Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

High stakes in French elections

Andrew Coates on two left candidates challenging Sarkozy with implications for European austerity programmes

If the latest opinion polls are right there is a very strong chance that France will have a Socialist President, François Hollande, by early May. His rival, the present leader of State, Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to make a strong showing in the first round on the 22nd April. April polls - put him 1% in advance of Hollande for that, but for the second it's 44% Sarkozy for the 2nd against 56% for Hollande. It's worth noting that it is highly unlikely that a '2002' scenario will be repeated, at most 14-15% in the first round the Front National are very far behind.

The stakes are extremely high. The result will not only affect the politics of the Hexagon. A Hollande victory will shift European politics to the left, and put into question the drastic austerity measures taken by the European Union to defend the Euro. Not surprisingly Sarkozy has tried to spread fear about potential economic instability. He has resorted to appealing to far-right Front National voters promising tough anti-immigration measures to thwart a possible Socialist triumph.

François Hollande is a former Parti Socialiste (PS) General Secretary. The PS's Declaration of Principles (2008), which Hollande helped draft, bases the party on a 'historical critique of capitalism'. This system 'creates inequalities, brings irrationality and crises.' These features are made worse by 'globalisation dominated by finance capitalism'. In Droit d'inventaires (2009) he wrote that the role of socialism was not to destroy capitalism but to 'dominate it, put it in the service of humanity'. This meant 'fair distribution' and 'efficient production'.

Hollande was elected to stand for the Socialists last year in a 'primary' open to all who supported left values. He won 56.6% of the ballot papers of the 2.8 million electors taking part.

Hollande's Presidential Manifesto, Le Changement - C'est Maintenant, begins with a critique of finance capital. It calls for an 'exemplary republic' expressing hope, justice, and above all equality, the 'soul of France'. Fiscal reform, a way of asserting public authority over the market economy, is at its heart. The Socialists propose to tax at 40% revenues over 150,000 Euros, and an end to tax loopholes. Hollande offers measures to control finance. He promises to halt the sell-off of publicly owned assets something the last Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (1997 2002) did not do.

The Manifesto promises to renegotiate the December European Treaty. It proposes to replace fiscal stringency with a strategy for growth. During Parliamentary debates on these EU measures, the Socialists however abstained rather than vote against.

The rise of the more explicitly left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon, standing for the Front de Gauche (FdG), has begun to attract attention even in the British media. Mélenchon served as a junior Minister under the Jospin Government in (2000 2002). Inside the PS he was a leading light the left founding in 1988 of the Gauche Socialiste and other groupings.

Mélenchon became disillusioned with the PS over the Referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2008. He took part on the 'Non' campaign. Despite the success of the no's their voices were ignored. As Serge Halimi says, this was a sign of a 'democracy that conforms to the market', and erodes popular sovereignty (Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2012) As a radical socialist, who draws inspiration from Jean Jaurès and the ideal of a 'social republic', marrying democratic and social rights, this was unacceptable. He left the PS in 2008 and, with his co-thinkers, created the Parti de Gauche (PG) the following year.

Standing, at up to 15% in opinion polls he is neck-and-neck with the far-right Marine Le Pen. In the election campaign Mélenchon has held monster rallies in March he drew 120,000 to the Bastille. He attracted tens of thousands of joyful supporters in Toulouse, scene of the terrible Islamist killings only a few weeks before. The candidate has lyrically evoked French revolutionary traditions, the 'spirit of revolt', and solidarity across Europe against finance capital. Contrary to accusations of French nationalism, the FdG takes inspiration from the democratic revolts in the Arab world, and their fight for universal rights, liberty and sharing wealth (Campaign Agreement 31.3.11).

The FdG consists of Mélenchon's own PG party, the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), and the Trotskyist Gauche Unitaire (which left the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA), as well as smaller Marxist, Green and left republican groups. Mélenchon has attracted international attention for his plan to confiscate all earnings above £300,000 a year (Guardian. 7.4.12). In a similar defence of the interests of the majority against the nantis (hyper-affluent) Mélenchon demands an immediate end to EU-decided austerity measures. Although accused of being 'provocative' some believe he has set the terms for the political debate. (Le Monde 16.3.12) Certainly Hollande has re-affirmed his own fiscal proposals and Sarkozy calls for a clamp down on tax evasion.

The FdG Manifesto - L'Humain d'abord - contains much more than taxation changes. It calls for a new participative 6th Republic embodying a 'citizens' revolution'. It demands a hefty rise in the minimum wage, the re-establishment of retirement rights at 60 years (the demand of mass strikes and demonstrations in 2009). It advocates 'ecological planning', the rights of workers, and a wave of social ownership in place of privatisations. The FdG is also strongly secularist, defending French Laïcité, and anti-racist, advancing the rights of immigrants.

Other left parties, such as the Greens, the EELV (Europe Ecologie, les Verts) and their candidate, Eva Joly, have seen their support evaporate they now stand at less than 3% in opinion surveys. On the far-left the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) and Lutte Ouvrière, barely register at 0.5% each. In recent weeks prominent NPA members have come out to back the FdG against their own candidate, Phillippe Poutou.

Mélenchon may have criticised Hollande as a pedalo captain, but the FdG clearly stands for a Socialist victory in the second round of the Presidential elections. Their immediate objective is to challenge Marine Le Pen. She continues to gather support from a cross-section of French society, including, surprisingly, a large number of young people (Le Monde 10.4.12). Mélenchon has taken Le Pen head on, and knows how to 'talk to Le Peuple'. A strong vote for the FdG will almost certainly go to Hollande in the second election round.

It is said that the last couple of weeks of the French presidential campaign are the decisive ones. A desperate Sarkozy is trying to assert his authority and appeal to the far-right. Against him on the left are two thoroughly decent candidates. Hollande, with his steady reputation of support for serious social reforms, and Mélenchon, the man who stands for radical change. The result in May, which will be followed by Parliamentary elections, will not just affect France's future, but Europe's and the left in the whole world.