Austerity, Fascism and Political Upheavals in France

On April 23rd, French voters chose two out of eleven presidential election candidates to make their way to the second round and aspire to be the next tenant of Élysée palace.

In France, the first round of voting has never been a moment of great suspense. For decades, the two main political parties which have run the country for decades, the Socialists (PS) and the right (Les républicains and, formerly, the UMP or RPR) get to the second round with a comfortable margin. This year, however, until the last minute, four candidates could count on a score near 20% for the firtt round: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen, François Fillion and Emmanuel Macron.

At 8 pm the first results were broadcast, making it clear that the seats for the second round would be filled by Marine Le Pen and the “centrist” Emmanuel Macron, getting respectively 21.7% and 24% of the ballots. The candidate of Les Républicains, the right wing party, finished third with 20% and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from the left, obtained 19.2%. The Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, had to settle for only 6%, the party’s lowest score since 1969.   For the first time in the history of the 5th Republic (since DeGaulle’s constitutional putsch of 1958), neither of the two parties which governed for almost 60 years was represented in the final round. Macron received 66.1% of the votes on May 7, the first candidate to win the presidency without the explicit support of any political party.

This certainly has a lot to do with the decadence of bourgeois democracy in France and elsewhere.

As the crisis of capitalism started hitting Europe, the lines of a political recomposition started to emerge, especially in the so-called “peripheries” (like in Greece with the raise of Syriza, in Spain with Podemos or in Italy, with Matteo Renzi and Beppe Grillo, but also like Corbyn in Britain under another format). In all these countries, the traditional parties of social-democracy, because of their compromises with neo-liberal policies since the 1980s and 1990s, are being replaced by new political forces, which adopt a seemingly radical rhetoric.

In France though, probably because the Socialist Party was slow to adopt a social-liberal line (unlike in Germany, or in Britain with the Tony Blair’s “new Labour”) and because the PS was in opposition when the capitalist crisis burst in 2008, this political recomposition emerged slowly and tepidly. Until the current electoral process, the old division between the “right” and the “left”, coming all the way from the French Revolution, seemed to serve bourgeois democracy just fine.

During the last five years though, the PS government has been constantly attacking the working class, the youth and popular masses. Unemployment is now about 10% (and 20% for the youth), social programs have been ransacked from healthcare to universities, the nationalized railroad system and the postal services are on the verge of being privatized. The El-Khomri law attacks on the Labour Code in spring 2016 went so far that even the right had no serious objections. In the colonies, youth unemployment is over 60% in some areas (like in Guadeloupe and Martinique), access to education is highly limited, and the right to self-determination is still denied – those people are not even recognized as nations. In French Guyana, social and labour movements actions paralyzed the whole department for weeks, even impeding the launching of rockets from the European base of Kourou.

On the other hand , the Socialists provided the corporates with high subsidies for low-paid and precarious jobs, through the CICE and the “Responsibility Compact”, costing tens of billions of euros.

Francois Hollande’s five-year mandate was also marked by attacks against democratic rights, through security measures and the State of Exception applied almost without interruption since the January 2015 attack against Charlie Hebdo. This measure led to people being arrested without evidence (including children), deployment of the military in the streets, and attacks on protestors, but in no way did it prevent terrorism, as the victims of the November 2016 attacks could testify. The rhetoric of “total war against terror”, as named by Prime Minister Valls, gave justification for France to be more involved in imperialist wars, such as in Syria, Iraq and its former African colonies, Mali and Central African Republic.

This all led to massive popular discontent and desperation which, coupled with the anti-terrorist rhetoric, gave fertile ground for the ultra-right, xenophobic and fascistic ideas of Marine Le Pen’s Front National. This is particularly the case in the northern and eastern regions of France, hit by pro-European Union policies of deindustrialization. In local and European elections, Le Pen’s party reached its highest share of votes. When Le Pen made it to the second round of Presidential elections, this was not a surprise to anyone.

In short, the five years of anti-social policies imposed by Hollande and the PS government forced a drastic political recomposition on many levels. The results of the 2017 presidential elections reflect this change, and the big corporations are the big winners.

The compromised Socialist Party could not play social-democracy’s role of channelling people’s anger towards reformist ideas. Hollande and his party were sacrificed to the benefit of both Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and of Emmanuel Macron with his “En Marche!” movement. Both are former members of the Socialist Party.

Mélenchon voted for the privatizations under the Jospin government, as well as for Maastricht and all subsequent agreements that integrated France into the EU of capital. He is now the leader of La France insoumise, a movement adopting a radical rhetoric, but which refuses to be a clear voice calling for a rupture with the EU, implying that this free-trade agreement is reformable. Clearly he is perceived to be the one who can become the official “leftist” opposition.

Macron, presented as the “new element”, actually bears the whole record of Hollande’s five years in office. Despite saying that he is both from the left and right, the reality is that Macron served as Minister of Finance. He gained his political legitimacy by participating in the past government. The voice of finance, perceived as a youthful pragmatic leftist not coming from the traditional right, supported by people from the two main parties (including Hollande himself) – the bourgeoisie could not find a better candidate to revamp the image of bourgeois democracy. Pretending to be above parties, Macron is the most suitable candidate to continue the austerity policies, without generating as much popular hostility as if the right were in power.

The Front National, on the other side, plays an increasingly important role as a foil to channel and discredit all kinds of opposition to the system. Its nationalist deviation of the popular rejection of the European Union, of NATO and free trade; its xenophobic, islamophobic and racist rhetoric, as well as its social demagogy, constitute a dangerous poisonous mix for the advencement of fascist ideas.

This brutal shift in the French political landscape, away from opposition between the left and right parties, to a clash of personalities “above” parties, will certainly force the capitalist class to change tactics. Since Macron comes from no political party, nothing seems clear, except that he will ensure that the agenda of the 1% is reflected in French policies. Pro-European Union, pro-globalization and pro-free-trade, Macron calls for a break with the French economic model, meaning that he will fiercely attack all gains the working class obtained through its difficult past struggles.

The Front National, despite its attempt of “de-demonization” still has difficulties to erase its old image of links with collaborationists and holocaust negationists. A Donald Trump-like scenario was very unlikely, especially since François Fillion, the candidate of the right, called for a vote for Macron.

Most of the losing first-round candidates and most of the political parties, from the right to the PS, called for a vote for Macron (or a vote against Le Pen) and for a “republican front”. However, Mélenchon (critically supported by the French Communist Party) along with the class-oriented labour union CGT, did not give any voting advice. They stressed the correlation between austerity and the rise of fascism, and that in this situation, voting for one or the other would be like chosing between plague and cholera.

Emmanuel Dang Tran, member of the PCF National Council, put it this way: “Of course, Marine Le Pen and the fascist groups supporting her are dangerous. But for us, what really matters isn’t so much the danger of her being elected (which is unlikely), but the danger, on a longer term, of her movement to gain more popularity as a result of the anti-people measures that Macron will impose. Fascism doesn’t fall from heaven, it is the expression of capitalism in crisis. This is why our anti-fascist mobilization cannot rely on a representative of the 1% like Emmanuel Macron. This is why our anti-fascist actions cannot be separated from our struggles against capitalism. As communists, our duty now is to be ready to hit the streets, go on strike to defend our public services, our rights and to oppose all resistance needed to block Macron’s pro-corporate agenda. And this has to start right now, with May Day being the first moment to show our strenght and our opposition to both the voice of racism, xenophobia and fascism and to the voice of CAC 40 and the diktat of finance.”

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