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France's election tilts right

April 6, 2007 | Page 7

SHERRY WOLF analyzes the upcoming presidential election in France.

FRANCE WILL vote on April 22 in the first of a likely two-round presidential election. Yet in a country where strikes and mass social justice protests are not uncommon, the most right wing of the mainstream candidates has been leading all year in opinion polls, and the candidate of the moderate Socialist Party is barely ahead of a second conservative.

The gruff right-winger, former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, is the frontrunner, ahead of a Hillary Clinton-like "socialist," Ségolène Royal, as well as the center-right intellectual and career politician, François Bayrou. Recent polls show Royal catching up to Sarkozy, but still with only about a quarter of the vote, and Bayrou not far behind.

The fascist National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen is polling around 13 percent. Several far-left candidates are getting no more than 2 percent or so each--including farmer and global justice activist José Bové and Olivier Besancenot of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League (LCR).

In all, there are 12 candidates to choose from--ranging from revolutionary socialists to the fascist Le Pen on the far right.

Also unlike the U.S., if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, there will be a run-off election in May between the two highest vote-getters. This arrangement encourages people to vote for who they actually want to win in the first round--and, if their candidate doesn't make the cut, decide between the remaining two candidates, or don't vote at all.

What else to read

For a commentary on the election from the point of view of the LCR--including the failure of attempts to agree on a united candidate of the far left--see François Duval's "On the French left: What's going on?" in International Viewpoint magazine.

For readers of French, check out a different analysis in the tri-monthly review Socialisme International.

 

In the last two years, France has been the setting for some of Europe's most important struggles. A year ago, French students built a mass movement against the conservative government's plan for a labor law that discriminated against youth. Amid campus occupations and several one-day general strikes called by France's unions, the proposal was scrapped.

The year before that, a referendum to approve a business-backed constitution for the European Union (EU) was beaten after a strong campaign by the left. In the fall of 2005, French suburbs, the banlieux, exploded in rebellion by mostly Arab and Muslim youth in response to police brutality, poverty and racism.

French opposition to the Iraq war kept the country's soldiers out of the U.S.-run "coalition" and compelled even conservative President Jacques Chirac to denounce the invasion.

So one might expect that at least a center-left candidate from the Socialists would be the favorite to win the presidential vote. But this isn't the case. Why?

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SÉGOLÈNE ROYAL'S Socialist Party (PS) is socialist in name only. It jettisoned what little remained of its more pro-labor positions during the 14-year presidency of François Mitterrand from 1981 to 1995.

The PS remains the dominant social-democratic party of the French working class, but it has hemorrhaged support by cutting corporate taxes, privatizing public works, supporting the EU constitution and allowing employers "flexibility" on the country's 35-hour workweek.

A media brouhaha greeted Royal's campaign, complete with bikini shots, sexist piffle and apolitical personal details. Her decades-long relationship with the leader of the PS, François Hollande, and the prospect of her becoming the first woman president of France created many comparisons with American power couple Hillary and Bill Clinton.

When Royal opened her mouth to talk about her policies, however, enthusiasm began to wane among many prospective socialist voters.

Though forced by the scale of recent struggles to make some left-wing promises--such as a reduction of classroom sizes in schools and the construction of 250,000 new public housing units--Royal stands for neoliberal policies little different from British Labor Party Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In a two-hour (!) policy speech in February, Royal called for French workers to "reconcile with business" and demanded that juvenile delinquents be placed under the care of the military.

This is hardly inspiring stuff in a country with 9 percent unemployment--and an Arab and Muslim population that is 10 percent of the total, suffering the brunt of state repression and stuck in the dirtiest and worst-paid jobs.

On the issue that has grabbed headlines in the international media--French identity and patriotism--Royal says she wants every French citizen to memorize "La Marseillaise," the national anthem, and to own a flag to put on display for Bastille Day.

This, of course, plays into the hands of right-wingers like Sarkozy--and, beyond him, Le Pen and his fascist National Front.

As Interior Minister, Sarkozy took the lead in heaping abuse on youth and immigrants when the banlieux--essentially Black and Brown ghettos that ring every major French city--erupted in protests and riots in 2005.

Last week, after clashes broke out following another instance of police brutality against an African immigrant in a Paris train station, Sarkozy again wheeled out his stern law-and-order rhetoric. "A delinquent is a delinquent, a rapist is a rapist, whatever his age or the color of his skin," he declared.

It was left to Le Pen to gleefully point out that the mainstream parties were stealing his fascist message of "France for the French."

The third major contender in the presidential race is François Bayrou. Bayrou got less than 7 percent of the 2002 presidential election, so his sudden rise into the ranks of the frontrunners was a surprise.

Though he served as minister of education in Jacques Chirac's mid-1990s government that provoked massive public-sector strikes over attacks on unions and the retirement system, Bayrou presents himself as both a "tractor-driving son of the soil" and an unequivocal opponent of the far right and Chirac's government.

In the late '90s, Bayrou went after members of his own party who accepted support from Le Pen's National Front, and today, he attacks Sarkozy for aping Le Pen's anti-immigrant rants. This has won him support not only from disaffected conservatives, but significant numbers of PS supporters.

In a highly publicized op-ed article in the left-leaning Liberation newspapers, 30 "socialists and French of the left," writing under the pen name "Spartacus," called for a vote for Bayrou. "We believe that the incoherent and erratic candidate of the Socialist Party is leading the French left to an inexorable defeat," they wrote.

Setting aside Bayrou's "unity" rhetoric and folksy style, however, he is essentially a capitalist politician, whose party, the Union for French Democracy, one of two traditional conservative parties, is for tackling the country's enormous deficit--which will mean major attacks on workers and the poor.

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LOOMING over the first round of the 2007 election is the outcome of the last one in 2002.

Capitalizing on discontent with Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the PS presidential candidate, Le Pen took second place in the voting--to go onto the second round of the election, where he was beaten by Chirac.

Far-left candidates won nearly 11 percent combined in the first round in 2002. If left candidates are running poorly this time, it likely is due in part to the fear of a repeat of 2002. Both Royal and Bayrou are the beneficiaries.

Another factor is that the far left is split among six candidates--the activist José Bové, Olivier Besancenot of the LCR, plus candidates of the Communist Party (PC), the Greens the Trotskyist group Workers' Struggle, and the tiny Workers' Party.

Following the 2005 "Non" vote on the EU constitution, there was a strong sentiment for a united campaign by the far left in the presidential election, but these efforts broke down as the vote approached.

Nevertheless, mass meetings for Besancenot, Bové and other left candidates are drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. And as a result of election laws requiring that all parties get equal media coverage, everyone in France is aware of the left's positions in the elections--with the result that the mainstream media are filled with daily discussions about capitalism, imperialism and the priorities of profit over human need.

None of the three leading candidates have any solution for the economic and social problems facing French society. Whatever the results on April 22, the social battles and mass strikes that have rocked France in the past and altered government policy will need to be revived.

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