Ghosts of 2002, poverty of 2007

The deeply divided French left has only itself to blame for its abysmal results in the presidential election. Peter Manson looks at the continuing decline of the Parti Communiste Français and the bankruptcy of the far left

According to Le Figaro, the May 6 second round of the presidential election will be a "Blair-Thatcher duel" (April 23). That just about sums up the unappetising choice offered to France's workers after Nicolas Sarkozy of the rightwing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) and the Parti Socialiste's Ségolène Royal comfortably won through the April 22 first round, with 31.2% and 25.9% respectively.

Former interior minister Sarkozy is renowned for his 'law and order', anti-migrant policies (he notoriously referred to inner-city youth as "scum") and openly courted the far right during the campaign, attempting - with some success, as it turned out - to pull the ground from under the feet of the Front National's Jean-Marie Le Pen. Royal, for her part, favours 'boot camps' for young offenders, thinks teachers do not work hard enough and has called into question France's 'uncompetitive' 35-hour week.

All in all, it is a result to celebrate for the establishment: the two largest mainstream parties have eclipsed the extremes of left and right - quite a contrast to 2002, when Le Pen won through to the second round and the far left picked up more than 10% of the vote. Le Pen seemed convinced he could repeat his 2002 success and decided that what was needed in order to go beyond his 12%-16% hard-core support was a 'respectability makeover' - a 'second round strategy' if ever there was one. In the end he managed only 10.4% and was easily beaten into fourth place by Franà§ois Bayrou, leader of the Union pour la Démocratie Franà§aise (UDF).

The allegedly 'centrist' UDF is in fact nothing of the sort - despite Bayrou's rhetorical call to "smash the Berlin wall" dividing left and right. The UDF has been in coalition with the UMP for the last five years and is just as much a part of the right as Sarkozy. Nevertheless, immediately after the first round a good part of the Parti Socialiste (PS) apparatus was making approaches to Bayrou, although the PS leadership has considered it wise not to make a public appeal to the UDF to come over to Royal.

However, such a realignment is far from impossible (although, of course, a UMP-UDF administration is the most likely outcome after the second round and the subsequent legislative elections in June). After all, the PS's traditional ally, the Parti Communiste Franà§ais, was virtually wiped out in the first round. Marie-George Buffet won a pathetic 1.9% - the PCF's lowest ever score.

PCF crisis

Ironically just a couple of years ago many in the PCF and to its left had idly speculated about the PS going into permanent decline - to be replaced by la gauche du non - the left-led alliance that succeeded in winning a French rejection of the proposed European Union constitution in May 2005. The PCF, together with the Fourth Internationalist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, anti-war environmentalist José Bové and an array of anarcho-greens, established an 'anti-neoliberal network' that set its sights on standing a single left candidate on April 22.

But in 2006 first the LCR and then Bové pulled out, unable to agree a common candidate and programme. This left the PCF carrying the flag of a non-existent 'unitary left', with Buffet as its candidate. For the PCF, 'anti-neoliberalism' means offering incentives to capitalists willing to invest and imposing penalties on those who do not. Much to the dismay of the old guard, the PCF name and logo was not included on Buffet's election material in a futile attempt to attract broader support. The PCF deputy mayor of Vénissieux, André Gerin, accused the leadership of liquidationism and demanded a special congress in the autumn.

Demonstrating the extent of the PCF crisis and the deep divisions wracking the leadership, the party's national council, meeting on April 24, agreed to call such a congress, which will discuss "all the big ideological and political questions that have a bearing on the state of society, on our strategic choices, on the way we put them into practice, on the campaign we ran and on the role of the leadership".

Buffet has correctly stated that the party's dismal showing in no way reflects its "true social implantation". But that begs the question, at least in the eyes of the traditionalists: how did the PCF allow itself to be diverted from its rightful place alongside the PS, into an alliance with a bunch of Trots?

'Useful vote'

In truth, however, the disaster of last Sunday's first round can be traced back much earlier than the 2005 referendum - to the 2002 presidential elections, when the PCF, like virtually the whole of the left, played into the hands of the establishment, which was desperately selling the notion that it was essential to cast a "useful vote" rather than put a cross next to the no-hopers on the fringe.

Official society was horrified by, on the one side, Le Pen's second place and, on the other, the far left's strong showing. But the PS, PCF and LCR all played their part in pulling the political balance back towards the mainstream when they urged a vote for Jacques Chirac (in the case of the LCR a vote "against Le Pen") in the 2002 second round.

The result was seen immediately in the parliamentary elections that followed - the far left vote was halved and the PCF also lost ground, while the UMP and PS were the big winners. For PCF traditional voters in particular it is actually quite logical to 'cut out the middle man' and vote PS from the first round - most have ended up doing so in the second round for the whole of the post-war period.

Now the PCF is left in an impossible position. What can it offer the PS in negotiations prior to the second round - Buffet does not have that many votes to transfer, does she? And, in any case, where else will PCF voters go? What about the June legislative elections? Will the PS even bother to come to the usual electoral arrangement with the PCF? For the first time since its foundation, the PCF may no longer be represented in the national assembly. At the very least its 22-strong parliamentary group faces decimation.

Far left

By contrast, the LCR is delighted with the showing of its presidential candidate, Olivier Besancenot, who all but maintained his share of the vote, compared to 2002. In fact, because of the greatly increased turnout, he won over 200,000 more votes. Comrade Besancenot said he was "super-satisfied" and LCR political bureau member Pierre-Franà§ois Grond went further: he could see the LCR being transformed "into a real political party "¦ beyond the small formations of the classic far left". As a starter it will stand "at least 450" candidates in June. As in 2002, the LCR is looking forward to a "social third round" - with itself in the forefront of the struggles.

For Lutte Ouvrière, however, it was a different story. Compared to her 5.7% share in 2002, Arlette Laguiller saw her percentage drop dramatically to 1.3%. Like the PCF she complained of being squeezed by the "useful vote" mood. Now 67, comrade Laguiller was contesting her sixth 'presidential', running the usual type of economistic LO campaign - this time focusing almost exclusively on housing, unemployment and wages.

Showing the bankruptcy of the entire left, not only the PCF, but also LO and the LCR are to recommend an unconditional vote for Royal on May 6. Sarkozy "must absolutely be beaten," implored Buffet. "I call without hesitation for every man and woman of the left, every democrat, to vote for Ségolène Royal on May 6" (statement, April 22). This position was confirmed by the national council two days later.

In her own post-election statement comrade Laguiller recalled with pride her 2002 refusal to recommend Jacques Chirac over Le Pen, and asserted: "In the second round this time, there is no useful vote for workers." Nevertheless, she continued, "I hope with all my heart that Sarkozy will be beaten." Therefore, "I will vote for Ségolène Royal. And I call on all voters to do the same." Comrade Laguiller said she was making this recommendation "without reserve", but not "without illusion" - Royal will be "no worse" and "no better" than Sarkozy.

Why then, if Royal cannot even be described as the lesser evil, vote for her at all? The only reason given by comrade Laguiller is to "associate myself with the wishes" of the majority of workers (statement, April 22).

As for the LCR, it was shades of 2002. Comrade Besancenot said it was "excellent news" that Le Pen had been eliminated. Now, however, "Against the arrogant right, the second round will necessarily take on the allure of an anti-Sarkozy referendum "¦ On May 6 we will be on the side of those who want to stop Nicolas Sarkozy attaining the presidency of the republic. It is not a question of supporting Ségolène Royal, but of voting against Nicolas Sarkozy" (April 24). Sounds familiar?

José Bové too, the self-designated "ecologist, anti-racist, feminist, solidarity" candidate, will transfer his 1.3% to Royal in the second round. Meanwhile he is still hoping to persuade the PCF and LCR to stand a single slate for the national assembly in June.

The only far-left candidate who, at the time of writing, had made no recommendation in relation to the second round was Gérard Schivardi, the candidate of the Parti des Travailleurs (Workers Party) - or rather, according to his website, "the mayors' candidate supported by the Workers Party".

Former PS member Schivardi (0.3% in round one) is the mayor of the Mailhac commune (population: 4,900). His campaign centred obsessively on opposition to the European Union and he also championed the interests of the small commune. The PT did not even bother reporting the result on its own website, preferring to push its campaign for the withdrawal of France from the EU.

Leaving aside the eccentricities of Schivardi and the PT, the entire left has demonstrated its abject lack of imagination in its attitude both to unity and to Royal. With the votes of the left in the bag, she is at liberty to seek the additional votes she needs by seducing the right - not least Bayrou and the UDF.