The Irony of French Elections

French presidential elections are vastly more democratic than the American system. The first round allows anyone who can get endorsement from 500 of France’s 36,000 mayors (any small village will do) to be an official candidate. All get free television time. This allows a range of political expression and the emergence of new political currents, such as the Greens. The second round runoff pits the two front runners against each other.

Even the best system can produce a fluke. In 2002, public discontent with the political mainstream was massive. A record 16 candidates were officially fielded. Nevertheless, the media took it for granted — and kept informing the public — that once the first round fun was over, the serious contest would pit center right incumbant, president Jacques Chirac, against center left prime minister Lionel Jospin.

Instead, in the April 21 first round, the veteran rightwing nationalist demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second to face Chirac in the May runoff.

The election announced as a dull contest between Tweedledum and Tweedledee turned into a national trauma. Thousands of students poured into the streets in protest. And the May 5 runoff turned into a crusade to “stop Le Pen”.

The impression of a “far right upsurge” was largely an illusion. The real upset was the miserable showing of the mainstream candidates, notably Jospin’s 16.1%. Chirac’s own score of under 19.7% was a record low for an incumbant President. Le Pen’s 16.9% barely edged out Jospin and scarcely exceeded the 15% he scored in 1995. The record abstention of 29% helped Le Pen.

A survey* indicated that only 3% of voters who failed to go to the polls would have cast their ballots for Le Pen, while 22% would have voted for Chirac and 20% would have voted for Jospin.

The real irony of this election is that the massive first round rejection of the neo-liberal political center risks boomeranging into an even more massive vote for the very personification of that mainstream: Jacques Chirac.

Even some anarchists have been departing from their usual boycott of “bourgeois” elections to “stop fascism” by voting for Chirac. The various votes for minority candidates are being stigmatized as “favoring the rise of fascism”, rather as Nader voters were blamed for the (otherwise questionable) election of George W. Bush.

Although (unlike Bush) Le Pen’s victory seems out of the question, his mere presence in the final race enforces the paralyzing impression that the only choice lies between the conformist neo-liberal “center” and “fascism”. What better way to round up the millions of mavericks who are fed up with policies that favor the rich than to scare them into line with the specter of “a new Hitler”?

Docile voters are supposed to accept the fact that whoever is elected, whatever the program, whatever the promises, all governments must finally follow the dictates of the European Union, reduced to the continental branch of a U.S.-directed “globalization”.

This “inevitable progress” shuts down one industrial site after another, throwing thousands out of work. Jospin’s “plural left” government (notably including the Greens and the Communist Party alongside his own Socialist Party) accelerated privatizations, slashed third world development aid to a record low, eased the financial strain on big business and led the country into NATO participation in the war against Yugoslavia, before endorsing the U.S. war against Afghanistan.

The right could have done no better. To create more opportunities for private investment, the Socialists set about undermining France’s excellent public services, from transport to social security, despite the fact that they are demonstrably more efficient than their privatized counterparts in other countries and contribute to a quality of life benefiting the population at large.

Even the Jospin government’s showcase reform, the 35 hour work week, has ended up benefiting big business more than labor. It has failed to create jobs as promised. Instead, it has helped large-scale employers improve productivity by getting more work out of less time on the job, actually contributing to an overall lowering of labor costs and decrease in worker income.

Meanwhile, the 35-hour work week has created administrative and financial nightmares for small enterprises — the constituency traditionally courted by Le Pen.

The French Communist Party (PCF) paid for its government participation with its life. PCF candidate Robert Hue scored below the 5% necessary to recuperate campaign expenses. The party is thus both politically and financially dead.

Three Trotskyist candidates, two of them totally unknown to the public, scored over 10% of the vote — three times the Hue’s pathetic 3.3%. Hue set out to transform the PCF into a “modern” governmental party, abolishing the militant organizational link to the working class grass roots in favor of professional public relations campaigns and public opinion polls. As a result, the PCF has ceased to be a political factor in France

The Communist Party’s demise has left working class suburban apartment blocks abandoned to an uneasy mix of contrary cultures. The old left used to integrate immigrants and generations in a culture of joint struggle for social betterment. Its departure from the close quarters of working class neighborhoods favors the clash, not between civilizations, but between two resentments.

On the one hand are bands of marginalized second generation immigrant youth adopting a defensive/aggressive “attitude” largely imported from U.S. pop culture.

On the other are isolated, low income and elderly citizens who feel threatened by bad manners, minor aggressions and occasional violent crime. For these, the National Front is moving in and promising protection.

International events have deepened the growing sense of insecurity. In many French schools, Muslim youth walked out of the ceremonial “minutes of silence” officially proclaimed in sympathy for American victims of the September 11 attacks.

The horrendous escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict risks being imported into France, which has both the largest Arab Muslim immigrant population and the largest Jewish population in Europe. Recent attacks on Jewish cemeteries and schools in France are an echo of the Middle East conflict. The radical Zionist youth group Betar has for its part violently attacked demonstrations of solidarity with Palestine.

A widely quoted statement of a prominent Jewish leader, subsequently denied, claimed that Le Pen’s score should help reduce anti-Jewish behavior because it was a “message to Muslims telling them to keep still”.

In any case, if Le Pen’s much-decried anti-Semitism is a matter of innuendo, his determination to reduce Muslim presence in France is emphatically proclaimed and central to his whole political ambition to keep France “for the French”.

The vote for Le Pen was geographically concentrated in eastern France, from the habitual far right stronghold of the rich Riviera to the poor deindustrialized North, with a strong popular showing in orderly Alsace. Polls showed that for the first time, Le Pen was first choice among workers, both employed and unemployed.

To woo this new constituency, Le Pen describes himself as “socially left, economically right, and nationally French”. This obvious demagogy is a caricature of the stance taken by centrist candidates, who also proclaim their social concerns while carrying out neo-liberal economic policies.

Le Pen would abolish the few progressive taxes that exist in France, notably the income tax and the tax on big fortunes, as well as the tax on family inheritance. Only sales taxes would be raised. He wants to double the military, police and justice budgets. Social services would go.

As for the main issue of “security”, Le Pen’s model is the United States: “zero tolerance” for crime and restoration of the death penalty. An excellent orator and agile debater, Le Pen would make a first class U.S. Senator from some southern State.

In France, however, the attempt to realize such policies would set off a cycle of revolt and repression, impossible to envisage. Such a ghastly prospect has jolted France into a new period of political fever.

A new generation of students is rushing to “stop Le Pen”. If this means only voting for Chirac, it risks enforcing the same neo-liberal center that the voters tried to reject on April 21. Students proclaiming “I’m ashamed to be French” may make a good impression abroad, but risk deepening the abyss between the confident intellectual elite and the socially and economically vulnerable pensioners, school dropouts and jobless men and women who feel abandoned by the establishment.

For nearly twenty years, opposition to Le Pen has been the identifying trait of the French left, dispensing it from developing any real alternative to neo-liberalism. The fact that the ogre is still there should be a warning: something more positive is urgently needed.

*The survey was taken for the liberal magazine “Marianne”.

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