• A New Left-Wing Dynamic?

  • Elisabeth Gauthier | 27 May 09
  • An important feature of the municipal and cantonal elections in France was a steep rise in the abstention rate – in sharp contrast to the 2005 referendum and the 2007 presidential election. Fifty-four percent of non-voters were blue- and white-collar workers; 39% were salaried employees, professional people or other members of the middle class; and 7% were artisans, tradesmen or businessmen. Thirty-two percent of them had voted for Sarkozy in last year’s presidential election and 9% for Royal. The bulk of abstainers came from the “milieux populaires” and had voted for Sarkozy in 2007 without necessarily being traditionally right-wing voters. During the election campaign canvassers were particularly struck by the expressions of disappointment, not to say indignation, from disadvantaged pensioners (the great majority of whom had voted for Sarkozy) and blueand white- ollar workers (many of whom had expected an improvement in their purchasing power). A survey 6 taken on the eve of the second ballot revealed that 62% of the respondents desired a change in government policy after the municipal elections.
    The poor showing of the ruling parties was unmistakable, and yet a mere nine months had passed since they took office. They lost 38 towns of over 30,000 inhabitants, which has fuelled discussion within Sarkozy’s “Union pour un mouvement populaire” (UMP). Sixty percent of the départements are now governed by the left, whereas before the elections the ratio was 50:50. Two départements are ruled by the Parti communiste français (PCF). All in all the left received 51.3% of the votes in the second ballot, as against 44.5% for the UMP and 3% for Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem). Voices were to be heard, especially among UMP mayors who had been voted out of office, calling on the government “to listen to the voters” and to make the “purchasing power issue” a priority. So far, however, Sarkozy has only agreed to make cosmetic changes.
    The new MoDem party did not achieve its electoral target of establishing itself locally as a force to be reckoned with, and Bayrou did not even succeed in becoming mayor of his home town of Pau. The experiment tailored to the modality of the presidential election and Bayrou’s ambitions seems doomed to failure in the longer term.
    The Front National (FN) emerged markedly weakened, although it should be noted that in many cases UMP candidates co-opted far-right personalities and FN issues (especially law and order and immigration) for their own campaigns.
    The main beneficiary of the two elections was the Socialist Party(PS), which gained 55 towns of over 20,000 inhabitants, 169 cantons and an average of 4.3% in the cantonal elections.
    For the left – which in France includes social democracy and the forces to the left of it – a very detailed analysis is required. Appearing in a large number of configurations the alliances and collective movements have very different contours. The results reflect the processes of upheaval on the left, which are by no means over and were painfully evident in all their contradictoriness in the municipal elections.
    The traditional “Union de la Gauche” (Union of the Left) remains the dominant formation, frequently achieving good results, although the programmes in individual towns were very differently conceived as regards the choice of issues and methods. In this configuration the PCF and the Greens generally find themselves facing what have become stiff odds, which is reflected not only in the number of seats they win, but also in the character of their alliances, which tend not to involve civil society. Alliances between the PS and MoDem in the first or second ballot were successfully prevented in some but not all cases under pressure from the left. There is an ongoing discussion as to whether forces to the left of the PS should withdraw if MoDem joins the executive or, on the contrary, take part in order to halt the drift to the right.
    Although the PCF is generally holding its own in those municipalities where it holds power and remains the third strongest party as regards number of seats,7 the gains of the left almost always benefited the PS. In individual cases Socialist candidates prevailed in the second ballot against Communist mayors who had received the most votes in the first ballot, and were finally able to defeat the latter with the aid of some right-wing votes in the second round. The former chairman of the Greens, Dominique Voynet, won in Montreuil in this way. The often violently anti-Communist propaganda generally had little effect, as it had been discredited in recent years by the actions of those who resorted to it. On the other hand, inflexible attitudes and insensitivity to the new requirements of democracy in Communist-run towns were punished in these elections as they had been in the past.
    At the same time, many places saw the emergence of new forms of left-wing alliances. This was often due to the rightward trend of PS mayoral candidates or the PS’s unjustified claims to hegemony over its partners. Novel left-wing lists, frequently including a high proportion of non-organised concerned citizens, often arose in such cases. 
    Although the PCF frequently continued in the “Union de la Gauche” under conditions that had become unfavourable to it, it was also involved in a not insignificant number of localities in new experiments involving new forms of alliances organised around left-oriented issues and composed of various sections of the alternative left, including critical socialists and concerned citizens. Such initiatives often gave rise to useful mobilisations. They were not exactly isolated phenomena, although they cannot be described as universal either.
    In a number of places “alternative”, “anti-liberal”, or “radical” lists arose in opposition to the PS, of which a few achieved good results at the local level. The Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) largely continued its practical approach to presidential elections and, strengthened by the good media ratings for Besancenot as compared to 2001, doubled the number of its own lists in large towns. This time Lutte ouvrière (LO, with Arlette Laguiller) took a constructive part in a large number of PCF-, but also PS-led lists.

    A Changed Political Landscape 

    The wide variety of political constellations in the municipal elections illuminate the diverse restructuring processes taking place on both the left and the right. Sarkozy vowed to put 1,000 personalities with a left-wing background on the UMP’s municipal lists. The results were not spectacular. At the same time the alliances formed by MoDem with the UMP or PS, depending on locality, were regarded by 60% of voters as purely opportunistic. Altogether the number of right-left alliances was smaller than announced.
    We should not overlook the restructuring taking place in the ranks of the right. As a whole, the right had to accept the loss of 164 cantons. The non-UMP right lost 326 cantons, while the UMP gained 162. The trend to consolidation within the right in the direction of Sarkozy-UMP is thus proceeding apace.
    As for the “left”, the former “Union de la Gauche” formally continues to exist in many places, as the number of joint PS-PCF-Green lists shows, although it is often accompanied by severe tensions and violent disputes over the PS’s attempts to achieve hegemony.
    A key question is how to assess these basic tendencies. Do they amount to a strengthening of the bi-polarisation between a liberal-reactionary right and a welfare-liberal social democracy? Is this a further step towards the emergence of a two-party system? Or is the decisive feature the persistence of the left-right divide and/or its reactivation?
    Both the question and the answer have to be seen in more complex terms, however. The fact is that the two main parties, UMP and PS, account for 60% of the cantonal councillors. The trend to consolidation in favour of the two main parties is often interpreted as progress towards a two-party system. Thus the results of the municipal and cantonal elections seem to reinforce bi-polarisation.
    At the same time there have been, albeit to a limited extent, cases of changing sides between left and right. Often, however, clear-sighted, left- riented forces within the left have managed to uphold the left-right divide and use it as a mobilising factor.
    On the left the landscape is highly fragmented. The claim to hegemony of the PS and its political orientation are being resisted by various more or less influential forces. On the other hand, the proportion of French people and PS sympathisers who would like to see a PS-Mo-Dem alliance has decreased markedly in the last three months.8
    Also in need of analysis is how the problem of social fragmentation at local and municipal level was dealt with. A comprehensive study would be of great interest. Good results were achieved by innovative left candidates, who managed with the aid of pluralist lists to mobilise democratic, constructive and solidarity-based forces while at the same time presenting themselves as competent mayoral candidates. There were interesting attempts to overcome the paternalist attitude toward the inhabitants of the “banlieues”, and to forge on the basis of a more class-oriented attitude a new solidarity between the inhabitants of the “cités populaires” and critically-minded sections of the middle class with the involvement of the younger generation. At the same time, the municipal elections showed once again that poverty and social insecurity, far from “automatically” leading to leftwing electoral choices, in not a few cases can be exploited by right-wing and influence-peddling mayors or in isolated cases by municipal lists as well.
    To sum up, it may be said that although a general re-alignment of the political landscape is under way, it has not yet progressed very far, as may be seen from the extremely contradictory picture presented by the municipal elections.


    The discussions on what political line the left will adopt in the future will soon be in full swing. The consistently left forces are increasingly confronted with the question as to whether it is possible to develop an independent left-wing dynamic, which does not exclude alliances with social democracy as long as their own activity is not subordinated to it. 
    The debate on political line is raging within the ranks of the left. The many efforts within social democracy to take its lead from the (rightwing) centre, have met with staunch internal resistance. In the municipal elections traditional PS voters discreetly supported often open and unambiguously left-wing projects when the opportunity presented itself. Also, in February, the number of PS deputies in parliament and the Senate, who, in opposition to the official line, spoke in favour of the democratic demand for a recent referendum on the EU Treaty, was higher than expected. Thus the losses of the right cannot just be simplistically regarded as successes of the PS and its welfare-liberal-oriented representatives. The LCR will presumably continue to work toward the formation of an “anti-capitalist party”. How far the LO will continue its new policy of seeking broad left-wing alliances is still unclear. The key question at the PCF congress in late autumn will probably be whether the main aim should be to rally left-wing-oriented critical forces in favour of an alternative solidaritybased project. It will also be crucial to see how PCF forces can be activated for this purpose in everyday discussions, and what this would mean for the structure of the party. Although there is more discussion of the political significance of the PCF having more than 13,000 seats in elected bodies, a coherent overall view of how to combine participation in elected bodies with a consistent strategy for changing society is still absent. Another unresolved question is how under today’s conditions one can be part of the left while simultaneously developing the capacity for a left-wing dynamic that is independent of social democracy. Within the PCF,  owever, one cannot exclude the possibility that there will be a resigned attitude: will the “future” lie in being an appendage of the PS or in increasingly egocentric isolation?. A recently proposed “compromise”, which would block the necessary innovative action, would also be counter-productive.
    The next stage will be the 2009 European elections, for which preparations will soon have to be made. The question of rebuilding a transformative left will soon be back on the table. 

    Turbulence on the Government Side

    It is clear that Sarkozy did not take the warnings of the past months seriously. His use of the “question of purchasing power”, which he articulated in terms of “work” and “performance”, has damaged his political image, notes Stéphane Rozès.9 However, Prime Minister Fillon’s ratings remain high, which indicates that there is still no left-wing alternative on the political scene.
    The turbulence is violent and will probably come to a head with the emergence of a global financial and banking crisis. The fact is that only a fundamentally different logic in economic and social policy can enable us to find constructive answers to the key question of “purchasing power”, i.e. wages. The speedy progress being made in the dismantling of the labour law, the 35-hour week, the solidarity-based social security systems, and public services and structures, is making the situation worse, and it is now clear to everybody that the “work more to earn more” formula is not working.
    Sarkozy and his government are preparing a second “wave of reforms”,10 albeit under conditions less favourable than those of mid-2007, first because of the lack of political room in the current crisis situation, and secondly because of massive disillusionment11 and the appearance of new protest movements. “Nicolas Sarkozy –Président du pouvoir d’achat des milliardaires” (Nicolas Sarkozy – President of the purchasing power of billionaires) – this slogan seen on a home-made banner12 during a demonstration aptly expresses the growing mood.
    The “individualisation” of social relations is well under way: individual property, personal success, privatised social security, individualised wages, etc. In concrete terms this means, for example, passing the costs of health care on to the patients (retention of up to 50 Euros a year), whereby it is not the healthy who pay for the sick, but patients who pay for patients. Meanwhile the first steps are being taken towards “flexicurité à la française” as part of the gradual dismantling of the labour law and the French social model, which is described as being too “protective”. However, resistance has prevented deregulation going as far as Sarkozy would have liked. Yet despite the resistance movements the trade unions find themselves in a complicated situation. On the one hand, it is hard for them to pick up on all the individual aspects of the “waves of reforms”. On the other, they are under simultaneous pressure from the employers’ association Medef and the government: Either a speedy agreement must be reached between management and labour, or an even tougher law will be passed in short order. And tough new political battles over the pension reform, the “social value-added tax”, are looming on the horizon.
    The main areas of resistance concern wages as well as the working and living conditions of employees, and these conflicts are now increasingly breaking out in the private sector. The spectacular success of the strike by supermarket employees (especially the check-out cashiers), which affected 80% of the stores of Carrefour, Lidl, Auchan, Champion and Intermarché, is revealing a new reality. Such a massive movement in the highly diversified private sector, where collective action has always been very hard to organise, is a clear indicator of the rapidly growing disillusion. In those social categories in which decreasing wages and underemployment increasingly put employees under pressure, Sarkozy’s “work more to earn more” had no doubt raised certain hopes that have now been dashed. Thus, for example, in a supermarket in Portet-sur-Garonne 350 staff won the applause of customers by spontaneously demonstrating and shouting “Sarkozy, arrÈte ta comédie!” (“Sarkozy, cut the comedy!”) – which, however, is far from automatically meaning a turn to the left.
    Individualisation is also running into problems in industry. Management finds itself compelled to be extremely cautious on the topic of “salaire au mérite” (performance-related pay), as it causes great discontent, and by rapidly worsening the mood of the workers also impairs their efficiency.13 With rising inflation , which according to INSEE mainly affects fuel, heating, housing and food costs, there is less willingness to accept as the only answer overtime and reduced working hours without wage adjustment.
    As for the public sector, it is highly appreciated by 70% of the French people, although they do tend to complain, especially in rural or suburban areas, of having too little and unequal access to it.14 Thus the job cuts in education are meeting stiff resistance.
    Further areas of conflict are deportation policy, housing, the “Attali Report” and its consequences, the planned constitutional amendments, the reform of the justice system, European policy, basic freedoms, relations between church and state, educational curricula, the destruction of the public media and support for the arts, foreign policy and, of course, what to do about the financial and banking crisis.
    The vision of society represented by Sarkozy is wearing thin. The foundering of home-owners has buried the notion of the stakeholder society. The vaunted “méritocratie” has turned out to be a boomerang. The individualisation of social relations is increasingly revealed as social regression for the individual and ultimately for (almost) all concerned.
    The political, social and ideological situation is unstable. The last presidential election is glaring proof that disappointment does not automatically result in a switch (alternance) to the left, but that the right-wing option can also function as a rupture. Even if the municipal election results constitute penalisation of the UMP15 and offer a good point of departure for all the left parties, one fears that these results will once again be taken to be “reassuring” and that the vital issues affecting our future will be relegated to the background.

    Elisabeth Gauthier is Director of Espaces Marx, Paris, and co-founder of the European transform! network. The article is being published in German in Sozialismus 2008/04. 


    1 These elections were held in all 36,000 municipalities.

    2 Each département is divided up into cantons, whose elected representatives form a “conseil général” in each département. This time half the cantonal seats were up for re-election.

    3 At 33.46% the abstention rate on March 9 was the highest for a municipal election since 1959.

    4 84% participation rate in the presidential election

    5 CSA-Dexia survey of March 9, 2008

    6 BVA – Orange – L’Express, March 12/13: “French opinion poll on the eve of the 2nd ballot”. 

    7 PCF mayors in towns of over 3,500 inhabitants: 183 (2001) – 176 (2008). Cantonal elections: a total loss of 10 conseillers généraux, 9.8% (2001) –9% (2008). loss of the presidency of the Conseil Général de Seine St. Denis (Paris area), gain of the presidency of the Conseiller Général de l’Allier (Central France).

    8 Against an alliance: 55% in March 2008 / 44% in December 2007. PS sympathisers: for an alliance 58% in December 2007, 51% in March 2008. Mo- Dem sympathisers: 54% December, 46% March. Source: BVA – Orange – L’Express, March 12/13: “French opinion poll on the eve of the 2nd ballot”.

    9 Stéphane Rozès, Humanité, March 8,2008

    10 On developments in France up to October/November 2007 see: Joachim Bischoff/Elisabeth Gauthier, Sarkozy und die Hegemonie des Neoliberalismus, supplement to the 12/2007 issue of the periodical Sozialismus. 

    11 58% of French people now rate Sarkozy’s economic policy negatively, and 39% consider it positive (Jérôme Sainte-Marie, BVA, quoted in Le Monde  1/25/2008).

    12 Photo in Le Monde, 24/1: “Nicolas Sarkozy – President of the purchasing power of billionaires”

    13 According to a study by SRM Consulting, based on hearings in large enterprises, La Tribune, January 24, 2008

    14 IFOP survey, November 2007, La Croix January 24, 2008

    15 The 2004 regional elections were clearly a punishment for Chirac, though this did not translate into a success for the left in 2007.