French election: First the 'red wave', then the blue
Hollande’s electoral humiliation at the hands of the right shows the necessity of independent working class politics, argues Eddie Ford
Inevitably nicknamed ‘Black Sunday’, March 30 saw the government of François Hollande receive a humiliating drubbing in the second round of voting for the municipal elections. Disillusionment in the Parti Socialiste runs deep, quite understandably, and it lost control of 150 urban centres - the main beneficiary being the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire. A delighted Jean-François Copé, mayor of Meaux and UMP president, described the results as a “blue wave”.
Overall then, the UMP and its electoral allies got around 49% of the vote, compared to some 42% for the PS and its partners. The only source of comfort for Hollande was Paris, always different from the rest of the country, where the Spanish-born Anne Hidalgo becomes the capital’s first female mayor.
Of course, what attracted the most attention was the performance of the Front National led by the photogenic Marine Le Pen. The FN gained a distinct advantage from the high abstention level, which nearly always favours the party which can secure the anti-establishment or protest vote. Supported by around 7% overall, the FN won 14 municipalities (it previously controlled none) - including the town of Béziers, and the Mediterranean resort of Fréjus, not to mention an arrondissement of Marseilles with a population of 150,000. In total, the FN now has something in the region of 1,500 councillors - as opposed to 60 before.
So the FN has significantly improved its position locally compared to the 2001 and 2008 elections, although its overall standing is now broadly on a par with 1995. But it is certainly gathering momentum, having won so many local bases. The FN now looks set to post a strong result in next month’s European elections.
More generally, Marine Le Pen appears to have something approximating a long-term strategy - unlike her father and former FN president, Jean-Marie, who would chase a prejudice, no matter where it took him. She is attempting the ‘de-demonisation’ of the FN - in that way, she hopes, it will eventually be regarded by the majority of the population as a mainstream and ‘respectable’ party. This strategy involves, for instance, distancing herself from her father’s more explicitly racist remarks and excruciating anti-Semitic puns. She still rails against the effects of “globalisation” and “financialisation”, but the anti-Jewish undertones of this are now unspoken. She claims to be hostile to the idea of French Jews moving to Israel - explaining that for the “Zionistic” FN, “the Jews of France are Frenchmen, they’re at home here and they must stay here and not emigrate”.1
She wants to appear a modern and democratic politician on the side of ‘ordinary folks’, with her heavy emphasis on ‘bread and butter’ issues. At the same time, there are the very familiar FN themes - campaigning for France to quit the euro zone and indeed the European Union altogether, for example. She portrays her party as the defender - if not the incarnation - of ‘law and order’, agitating for a referendum on whether to reinstate capital punishment, which was abolished in 1981 (the electorate would be presented with a choice between restoring the death penalty and introducing life imprisonment without parole). Le Pen is resolutely opposed to same-sex marriage, euthanasia and abortion, and, of course, fulminates against ‘unchecked’ immigration and the ‘threats’ posed by multiculturalism and communitarianism.
Interestingly, she claims to be a champion of secularism (laïcité) - traditionally a cause associated with the left. She maintains that the FN is a thoroughly non-denominational party and upholds the 1905 law stipulating that the French republic does not recognise or subsidise any form of religious worship - rather, the construction, maintenance and financing of places of worship should be a matter for groups of worshippers operating within a regulated framework. In her view, laïcité is seriously endangered by the rise of Islam - hence her advocacy of the “separation of the mosque from the state” and opposition to the training of imams from public funds, amongst many other things.
Some claim that Marine Le Pen is travelling in the opposite direction from her fellow reactionary and family friend, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. The latter clearly has ambitions to become some sort of political leader of, or spokesperson for, disaffected young blacks and Muslims - his ‘anti- Zionism’, quenelle and all, shading unmistakably into anti-Semitism.
In what must have clear implications for the left in the UK, especially those sections of Left Unity that fancy themselves as an alternative government in waiting, this “blue wave” comes less than two years after François Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy - who by then had become a rather absurd figure, wisely despised for his adoption of austerity economics and involvement in US military adventures (ie, the Afghan invasion and occupation). The result being that Hollande rode to power on a ‘red wave’ with 51.7% of the vote, becoming the first PS candidate to win a presidential election since the nominally more leftwing François Mitterrand in 1988.
The French working class is entitled to feel disappointed, and disillusioned, with Hollande. His winning platform was based on promises to hire more staff to boost France’s state education system, reduce the retirement age from 62 to 60 for people who have completed a minimum 41 years of work, create subsidised jobs in areas of high unemployment for the young, give foreigners/immigrants the right to vote in local elections, promote more industry in France by creating a public investment bank, separate retail banking from the far riskier ‘casino’ investment banking, cap tax loopholes at a maximum of €10,000 per year and so on. None of which has happened yet. Quite the opposite. Youth unemployment, to take one example, shot up to 27% at one stage - and still remains at 25.4% - and Hollande is sticking to Nicolas Sarkozy’s hated, and failed, austerity policies. Why bother voting if you always end up with the same policies?
Hollande’s most famous and seemingly radical promise was to impose a ‘super-tax’ or ‘millionaire tax’ on revenue earned above €1,000,000 (£833,000 approximately). It certainly scared the horses, with the courts initially saying in 2012 that it was “unconstitutional”, as any tax rate above 66% applied to individuals would be “confiscatory”. But Hollande redrafted his plans the following year, capping the tax at 5% of a company’s total turnover.
Even so, it was estimated that the ‘millionaire tax’ could possibly raise more than €200 million on an annual basis. As sure as night follows day, there was a significant - albeit non-cataclysmic - flight of capital between October and November 2012 in response to Hollande’s mad socialist measures. According to a senior analyst from Henderson Global Investors, the net loss of funds was €53 billion (£43.8 billion) over those two months, and a key gauge of money supply (the six-month M1) had been contracting at an accelerating rate from the moment Hollande was elected. Getting nasty to protect their profits, an alliance of private-sector groups issued a “state of emergency” and the employers’ largest ‘trade union’, the Mouvement des Entreprises de France, warned that business was “in revolt” across the country.
Actor and businessman Gérard Depardieu had a hissy fit and gave up his French passport in protest - moving first to Belgium (50% top rate), and then to Russia (13%).2 Obviously impressed by his principled stance, on January 3 last year Vladimir Putin signed an executive order granting him Russian citizenship - Depardieu promptly bought property in the Mordovia region on the grounds that, though it may not have any oil or gas, it does have “rich people who make their wishes come true in life”. He has recently launched a ‘Proud to be Russian’ line of watches that cost up to $30,000 (£18,000).3
Yet Hollande is now taunted as the “president of the rich”, as being a ‘socialist’ who cuts taxes for the wealthy whilst raising the totally regressive VAT. Meanwhile, unemployment is stubbornly high at 10.4%4 and the economy is stagnating. After breaking virtually all his campaign promises, Hollande is now regarded as the supine ally of big business and - perhaps most cruelly of all - as a lackey of Angela Merkel.
Reeling from the impact of the March 30 vote, Hollande felt compelled to reshuffle his cabinet - summarily ditching Jean-Marc Ayrault as prime minster and replacing him with the unpleasant machine politician, Manuel Valls. In the past he has cheerfully described himself as a “Blairiste” and a “Clintonien” and, unlike many of his PS colleagues, who like to waffle on about the social democratic marvels of social solidarity and collectivity, Valls prefers to talk about “economic realism” and “individual responsibility” - ie, the language of the market. As minister of the interior he particularly distinguished himself, if that is the right word, by his foul persecution of Roma people - continuing Sarkozy’s policy of razing squatter camps, declaring that Roma were “incapable” of integrating and therefore should be deported “to their own countries”. Like Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen, Valls supports the ban on women wearing the hijab and restrictions on the sale of halal meat.
As an indication of things to come, recent official statistics show that the public deficit amounted to 4.3% of GDP last year - above the 4.1% target Hollande has previously pledged and a long way from the 3% imperiously demanded by the EU. Hence in a week’s time he has to explain to the frowning European Commission bureaucrats in Brussels exactly how he intends to make the €50 billion ($69 billion) of public-spending savings pencilled in for 2015-17, bearing in mind that he has committed himself to a €10 billion or so payroll-tax cut to companies as part of a job-creating “responsibility pact”. Yes, you guessed it, more austerity and attacks on the working class.
Looking at Hollande’s dismal political record and his subsequent electoral punishment, communists within Left Unity will do everything they can to make sure that the lessons of France are clearly understood. Centrally, we need to combat the idea that all we have to do is clamp down on the banks, return to the halcyon social democratic consensus of the 1960s and 70s and form a ‘sensible’ old-Labour government that will tax the rich, provide a ‘million green jobs’, etc.
Comrades, at best, this is pure fantasy. Ed Miliband might be a banal careerist with not a single original idea in his head, but that is not the reason why he is so timid. There are real limits about what you can do sitting in Westminster or, for that matter, the Élysée Palace - and we need to face up to that. As Hollande has ingloriously proved, even the suggestion of the most modest encroachments into the capitalist system immediately leads to a flight of capital - and reprisals from the masters of the international capitalist system. No country is an island. Far from emboldening the working class, ‘taking the power’ in such a way inevitably breeds disillusionment with the left and a resurgence of the right - including sometimes the far right.
We need to break the cycle of ‘leftwing’ governments preparing the way for those of the right - first the ‘red wave’, then the blue or brown wave. Rather, our job is to strengthen the international working class by fighting for extreme democracy and total opposition to all governments that serve the interests of capital l
1. http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/ the-daughter-as-de-demonizer-1.335743.
3. www.theguardian.com/film/2014/mar/25/ gerard-depardieu-cvstos-watches-proud-to-be-russian.
4. http://countryeconomy.com/unemployment/ france.