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Europe, France

Why President Hollande will need to embrace Melenchon’s spirit of rebellion

The Socialists are set to wrest back the Elysée Palace from the Right after a gap of 17 years in Sunday’s Presidential poll. Francois Hollande has maintained a consistent and comfortable lead over Nicolas Sarkozy in opinion polls and the incumbent’s increasingly desperate swing to the far right appears to have failed to shore up sagging support. A poll on Thursday gave Hollande 53.5% against 46.5%  for Sarkozy.

In the first round of the Presidential election on April 22, 1.8 million French voters turned away from Sarkozy as they vented their anger at his embrace of austerity and the misery this has brought to the majority in the country hit by 9.8% unemployment, spreading poverty and cuts to public services and welfare.

They are also unforgiving for Sarkozy’s love-in with German Chancellor Angela Merkel who together dreamed up the Fiscal Compact, an austerity death grip that was agreed in March by EU governments.

In contrast to Sarkozy, whose policies reflect his close ties with the country’s rich and business elite, Hollande, who gained an additional 770,000 votes in the first round contest compared to the then socialist candidate Segolene Royale, would represent a big improvement.

Hollande is less friendly to the rich, pledging a 75 percent tax on incomes of 1 million euros a year, and the banks, demanding a split between retail and investment businesses in a move that should curb speculation while protecting people’s savings. And he’s better on public services: against Sarkozy’s record of pay freezes and  spending curbs, he’s committed to hiring 60,000 teachers for the country’s overstretched schools.

Furthermore, he advocates the issuing of euro bonds guaranteed by the 17 countries using the common currency, to raise funding for debt-strapped countries, which Sarkozy, like Chancellor Merkel, opposes.

Moreover, Hollande wants the ‘Merkozy’ Fiscal Compact ‘renegotiated’ and rejects the linked ‘golden rule’ to balance budgets that Sarkozy has pledged to insert in the French Constitution. This would reduce an economy that was once the proud champion of state led ‘dirigism’ and planning into a Thatcher style corner shop business.

But, at the same time Socialist Hollande has pledged to balance the budget by 2017 – one year after Sarkozy plans to. This means that in practice while he’s mounting an important defence of the sovereign right of France’s parliament to set a budget and decide how much it taxes and spends, in practice there’s little difference between him and Sarkozy on austerity policies.

By committing to impose such a deathly fiscal straight jacket, and with no serious plan to tackle the power of finance, he’s tying his hands over any serious programme to kick start the French economy and tackle deep rooted problems of inequality of wealth and power.

This will make the role of the Left Front on the Socialists’ left flank crucial.

In the first round this new force, formed in 2008 from the Communist Party and left radicals including former Socialists, like Presidential candidate Jean Luc Melenchon, achieved a historically significant result with 11% of the vote. It fell short of some polls predicting up to 17%, that’s true. But the final count was nevertheless impressive.

In 2007 the collective vote for the radical left – comprising the New Anti Capitalist Party’s Besancenot, the Workers’ Struggle’s Laguiller, the Workers’ Party’s Schivardi and the Communist Party’s Buffet – was 3.3 million. This time it was 4.6 million, or a rise of 39%.

And the spread of votes was impressive – the party gained at least 7% of the vote in all 96 French départements on the mainland (ie excluding the overseas territories) with more than 10% in 76 of départements and over 13% in 20 of them. Furthermore, a number of large cities without any communist tradition, like Grenoble, Lille, Montpellier and Toulouse gave the Left Front a score of over 15%.

Most importantly, it was the Left Front’s electoral boost that projected the overall left score – including the Socialists – to 15.7 million votes, a rise of 17%. In short, it was the Left Front, with its call for a ‘citizen’s revolution’ that will, assuming all the polling is correct, have projected Hollande to head of state. As Melenchon puts it, the Left Front is the real ‘dynamic’ force on the Left.

The personal performance of the former Socialist minister, his language that fuses the best of French revolutionary and republican tradition, his brilliance both at large rallies and on TV, are all part of the success story. But clearly so is the Left Front’s programme.

For sure, it is not a revolutionary set of policies. But it fills the political space that social democrats have vacated long ago. ‘Radical reformism’, some have called it.

A 100% tax on earnings over £300,000; full pensions for all from the age of 60; reduction of work hours; a 20% increase in the minimum wage; the nationalisation of energy companies; the creation of a well resourced public investment bank; a demand for the European Central Bank to lend to European governments at 1%, as it does for the banks; a categorical non! to the Fiscal Compact and a referendum with recommendation to withdrawal from the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.

And running through Melenchon’s bid to remake France is a determination to end the chaos and environmental and social destruction of uncontrolled free markets and replace it with what Melenchon calls ‘ecological planning’. Above all, as the “Humans First!” title of the programme says, it aims to restore people to the centre of a new Sixth French Republic.

The rise and rise of this new force on the Left is part of a wider radicalisation of the French electorate, however.

On the right, this produced a shocking 18% vote for the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Marine Le Pen. This beats the historic 17% score of Jean Marie Le Pen in 2002. This saw him overtake the Socialists and stand in the run-off election with traditional right-winger Jacques Chirac, who defeated the far right candidate.

Once a party for the petite bourgeoisie, the racist Front National is now solidly embedded in the working class. One extensive poll found Marine Le Pen was backed by 35% of workers.

In this election Le Pen junior maintained the Front National’s strong position in the Mediterranean coast, first conquered by her father in the 1980s, and did well in the north east of France, and other places, where industry has suffered a dramatic neglect and decline. She also picked up votes from working class people who have been forced out of the cities because of escalating urban rents and house prices, and whose physical displacement has clearly been matched by a political and cultural displacement taking them out of the orbit of traditional parties of the left and right.

There’s a danger in misreading Le Pen’s score. In 2007 the votes for Le Pen senior and another far right candidate, Bruno Megret (a former leading figure in the Front National) polled 19% between them. What’s happened is that former Sarkozy voters among the working class have migrated far right, thanks not only to their disillusionment with his five year reign, but his head long lurch to the far right himself, with attacks on immigrants and latterly the adoption of an even more corrosive language of Petain, the Nazi collaborationist war-time leader.

Melenchon’s own analysis is that this has been a ‘transfusion’ of right wing voters further right, with examples being Lyon, Lille, Marseille and the town of Florange in Lorraine in the north east where a steelworks is under threat.

If the Front National has made further inroads into the working class, there were places where the Left Front’s and the Front National head to head clashes ended up with the Left Front coming out the better. In Marseille, while Sakozy lost 30,000 votes, Le Pen won 28,000 and the Left Front, after delivering a strong anti-racist message, gained 42,000 votes (compared to a net gain of just 1,000 for the Socialists). The message for Melenchon and supporters is that without the Left Front and its progressive and unashamedly pro-working class message, the far right would have done much better.

Nevertheless, the National Front is a major threat. The result has emboldened Le Pen to make a bid for leadership of the Right, a move that was underlined by her call to supporters to not only reject Hollande on Sunday but Sarkozy too. If, as both Le Pen and many commentators predict, Sarkozy’s UMP party is heading for meltdown  – with the more moderate wing alienated by their chief’s embrace of her nasty politics of hate and the right opting for the real thing – she has a historic opportunity to revamp the reactionary political camp into an Italian-style -populist neo-fascist movement.

The defeat of Sarkozy is all but discounted now. But how this radicalisation of French politics will be tested again in June’s Parliamentary elections. The Left Front is hoping to maintain its momentum. And while asserting its clear independence from the Socialists, it is currently discussing with them a pact to back the most promising candidate in constituencies where there is a risk of the Left not making it through to the second round voting.

Historically, the odds are on trends in Presidential elections to follow through in parliamentary elections. So a Left President and a Left parliament beckons. But for it to make a real difference, both to the French people, and Europe as a whole, a new French administration will need to embrace the spirit of rebellion of Melenchon’s ‘citizen’s revolution’.

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope

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