A left-wing surge in France

Lee Sustar looks at the challengers looking to oust France's Nicolas Sarkozy.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Jonas Costagliola)Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Jonas Costagliola)

A FRENCH presidential election that was expected to give a boost to far-right Marine Le Pen of the National Front has instead been dominated by left-wing rhetoric from the leading candidate, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, and a strong showing by Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Mélenchon, a former minister in the Socialist Party government of Lionel Jospin in the late 1990s and an ex-senator, broke from the center-left party in 2008 to cofound the Left Party, which in turn formed the Left Front with the Communist Party and a range of other left-wing organizations.

Widely dismissed by political analysts as irrelevant just months ago, Mélenchon has instead forced the entire political debate to the left as his support in the upcoming presidential vote registers at 15 percent in public opinion polls ahead of the first round of presidential voting on April 22.

"We're back--the France of revolution!" he told a crowd of several thousand in the central French town of Vierzon. "If Europe is a volcano, then France is the revolutionary crater."

Mélenchon's campaign platform marks a break from the Socialist Party's typical pro-business rhetoric. He calls for a 20 percent increase in minimum wage, a ban on layoffs by profitable companies, a heavy tax on financial transactions, and annual limits on incomes to $472,000, with anything over that amount going to taxation.

However, notwithstanding Mélenchon's break with the Socialists, he's still prepared to make an electoral deal with them. A Mélenchon campaign staffer announced on April 6 that the candidate would support "the left-wing candidate who's in front" after the first round of voting--essentially, offering an advance endorsement of Hollande, who is ahead in the polls over conservative incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Because Hollande will need the support of Mélenchon voters in the expected second-round run-off vote against Sarkozy on May 6, Hollande has been compelled to ratchet up his own left-wing rhetoric, pledging to raise the top tax rate to 75 percent on the wealthiest people in France. "The world of finance is my adversary," Hollande declared.

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UNDERLYING THIS political swing to the left is workers' bitterness over the economic crash of 2008 and stagnant growth since then. Unemployment is at 10 percent, the worst level in about 12 years. And about half of all employed people in France earn less than $25,000 per year. "The working poor are living in the same conditions as in the 19th century," Jean-Paul Fitoussi, an economics professor at L'Institut d'Études Politiques in Paris, told a reporter. "They can't pay for heating, they can't pay for their children's clothes."

Those deteriorating conditions for French workers have diminished Sarkozy's previous popularity, as have his pro-business, U.S.-style economic policies.

Sarkozy was successful in ramming through "reform" of public-sector pensions in 2010, which raised the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, and the age at which retirees get a full pension from 65 to 67. But the measure provoked the longest and broadest wave of industrial struggle in that country since the general strike of May 1968. The resistance to Sarkozy included fuel truck drivers blockading refineries and strike action in small cities and towns that had never before seen such a labor rebellion.

Since then, the struggle in France has been relatively quiet--in comparison to nearby Spain and Portugal, which have seen general strikes and protests against mass austerity--but masses of working-class people remain suspicious of the right-wing president.

Sarkozy tried to rebuild his political credibility by collaborating with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in pushing plans to rescue Europe's common currency by imposing vicious austerity plans on Greece, Portugal, Spain and other countries. He also took the same tack as during his previous role as interior minister: scapegoating. Sarkozy legitimized anti-immigrant racism by successfully pushing a law that banned the full-facial veil worn by a small number of Muslim women, and expelling 1,000 Roma people.

During this period, the Socialist Party failed to put up any serious challenge to Sarkozy, keeping its criticisms acceptable to the pro-free market, neoliberal orthodoxy of the political establishment.

Having held the presidency under François Mitterrand for 14 years in the 1980s and '90s and controlled the government from 1997 to 2002, the Socialists have been a reliably pro-capitalist party--and the Communist Party drifted to the right along with them.

This opened a political space for genuine socialist presidential candidates: Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Fight), who got more than 5 percent of the vote in the 1995 and 2002 elections, and Olivier Besancenot, then of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist League), who scored over 4 percent in first-round voting in the 2002 and 2007 elections.

In the 2012 vote, Sarkozy's unpopularity and the weak opposition of the Socialists seemed certain to set the stage for the far right politics of Marine Le Pen. The daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen's campaign combined the usual racist immigrant-bashing with populist proposals aimed at winning a bigger share of the working-class vote. She opposed austerity and called on France to leave the euro, the common currency shared by 17 nations, in the name of a new nationalism.

Given the recent electoral success of far-right politicians like Geert Wilders of the Netherland's Freedom Party and the ultra-conservative True Finns in Finland, many people expected Le Pen to repeat the success of her father in 2002, when the National Front came in second place--behind the conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac and ahead of the Socialist candidate Jospin--in the first-round presidential vote that year.

Instead, the Left Front's Mélenchon has shattered the conventional wisdom--by taking aim not just at Sarkozy and France's 1 percent, but Le Pen's immigrant-hating rhetoric. Mélenchon called Le Pen a "filthy beast, spitting hatred." Le Pen has seen her support slide behind Mélenchon.

Nevertheless, Le Pen remains an important--and ominous--factor in French politics. One recent opinion poll shows that she is the leading candidate among voters aged 18 to 24, with support from 26 percent of those asked. That compares to 25 percent for Hollande and 17 percent each for Sarkozy and Mélenchon.

But Le Pen hasn't been Mélenchon's main target. He's also pounded away at Hollande, calling him a "pedal boat captain" and sarcastically attacking the Socialist candidate's platform as "bourgeois."

To be sure, Hollande is a bland party apparatchik who made it through the Socialist Party primary election in part because of the scandals surrounding Dominique Strauss-Khan, who was arrested last year in New York on rape charges and then implicated in a prostitution scandal in France. Hollande had intended to run a cautious campaign, highlighting Sarkozy's unpopularity without making any serious promises of change.

But to cover his left flank from attacks by Mélenchon, Hollande had to reinvent himself as a militant. "In the battle ahead, my main adversary has no name, no face and no party," the "new" Hollande declared in January. "He will never run as a candidate. He will never be elected, but he rules in spite of all that. My adversary is the world of finance."

Sarkozy had a recovery in the polls after a man of Arab descent carried out a series of lethal shootings of soldiers, a rabbi and Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse. Sarkozy also struck a nationalist note by promising to push for greater French autonomy within the European Union and calling for tighter French borders. As he has in the past, he stole an issue from Le Pen, creating a hysteria about the allegedly widespread sale of halal meat to non-Muslim customers, who were supposedly unaware that animals had been butchered according to Islamic strictures.

But as the first round of the election nears, Hollande appears to have the lead, making a second-round showdown with Sarkozy likely. There is growing speculation that he would make concessions to Mélenchon and the Left Front, possibly including ministerial posts.

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MÉLENCHON IS a former Trotstkyist who became part of the political establishment through the Socialist Party. Besides serving as a minister of vocational training under Jospin, he supported the NATO war on Libya last year and took an Islamophobic position in opposing the right of Muslim women to wear the veil in France.

Mélenchon's past--and his possible future--as a government official government has sharply divided the French far left on whether to support his candidacy.

The New Anticapitalist Party, or NPA according to its initials in French, had expected to occupy the political space taken by the Left Front and Mélenchon. The party's most prominent figure, Olivier Besancenot, ran in 2002 and 2007 as the candidate of the LCR, one of the NPA's predecessor organizations.

But this time, Besanscenot bowed out of running, and the NPA candidate has a low profile. At the same time, Mélenchon's left turn prompted a faction within the NPA to leave the party to join the Left Front. The dispute has become a focus for the mainstream media, which reported on a fight over which grouping in the NPA should gain the financial resources of the old LCR.

The position of the NPA on the elections is that Mélenchon's past in Socialist Party governments and the likelihood of his joining a Hollande government rules out any support for him. In the view of the NPA, Mélenchon and Hollande are both "social liberals" who seek to create a mixed electoral base of workers and the middle class to further the neoliberal capitalist agenda.

Certainly, there can be no argument that the Socialist Party is a mainstream governmental party that reliably serves the interests of capital. But treating Mélenchon the same way as Hollande ignores the fact that Mélenchon was responding to pressure from working-class voters when he broke with the Socialists. He's risen in the polls precisely because he's given voice to the anger of French workers.

It's for that reason that some revolutionary socialists in France argue for critical support for Mélenchon in the first round of voting. And the greater the vote for Mélenchon, the more it can help the left and the unions to gather their forces for the battles to come.