In 1997 the Gaullists were heavily defeated at the polls after mass working-class mobilizations defeated plans under the hated Alain Juppé to carry through wide-ranging austerity measures. Socialist Party leader Jospin was swept into power, promising to bring down unemployment and attend to the needs of working people. Now Jospin has met a similar fate as his predecessor, pushed out of office after millions of workers and farmers, fed up with continued assaults under the "co-habitation" of the two major parties, either stayed away from the polls or voted for right-wing outfits or small centrist parties.
In the first round of voting for president, the ultrarightist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen edged out Jospin for a place in the second-round runoff by a margin of 195,000 votes. Le Pen received 16.86 percent of the total vote to Jospin’s 16.18 percent. With Jospin eliminated, Le Pen will face the Gaullist Chirac in the second round on May 5.
The massive defections from the main capitalist parties led to the conservatives losing a total of 4.5 million votes, while Jospin lost close to 2.5 million compared with the last presidential election in 1995. Some 28 percent of voters stayed away, the highest level of abstention in French history in a national vote. Chirac came out ahead with just under 20 percent of the vote, the lowest tally of a front-runner since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
Since the results were announced, virtually all trade unions and organizations associated with the Plural Left, the outgoing government coalition of the Socialist and Communist parties with two openly pro-capitalist parties, the Greens and the Left Radicals, have concentrated on mobilizing for a vote for Chirac in the second round. This, they claim, will "build a dam against fascism," as they portray the vote for Le Pen in terms of a resurgent fascist threat. Socialist Party Finance Minister Laurent Fabius has called this an "anti-Le Pen referendum."
Addressing the Central Committee of the French Communist Party, party leader Robert Hue said, "there is only one thing in France that matters: the mobilization of every militant, and I mean every single militant, to get out the vote for Jacques Chirac." Parts of his speech were broadcast on national radio.
Nearly 2 million working people, youth, and others took part in May Day actions across the country that were held in the framework of opposing Le Pen and his National Front party and supporting a vote for Chirac. The mobilizations succeeded in taking the focus off fighting the employers and their parties who are responsible for anti-immigrant legislation and assaults, attacks on the unions, and attempts to impose austerity measures.
The week before, demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people were capped by an action April 27 "for equal rights, against racism and to defeat Le Pen," called by trade unions, left political parties, and other organizations.
Among workers in factories across the country who are discussing whether or not to vote for Chirac, a minority remains strongly opposed because of the policies his government has pursued. Television news programs show daily debates between Socialist and Communist party activists, distributing leaflets in marketplaces calling for a vote for Chirac, and some workers who, in spite of immense pressure, still refuse to accept that a vote for the right-wing Gaullist candidate can aid working people.
Bankruptcy of two parties
As the capitalist economic crisis has gripped Europe, the Gaullist and Socialist parties have shared responsibility for organizing successive rounds of assaults on workers and farmers. A wave of public workers’ strikes and mass demonstrations against the attacks on social benefits by Juppé in November and December of 1995 marked a noticeable upturn in working-class struggles in France.
The upturn came after a successful campaign led by youth against a sub-minimum wage in 1994, and was itself followed by battles of undocumented immigrants for legal status. In 1996 and 1997, French truckers struck and blocked roads for better working conditions, a shorter workweek, and an increase in wages. Undocumented immigrant workers formed the Sans Papiers (Without Papers) coalition to fight the government’s reactionary anti-immigrant policies and for the right to work and stay with their families in France.
Campaigns among France’s 3 million unemployed broke out in 1998, with workers sitting in government offices to demand jobs, decent levels of unemployment benefits, and benefits for youth under 25. Later that year hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets to call for more teachers, fewer students per class, and better study conditions.
In 2000, working farmers, 66,000 of whom were driven off the land between 1993 and 1996, organized blockades against skyrocketing fuel prices and devastating conditions in the countryside. And last year 300,000 workers took to the streets in defense of their right to retire at 60, while 120,000 mobilized to demand a wage increase from the Jospin government.
The euro austerity drive
Both the Socialist and conservative parties have campaigned for France to adopt the euro, the common currency of the European Union. The French ruling class hid behind the criteria for the European Monetary Union (EMU) as a cover to press for further austerity measures. According to the Maastricht treaty, governments entering the EMU must have budget deficits of no more than 3 percent, prompting moves to slash social spending. Subsidies to farmers were also cut.
Given this course by the bourgeois parties, the voting results should have been expected, as they continued a trend of the past several years.
In the 1998 elections for regional councils and council presidents, a record 42 percent of voters stayed away from the polls, up from 31 percent in 1992. In five regions, Chirac’s Rally for the Republic (RPR) and the Union for French Democracy (UDF) made last-minute alliances with Le Pen’s National Front to win seats. The national leaderships of the RPR and UDF officially opposed the deal. The National Front increased its vote in several regions hard-hit by unemployment and industrial layoffs.
Last year large numbers of workers again either abstained from voting or cast their ballots for small centrist groups that have the image of being more combative than the governing Plural Left coalition. In the municipal elections the vote for the French CP plummeted as workers became increasingly dissatisfied with the policies of the government.
Le Pen has capitalized on the fact that both the Socialist and Gaullist parties have carried through an assault on working people at a time when unemployment remains persistently high. He has also taken advantage of opposition to austerity measures and attacks carried out under the banner of France’s participation in the euro zone.
Le Pen says that if elected his government would quit the European Union and abandon the euro as its first act, restoring the franc as the French national currency and reestablishing protectionist customs barriers. He would amend the constitution to adopt a policy of "national preference"--that is, preference for French citizens in allocating jobs, housing, and social benefits--combined with stepping up legalized discrimination against immigrants.
The fascist has taken advantage of moves by the major capitalist parties to severely limit legal immigration, and Chirac’s "law and order" campaign, to bolster his own scapegoating of immigrants for the social and economic problems faced by working people under capitalism. He advocates limiting the right of immigrants to become French citizens, along with an even sharper curtailment of legal immigration through steps such as putting an end to family regroupment.
Geographic spread of vote
Le Pen’s National Front and an associated split off received 5.5 million votes, almost 1 million more than in the last presidential election seven years ago. The vote registered the fact that the parties are no longer a regional movement centered in the Marseille area but have spread to the industrial north, the working-class suburbs around Paris, and the Alsace region in the east.
One new characteristic shown in the recent elections was the emergence of a base of support for the National Front in the countryside, where Le Pen received around 18 percent of the working farmers’ vote. Some 31 percent of working farmers abstained. Traditionally, the majority of farmers have supported the Gaullist party, but this year Chirac received only 33 percent of the farmer vote.
The Green party, part of the governing coalition, has been the most openly anti-farmer party seen in many years. Their reactionary attacks include blaming working farmers for bad food quality, environmental pollution, and "mad cow disease." In accusing working farmers of "productivism"--concentrating on production rather than quality--they shift the blame off the normal workings of the capitalist market and the rents and mortgages system dominated by the banks and agribusiness. At the demand of the Greens the Jospin government adopted a special tax levied on working farmers to pay for their supposed pollution of the environment.
Another source of electoral support for Le Pen has been the unemployed and workers on part-time or temporary contracts. Estimates are that some 30 percent of all unemployed people and 25 percent of employed workers voted for Le Pen. Many in the latter category are on temporary contracts called "interim," which have become extremely important in many French factories. Interim workers have no union rights and can have their contracts terminated without cause. Unemployment has remained at or above the 2 million mark for 20 years and the number of "interimaires" has mushroomed.
New assaults being prepared
Chirac has been using his supposed "tidal wave of support" to prepare new attacks on the working class.
The president has called on all the conservative parties to dissolve into a single party under the direct control of the president. There would be a single list of conservative candidates in the legislative elections and all candidates would pledge to be part of the same parliamentary caucus, voting according to the president’s dictates.
"We need Jacques Chirac," said Alain Juppé following a planning meeting for the new party, "to restore the authority of the state and effective political action...against a state-oriented and undisciplined culture that has developed over recent years. We must free businesses by lowering their taxes.... Finally, we need Chirac to ensure our European engagements and the international influence of our country."
Chirac says his government would adopt "a new social and economic policy," the first step of which would be easing the restrictions of the 35-hour workweek and the "reform of the retirement system" through measures such as raising the retirement age and reducing benefits. In a recent television interview, Chirac said he would accept strikes only in "exceptional circumstances" and proposed adopting an obligatory "minimum service" in the case of strikes in public services such as railroads and other forms of public transportation and health care.
Chirac says he would reduce state income by 30 billion euros, largely by reducing the social taxes paid by employers that cover the retirement fund, public health care, unemployment insurance, and family benefit plans. He would increase public spending by 20 billion euros for the police and the army. The difference would be made up by a "budgetary redeployment"--that is, by taking money from other items such as education.
Millions of people voted for small centrist parties in addition to the National Front. Not only did the two fascist parties get close to 20 percent of the vote, but three parties that call themselves Trotskyist, seen by a layer of working people as being more militant than the Communist and Socialist parties, received almost 3 million votes, or 10.44 percent of the total vote--three times that of the French Communist Party.
Arlette Laguiller, the candidate of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), received 1.6 million votes, 5.72 percent of the total. She has refused to support a vote for Chirac, calling on voters to cast a blank ballot in the second round.
The candidate of the Ligue Commmuniste Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist League) received 4.25 percent of the vote. After a week of vacillating and contradictory statements, the party’s central committee met and decided by a large majority to call for a vote for Chirac, casting it as a vote "against Le Pen." The press and radio have given prominence to the statement, pointing out that Arlette Laguiller is now the only candidate who refuses to call for a vote for the bourgeois candidate, Chirac.
The French Communist Party (PCF), part of the governing coalition for the last five years, received only 3.37 percent of the vote.
Socialists lose teacher support
For the first time in recent memory, the Socialist Party did not receive a majority vote amongst teachers, one of their traditional bastions of support. Many abstained while others voted for parties such as the Greens. During its five years in office, the Plural Left government has attacked the national education system through major budgetary cutbacks, provoking wave after wave of strikes and protest actions. Claude Allègre, the Education Minister and member of the Socialist Party, was forced to resign from the government by such actions.
Similar austerity measures in the state-run health-care system produced a wave of strikes and demonstrations by hospital workers, another traditional stronghold of SP support.
Nat London in Paris contributed to this article.
Chronology of crisis of bourgeois parties in France
Below is a chronology, based on reports in the Militant, of some major events in France over the last seven years.
- A plan announced by the RPR Prime Minister Alain Juppé to gut social security, known as the "Juppé Plan," along with other attacks on education and health services and workers’ rights, sparks an explosion of labor actions, centered among public workers, and student protests, starting in October.
Demonstrations reach 700,000 people in November and 1 million in December. Twenty-four days of nationwide strikes are spearheaded by rail workers. Forced to abandon the Juppé Plan, the government continues its austerity course.
- Unions call a national day of action May 23 for a shorter workweek. Telecommunications and rail workers, teachers, and other public employees organize strikes and marches against threatened cutbacks and layoffs.
- In October, nearly 2 million public workers join a one-day strike, and hundreds of thousands march against Juppé’s plans to freeze state workers’ pay and cut jobs as preparation for entering European Monetary Union (EMU). Unemployment stands officially at 12.6 percent; in reality, say union officials, the figure is more like 20 percent. The agriculture ministry announces that 66,000 family farmers have lost their farms since 1993.
Truck drivers barricade roads for 12 days, demanding and winning a retirement age of 55.
- In December, President Jacques Chirac hails a European Union summit, which papers over French-German and other conflicts, as progress toward a single European currency. Also backing the EMU, SP leader Jospin calls for shorter workweek to generate 700,000 new jobs for youth.
- Throughout the year, immigrants stage protests opposing restrictions and deportations, and demand full legal status.
- Transit workers in 60 cities strike for a 35-hour workweek with no loss in pay. Unions call national days of action in January and February.
- In the June parliamentary elections the SP trounces the conservative RPR, winning 25 percent of the vote in the first round and 241 of the 577 parliamentary seats in the final voting. The CP vote also increases. The National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen takes 15 percent in the first round.
- In November, truck drivers strike for five days to demand wage increases.
- December 1997-January, 1998: Jobless workers occupy dozens of offices across France. Jospin announces $165 million in emergency funds. January 17, 50,000 participate in "day of action" calling for increasing minimum unemployment benefits and the minimum wage.
- In March, 30,000 demonstrate against National Front.
- 500,000 high school students, out of a total of 2.3 million, demonstrate in 350 cities October 15 demanding more teachers, fewer students per class, and better study conditions. Teachers unions back the rallies.
- In November, demonstrations across France demand that 60,000 undocumented workers slated for deportation be given papers. Rail workers stage simultaneous actions across Europe protesting European Union plan to sell off state-owned railroads. 11,000 rail workers strike demanding state-run railway hire 6,000 more workers. Thousands demonstrate against plant closures.
- Temporary jobs leap by 51 percent within two years. Nearly one worker in 10 is on temporary contract.
- September-October, 25,000 employers and their supporters rally against a proposed law that would nominally cut the workweek to 35 hours, with the stated intent of creating jobs. Tens of thousands of working people hold protests against layoffs and demanding jobs.
- Thousands of farmers hold series of actions protesting declining farm income following a steep drop in prices of agricultural products.
- August-September, Fishermen, truckers, and farmers block every French port and blockade 100 oil refineries protesting rising gas prices. Protests denounced by main trade union federations and main parties in the workers movement, but the actions maintain widespread support among working people. Government agrees to reduce fuel taxes by 15 percent.
- In January, 300,000 workers hit the streets of Paris, Marseilles, Toulouse and some 75 other cities opposing the employers’ confederation’s decision to stop payments into a retirement fund. The boss confederation demands the unions agree to raise the number of years necessary for private sector workers to retire from 40 to 45 years. Five days later, 120,000 public workers demonstrate for a wage increase that keeps pace with inflation.