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What is to be Done about French Elections?

What happened above all was Jospin’s electoral defeat and Chirac’s very weak performance. That’s the point to leave off from, because Le Pen’s score is only its consequence.

Will it still be said, then, ("earthquake, "shame", etc) that this is a numbing event? Unforeseen, yes. But not outlandish. Le Pen has been a major elections professional for twenty years. And the fact is he did not get many more votes than usual.

Those ravaged by astonishment, by fears and tears, ought to consider this: parliamentarism is a way of conceiving politics in which 25% of all people can vote for Le Pen, just as they can for anyone else. Le Pen is certainly uniform to the others on any number of points, and not visibly eccentric. Le Pen is an important man in French parliamentarism, this is the truth. The only news is that he’s made it into the runoff vote of a presidential election. It’s about why this has happened, and this alone, that the causes have to be examined.

First of all, the parties. The RPR (Rassemblement pour la republique), the PS (Parti socialiste), the ‘gauche plurielle’ (‘plural left’ coalition government, consisting of Greens, Socialists and Communists). Chirac and Jospin. Should they be absolved? Should we forget? Should we be rallying behind their panache as if it were suddenly whitewashed by the success of the old Vichyite, the old racist, the old anti-Semite, Le Pen?

As for us, faced with the downfall of minds, the suffocating effects of fears, communalism and cowardice, we know that in politics there’s only firm resolve on the principles…

What do we call a ‘political principle’? To hold to a few maxims, until the end and without letting up, on points considered fundamental about the situation people are being subjected to. We hold that these maxims have to be made into the rule of organized thought and action. That battle be waged with respect to what they defend, in the sense of a collective process determined to change the situation.

After all it must be said that we see no sign whatsoever of any kind of firm resolve on principles amongst any of the members of the ‘plural left’, let alone the RPR.

What we’ve seen over the past 35 years is the absence of principles, which has set the stage for the downfall of minds. Le Pen is only harvesting, within the official framework of elections and parliamentarism, what has invariably been sown by successive governments.

Let’s give a few specific examples.

1. Under Mitterand, Mauroy (Prime Minister: 1981-1984) and Fabius (PM: 1984-1986), with the complicity of the PCF (Communist Party), any political reference to the word ‘ouvrier’ (worker) has been doggedly destroyed. The word ‘immigrant’ has been used explicitly to take its place. Le Pen’s been said to ‘address the right problems’. Any working-class utterance, any consideration of factories, has been rejected. The ‘modern’ bourgeoisie’s opinion has been the alpha and omega of all political discourses put together. Beregovoy (PM: 1992-1993) did more to liberalize the financial system than did any of his rightwing predecessors. Jospin has privatized more companies than Juppe (PM: 1995-1997). All have torn the public sector asunder. All have ‘modernized’ relentlessly. None have cared the least for people’s lives, even less for what they could be thinking about it all. It’s foolish to be whining about the return of the ‘populist’ stick. When did you care, dear downcast rulers, about people and their backbone: the worker? To this bourgeois indifference, to the cult of finances camouflaged as ‘modernization’, let’s oppose this principle: no modern progressive politics without a redrawn and rewritten reference to the figure of the worker. It’s for having liquidated this principle, ever since May 1968, that the PCF has vanished. We’ve got to buckle down to the practical reinvention of the worker figure.

2. In France, there are hundreds of thousands of people of foreign origins–working and living here–most of whom are working-class. Under Mitterand, Mauroy, Fabius, Rocard (PM: 1988-1991), Beregovoy, Balladur (PM: 1993-1995), Chirac, Juppe, Jospin, with the agreement of the entire ‘plural left’, the question of having the State regularize workers has been made into a question of ‘security’ and the police. They’ve been referred to as ‘stowaways’. Detention camps have been created. The right of asylum has been wiped out. Regrouping of family-members has been severely limited. The ‘Chevenement law’ was passed. In exchange for having a simple piece of paper allowing you to come and go freely, it demands official ‘proof’, which can’t be given obviously, of ten years (ten years!) of continual presence on French territory! Following which you complain about the Front National’s success? Let’s start by not imposing its policies, then! To all of this, principles must be opposed which, for five years, have been those of the Assembly of ‘sans papiers’ worker collectives (those can’t live or work legally in France) residing in the foyers, and of the Organisation politique*: Whomever lives and works here belongs here. Worker foyers are fine. But: unconditional regularization of all ‘sans papiers’ workers.

3. What made Juppe fall in 1997? Who brought Jospin to power? It was the major December 1995 strike and workers’ movement; with the latter: the energetic action of ‘sans papiers’ workers at the Saint Bernard Church sit-in, combined with intellectuals intervening (alas, all too briefly) against the Pasqua laws. Yet the movements’ opening out to parliament is still fallacious. Jospin has no principles. He did not regularize the ‘sans papiers’. Nor did he bear in mind the vague and powerful watchword–"together"– that had thrown millions of people onto the streets in 1995. Did he protect the public sector? Did he reform the schooling system? Did he give the city back to the mass of those who try to live there by re-industrializing and re-urbanizing the so-called ‘suburbs’? Not in the least. All he did was pass a law on the 35-hour work week, very useful indeed for the leisure time of white-collar employees, but a law that subjects workers to the "flexible" good-will of bosses, disorganizes their lives and, by and large, lowers their real salary. And he struck up the ‘security’ serenade, as did all the official candidates. To that, we’ve got to oppose the following principles: the city’s for everyone. One child = one student. Readable and stable work hours. One must be able to earn a salary with dignity.

4. Every successive government since Mitterand has invariably supported the Americans in their increasingly violent, imperial and cruel ventures. The war against Iraq, the war against Serbia, the war against Afghanistan… We ask: what about the basic principle of national independence and international justice? We’re thrilled to see such fiercely devoted defenders of liberties abounding against the old Vichyite. But we’d like them to extend their concern to just a slightly vaster horizon. It isn’t coherent to raise the standard of a revolt of souls against Le Pen while the same soul sees nothing wrong in approving someone like Bush (as reactionary, on all fronts, as the Front National) and his war, or Sharon (as brutal in his colonial wars as was parachutist Le Pen in his own, in Algeria). Are we to understand that deliberate and delicious liberties are good at home (save for the ‘sans papiers’ workers, naturally), but that elsewhere the militarist galley is the rule? Against all of that, let’s proclaim these principles: complete independence with respect to American ventures. Dissolution of NATO. Attentive sympathy to the current political process in Chiapas. A land and a State for the Palestinians.

There’s no mystery. Without respecting these basic principles, without major political battles organized in complete independence according to these principles, political life gets sinister and the downfall continues. Abjection is never far away. It’s only a little more probable today. And its ties to the electoral system and parliamentarism are increasingly evident.

We believe that no principle of real democratic politics can be consistently implemented by any party or parliamentary group.

These democratic principles regulate our own action, in complete independence. This is politics without parties. It’s what we call policies made from the people, and not from positions of power.

Giving strength to such politics in the troubled times now opening up–that Chirac and Jospin have opened– is certainly the only durable and efficient means for committing oneself against the worst. Sobbing, ‘I’m ashamed’, ‘Le Pen, you’re done for,’ and the republican quaver are completely useless. Giving a life, a life of thought, of action, of organization, to politics of an entirely different kind is the great affair.

Possible? No problem. Immediately.

Alain Badiou holds the Chair in philosophy at the Ecole normale superieure in Paris. His most recent work in translation is Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Peter Hallward, translator), (Verso, 2001). Sylvain Lazarus’s most recent work in French is L’anthropologie du nom, (Editions du Seuil, 1996) Natasha Michel is a writer. She has published extensively in French. The three are members of L’Organization politique.

Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz.