several municipalities it had previously held.

Here we publish an article – written between the first and the second round – by Jérôme Métellus, a member of the Communist Party in Paris and also of the Editorial Board of La Riposte, the journal of the Marxist wing of the Communist Party.

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The results of the first round of the municipal elections in France confirm the massive turn against the Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste, PS) in power. Compared to the results of the 2008 elections, the PS suffered a significant setback. In many cities, they achieved worse results then even the 2001 elections when the “socialist” government of the then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was heavily penalised by the left-wing electorate. This time again, the right won many cities by default due to a large number of abstentions.

The government says it has “gotten the message” and is now going to “accelerate” its policy of “recovery of the country”. In other words, it is going to continue with its austerity programme that was rejected by the electorate in the recent municipal elections. After the first round, the Minister of Labour announced a further increase in the number of unemployed, which is particularly high for a country that is supposedly on the “path to recovery”. The optimism of the government compared to the brutal reality of the social situation is an insult to the millions of victims of the capitalist crisis today.

The far-right Front National

In this context, the Front National (FN) managed to make significant gains in the elections. City after city, the party of Marine Le Pen managed to improve its position in many municipalities across the country; in both percentage terms and number of votes. While Jean-Luc Melanchon, the leader of Parti de Gauche (PG), was right to criticize the massive coverage the FN received in the media, he is not justified in his attempt to minimise the significance of their result by using a number of statistical manipulations. It is of utmost importance to understand the reasons behind this result.

As La Riposte (the journal of the Marxists in the PCF and the IMT in France) has explained previously, the crisis of capitalism leads to a polarisation in society and a growing instability in the political sphere. With this, shifts in public opinion towards the left and towards the right are inevitable. This is a process that is still in its early stages in France. In Greece, where the crisis is much more serious (at least for the moment), we have seen electoral successes on the far right for the fascist Golden Dawn, but also for the left, with the rapid growth of SYRIZA (from 5 to 30% of the popular vote). This was at the expense of the Greek “socialist” PASOK, that imposed drastic austerity measures when they were in power on their own – and subsequently in coalition.

In France, the Socialist Party and the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) have both been losing credibility. This was expressed in these elections with a record 38.6% abstention rate in the first round, and a shift towards the far-right FN. Apart from its traditional middle-class voters, the FN even managed to secure votes from the working class, the unemployed and pensioners who feel crushed by the crisis and that are fed up with the spectacle of the traditional politicians who are seemingly incapable of coming up with even the beginnings of a solution to their problems. The FN has never been in power on a national level. Their “anti-system” demagoguery, in a situation where the masses feel squeezed by the system, connects with many. As far as the so-called idea of building “republican fronts” with the right was concerned, rather than damaging the FN, it allowed them to present themselves as “victims of UMPS”.

[Note: The Front Républicain traditionally has been a pact between Socialists and Gaullists who would agree to support each other to keep the far right out of power. After the first round, in cases in where either a Socialist or Gaullist candidate would be facing a right-wing candidate, they would join forces to avoid dividing their votes. This time, in spite of appeals from the government, the UMP more or less rejected the offer, as the UMP was far less damaged by the Front National’s success than the left was.]

Front de Gauche

The vote for the Front de Gauge (FdG), with or without the Communist Party (PCF), did not represent a major breakthrough to the left of the Socialist Party. The FdG did, however, emerge far stronger than any of the far-left parties, such as the NPA (New Anti-capitalist Party) and LO (Lutte Ouvriere), even in those areas where the PCF was in an alliance with the Socialist Party in the first round.

This proves that PdG has managed to consolidate a certain electoral base, although a relatively small and fragile one. The results also confirm that the PCF has strong roots locally, which explains some successes it had in small municipalities. However, where they were running, the FdG won an average 8.2% in the 259 towns with a population of more than 20,000. In the presidential elections of 2012, in these same municipalities, Melenchon (the candidate of the FdG) had received 12.4% of the total vote. [Source : http://www.regards.fr/web/municipales-2014-le-front-de,7601] This indicates that the growing frustration of many workers and youth is not finding a clear expression on the left of the political spectrum. This is a lesson that the left must take seriously and from which it must learn.

These results of the FdG are not surprising. In an article published before the elections, we wrote: “The biggest weakness of the FdG is in its reformist programme. The worse the crisis of capitalism gets, the more it hurts the majority of the population, the more the unemployment rate increases, the less such slogans such as “fiscal revolution” or “6th republic” have any real meaning. They do not address the actual problems affecting millions of workers – and especially the explosive rise in unemployment, the increase in layoffs, the falling purchasing power and the destruction of public services. […] The ‘left opposition’ to the government must be built around a programme that goes on the offensive and that addresses the roots of the crisis, that is, the domination and looting of the economy by a handful of wealthy capitalists. The ‘immediate’ demands – on wages, working conditions, taxation, etc. – must be linked to the clear objective of ‘taking power’ from the capitalist class and rebuilding society on a socialist basis.”

Added to all this, we have the division between the PCF and PG [Left Party of Melenchon], that we explained in the same article: “is in no way a difference over programme or principles. On both sides, the conflict is determined by the interests of the apparatuses of the two parties. This division goes hand in hand with opportunist tactics. While the PCF was making a number of electoral alliances for the municipal elections with the Socialist Par, the main party in government, the PG was making alliances with the Greens, which is also in the government. At the same time, the leaders of the FdG present themselves as the ‘left opposition’ to the government! All this lacks credibility.”

The PG and the Greens

The leaders of the PG, after the first round, were boasting about their success in alliances with the Greens. “Look at our results in Grenoble (29.4%), Rennes (15.1%), Poitiers (15.3%) and elsewhere!” They even welcome the fact that in certain cases, “the voice of the Greens was complementary to ours”. This is an opportunist formula par excellence. And when it comes to opportunism, the Greens are very good at it. A well-oiled electoral machine, they win support on the margins between the left and the right. The have one main goal: to win as many seats as possible – in government, in the local councils, regions, departments, in the European parliament, wherever they can, on the basis all kinds of different alliances.

The perspective of building “a new electoral majority” with the Greens is a dangerous opportunist illusion. The fundamental task of the FdG is not to seek to increase their votes through unprincipled alliances; it is to sink roots among the youth, workers and trade unionists on the basis of a programme that breaks with the capitalist system, something that would immediately put them at odds with the Greens. The leadership of the PG must abandon this quest for electoral majorities at all costs, and develop and popularise a programme that seeks to end the dictatorship of the bankers and large multinationals. The ideological and programmatic basis for any alliance with the Greens is that of reformism, which no longer has a base in reality due to the crisis. In terms of the immediate election result, these alliances may seem to be effective. But in the shifting dynamics of the class struggle, they will have no weight.

Defeat the right-wing!

In the second round what was required was a vote for the left electoral lists to defeat the right. All talk of so-called “republican fronts” with the right should have no room in the tactics and strategy of the left! It is better to put up a fight, not win the council, but elect a few left-wing opposition candidates to the city council, than to leave everything in the hands of the right and far-right according to the so-called “Republican” logic, that in the end, plays straight into the hands of the FN.

In refusing to call for a defeat of the right in certain cities such as Paris or Toulouse, the PG adopted a vindictive and ultimately ultra-left posture. They will gain nothing, if not contempt of the left electorate that feared the victory of the right. As far as those local leaders of the PCF who were against the fusion of their lists with the PG; they have played no better role.

The PG has explained that in Paris, Lille, Toulouse, etc., the representatives of the Socialist Party and the PCF had posed unacceptable conditions for merging the lists of the PG with their own. The PG has justifiably denounced all this. But the conclusions it drew from all this – “no appeal to beat the right, in the second round” – were not good either. And this will turn against it, for example, where the UMP was in a position of taking control of the local council in Toulouse.

All this bureaucratic pettiness between the PCF and PG is based on one common element: the reformism and opportunism of the leadership of both parties. This is what we must correct, if the Front de Gauche is to become an effective force with which to channel the growing frustration of the masses.

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