First round of French general elections: Left staring defeat in the face

The results of the first round of the parliamentary elections held in France last Sunday show that the Left has virtually no chance of regaining power after the second round of voting on Sunday 16. The right-wing parties seem to be riding on the wave created by Chirac's presidential election victory a month ago and have come top of the poll. The UMP alliance (comprised of the Gaullist RPR and pro-Chirac elements of the centre-right party UDF [1] ) obtained 34.23% of the vote compared to 25.28% for the Socialist Party (PS) and left-radicals. By adding the votes of the other right-wing candidates, their score totals 43.66% of the vote compared to 37.47% for the mainstream Left (socialists, left-radicals, communists and greens). However, the most striking feature was the rate of abstention which stood at a record 35.62% (nearly 15 million voters) compared to 32.04% five years ago and 16.99% in 1978, just three years before socialist president Mitterrand took power.

Interestingly, the far-right National Front (FN) did not emulate its spectacular score of nearly 17% in April's presidential elections. With only 11.1%, they scored even lower than in the 1997 general elections. Sadly, the Communist Party (PCF), once the mightiest communist party in the western hemisphere, won a miserly 4.7%, which is exactly half the votes obtained last time.

As we explained in the French Marxist magazine La Riposte, regarding the results of last month's presidential elections, the main reason for the Left's poor performance once again has to be laid squarely at the feet of the socialist and communist leadership who, despite a few meagre reforms, spent their time backtracking and bending the knee to the bosses and the Right during their time in power between 1997 and 2002. Nevertheless, the very same leaders (Hollande, Strauss-Kahn and Fabius for the PS, and Hue for the PCF) did not change their mistaken political programmes one iota in order to face these general elections. As during the presidential election, the PS's programme followed in the wake of the Right's and focussed a disproportionate amount of time on the reactionary themes of "insecurity" and "law and order", which is the Right's favourite battleground. Apart from vague commitments to stop privatisation (after the Left government had actually privatised more than the previous right-wing one) and to give a little "boost" to the minimum wage, the Left's programmes were completely empty and offered no real alternative to the mass of workers looking for an alternative to the developing crisis of capitalism. On top of their weak and lacklustre campaign, the Left leaders clearly shot themselves in the foot with their behaviour during the second round of the presidential campaign, when they ran about like headless chickens calling for a Chirac vote to stop the "threat to the Republic" represented by the "fascist" Le Pen. Instead of denouncing Chirac and underlining the many similarities that exist between his political programme (and past acts) and Le Pen's, the Left leaders added to Chirac's prestige by presenting him as a "defender of the Republic and Liberty". Clearly, presenting Chirac in such a favourable light led to even more confusion in the electorate and boosted the Right's votes in these elections.

However, not all is gloom and doom for the Left. Despite the socialist and communist's essentially pro-capitalist policies whilst in government and their failure to fundamentally change living conditions for the better for most workers, the Socialist Party vote held up particularly well.

The meltdown that occurred nine years ago after the previous period of Socialist Party government between 1988 and 1993 did not occur. Despite the collapse of the Communist Party vote, the Socialists did relatively well despite the circumstances, particularly in Paris where the Left continued its good performance following the capture of the City Hall last year. In fact, nationally, the SP received more votes than in the first round of the legislative elections of 1997. The reasons for this are clear. The most politically conscious sections of workers know very well what a future right-wing government holds in store for them, despite the rather dull and flabby nature of its most likely leader, Jean-Pierre Raffarin [2] .

The fact that Alain Juppé, the former right-wing prime minister who governed between 1995 and 1997 and whose infamous austerity programme, the "Juppé Plan", provoked the massive public sector general strike of November-December 1995, is apparently pulling the strings of this new government has raised these workers' fears even further. If the truth be told, if the Right goes on to win next week, the resulting government will be a veritable "war machine" launched against the interests of the working class, the youth and pensioners. The Right wants its revenge for the victories of December 1995 and the electoral victory of June 1997 and wants to implement its Thatcherite programme of tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of the public sector and even more privatisations. For these reasons, many on the Left decided to rally around the only tool capable of beating the Right on the electoral field - i.e. the Socialist Party.

However, due to the uninspiring campaign of the Left, many other workers decided to refrain from voting, showing their disgust for the Right but also their unwillingness to support the ineffectual leaders of the Left. This is why the rate of abstention and spoilt ballot papers was so high. It is a matter of fact that most people who abstain in elections are workers who would vote for the Left, but are not inspired to do so. The fact that the abstention rate, as mentioned above, was 16.99% in 1978 shows this - at the time the Socialist and Communist parties had a semblance of a left-wing programme that included nationalisations and a "transformation of society" amongst other radical measures, which inspired many to go out and vote.

In conclusion, it seems that the Communist Party has become a spent force, electorally speaking. Although it remains strong in a number of specific areas (e.g. the industrial north, the Parisian and Marseilles suburbs) around the country, the pro-capitalist leadership has led it into a blind alley. As many Left voters can no longer see the difference between the "social-democratic" communists of Robert Hue and the Socialist Party of Hollande, they would rather vote for the party with the most chance of beating the right-wing candidate - i.e. the Socialist party.

After its triumphant result in April, the National Front has returned to its more traditional levels of support. This is a poke in the eye for many in the Left leadership who tried to play up the fears of an imminent "return to fascism" last month to justify their support for Chirac. In reality, many of the reactionary voters who plumped for Le Pen six weeks ago probably voted for the traditional right-wing parties now that the latter have adopted a large chunk of the National Front's programme! Finally, the results of this election are also a refutation of the tactics of some on the far left who want to build separate parties to lead the working class. After winning around 10% in the presidential elections, the combined far left vote (Lutte Ouvrière and Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire) in the general elections did not exceed 3%!

Once again, this shows that when the working class moves on the electoral field to fight the right, it uses its traditional organisations to do so, no matter how rotten the leadership. This also vindicates the tactics of those in France who want to take the fight for genuine socialist and revolutionary ideas, amongst which supporters of La Riposte, into the mass parties and negates the tactics of those who want to build phantom parties on the fringe on the labour movement. On this last point, La Riposte supporters have already encountered a certain level of support for their ideas in a number of Young Communist sections up and down the country. However, with regard to the election results, a fuller analysis of events and future trends can only be given once the second round is over next week.

[1]The UDF split on whether to join the RPR in the UMP alliance. A major proportion of this party opted to join the pro-Chirac alliance, whereas the minority stood as independent UDF candidates with the UDF leader François Bayrou.

[2]By a quirk of the French constitution, in the wake of the former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's resignation following his resounding defeat in the presidential election on April 21, a right-wing government under Raffarin has actually been in power since the beginning of May as Chirac as the winner of the presidential election was able to choose his own government to replace Jospin.