The outcome of the presidential elections in France has an important significance for the future direction of the European Union and the resistance against austerity writes Fred Leplat. France is the second largest economy in the EU after Germany, and the fifth largest in the world. The right wing axis between the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has dominated European politics for the last five years. This axis of neo-liberals has pushed directly and through the EU dramatic austerity measures on the peoples of Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Great Britain since the outbreak of the economic crisis of the autumn of 2008.
The possible victory of François Hollande, the candidate of the Parti Socialiste, in the second round of the presidential elections on Sunday 6th May will break this neo-liberal axis. This eventuality was reflected by the lack of “confidence” on the stock exchange with a drop in the value of shares on the Monday after the first round. Of course Hollande will pursue a “left-wing” austerity package, by for example agreeing to the new European Union “golden rule” of a balanced budget being incorporated into each national constitution. But his raising the need for a renegotiation of EU treaties towards growth through investment and increasing the top rate of income tax to 75% has been sufficient to make the ruling class across Europe nervous.
The biggest winners of this round of the election has been the left, stretching from the PS (Parti Socialiste) to the far left, which has risen from 13.3 million (36.4%) votes at the last presidential election in 2007 to 15.7million (43.7%) this year. The PS only gained 770,000 votes. The rest of the increase went to the left opposed to neo-liberalism and austerity which obtained a total of nearly 4.6millions votes (12.81%).
The Front de Gauche with its candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon won 3,984,822 votes (11,10%). The NPA (Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste) obtained 411,160 (1,15%) and Lutte Ouvrière 202,548 (0,56%). Mélanchon left the PS to form the Parti de Gauche, in November 2008, and then formed a coalition of the Parti de Gauche with the PCF (Parti Communiste) named the Front de Gauche. He is now the first candidate to the left of the PS to score over 10% since 1981 when the PCF candidate, George Marchais, obtained 15.3%.
The outgoing President Sarkozy was the biggest loser in the first round of the presidential elections in France on Sunday 22nd April. He has a huge job to recover the 1.8million voters who deserted him since the last election in 2007, many to the Front National. He came second with 9,753,629 votes (27,18%), just behind the Parti Socialiste candidate, Francois Hollande, who won 10,272,705 votes (28,63%). Marine Le Pen was able to re-establish the FN as a “respectable” party of the far right with 6,421,426votes (17.9%).
Although the FN scored its highest vote on its own this year, the combined vote of the far right in 2002 was 19.1% if the votes of the FN dissident Bruno Megret (2.3%) are added to those of Jean-Marie Le Pen (16.9%). This year, the FN comes close to Sarkozy’s score in four out of the 23 regions. For example in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Sarkozy won 23.62% while Le Pen got 23,29%. At a local level, the FN also scored well in small industrial towns such as around Marseille where the council is in the hands of the PS or the PCF, coming first with shares of the vote above 30%. For example in Marignane, the FN gets 34.84%. Sarkozy is now deliberately courting the votes of the far right FN by stating that he has heard their message, and that he will take up issues such as immigration and security, national identity and islam, the arrogance of financial institutions and will fight against the “dilution of the nation within globalisation”! This right turn is needed if he is to seduce over 80% of the FN voters which he needs to win, something unlikely as the Marine Le Pen has denounced the main parties, and especially Sarkozy’s UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) as corrupt. Her strategy is to cause the disintegration of the UMP so as to win over its supporters and drag the political spectrum to the right.
The high score of the FN was underestimated in opinion polls in the run-up to the election. However, it should not come as a huge surprise as the FN scored 14.4% in 1988, 15% in 1995 and 16.9% in 2002 when le Pen went into the second round against Chirac. The FN now has an intervention to win over systematically working class voters by leafleting factory gates and housing estates, denouncing the European Union and globalisation, and arguing that there should be French jobs for French workers in France. Studies reveal that the FN now has the support of 29% of blue-collar workers, the highest of any party, just in front of the PS who has the support of 28%!
The campaign of Mélanchon has had a big impact and has inspired hundreds of thousands. The meetings of the Front de Gauche were huge: 120,000 in Paris and Marseille, 70,000 in Toulouse and 23,000 in Lille. The programme for the election, “People First” sold over 400,000 copies. Mélanchon stated at under 5% in the opinion polls and went up to 17%, and hoped to beat Le Pen. The main message of the campaign was that people should not pay for a crisis that is not of their making. The proposals included a maximum wage, forbidding redundancies for economic reasons, a real 35 hour week, retirement at 60, rejection of EU directives and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. But combined with these policies, were abstract appeals to the French republican tradition, for a constituent assembly and to “take the power”, a slogan which featured on his posters.
The strategy of Mélanchon’s the campaign was to win over workers who have been seduced by the FN because, as in Britain, the traditional parties of the left and the right all support austerity, but also to pressurise Hollande to adopt a more left wing position. It may well be that the score was not as high as anticipated, as many voted for Francois Hollande in the first round to stop Marine Le Pen getting into the second round as her father was able to do in 2002. But as mentioned previously, he did get the highest vote of a candidate to the left of the PS for over 30 years. Mélanchon stated that he would not join a PS government and would always choose to be on the side of the social movement rather than that of government. But this is not the message which comes from the PCF, the main component of the Front de Gauche. The PCF argues that the task is to build a left-wing majority in Parliament which would include the largest number possible of MPs from the Front de Gauche, obviously implying support for a PS government. The record of the PCF and the Parti de Gauche has been to participate with the PS in the running of many councils and regions, and as such have administered programmes of cuts and privatisation in public services.
The campaign of the NPA was to put up front the need for the working class not to pay for the crisis, to remain independent of the PS and to prepare for the struggles ahead. The NPA’s score was disappointing compared to that of Olivier Besancenot (4.3% in 2002 and 4.1% in 2007). The NPA’s candidate, Philippe Poutou, a Ford car worker, was able to get a good media coverage towards the end of the election campaign and get across the message of the need for a unity in the struggle against austerity, whether of the right or the left. The decision of the NPA to present a candidate was controversial inside the party. A minority opposed that decision, and some leading members publicly called for a vote for Mélanchon and argue for a political recomposition with forces on the left of the PS.
If Hollande wins the second on Sunday 6th May, the political landscape may begin to shift to the left across Europe. In Greece, parliamentary elections also take place on Sunday 6th May and the anti-austerity left is at 40% in opinion polls. In Ireland, a referendum on the EU fiscal compact is due to take place on the 31st May. Support for the compact is slim and Sinn Fein, which is calling for a No vote, is in second in opinion polls. In the Netherlands, the government collapsed when the far-right Freedom Party left in protest at austerity measures. In Britain, voting takes place on Thursday 3rd May for council and the London Mayor. It may well be that we are now entering a new political cycle in which parties opposed to the Merkel/Sarkozy/Cameron hard austerity measures are winning in elections. A defeat for this axis of austerity can only give confidence to the left, the trade-unions and the social movement to organise and go back on the offensive against austerity of the left or of the right.