Over the last five years, workers, youth and pensioners have suffered attacks on their rights and living standards. In wave after wave of struggle, including many long and bitter strikes and some of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in the history of the country, millions of people repeatedly took to the streets to defend themselves against the policies of Raffarin and then de Villepin, who led what were undoubtedly the most reactionary governments seen in France since the wartime Vichy regime.
Until a few months ago, it seemed to most people - including the writer of these lines - that it would be very difficult for the right-wing UMP to win the presidential elections. Chirac, Raffarin, and de Villepin were all extremely unpopular. And yet the former Interior Minister and leader of the UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy, has won the presidential elections, with 53% of the vote in the second round, against 47% for the Socialist Party candidate, Ségolène Royal. This is the third consecutive defeat for the left in the presidential elections, following those of 1995 and 2002.
Sarkozy is a very energetic and ambitious politician, and quite a skilful and effective public speaker. Closely connected with big business, with powerful allies in the press and in television, he ran a campaign of lies and hypocrisy, claiming to represent "the weak and unfortunate, those who have been broken by the system, the worker, the artisan" etc. Behind this strategy was the wholehearted support of the French ruling class. Although he was a frontline member of the previous administration, the media presented him as the candidate of real change, of a decisive break with the past. He would bring economic growth and prosperity, struggle against the bureaucracy and restrictive laws - such as the limitation of the working week - which, he claimed, were holding back the economy and living standards. People should be able to "work more to earn more".
Another important element in the Sarkozy campaign was a flagrant appeal to nationalist and racist sentiment. He promised to appoint a minister in charge of "National Identity". As Interior Minister, it was Sarkozy whose threatening and contemptuous language in relation to the poor inhabitants of the banlieues, referring to them as "scum" and saying that he would "clean them out with a power-hose", which formed the background to the riots which took place in more than 200 cities in the latter months of 2005, following the death of two youths during a police raid. The propaganda for a more repressive policy against crime and delinquency undoubtedly had a certain impact, especially among old-age pensioners.
However, the main reason why Sarkozy won the election is to be found in the policy of the Socialist Party. Ségolène Royal waged a campaign on the basis of the most conservative platform ever put forward in the history of the Socialist Party. Like a pale echo of Sarkozy's hard-hitting nationalist rhetoric, she droned on about the importance of the Tricolour flag, the National anthem and various other "republican values". One year after millions of youth and workers had poured into the streets, forcing the withdrawal of the CPE (the so-called "first employment contract", which in fact appealed to all employment contracts for workers under 25 years old), Royal included a similar measure in her program. She proposed putting young offenders into internment centres run by the armed forces.
Constantly underlining her points of agreement with the right-wing UDF party (which supported the UMP governments on all fundamental issues), the main theme of her campaign was that of "appeasement" and "reconciliation". The Socialist Party leadership, converted to capitalist "market economics", proposed nothing whatsoever which would make a significant difference to the living standards of working people. Its program was one of "reformism without reforms". This is why the election was lost.
The racist Front National lost ground to Sarkozy. It got 10% in the first round, compared to 16% in 2002. Sarkozy and the UMP have adopted many of the policies of the Front National and put them into practice over recent years - a lesson to those left organisations which supported the UMP against the Front National in 2002, whereas the latter has tried to improve its image, moving closer to the UMP.
The Communist Party (PCF) did even worse than in 2002, with less than 2% of the vote in the first round. This is after five years of titanic struggles during which the PCF could and should have reinforced its position. In fact, at the time of the victorious mobilisation against the European Constitution, in which the PCF played the leading role, there were clear signs that this was the case. But the PCF leadership squandered this advantage by entering into an interminable squabble, in the name of the unity of "the left of the left", with the tiny LCR (less than 2000 members compared to 130,000 for the PCF), with José Bové the former leader of the Confédération Paysanne (which is not a workers' organisation, but rather the minority organisation of agricultural employers), and various other groupings completely unknown to the general public. Throughout the 18 months of this "anti-liberal" circus, the question of whether the PCF would present its own candidate or support another candidate was left in suspense.
In addition to this "left unity" squabbling, there is the question of the PCF program. In recent years, the last remnants of any real socialist content in PCF policy have been jettisoned in favour of a hotchpotch collection of taxes, bonuses, fines, and other gadgetry which is supposed to make capitalism function according to an "anti-capitalist logic", whatever that might be! The program contains virtually no demands for public ownership. The banks, industry, commerce and land are all to remain in capitalist hands. This turn, together with PCF participation in the last left government, with "communist" ministers directly involved in what was the biggest privatisation program ever, has undoubtedly undermined support for the PCF among the most conscious and militant layers of workers and youth.
The PCF leaders try to explain away this new setback by tactical voting by its supporters, through fear that a divided vote would allow Le Pen through to the second round, as was the case in 2002. While this had some marginal impact on the PCF vote, it does not explain everything. As the paper of the Marxist tendency in the PCF, La Riposte, pointed out: "We must look at the position of the party as a whole, and not just the election results. Was it tactical voting that destroyed the factory branches? Was it tactical voting that has wiped out most of the cells in the localities? Was it tactical voting that has reduced the Young Communists to a shadow of what it was 15 years ago, undermined the influence of the party in the CGT, reduced the sales of L'Humanité, and plunged the party into such a state of internal dislocation that many national leaders publicly supported José Bové against the party candidate?" A special congress of the PCF will take place in the autumn. This new setback will no doubt widen the gulf between the "renovators" who want to move the party even further towards "moderate left" ideas, and those who are striving for a more militant left-wing standpoint.
Collectively, the three main groupings mistakenly referred to as "Trotskyist" lost ground. After a very bizarre and chauvinistic campaign waged in the defence of "the Mayors of France", who are oppressed, according to the propaganda of this organisation, by the Maastricht Treaty, the Parti des Travailleurs got a little more than 0.3%. The vote for Lutte Ouvrière collapsed to just 1.3%. The LCR, represented by Olivier Besancenot, won a higher number of votes than in 2002, but given the increase in turnout, fell in percentage terms, with 4% of the vote.
For several nights after the announcement of the Sarkozy victory, riots and demonstrations broke out in a number of cities. Those who believed in his demagogic promises will soon realise their mistake. French workers and youth have great militant and revolutionary traditions. Sarkozy, with his brutal, arrogant and provocative style and reactionary policies, will no doubt provoke a new wave of struggles and resistance. He has promised to "liquidate May 1968". But it may well be that in the coming years, a new May 1968 will liquidate Sarkozy and the system he represents.
- Defeat of French socialists: move towards centre ends in disaster by La Riposte (May 9, 2007)
- French Presidential elections: “reformism without reforms” gives advantage to Sarkozy by Greg Oxley (April 24, 2007)
- The end of the CPE : an important victory for youth and workers of France by Greg Oxley (April 13, 2006)
- France: A week of struggle in Toulouse (April 7, 2006)
- Interview with Stephen Bouquin on the movement in France (April 6, 2006)
- France: after the success of the April 4th day of action, what next? (April 5, 2006)
- France: Faced with the arrogance of the government and the bosses, workers and youth take to the streets! by Mikael Duthu (March 30, 2006)
- March 28th 2006: French workers and youth mobilise on a scale never seen since 1968 by Greg Oxley (March 28, 2006)
- France - Faced with the intransigence of the government: for immediate presidential and legislative elections! (March 28, 2006)
- Mass protests and strikes in France: the dawning of a new era by Greg Oxley (March 21, 2006)
- French workers and youth unite against the First Employment Contract: No to all precarious contracts by Mikael Duthu (March 16, 2006)