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The Elections in France

and DIANA JOHNSTONE

The forthcoming French presidential election threatens to produce a major political earthquake with shock waves reaching far beyond the country’s borders : a sort of post-mortem victory of the neo-conservatives through the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of the French Republic.
Up to now, all polls show Sarkozy leading a field of 12 candidates for the April 22 first round of the two-round election. The two April 22 front runners will face the final vote on May 6.

The French capitalist class and mainstream media have rallied behind Sarkozy as the man ruthless enough to go all the way and crush, once and for all, the dual monsters of independent French foreign policy and the French social model — or at least what is left of them. He has already succeeded in taking control of the Gaullist party, destroying every trace of Gaullism within it, at least officially, which is no small achievement. In this, he has been very much helped by those in the media who never forgave President Jacques Chirac for his non-alignment with US foreign policy in 2003 [1].

Although the Economist presents him as a new Napoleon, Sarkozy’s political role would be closer to Louis XVIII (king of the post-revolutionary, post-Napoleonic reaction).

But Sarkozy’s penchant for inflammatory rhetoric is bound to be terribly divisive of French society. He has claimed that he would rid the banlieues (working class high rise suburbs) of the “racaille” (variously translated as “riffraff” or “scum”). He plays the “law and order” card in extreme ways, and his supporters seem not to notice that as minister of the Interior, his methods have actually made a bad situation worse. He boasted that he would use Karcher (a high-pressure outdoor surface cleaner) to clean up the troubled banlieues. He has called his rival candidates supporters of crime, a rhetorical flourish which is extreme even by French standards. As a result, part of the bourgeoisie has more or less openly turned to François Bayrou, a centrist Christian-Democrat (a political species that was almost extinct in France). The future policies of Bayrou, should he be elected, are unclear — he is very conservative, but he seems more balanced than Sarkozy, far less likely to provoke disorder in the streets.

On the mainstream left, we have Ségolène Royal. She lacks solid support from her own Socialist Party, whose more established male leaders resent her promotion to presidential candidate thanks mainly to 2006 public opinion polls showing “Ségo” as the only one able to beat “Sarko”. Since then, her poll ratings have dropped alarmingly, and she has gone so far to the right to appeal to the “center”, that many of her potential supporters don’t see the point of voting for her rather than for Bayrou, since the latter appears far more likely to beat Sarkozy in the runoff, at least according to the polls — and also to elementary logic : most socialist voters would choose Bayrou in the second round against Sarkozy, but the Bayrou electorate will be split between Royal and Sarkozy, if those two are the winners of the first round.

The radical left has defeated itself even before the election. Its leaders have managed to squander the political capital that was built up by the impressive social movement in the 2005 campaign against the European Constitution. That struggle led to the creation of local committees intent on creating a new movement expressing the aspirations of those who opposed the anti-social Constitution. This movement was probably the most genuine instance of grassroots democracy existing in the West. The hope was that those committees could choose a single candidate representing the “left of the left”. José Bové, a colorful sheep farmer whose spectacular actions in opposition to GMOs and McDonald’s have made him into a sort of symbol of the anti-globalization movement, was the personality most apt to united the diverse movement.

The movement toward a new unified radical left was scuttled by sectarian manipulation. The French Communist Party, a shadow of its previous self, managed to infltrate the committees or set up bogus committees of its own (one the few things it is still able to do) and get them to “choose” the uninspiring Marie-George Buffet as presidential candidate of the whole movement. There was no chance of uniting the movement around a “unity” candidate who happened to be the leader of the Communist Party. The trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire broke ranks in the likely hope of outscoring its old enemy, the CP, by fielding its own candidate, the baby-faced postman, Olivier Besancenot, whose oratorical skills were revealed during the 2005 referendum campaign. The outcome was one communist and three competing trotskyist candidates. In addition to Besancenot, there is the “eternal” Arlette Laguiller, of Lutte Ouvrière (Worker’s struggle), who has been a presidential candidate as far back as anybody can remember. Her unchanging message used to win her as much as 5% of the protest vote, but she is likely to do badly in this, her last campaign. Finally there is the totally obscure Gérard Schivardi, who proclaimed himself “candidate of the mayors”, apparently in reference to the surprising fact that he managed to obtain the 500 signatures of mayors needed to qualify as a candidate (but the association of French mayors demanded that he retract that slogan). Schivardi is very much against the European Union, but also does not seem to be very clever : he claims that, until recently, he did not know that the Parti des Travailleurs (Worker’s Party) that supports him was trotskyist (of course, nobody can check all the facts). Besancenot is the only one of the “little” candidates who seems to have a chance of crossing the 5% threshold needed for his party to receive quite a lot of money — which may help explain the urge of the marginal parties to join the race (if only to prevent rival candidates from getting that money).
With all this going on, Bové did not agree to join the race until the last minute, too late to create a strong unitary dynamic around his name. So, now we have 5 candidates on the far left (Bové, the CP candidate, plus the three Trotzkysts). Then comes the Green candidate, Dominique Voynet, who is heading for disaster since the environment has become an unavoidable theme for all parties, and les Verts (the Green Party) checked out of the “anti-globalization” left two years ago by endorsing the failed EU Constitution (while many Greens voted against it). Voynet, like Buffet, seems to be running for little more than the hope of getting enough votes to earn a place on the coattails of the Socialist Party, in case the Socialist candidate wins.

But this appears to be rather a long shot. With the risk of Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal not even making it into the second round, many people on the “left of the left” are likely to cast a “useful” vote for her in the first round. Nobody has forgotten that in the last presidential election five years ago, disaffection with the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, allowed National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to make it into the runoff against Jacques Chirac, who thereupon won by a landslide.

The worry is that such a that “useful vote” might contribute to the victory of the dreaded Sarkozy, by presenting him with an adversary easier to defeat than Bayrou. Such calculations keep many voters wavering.

In a sense, the most interesting candidate is the oldest one : Jean-Marie Le Pen. As Sarkozy himself pointed out, everybody has moved to the right, except Le Pen, who has moved to the left. Of course, given his starting point, one might think that this is no big deal, but that may be misleading. For one thing, in terms of voter preference, his party, the National Front, has largely replaced the CP as the “party of the working class”. In recent decades, the CP has abandoned its historic role of integrating the working class through combat in order to become a moralizing “left” party in the wake of the Socialists. The National Front, which represents over 15% of the vote (although the electoral system keeps it out of the National Assembly), is now the largest party that complains loudly about globalization, European Union regulations, delocalizations — and of course its old stock in trade, illegal immigration and security. But those latter themes are not necessarily unpopular among workers. A major novelty is that Le Pen has drastically toned down the racist discourse for which he was notorious. The line taken now by the old demagogue (who is showing his age), and his politically talented daughter Marine, who has skillfully contributed to bringing the National Front closer to the mainstream, is to emphasize to the sons and daughters of immigrants that they are entirely French (and not “scum” as Sarkozy calls them) and that immigration should be stopped precisely in order to safeguard their place in society and improve their opportunities. Father and daughter have been able to venture safely into banlieues where Sarkozy, thoroughly detested, dares not tread. Always the entertainer, Le Pen’s current extremism tends toward macho bravado, such as proposing to raise the speed limit by 20km/hr on highways, and, at the same time, to raise the amount of alcohol drivers are allowed to consume.

One publicly unmentionable factor in Le Pen’s popularity is that he is the only major politician who is not genuflexing to the pro-Israel lobby, probably the second strongest such lobby in the world (after the one in the United States, of course). To illustrate this, last February 13, the CRIF (the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France), which like its U.S. counterpart AIPAC holds an annual dinner that all major politicians feel obliged to attend in order to listen to a little sermon instructing them in the what-to-do-for-Israel list, managed to organize a meeting at which with Sarkozy-Royal-Bayrou, plus a representative of the CP, were lectured about the Iranian threat to the world. Le Pen, of course, is not invited to such meetings, having long ago been labeled an “antisemitic” untouchable. But the stigma does not function among the large Muslim French population. On the contrary.

Indeed, Le Pen’s emphasis on law and order, and even his paternalistic — not to say “godfather” — persona, may appeal to members of the older generations of immigrant origin, while at the same time he gains votes in the younger generations because of the extreme symbolic value of Palestine. The mainstream discourse is so pro-Israel that some young voters are openly hesitating between Le Pen and Bové (whose anti-globalization, pro-Palestinian positions have aroused the hostility of the pro-Israel camp), or between Le Pen and Besancenot. In short, anybody but the mainstream.

A small number of leftists have even joined the Le Pen camp and an ex-communist writer, who still claims to be on the radical left, Alain Soral, has declared that if Marx were alive today, he would vote Le Pen (joining the vast anthology of statements by French intellectuals that are not to be taken seriously). In reality, Le Pen’s economic policies are markedly to the right. But since he has been, whether one likes it or not, a trend-setter (or weather-vane) in French policy (his trademark theme of “immigration” as a major issue is now echoed by all leading French politicians, one way or another), his changing rhetoric may be a sign that times are changing. Paradoxically, it can be seen as a political advance for the legally established immigrants to be openly recognized as fully French by their former arch-enemy. Le Pen has grasped the greater electoral value of social issues, and even if he has no solutions to offer, he may oblige the maintream left and right to run after him on this theme, just as they ran after him on immigration –which could be an amusing paradox.

The candidate who has taken over the extreme right position on immigration is Philippe de Villiers. His “Mouvement Pour la France” is visibly archaic upper class, and not even his heavy stress on the “the Islamic peril to traditional France” and the “war against terrorism” has succeeded in wooing Jewish establishment support away from Sarkozy. His acidic style is no match for Le Pen’s raucous populism.

The last small right wing candidate, Frédéric Nihous, of “Chasse, Pêche, Nature et Traditions” (“Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Traditions”), is campaigning on the theme of “rural life”. CPNT is basically a special interest group of hunters peeved with EU and Green regulations limiting when and how much wildlife can be shot or trapped. He gets equal free television time with all the others –which may be comical, but is surely no more irrelevant than the expensive publicity spots featured in U.S. presidential campaigns.

A word about the potential candidate who failed to get his 500 signatures : Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, an earnest young Gaullist who opposed the European Constitutional Treaty and who sought to carry on the left Gaullist tradition of national independence coupled with social concern. His absence is evidence of Sarkozy’s achievement in purging the French right of the last trace of Gaullism. While the search for mayors’ signatures was underway, Sarkozy publicly stated that it would be unfair for someone like Besancenot not to be able to run. This was clearly not his attitude toward Dupont-Aignan. The supposedly “Gaullist” party taken over by Sarkozy from Chirac withheld the necessary endorsement from the only real Gaullist in the running.

Despite a dozen candidates to choose from, a striking aspect of this campaign has been the enormous number of undecided voters. This is an effect of the crisis of European democracy : more and more powers have been devolved to the central EU bureaucracy in Brussels, in general with the support of the Socialists and the Greens. The European left (especially the Greens) have defended this devolution as the necessary cure for “nationalism”, condemned as the greatest evil. The result is that economic policy is firmly under control of powerful business lobbies intent on transforming Europe into a profitable field for financial investment, notably at the expense of wage costs, social welfare and public services. People recognize by now that no candidate can possibly redirect economic policy and therefore keep his social promises, whatever they are. The only autonomy left, assuming the European construction does not make further “progress” towards “integration”, is in foreign policy, which, in France, is the prerogative of the president of the Republic. That is where a Sarkozy victory might make a big difference, since he would eagerly align himself with the U.S. and Israel.

The polls are made highly unreliable by the large number of undecided voters, not to mention those who refuse to tell the truth or who simply hang up on the telephone pollsters. It is by now well known that Le Pen’s voters, in particular, are reluctant to reveal their true intentions.

So what can be expected on April 22 ? Le Pen may do well where least expected, in ethnically mixed working class areas, while possibly losing votes on his right to Sarkozy, who has been fishing in National Front waters. The radical left is too fragmented to fulfill the promise of the 2005 referendum movement. Royal has been playing too much to the center to gain “useful” votes from the radical left, although she will probably take votes away from the Green and Communist Party candidates, who appear to be heading for humiliating defeat. Still, the mainstream left once again risks not making it into the second round, and if it does, risks being defeated by Sarkozy.

The only candidate who, according to polls, has a good chance to beat him is Bayrou, whose electorate is the least stable. The worst case scenario, improbable but not impossible, would be a Le Pen/Sarkozy runoff, leading to a huge victory for Sarkozy. This would be the ghastly climax of a process that started with Mitterrand and led the left, including the CP, into increasing isolation from the working class.

The prospect of a Sarkozy victory is strange, considering the hatred he inspires, all the way from loyal Gaullists, who see him as a traitor, to the far left, who see him as the main enemy. But many on the far left are “too principled” to vote for a centrist, or even for Ségolène Royal, to keep Sarkozy out of power, and may abstain in the second round.

Sarkozy’s power-hungry personality is deeply alarming to some observers — notably the journalist Jean-François Kahn, founder of the popular magazine Marianne, which is waging all-out ideological war against the front-runner. But considering the opposition he inspires, the victory of Sarkozy, if it happens, may not be as bad as the ideological blitzkrieg it will let loose. One can count on the Anglo-American media to present that victory as “proof” that France has finally seen the light, throwing off its bad Gaullist/Socialist habits and joining the globalization paradise, and that nobody can resist the leadership of the United States and Israel in the Middle East.

But the Sarkozy conversion, if it happens, will be only a surface event on a highly unstable and volatile social reality. The rebellious nature of the population makes it unlikely that any president will be able to impose his will, short of establishing a real dictatorship. The French left, and particularly the far left, needs to get its act together and appreciate what sets France apart from other Western powers : a tradition of social revolution combined with a strongly secular state committed to a certain ideal of equality. This means overcoming its sectarianism, as well as its own tendency to “hate France” for its bad moments in history : colonialism and Pétain in particular. The reactionary forces that back Sarkozy also “hate France”, for opposite reasons.

Sarkozy, who has announced his desire to create a “ministry of immigration and national identity”, actually told the Bushites during a trip to Washington that he was “proud to be called “Sarkozy the American””, that he often “felt like a foreigner in his own country” and that Dominique de Villepin was guilty of “arrogance” in his famous speech to the UN Security Council rejecting U.S. calls for war against Iraq. The “national identity” Sarkozy has in mind clearly has nothing to do with France’s best traditions, which he seems to be out to liquidate. But one can hope that such a task is beyond the scope of the power-hungry former mayor of the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly, even with the backing of the stock market, the neo-conservatives and the French rock star Johnny Hallyday, who is moving out of France in order to avoid paying taxes. Sooner or later, the real “national identity” may stand up.

NOTE

1 . (see Diana Johnstone, Pre-Emptive Strike Against Chirac, CounterPunch.

JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics in Belgium. He is a member of the Brussels Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, will be published by Monthly Review Press in February 2007. He can be reached at bricmont@fyma.ucl.ac.be.

Diana Johnstone can be reached at dianajohnstone@compuserve.com

 

 

JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He is author of Humanitarian Imperialism.  He can be reached at Jean.Bricmont@uclouvain.be

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