The good news this May was that French voters rejected far-right Marine LePen by a two-to-one margin in the second round of the Presidential election.
“At least the French are not jerks like the Americans!” were the first words that passed the sweet lips of my Provençal partner Elyane when the radio announced LePen’s defeat. As the Borowitz Report headlined: “French Annoyingly Retain Right to Claim Intellectual Superiority over Americans.” Aside from this moral victory, the poor French people have little to be happy about.
The bad news was that France ended up electing Emanuel Macron, an efficient technocrat who consciously incarnates French capital’s need to eliminate the ‘French exception’ and level the wages, rights and benefits of the French common people down to the average of the European Union (which includes Romania and Bulgaria).
Faced with Macron’s calmly-worded, reasonable, deliberately transparent class war agenda, it should be obvious that France needs a united Left of parties, unions, social movements and local associations to oppose it – the June during the legislative elections and later in the streets. Such a powerful coalition from below came together spontaneously against Macron/Hollande’s pro-business Labor Law during the “hot” Spring of 2016, which included strikes, blockades, occupations and all-night discussions. Where is it now?
The Divided Left
Alas, more bad news: the French Left today is totally divided, splintered as never before. As I reported last month after May Day, the labor unions couldn’t even agree to march together. This Sunday, June 11, French voters will face the first round of elections to the 577-seat National Assembly. These elections will decide whether President Macron will have a legislative majority with which to govern unopposed, and the opposition parties seem hopelessly divided.
Last week I watched a young, idealistic Communist Party candidate practically in tears at a Médiapart round-table as he told how at least four Leftist Parties were competing against each other in the first round in his popular Paris district. This Communist candidate was heartbroken because during the Presidential election, his Party had supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unbowed coalition with all its strength, and now Mélanchon had sent an Unbowed candidate into his district to compete with him in the legislative election. A fratricidal stab in the back! Why?
Historically, in multi-party systems, Left parties negotiate alliances and coalitions so as to agree on a single candidate, presumably a strong one, in each local district so as to maximise the chance of winning nationally. Each party in the alliance gets assigned a certain number of prospective seats in the National Assembly in proportion to its size – subject to much haggling and horse-trading. Some negotiations between Mélanchon and the Communists were held last month, but apparently they broke down early. This, in spite of the fact that Mélenchon had previously headed the “Left Front,” a coalition including the Communists and his own “Left Party” (a 2008 left split from the Socialists). Alas, as so often happens in party politics, control trumped goal. The Communists, who still have Representatives in the Chamber and control local offices in many districts, wanted to protect their turf. Mélanchon wants to dominate the Left through his Unbowed movement.
Mélenchon’s strategy, based on strength of the 20% of the electorate that voted for him in the Presidentials, is apparently to run candidates in every possible district with the goal of winning an (unlikely) parliamentary majority. Under the Constitution of the Gaullist Vth French Republic, thus would oblige President Macon to appoint Mélanchon Prime Minister (an arrangement known as “cohabitation”) and share power. In Sunday’s first round Unbowed candidates who get 20% of the votes would theoretically place into the second round in a field where the Right is also splintered. Along with Macron’s handpicked “new faces” running for En Marche, there are also several traditional conservative parties and of course the far-right proto-fascist National Front that won a third of the votes in May’s Presidential election.
Thus, according to Mélanchon’s strategy, the Unbowed candidates could conceivably beat the Macronistas and the LePenites and end up with a majority in the second round, automatically making him Prime Minister. On the other hand, the more the Left field is crowded, the greater the chance of a repeat of the Presidentials: Macron’s En Marche facing off against the National Front in the second round, giving Macron an easy majority and marginalizing the Left for the next five years. This would be the tragic consequence of Left disunity based on turf wars and the party politics of control-trumps-goal.
On the other hand, even in the minority, Mélenchon’s Unbowed group would emerge as the hegemonic organization of the Left for the next five years, well placed for the next elections in 2022. There is not much competition left. The electorate of Communist Party, despite its hold on office and ties to the CGT labor union, has shrunk to not much bigger than the “Trotskyist” New Anti-Capitalist Party (part of which has joined the CP in a coaltion called Ensemble).
The Socialist Party has also shrunk, having disgraced itself in power. President Hollande, with only 4% approval, didn’t even dare run in the primaries, an historical first for an outgoing president. The Socialists’ right wing has followed Macron in deserting the sinking ship. The SP’s Presidential candidate, a young leftist named Hamon who won the primary, seems a refreshingly sincere and honest social-democrat. He is attractive to voters who consider Mélenchon a dangerous demagogue and are suspicious of his apparent support of Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and his flirtation with the idea of a FREXIT.
So Who is Macron?
A brilliant young graduate of France’s elite state graduate schools (founded by Napoleon to run his Empire) with a successful career in banking and public administration, Emmanuel Macron is well read on nearly every subject and totally confident of his competence and right to rule. He cooly showed himself a statesman last week castigating Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. Speaking in elegant, charmingly accented English (a first for a French President) he famously concluded: “Let’s make the planet great again.” Macron’s government is made of neo-liberal technocrats, half of them women. Unlike the usual political hacks, his ministers are younger, more dynamic, more diverse –– fresh political faces recruited directly out of the economic establishment like Macron himself. This is a new broom eager to sweep clean, so watch out.
As a candidate Macron had made his program absolutely clear. He is pledged to strip French workers of what remains of their on-the-job rights and protections by further expanding the pro-business Labor Law – a “reform” he helped impose while Economics Minister in the neoliberal government of his predecessor, the unpopular Socialist Hollande. However, even if Macron does not win a majority on June 18 in the second round of the Legislatives, he is pledged to impose his neo-liberal class-war program by Decree. That’s how Hollande’s Socialist government “passed” its pro-employer labor reform last summer after a very hot spring of strikes, blocades, mamoth demonstrations and opposition from many Socialists in the Chamber. (Please see my “The French Stand up”)
Macron is also pledged to another anti-worker “reform”: the downgrading of France’s wonderful post-WWII Social Security system which includes healthcare, unemployment insurance, retirement, minimum survival income, housing subsidies and welfare for the poor. The Sécu, as it is known, was created after WWII by workers’ organizations coming out of the Resistance, when the de Gaulle government depended on Communist support to stay in power and the French industrialists were in disgrace for their vile collaboration with the Nazis during the Occupation. The idea of the “social wage” – in addition to the salary – was enshrined in France’s post-war Constitution.
The Sécu remained a self-governing non-state national institution even after de Gaulle placed business representatives on the board to undermine it. Today, the government votes on its budget. As for unemployment insurance, which is governed, by a bi-part commission of unions and employers, Macron would put the state in charge, with budgetary powers. The impact of these “reforms” will be to break up the semi-autonmous Sécu and turn its functions over to the state. These “reforms” will allegedly rationalize the system and reduce costs, but in fact they are designed to progressively shrink the social safety net that has made ‘the French exception’ so popular. A grim prospect for average French people and lovers of France’s quality of life. (For details, see Appendix: “How to kill Social Security”)
Last week, researching this article, I asked my neighbor, a poised, well-educated young mother from a good local family, to explain the intricacies of French electoral system to me. When the truth finally dawned on me that with the Left divided there is very little hope left for Social Security and fair labor laws, I blurted out: “Then what will the French people do?” She calmly replied: “Why go down into the streets and throw the bastards out! We’re good at that.”
Since Summer Vacation is the true God worshipped by the French, this battle will not take place until next September. If anything interesting happens meanwhile, I’ll keep you posted.
Appendix: How to Kill French Social Security
Macron’s proposal to “reform” the Sécu, normally a sacred cow, is a devilishly clever plan to exploit a conflict between France’s two most numerous and productive classes: the organized working class of historically left-wing salaried workers and the independents: a large hard-working, petty-bourgeoisie of artisans, shop keepers, and farmers, whose organizations have historically leaned to the far-right.
Macron proposes to attack a very real and long neglected problem in the French ‘single-payer’ social welfare system : it is not universal or equal. Independent workers are not covered by the Sécu medical insurance and are forced to pay their dues into a variety of different funds in return for inferior retirements and benefits. In 1945, the independent farmers and shop keepers who had made money during the war voted not to join the salaried workers in the the single-payer health insurance system and set up their own private funds.
When their sector declined, they ended up screwed. Today some independents are even forced to pay into their funds at the beginning of the fiscal year, before they even get their business off the ground! Naturally they are jealous of salaried workers and hostile to unions, especially the railroad workers who get extra benefits. This petite bourgeoisie is a numerous, industrious and highly productive part of the French population which long has been mistreated by the government and ignored by the Left. Its justifiable anger has been channeled by the far-Right. The Poujade movement in the 50’s and then the LePens’ National Front.
The obvious solution would be to pull all these independents into the Sécu and make it truly universal. Alternately to insure that the dues and benefits of artisans are comparable. In other words, leveling up. Macron’s solution: his government takes over and levels down the benefits of the different groups to the lowest common denominator. His proposed successor institutions to the Sécu will not be self-sustaining or self-governing. They will be funded by the government out of the general fund and the amount available will predictably decline from year to year as Macron “rationalizes” and reduces cost in the name of “making France competitive again.”