Difficult times ahead

Macron appears to be hankering after some form of Gaullist rule. But what of the left? René Gimpel looks at the programmes, prospects and divisions in the run-up to the June 18 elections

Mélenchon: holographic projection

With the liberation of France in 1944, the Vichy government disappeared and a Provisional Government of the French Republic was instituted, mostly made up of Gaullists and communists - other political parties having been tainted by active or passive collaboration with the Nazis.

General Charles de Gaulle led the Provisional Government for two years, but, when a new constitution was voted in, he resigned in 1946, after failing to get the strong presidential system he favoured. A parliamentary system was put in place and, although important social reforms were enacted (women gained the vote in 1945 and first steps were taken towards a European union), weaknesses in the constitution, combined with the crises of French decolonisation - notably the French military defeat of Dien Bien Phu in Indochina (Vietnam) in 1954 and, critically, the Algerian crisis of 1958 - led to the Fourth Republic’s collapse.

The collapse was hastened by de Gaulle returning to the political scene after his long absence. In an uncanny echo of his wartime role, he assumed the position of prime minister, ordered the Fourth Republic to vote through its dissolution and drew up a new constitution. This constitution established a dual-executive system, in which the prime minister was head of government, while the president became head of state with wide powers to rule by decree. This being the stronger position, de Gaulle vacated the premiership and assumed the presidency.

France is still in its Fifth Republic and the importance of its constitutional arrangements is that the new president, Emmanuel Macron, is moving fast to assume the Gaullist mantle, manoeuvring to split the left and right parties into internally riven factions, while inserting his new so-called centrist party - En Marche la France (EMF) - to act as a rubber stamp for his decrees. The left has woken to this fact, though the coming general election will be a difficult one. Current opinion polls do not quite give EMF a majority in the 577-seat national assembly, but close enough that, along with the right (François Fillon’s Les Républicains), Macron will govern easily.

Decline of PS and PCF

The Parti Socialiste appears to be heading for a meltdown - between 28 and 43 seats; if true, the once majority party in the assembly is paying the price for the years of president François Hollande’s mediocracy and backtracking on pro-working class pledges. The Front National could pick up as many as 25 seats, compared to its current two, while the Front de Gauche (FDG - Left Front), the umbrella group of the Parti Communiste Français, along with France Insoumise and Lutte Ouvrière, are projected to get 10-15 between them. Macron’s final count could depend on French overseas voters, who appear keen on EMF and who have their own representatives in the assembly.

The French Communist Party (PCF), founded in 1920, has been a junior partner in French governments on three occasions. In the Provisional Government 1944-46; at the beginning of Mitterrand’s presidency 1981-84; and in cabinet under prime minister Lionel Jospin, from 1997 to 2002. Each time the experience ended dismally, as the PCF was either excluded from participation or withdrew when austerity measures were introduced. Initially the largest left party in France and still boasting its daily paper, L’Humanité, the PCF was overtaken by the Socialists (Parti Socialiste - PS) during Mitterrand’s presidency. The PCF claims around 60,000 paid-up members and a similar number of sympathisers. It has 10 deputies in the national assembly, 18 in France’s upper house, the Senate, and one in the European parliament.

In the university student uprising of May 1968, which soon extended to secondary schools, the PCF was caught off guard and refused to give the students its backing. However, when millions of industrial workers went on strike in support of the students, the PCF was dragged into endorsing those strikes. As a result of this recalcitrance and of its rigid structure and ideology, the PCF found itself outflanked on the left. It had become ossified and despite the renown of a few high-profile party intellectuals like Louis Althusser (whose views the PCF demanded he recant), it lost ground to a number of Trotskyist groups like Lutte Ouvrière (LO - Workers’ Struggle) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, along with Maoist groups like La Gauche Prolétarienne (GP - Proletarian Left), a small ultra-left group which became famous after its bi-monthly newspaper, La Cause du Peuple (People’s Struggle), was repeatedly closed by de Gaulle. Though disagreeing with the political line adopted by GP, Jean-Paul Sartre assumed its editorship and, along with Simone de Beauvoir, was arrested and imprisoned for selling the newspaper on the street. De Gaulle ordered Sartre’s release with a remark which became legendary: “One does not imprison Voltaire.”

In the recent presidential campaign, the PCF called on its members and sympathisers to vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the radical France Insoumise (FI - France Unbowed), but the two organisations have fallen out and, rather than act in unity to present candidates under a common front, PCF and FI will contest the same seats in three out of four constituencies.

If the PCF is a party with a long history, the opposite is true of FI. Founded last year, it characterises itself as ecosocialist and draws inspiration from Spain’s Podemos and Bernie Sanders in the US. It has attracted the support of Jerôme Kerviel, one-time controversial trader from the bank, Société Générale. Though it is registered as a political party for electoral purposes, Mélenchon claims otherwise and says that FI is a grouping of ‘like-minded individuals’.

FI is on the populist left, but in some ways is iconoclastic. In large part this is due to Mélenchon’s extremely combative, but charismatic, leadership. During the presidential campaign, in which Mélenchon scored well, he appeared simultaneously at rallies in two cities. This feat - or trick - was enabled by use of a hologram-like system, so that, when he appeared on stage at a rally in Lyon, he also appeared on stage in Paris, in photographic effigy. As Mélenchon walked back and forth on one stage, his hologram did likewise on the other and he even had two flesh-and-blood comrades seated close to his likeness on the Paris stage.

The FI programme is radical in one particular sense. Had its candidate won the presidency, one of its first acts would have been to proclaim a Sixth Republic and to abolish the post of president. The party is not Eurosceptic, but it wants a complete overhaul of Brussels, a dismantling of the European Central Bank and various eco-policies put in place. FI’s leader has been its asset, but now he might be its problem. Apart from the fact that Mélenchon, like Macron’s new minister of justice, is facing defamation charges, he is looking to contest a seat in Marseille, a city which gave him a good tally in the presidential race, because, as Mélenchon says, he is a méridonial - from the south. Because Mélenchon does not want to operate under the Left Front federation, which would have distributed seats to allow all left groups a chance of winning (across France there are 7,882 candidates for 577 seats), in effect, the FI will divide and weaken the left - the very aim of Emmanuel Macron.

High stakes

Another high-profile left organisation will be contesting seats. Lutte Ouvrière (LO - Workers’ Struggle) which arose out of the student struggles of May 1968, is a Trotskyist group which has contested every presidential and parliamentary election since 1973. Its best known presidential candidate was Arlette Laguiller, who contested seven elections. Occasionally linking up with another Trotskyist grouping, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, following the events of 68, LO continues to field thousands of candidates for municipal elections. In relation to the coming parliamentary contest, LO’s bi-monthly journal (which goes by the same name), in an editorial dated May 11 dissects Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential bid and looks to the coming struggles. It points out that Mélenchon failed by only 600,000 votes to be the other candidate in the run-off to face Emmanuel Macron and concludes that Mélenchon is smarting from this defeat - an opinion shared by mainstream commentators.

LO then looks at FI’s electoral base. It believes that FI drew enormous support from erstwhile Parti Socialiste voters and this explains Mélenchon’s success and the PS collapse. LO characterises Mélenchon and FI as “anti-system”, but in no way revolutionary. Correctly, LO points out that FI’s programme is reformist and is prepared to accommodate existing capitalist institutions by, for instance, reducing corporation tax from 33% to 25%, in order to stimulate French business. Mélenchon blames Brussels and the European Bank for austerity, rather than capitalism, revealing a nationalism that does not engage with the structure of capitalism, but rather seeks to reorientate it in a benevolent direction.

FI’s gamble on obtaining sufficient seats in the forthcoming election to sideline the socialists and marginalise the PCF is a high-stakes game. Triangulation - a term much used by French media - concerns the competing and shifting alliances of left and right, along with Macron’s out-and-out bid to remove any and every political opponent, either as individuals or as a political party, and rule by decree.

The results on June 18 will certainly be worth analysing.