A French Lesson

No-one was particularly excited about the presidential elections in France. The differences between the leading candidates were so minuscule that the victory of one or the other could have significance only for the candidate himself and for people who were hoping to be appointed to the administration. Then when France finally went to the polls, the entire European public shuddered on discovering that second place had not been won by the Socialist Lionel Jospin, who had been planned for this role, but by the leader of the ultra-right, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Against this background, the gloating comments of Russian politicians and journalists were especially notable. After a few ritual remarks to the effect that racism and fascism are of course bad, they joined in declaring that the whole problem was that the French had been too tolerant of “blacks”. Western Europe had indulged its idiotic ideas of cultural pluralism and human rights, the wise political commentators explained to us, but French voters were no longer putting up with these outrages. By way of conclusion, the commentators explained to us that the extremist Le Pen could not of course be allowed to win power, but that his program was correct and needed to be implemented. Then when thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators took to the streets of France, the Russian press became even more indignant. The protesters were described as extremists, loafers, and instigators of disorder.

The Russian intellectual-political establishment took the success of Le Pen as a sign of victory for their side. Now they could come out from underground and openly proclaim the racist principles they had earlier kept “for internal use”. Immediately after the French vote the Russian State Duma adopted a scandalous citizenship law aimed at restricting the rights of “foreigners” to naturalisation. The comments by members of the Duma majority were completely unapologetic: France, the arguments went, had shown what comes of racial and cultural tolerance. Nothing of the kind would happen in Russia.

Inspired by this success, the “centrist” deputies urged bringing back laws providing prison sentences for homosexuality. The people behind this ploy were two deputies openly aligned with the Kremlin, “People’s Deputy” fraction leader Gennady Raykov and International Affairs Committee chairperson Dmitry Rogozin. The latter was already well known in the West for his statements in Strasbourg, where he attempted to justify the killing of peaceful residents by Russian forces in Chechnya on the basis of analogous acts committed by the Americans in Afghanistan and Israelis in Palestine. To avoid any misunderstanding, it should be pointed out that in all three cases Rogozin was firmly convinced that the military personnel acted correctly.

“It seems Rogozin understood his lack of prospects in a diplomatic career,” Anatoly Baranov observed ironically in his internet journal “Forum”, “deciding to make a sharp turn and enter political life as a sort of enfant terrible, almost a skinhead. In Austria and France right-wing radicals enjoy considerable success, so why not in Russia? And if in Russia, why not Rogozin, leader of the Congress of Russian Communities?”

The statements by Russian politicians and commentators say far more about the state of affairs in Russian society than the election results tell us about the situation in France. The point is that there has been no massive swing by voters in favour of Le Pen. His ideas are no more popular in present-day France than they were four or five years ago. Le Pen’s success has not come because he attracted large numbers of new supporters, but because electors refused to vote for the main parties.

The defeat of the Socialists in the first round altered nothing. Jospin would most likely have lost the second round anyway, and Chirac would have remained president. In any case, both candidates stood for the same neo-liberal model. In France as in Germany and Britain, the economic policies of the social democrats have been even more right-wing than those of the conservatives. It is understandable that society’s disillusionment with this economic model should be directed first and foremost against the socialists. But this situation does not hold any comfort for the conservatives either.

In the past, people who were disillusioned with the right voted for the left, and vice versa. But now, aware that there is no difference between right and left anyway, they have simply stayed at home. It is not only Jospin who has lost support, but Chirac as well. And although it is now clear that Chirac will win the next round with a record vote, this will not save him from being humbled.

The real winners in the elections were the Trotskyists. The two candidates representing the rival groups Lutte Ouvriere (“Workers Struggle”) and the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) each attracted more votes than the Communist Party, which is part of the government. The success of Lutte Ouvriere’s Arlette Laguiller was more or less predictable; she has stood in presidential elections before, and her vote has steadily increased. The vote of 4.5 per cent for the LCR’s young candidate Olivier Besancenot, however, was sensational.

In nominating Besancenot, the LCR showed a definite lack of respect for the electoral process. This young man, who was not well known even among the Trotskyists themselves, clearly was not meant to be regarded as a “serious candidate”. Yet he not only succeeded in being registered, but also outpolled by a whole percentage point the leader of the Communist Party, the experienced politician Robert Hue. The defeat for the Communist Party represents a far more important outcome of the elections than even the success of Le Pen. Many commentators made haste to declare that it was the Communist electorate, moving to the far right, that determined the new relationship of forces. This, however, was not quite correct. It is true that Le Pen gained most of his votes in old industrial districts where the Communists had once been victorious. This happened, however, precisely because these are the regions that have suffered most from de-industrialisation. Modern industry is becoming more and more dispersed. Le Pen drew the votes of unemployed people in industrial centres that once were flourishing, but which are now depressed, and of a certain number of workers waiting from day to day to be laid off. But the Communists lost votes everywhere. Where production is being carried on successfully, the workers voted for the Trotskyists or Socialists, or preferred not to vote at all.

The Communists put their stake on the workers, then betrayed them and lost. The Socialists abandoned the workers, putting their stake on the middle class. But the middle class repudiated neo-liberal politics and abandoned the Socialists, who also lost. Le Pen put his stake on the dissatisfaction aroused by neo-liberal policies, but contrived to blame not the authors of these policies, but their victims – immigrants and national minorities. He too is fated to lose, since France has now become consolidated in resistance to the extreme right. The second round will unfailingly show how isolated Le Pen and his companions-in-arms are in French society. For the National Front this will be a strategic defeat, the beginning of the end.

Overall, everyone lost apart from the far left, who in current circumstances cannot present themselves as an alternative government. However, the Trotskyists now have the chance to win positions in the next parliament (they already hold seats in the European Parliament). We are seeing the beginning of a regroupment of political forces, the formation of new political blocs and of a new left movement.

The elections can be seen as a sort of referendum, in which the French voted “no” to the present economic and party-political system. Through the successful general strike of 1995, and then through a massive vote for the left, the French population had already showed that they do not agree with the policies of privatisation or with the dismantling of the welfare state. Unfortunately, when the left came to power it turned out to be more right-wing than the rightists themselves. For this, the left has suffered a well-merited punishment.



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