Mainstream right gets bloody nose

French elections

Official politics in France has taken a bit of a jolt. The recent regional and county elections, representing the second and third tiers of government, have eroded even further the position - and confidence - of the Gaullist RPR and the Union of French Democracy (UDF), both of which represent the mainstream right in France.

The national elections last year saw the RPR and UDF get a good bashing at the hands of the Socialist Party. This recent round of elections has seen their vote squeezed yet again, from both right and left. The fact that a system of proportional representation operates has also given the Gaullists and the conservatives a fright. The panic, horse-trading and frantic wheeler-dealing of the last week has triggered the Gaullists’ “worst ever crisis”, according to the former RPR prime minister Alain Juppé. Le Monde also thought that the mainstream right was in a state of “utter panic” after the elections (March 17).

The regional elections saw Le Pen’s Front National get 3.3 million votes - 15.27% of the total, compared to 13.26% in 1992. This gives it an extra 36 seats, amounting to 275 in total. The RPR, led by Philippe Seguin, now have 285 seats; Philippe Leotard’s UDF 262; Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party (SP) 396; the French Communist Party (PCF) 147; and the Greens 68. The abstention rate was 42%.

The overall effect was that the RPR and UDF lost 10 of the 22 regions to the SP-PCF-Green coalition. The FN became the biggest single party in Marseille, holding 37 seats, equivalent to the combined seats of both the RPR and the UDF. (Thecounty elections the following Sunday continued this trend - the ‘left’ coalition took more than 400 seats and 11 councils from the right, leaving it in control of 31 county councils, as opposed to the right’s 62.)

As soon as the results were known, the FN saw an opportunity to make a big splash. Le Pen knew that the local Gaullist barons were desperate to hang-on to their regional power base, threatened by the march of the ‘left’ coalition and the relative success of the FN. Time to dangle some carrots before the local RPR and UDF. This called for a change of tactics from the FN. Previously it had rather let SP win seats rather than help Chirac or the Gaullists, whom Le Pen despises.  

Le Pen openly stated that the FN will back RPR/UDF candidates if they accept six demands - which include pledges not to raise taxes and to defend French cultural identity. In his words: “This offer is aimed at all those who want to save their regions from six years of socio-communism”. Le Pen left out any overtly racist, anti-immigrant demands, in case it pushed his potential partners just a bit too far. After all, the FN’s policies also include the mass arrest and expulsion of immigrants in a programme partly inspired by the Vichy government’s anti-semitic legislation - not something the ‘patriotic’ RPR and UDF are overly keen to be associated with quite yet.  

Many of the local barons found it hard to resist the temptation - and ignored pleas by RPR leader, Seguin, who implored ‘pro-FN’ rebels not to embrace “the extremists”. François Mancel, a former secretary general of the RPR and an adviser to president Chirac, was promptly expelled after calling on the FN to support his re-election as chairman of the Oise departemental council, thus breaking a 10 year taboo on pacts and alliances with the FN. Mancel, adding insult to injury, crowed: “From Monday the traditional right will have exploded and should be considered totally dead”. In the Rhone-Alpes region (Lyon) the former defence minister, and prominent UDFer Charles Millon, also entered into an alliance with the FN. Alain Madelin, ex-leader of the far-right organisation Occident and another faction leader in the UDF, publicly supported the rebels as well. 

The RPR and UDF leadership faced the prospect of revolt ‘from below’. Many senior members expressed the fear that the mainstream right might be left with merely a rump. “Anything was possible”, declared a prominent rightwing French historian. This was no wild statement. FN swung its votes on Friday in favour of UDF candidates in the Centre (Orleans), Languedoc-Roussillon (Montpellier), Picardy (Amiens), Bourgogne (Dijon), Franche-Comte (Besançon). The five regional chairman belonging to the UDF who benefited from FN backing, including Millon, were immediately expelled.

Throughout last week speculation mounted that ‘anti-left’ deals were likely in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (Marseilles) and the Île-de-France (Paris), the two most populated areas of France. The RPR leadership was terrified that  21 ‘rebel’ deputies would support Le Pen for president in Marseilles - where the actual voting had been delayed in order for the RPR to get its act together. So dire was the situation that Chirac issued an urgent appeal on television on Monday, in a bid to save conservatism from the hands of the FN. It worked. Just hours before the Marseilles assembly was due to meet, the ‘rebels’ caved-in. Michel Vauzelle of the SP was elected regional chairman. The same thing happened in Île-de-France.

But the fallout continues. Jean-François Mancel insisted that it was crucial for the mainstream right to start talking seriously with Le Pen - especially about his anti-immigration plans.

Many will see the recent developments as a vindication of the strategy advocated by the FN’s second in command, the 48-year old Bruno Megret. Urbane, Berekely educated, and cool (unlike Le Pen), he has for a long time called for alliance with elements of the mainstream right in order to make FN ‘respectable’. After the regional elections Megret exulted that the FN is a “democratic, legitimate and representative political party. The Front is now the true opposition”.

Robert Hue, chairman of the PCF, declared that the FN-backed UDF councillors had trampled on the choice of voters and “betrayed” rightwing promises to reject “extremism”. The PCF has long had faith in social democracy. Now it appears to be investing hope in conservatism too.

All the mainstream press with the exception of Le Figaro - roughly the equivalent of the Daily Telegraph - agreed with Hue. The French media has an official ideology of anti-racism which serves admirably to divide the working class and disassociate the establishment from any taint of fascism. For them, alliances with the FN worryingly recall the establishment’s anti-communist collaboration with the Nazis during the Pétain years. Not something to be repeated by anti-racist France. Looking darkly over La Manche, The Independent sighed in chauvinist relief: “In Britain we should be grateful to the conservative establishment for keeping racism unrespectable ... Whatever the faults of the recent Tory administration it must be said that John Major showed the kind of leadership that matters when it came to refusing to compromise with racism” (March 23).

The revolutionary left for its part also put up a good show. Lutte Ouvrière got 738,000 votes (20 candidates elected), while 200,000 voted for the Communist Revolutionary League. Between them these two Trotskyist groups got more than 10% of the vote in the Haute Garonne département, where Jospin keeps his county council seat near Toulouse. Nationally, the revolutionary left secured 4.38% of the vote. LO’s Arlette Laguiller - who has been its presidential candidate in every election since 1974 - will enter the Île-de-France regional council.

This healthy vote for the revolutionary left should form a good basis for a concerted fightback against all the establishment parties - whether left or right. The FN need not be so cocky nor should the ‘left’ coalition feel so secure. Tragically, however, Lutte Ouvrière is stuck in the mire of economism - with an almost religious belief that spontaneous strikes and demonstrations will somehow provide the answer. There has been a wave of mass demonstrations against unemployment, which has excited LO. But without a Leninist minimum-maximum programme, LO will not be able to generalise mass discontent. To date, it bears more of the characteristics of a trade unionist-cum-electoral organisation rather than a revolutionary vanguard one. 

Maastricht and the coming single European currency will send shock waves throughout France. The abolition of the franc, recession, economic dislocation, rises in unemployment, etc, promises to end the post-1968 social contract. The FN-right in these circumstances is a clear danger. The left must organise the working class not only in resistance but as the positive alternative to the antihuman system of capitalism. The first step must be a workers’ programme of democracy to abolish the 5th Republic.

Eddie Ford