• France: Resistance to Neoliberalism and the Historic Failure of the Left

  • Elisabeth Gauthier | 17 Dec 12 | Posted under: France
  • The results of the 2007 presidential elections are altogether the worst for the left since 1969. It is true that Sarkozy’s clear majority as President still did not give the UMP the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution – which will make things more complicated for the UMP in the way the simplified European Treaty is worked out – but all in all this electoral outcome gives the rightist camp a comfortable majority with which to realise its policies and a power of attraction which reaches the far right to the centre left.

    The whole French left – and this is very visible – is in a deep crisis. The period that began in 1981 with the election of a socialist president – Francois Mitterand is the only president of the Fifth Republic to have come from the PS – may be said to have definitively come to a close. Several times since 1981 there has been ”cohabitation” between a president and a prime minister from opposing political camps, first under a left presidency and then under a right one. For twenty years in each parliamentary election, one governing camp was replaced by the other; the expression used for this was “alternance” or “sortir les sortants”. The shock of April 21, 2002 – Chirac and Le Pen succeeded in the second ballot while the Socialist Party candidate was eliminated – showed at that time that the crisis of the left was already very grave.1

    The first critical analyses coming from the left attributed Royal’s failure mainly to her socialliberal, centrist and insufficiently militant positions, and the poor results of the left wing of the left to the lack of a dynamising common political proposal by the anti-liberal left.

    While Sarkozy’s electoral campaign not only systematically displayed political voluntarism, but also presented a well structured political discourse and project,2 the political views of the Socialist presidential candidate Royal were hard to discern. She strongly focused her campaign on the questions of the renewal of politics and democracy, but was unconvincing on the socioeconomic questions starkly posed by contemporary society. While the UMP mobilised around its goals, and made headway deep into Le Pen’s electoral support, the left was largely concerned with conducting the most effective defensive battle possible against Sarkozy.

    The results for the Socialist Party candidate rested less on broad agreement around her programme than it did on the need felt by many voters – among them even express critics of the SP and its candidate – to stop Sarkozy’s forward march. The shock wave of 2002 also prompted a rallying around Royal. However, numerous indicators – such as the high (and growing) proportion of ”ninistes” (who classify themselves neither as left nor right), the alienation of the workers and employees from the government left beginning in the 1980s – point to the long-term erosion of the left, which nevertheless is not expressed in a significant right turn of public opinion. The PS’s situation in France is admittedly not comparable with the decline, also numerical, of Social Democracy in Great Britain or Germany. However, a social, ideological and political new direction is on the agenda, the system of alliances has fallen apart, many bridges to right-wing forces of the “center” have been built, and some of Sarkozy’s structural themes were not only not attacked, they were instead de facto appreciated in a series of statements. The outcome of this trial and crisis of the PS is still not foreseeable.


    Referendum 2005: Only an Episode?

    If in many instances the results of the 2004 regional elections, a sanction against the right in government and good for all of the left, were prematurely seen as a recovery from the 2002 low, on the other hand the public confrontation two or three years later over the project of the European Constitutional Treaty made evident the deep rifts within the left camp, especially on social questions. The constitutional draft, regarded as neoliberal by broad sections of the population, was rejected on May 29, 2005 by a clear majority, among which were more than half the voters of the Socialist and Green parties, quite in contrast to the official Yes position which the heads of these parties promoted very aggressively along with the neoliberal elites. The nationalist right also supported the No vote, but provoked much less confrontation than it did in the 1992 referendum, when it was the Maastricht Treaty that was at issue. Communists, Trotskyists, left Socialists and Republicans, adherents of the global justice movements, groups of trade-unionists, feminists and pacifists conducted a new form of very active campaign in which lmost a thousand anti-liberal collectives and a concerted national and very pluralist coordination were built. Its themes were the defence of the public sector, critique of competition as the primary constitutive principle of society, rejection of wage dumping and tax competition, demand for the inscribing of social and democratic rights, the need to democratise Europe, Europe’s active role in the global commitment to peace and justice.

    In many cases, the massive No of the “milieux populaires” (workers, employees) was understood as a class vote. Even a majority of the youth, by no means hostile to Europe, voted No. Still now, public opinion clearly distinguishes between the positive expectations regarding Europe and the repudiation of the neoliberal offensive. Without exaggeration we can demonstrate that, despite the mobilisation of all big parties, the media and the state apparatus, the campaign was increasingly and in the end overwhelmingly caracterised by a left dynamic. The experience also shows us that a mobilisation for the defence of social achievements and democratic values was able to rally workers, employees of the public and private sectors, precarious workers, critical middle-class strata and at the same time the great majority of the left, as a social and political majority with the aim of stopping the surge of neoliberalism.

    In the last years, the crisis of the Republic, politics and political representation has come to a head, but at the same time the activity of French civil society has grown. In resistance to the model of individualism and isolation, new forms of solidarity (with homeless people, with those threatened with deportation, with strikers and factory occupiers ...) and of mobilisation – which required overcoming traditional barriers – emerged. Public discussion of sensitive subjects such as the colonial heritage has been occurring for two or three years now. A moralising and general condemnation of the banlieue youth, who revolted in the suburbs of Paris, has been largely repudiated. In public opinion, the criticism of neoliberalism and certain forms of capitalism is stronger than in many other countries. Record levels have been reached in newvoter registration, especially in the banlieues. The level of involvement in the presidential election – for weeks, like the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty previously, the main topic of private discussions – via media transmissions, websites and blogs was unusually high. Meetings were very much in vogue, the electoral participation was unusually high and recalled the popular involvement in the referendum.

    All these indices speak for a certain form of repoliticisation whose character, however, needs to be scrutinised. This politicisation, for one thing, appears to be based on a new demand for political intervention and regulation, which liberal or social-liberal-centered candidates meet with the promise of a new political voluntarism. Another motivation is the notion of being able to effect an important change of political direction with a voting slip. Nevertheless, the tendencies of media staging and personalisation of candidates engendered at bottom only a depoliticised interest.

    In the preparations for the 2007 elections, the question was asked of whether from the social confrontations with neoliberalism, a renewed, militant left closely tied to the social movements could emerge, with the goal not of spawning a reissue of the “gauche plurielle”,3 but a new left dynamic in the sense of an alternative, antiliberal and authentically left project.4 A whole set of factors spoke for such an hypothesis. The strong movement against the First Employment Contract (CPE), in which once again a neoliberal change of direction was to be foiled, this time together with the student and trade-union organisations, united all generations and led to success after a several week-long sharp confrontation with Chirac and his government.

    Considering this great potential for criticism and political protest, there was in the anti-liberal left the hope that this could be carried over into a current that could organise a political alternative. In fact, many anti-liberal collectives are still functioning. Provisional results were an anti-liberal charter, a call for common candidates, a strategy text, a 125-point programme. There was, however, no agreement on a common candidacy in the presidential elections, and in the legislative elections only ca. 20 % of the electoral districts could come up with common candidates of the anti-liberal left.5

    The breadth was very much smaller than that of the referendum campaign: a solo run by the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), the anti-liberal Socialists staying away and remaining in the SP because of the open criticism of Royal, inadequate broadening of the social base and differences in numerous collectives over questions of strategy and the selection of candidates. Besancenot (LCR) and Bove (former spokesperson for the Farmers Confederation) came from radical left and libertarian traditions respectively, which are geared to the gaining of counterveiling-power positions and are mostly perceived as representatives of the protest movement, with Bove having strong ecological positions. Buffet, proposed as a candidate by the French Communist Party (PCF), sought to articulate protest, alternative political proposals and political strategy of change and thereby address the whole left ignoring its political boundaries. The substantive and strategic contradictions, and those determined by the interests of the organisations, were too great for a unified candidacy. However, separately the groups could not reach a critical mass that could have given them new credibility.

    In the first ballot Besancenot did better than the other candidates of the left, but for the two Trotskyist parties (LO and LCR) taken as a whole the results dropped due to the poor showing of Laguiller (LO). The PCF – still an active force organised nationwide – could win 19 (instead of the previous 22) deputies in the April 22 legislative elections, especially due to its local anchoring. It has now become abundantly clear that, despite working for its renewal, the great engagement of activists and the positive collaboration with other political and movement forces, it is no longer a force driving politics forward. Two party congresses have been announced, which are to deal with all relevant questions without observing past taboos. A great deal speaks for an active participation of the PCF in a broadly designed refoundation of the left on an antiliberal basis, in support of which many other voices are being raised.

    In the political confrontation within the alternative left groups in these months, the positions of diverse wings of the movement became clear around questions of the relationship to institutions, political alliances, the necessity of parties and their organisational form. The questions of constructing a common political entity and the expression of the protest movement in a common candidacy had obviously not matured, which however does not mean that they are definitively off the table.

    Considering the results, the observations of recent years encouraged by the left wing of the left in its search for new political constructions must be re-examined. There needs to be discussion of the lack of capacity of the left as a whole, and of the left wing of the left in particular, to present a new political proposal within the currently emerging contradictions.

    Quite in contrast to 2002, when the issue was principally security, this time the main questions were the social questions: unemployment, purchasing power, inequality and social security.

    Many investigations have pointed to a disconnect between general political alignment and electoral behaviour, between a mostly left-leaning public opinion and electoral intentions that tend to the right.6 In his analyses, Stephane Rozes distinguished between the desirable (occupied by the left) and the possible (occupied by the right). For the mass of left voters it was not clear how the desirable was to be transformed into the possible. In the political landscape colored by neoliberalism it has often been seen that majority positions located on the left find no adequate expression of will in society when the issue is the election of a political project. At the beginning of the campaign, 61 % of the voters had no confidence that either the left or the right could conduct political business. At the end it was the new right that could win the majority of the population in its competition for political hegemony – by exploiting the contradictions which developed with the crisis of neoliberalism.

    “Travailler plus pour gagner plus”7 became the central political-ideological argument, one of the themes that was intended to enable the transition to a new outlook on social relations. This offensive could draw on complex social suffering and realities that produce political divisions, realities such as urgently needed higher wages for a great part of the ”milieux populaires” (workers and employees, the new precarious workers), the intense frustration at the non-recognition of work, the widespread notion – and not only among the sections of the population inclined to the right – that the unemployed could find work if they really wanted to, the widely accepted stigmatising of the large group of welfare recipients, the fear that many have of winding up in a dead-end street with these realities, as well as the left’s lack of alternatives on all these questions.

    The transformational and very socially engaged left remained essentially imprisoned within proposals for social betterment. It mostly had quantitative answers (SMIC 15008, raising of social minima, improvement of protection provisions, etc.). The fragmentation of society, however, has reached such proportions that people urgently want to hear qualitatively new answers.

    All in all, Sarkozy succeeded in winning over many sections of the electorate who did not have fixed political ties. He was able to tap to his advantage the shocks felt within society, the loss of confidence in the stability of the social security systems and the readiness of broad social sectors to pay attention to “new solutions”, to throw certain principles overboard under certain circumstances. The divisions in society between “those willing to work” and “assistes” (welfare recipients) served as themes for political mobilisation. In so doing, the intimidation and isolation of the numerous new “precariat” was useful. Such approaches were promoted by the development of a “meritocratic pole”9 based on the principle of individual effort, on turning away the welfare recipients and on a critical stance toward trade-union action. At the same time, however, Sarkozy accommodated anti-liberal sensibilities on many issues (though with right-wing accents). An example is the specific language directed at the especially insecure and largely ignored industrial work force.

    In 2007 the political dividing lines were significantly altered. A series of phenomena supported one of the central goals of the UMP candidate, the blurring of the left-right divide, the obliteration of ideological confrontation.10 Accordingly, he often, and with great support from the media, tried to depoliticise nagging political problems, for example ecological questions, the fight against poverty, the housing problem, and he decoupled them from the confrontation between right and left and thus from the fundamental social-political debate. At the same time, the attempt was made in this context to install the most durable possible ”centre”, also in relation to the growing voter group of ”ninistes”. Sarkozy’s staunchly right-wing candidacy also enabled him to absorb a part of Le Pen’s influence, and in so doing he ditched Chirac’s doctrine of clear cut barriers against the extreme right. In what followed, the naming of his administration personnel was directed at a long-lasting anchoring of a conception of a new national unity.

    One of the points of discussion concerns the question of whether French society has rapidly moved to the right only two years after the No vote, with its left character, the sanctioning of the government right in the regional elections and the victory of a very broad movement against the neoliberal dismantling of labor law. Public opinion is mostly described as contradictory, as a mix of liberalism and anti-liberalism. In questions that are constitutive for the neoliberal project (state intervention in the economy, privatisation, globalisation, run-away shops, abolition of the lay-off protection law to benefit flexibility ...), approval drops.

    Sarkozy’s project could therefore win support although an unbroken neoliberal hegemony no longer exists. In the context of an apparent political and especially substantive deficit of the left, it thus became possible to create a new majority in a deeply divided society, to significantly alter the political and ideological relations of power, and with the support of the media to organise power at the top level of the state in a new way and to concentrate it more strongly.

    In the undoubtedly sharp confrontations to come, all mobilisable forces must come together. Therefore, the necessity of a renewal, of a concentration of the diverse political forces of the left, is on the agenda. Whether and how the alternative left will be able to take new shape in the next period is in no way clear. Work, in the sense of a re-invention of the left, cannot restrict itself to the problematic of the structures, methods and identities; is has to be more broadly conceived in order to specify an immediate, middle- and long-term political objective based on a thorough analysis of the relations of contemporary finance capital.


    1. On the crisis of the left, see the exhaustive analysis by Patrice Cohen-Seat, Communisme, l’avenir d’une esperance [Communism: The Future of a Hope], Paris, September 2007.
    2. For a clear summary, see Jean Viard (analysis edited under his direction), Le President a permis une France qui change [The President Permitted a France that is Changing], Paris 2007.
    3. This is the designation of the 1997-2002 coalition government under the leadership of the Socialists (Lionel Jospin) with the participation of the French Communist Party and the Greens.
    4. For more on this, see Elisabeth Gauthier in the journal Sozialismus 12/2006 and 4/2007.
    5. French electoral law takes the legislative elections as the basis of the influence of parties and the rights resulting from this. This practically obliges the parties to present as many candidates as possible.
    6. Pascal Perrineau, Le barometre politique francais 2006/2007, CEVIPOF (Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences Po); Nonna Mayer/Bruno Palier, La perception des enjeux economiques et sociaux, et leur influence sur le vote du 22 avril 2007, CVIPOF.
    7. Work more to earn more.
    8. An important electoral campaign theme of the left was the raising of the legal minimum wage to 1,500 Euros.
    9. Etienne Schweisguth, Les valeurs et l’election, CEVIPOF 2007.
    10. See also in this issue the article by Jean-Yves Camus.

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