The political situation in France is at a fresh turning point. The capitalist crisis and the financial crisis have suddenly worsened the living conditions of the world of labour, which is undergoing exceptionally violent attacks from the President and the Government, despite the complete rejection of the latter at the regional elections in March 2010.
Although characterised by a high rate of abstention (53.64% in the first round, 48.78% in the second) and balance clearly in favour of the left forces, this poll turned out to be an outright rejection of the policies carried out for the last three years, with voters making jobs and wages their primary concerns. The Socialist Party, Europe Ecology, Left Front and extreme left lists scored a total of 54.05% of the votes as against 26.02% for the traditional right (UMP and Modem). The extreme right (National Front) scored well enough to be able to maintain its lists in the second round in twelve of the twenty-two regions and tap into part of the country’s growing “anti-sarkozyism”.
It is particularly significant that, in addition to the overall result of these elections, the eight ministers and secretaries of state who had been placed at the top of some of the lists and were openly supported by the head of state were all beaten. The social struggles that had already begun before March were not soft-pedalled during the election campaign, though they did not dominate it. The election results, by giving fresh hope and confidence to the left, especially the result secured by the Left Front (an average of 6.95% in 17 regions in which it had candidates), which thereby confirmed its entry into the French political scene, saw the emergence of fresh protest movements – against the closing of abortion centres and also around education issues.
The election results, together with the financial markets’ injunctions accepted by the European leaders on May 9-10, have pushed Nicolas Sarkozy and his government to speed up their campaigns of social revenge and the reshaping French society.
The feelings of powerlessness and resignation skilfully stoked by the authorities had, until these elections, made unconvincing any notion of alternatives to the neoliberal orientation of a government that the social movements had not until now been able to make back down. While such an alternative has yet to be fully articulated, the possibility of its emergence is now beginning to permeate public discussion.
Since June, a quite original kind of popular mobilisation has grown in opposition to a project that the President considered the keystone of his vision of society. His pension reform plan is one of the most regressive of its kind: it would force public and private wage earners (whose purchasing power has already been weakened) to defer the age at which they retire, an extension of the period during which they pay contributions and a reduction of the pensions themselves.
The government’s main stubbornly maintained argument – that of population size and distribution – is a completely fallacious one. On the one hand, because the fertility rate in France is higher than the European average; on the other, because this plan would amount to making the wage earners pay for the crisis twice over. Wages and jobs are already under attack from the alliance of the employers and the right.
The demographic argument has been used to mask the fact that the deep-seated reasons for the problems raised are to be found in the socially tragic circumstances of the crisis itself. The heart of the problem of maintaining the existing pensions system lies in the situation of employment and wages. The rate of employment of the 60-64 age group is barely 17%. Projections by UNEDIC (the organisation that pays unemployment benefits) indicate that pushing back the age of retirement would increase the cost of unemployment insurance from 440 to 530 million Euros.
The massive popular rejection of this reform shows that the government has definitely lost this battle of ideas. The deliberate favouring of capital against work is challenged and understood as an unfair and inefficient choice.
In pursuing their offensive action, the President and his government even went so far as trying to rush the vote on their Bill in the National Assembly and to prevent the opposition from speaking in the debate. This way of snapping their fingers at institutions and their democratic functioning, is symptomatic of the behaviour of the French ruling classes, led by an omnipresent hyper-President against whom the people and their elected representatives have no say.
At the time of writing, no one can say how this remarkable test of strength between the government and the world of labour will end. One thing is certain – , the social events we are living through are deepening the crisis of legitimacy of Sarkozyist power. In 2007, Sarkozy was able to get elected after managing a fusion of populist demagogy and ultra-liberalism. Indeed, the social upsurge, by coming up against the government’s ultra-liberal policies, has burst asunder the compromise set up by the President and his majority. This is why Nicolas Sarkozy has been trying, over the last few months, to deploy a populist discourse once again.
Weakened by scandals and cases of his ministers’ conflicts of interest with members of the high bourgeoisie, the President has, during the course of the summer, precipitated the country into a serious crisis of legitimacy of authority, to an extent that one can now speak of a crisis of regime.
In July, Sarkozy donned the mantle of “law and order”, odiously linking immigration to delinquency and ordering the expulsion of specifically designated foreign nationals. Moreover, he chose to increase the social malaise and feelings of exclusion of a section of the youth. The socially and politically weakest populations, and particularly the Roma, were specially targeted. Seriously degrading France’s image abroad, the President opened up a fresh front in the arena of civil liberties, uniting against himself French democrats and republicans attached to the fundamental principles of the Republic – but also fomenting opposition in the ranks of his own political organisation, in which competition and rivalries are coming to light with the perspective of succeeding him as head of state.
The government as a whole rejects any criticism of France’s policy, condemned by the UN, then by the Church and by a Commissioner of the European Union. It resorts to abuse, running the risk of further damaging France’s international relations. And the government persists in applying to the letter the European neoliberal orientation. This populist attitude is strengthening, in France, the standing of the extreme right and the appeal it has for a not unimportant part of the electorate. All the while, it is still failing to resolve its contradictions.
In the first place, the electors’ main preoccupations, when questioned in March 2010, were not material security or fighting crime but rather employment and pensions, and for good reasons. The year 2009 was a year of hecatombs – 256,100 jobs were destroyed, nearly 170,000 of them in industry which today covers less than 30% of the French wage earners.
The state itself suppressed 80,000 jobs in 2008, and plans to destroy another 33,000 in 2011, half of which will be in public education, which is at present the sector most seriously affected by the policy of cutting public expenditure. Severe cuts in personnel will also affect state authorities – the police and defence, of which Sarkozy claims to be one of the biggest supporters, and which he unceasingly praises whenever he invokes the issue of security to manipulate fears and unease.
In contrast to the capitalist of the 20th century, who needed to build strong nation-states to seize greater wealth, the strategy of the major financial groups (aided by the existing political authorities) is now fundamentally to transform the nations and make them into underlings to carry out the laws of the market, using increasingly authoritarian modes of exercising power to protect themselves from any opposition to the system, to reduce its resources and prerogatives and take over everything that, abandoned by the public sector, is vulnerable to becoming a part of the market – or disappearing.
This deep-seated movement is based on a specific ideology (that of turning all areas of human production into commodities) and generates a conception of civilisation, a new stage of capitalism. Thus the editor of Figaro, recently commenting on political life, rejoices at the weakening of states: “Why is capitalism allowed to cry victory when two years ago it was being buried unmourned? Firstly, because never has so much money been spent on rushing to save it. In the course of 18 months, over 5,000 billion dollars (that is 10% of the planet’s total wealth) have been poured into the pipelines of the world economy to rescue capitalism firms (…) Secondly, because the majority of states are on the brink of ruin”.
The net job loss, affecting all sectors of the French economy, has reached an historic high: the situation has not been so extreme since 1945, when the French people had to rebuild a country emerging from four years of war and occupation. The degree of political violence practiced since Nicolas Sarkozy took office indeed bears certain resemblances to war – a social war that is attacking social rights, incomes and conditions of employment, a war against working people, especially wage earners and lower paid workers and immigrants, a war that is challenging the very fabric of society through the drastic reduction of public expenditure to the detriment of public interest.
Inequalities are widening. Unemployment is affecting over 4 million people, hitting hardest both the youth (24% of those between 15 and 24) and wage earners over 50 years of age. Nearly 8 million people live on less than 500 Euros a month. In 2010, 23% of the French people did without medical treatment because they couldn’t afford it – 12% more than in 2000. Long-term unemployment has increased by 27.6% in the course of just one year, and real wages, reduced by inflation, are tending to recede.
Growth remains weak, as it is handicapped by financial growth, underuse of productive capacity, and lack of investment in jobs, training or research. Tax shelters for the rich costs the nation 670 million Euros, (120 million more than in 2009), depriving it of resources that the government prefers to receive by levying the income of working people and households, whose purchasing power is gradually diminishing. The fiscal reductions and help given to firms (the effectiveness of which is questionable) have increased over the last 10 years to 100 billion Euros.
The employers, the management of the major French groups and the major banks now believe that “the crisis is just a bad memory” (see Le Monde, September 1, 2010). In August, the press revealed the existence of a veritable war chest of 80 billion Euros, accumulated by 20 major firms, listed on the stock exchange’s CAC40 – at a time when a wage freeze and mass unemployment are being imposed on the population. How can we not see this in connection with the fact that in the 20 years between 1982 and 2002 insecure jobs doubled in all socio-professional groups or that in 25 years the average wage has barely doubled, while in the same period shareholder dividends have increase 13 times.
Millions of French people have noted this and, becoming aware of the nature of the Sarkozy regime, are refusing to submit, in view also of the President already warning of “sacrifices” and the admission on the part of some of the his advisers that current decisions are being made in the perspective of imposing ten years of austerity on the French people.
No doubt the rebellion of the Greek people, the Spanish general strike or the Euro-demonstration of September 29 will also reinforce the number of those in France who have been demonstrating, several million strong, against the pension “reform”.
The social mobilisation, the exceptional trade-union unity and the resulting breadth of the popular rejection of the government’s pension reform are part of a dynamic that differs from that of the protest movements of recent years in that it is not just an act of resistance but also the expression of a determination to live in a fairer French society, a society of solidarity.
Everybody sees that this movement also challenges the left forces in their political determination to put forward answers to the crisis that are real alternatives to those of the right.
In this context, the Left Front, initiated by the French Communist Party (PCF), the Left Party and Left Unity, can help millions of men and women seeking an alternative with which directly to enter the political debate and build a political project for social transformation that a new government majority would be committed to establishing.
Contrary to all the expectations of the authorities, this summer enabled the trade unions, the activists of the “pensions collectives”, (among whom were activists of the French Communist Party) to extend the mobilisation initiated in June. The two national days of strikes and demonstrations on September 7 and 23 (events which rarely occur at that time of the year) brought together each time between 2.5 and 3 million people. Several petition campaigns enabled hundreds of thousands of signatures to be collected. Amongst these was the Left Front’s petition in support of the proposals of the Communist and Left members of Parliament for an alternative method of financing pensions. This bill was presented to the National Assembly on September 7.
The media and most of the political parties tried to rivet the attention of French pubic opinion on which public figures might declare their candidacy for the 2012 Presidential Elections, as if political change was dependent on, or could be summed up as, the arrival of a providential figure on the political scene.
Trying to focus the French people’s attention only on possible candidates for President is tantamount to asking them to champ at the bit for two years, with only social protests on the one hand and elections on the other and nothing in between for popular or civic action.
However, the social movement against the pension reform has made the question of an alternative policy a “here and now” issue.
While a left desire for coming together and for unity is being expressed against the background of the present government’s discredit, it expresses no less important doubts as well as demands on the determination of the left to carry out a policy of breaking with neoliberalism. Returning to office in 2012, yes, but how to prevent the pension reform from being carried out in the meantime? Again, once elected, what guarantee is there that the left will be able to abrogate the measures the right has passed? These questions are mainly addressed to the Socialist Party (Figaro opinion poll, September 23, 2010) but obviously it does not exempt any of the left forces from facing their responsibilities.
The Socialist Party has committed itself to restoring the retirement age to 60 but intends “to be pragmatic and accept the constraints required to govern”, which could be interpreted as doubt about the possibility of reversing the lengthening of the period of contributions, if the latter were to be confirmed. The party machine is so wholly taken up with the process of public designation of its presidential candidate that it does not want to open up internal differences.
The disagreements that exist within the left do not represent problems in themselves. No one excludes the possibility of alliances – but on what basis? This is why it is not enough just to note our differences. The Communist Party is fully in favour of discussion and confrontation of proposals and of visions within the left, whether regarding the pension reform or other issues. The PCF wishes to contribute to opening a transparent public debate, which would not be limited to the political forces but in which our citizens could fully participate and become actors and co-authors. Indeed, what would create a problem would be smoothing out or denying the political differences, confining the political debate to “professionals” and thus frustrating the French people’s expectations and hopes for change.
This is all the more possible in so far as the right has not yet lost power, and that some within it fully intend to embody an alternative. This is the case today with former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin who, while not basically opposing Sarkozy’s policies, criticises his methods, his lack of consideration for Republican values and his disregard for protocol and everything that distinguishes well-born members of the elite. This moral appeal could attract or reassure some of the staunch right-wingers in the electorate, even though having left the UMP the ex-Foreign Minister has little chance of success.
In his own political party, the movement for Popular Unity (UMP), the President has managed to counter the resistance by right wing members of Parliament to his reform of local government, which would tend to impoverish the latter by stimulating competition between them compounded by a loss of resources and the withdrawal of state financial help. The leadership of his party has become the object of internal competition that the President is stoking, so as to keep control of his organisation. Undoubtedly this gambling and playacting also fuels an already evident disgust with politics.
In this context of very intense struggle, in which the authorities denigrate and despise the people’s feelings and show themselves to be inflexible, the extreme right dismisses both the government and the unions accusing them of being in collusion over globalisation. It claims to defend the idea of a “state strategy of defending the little people”. Basing itself on the blurring of left/right ideological characteristics – a blurring given fresh life by the head-of-state’s winning over of former Socialist party elected representatives or leaders – the National Front rejects an extreme right label.
Today it is wrapping its ideology in new clothes, without, however, failing constantly to stress a cause-and-effect link between the economic crisis and social security and immigration. According to its future president, Marine Le Pen, there will henceforth be two political camps confronting each other: “the globalisers and the nationalists” – in short, all the political forces on one side and the National Front on the other. The National Front’s discourse and that of the UMP’s present leadership are perfectly complementary.
At a time when the public discourse of fear and suspicion is so dominant in a society based on inequality, whose members are suffering even more from the crisis, there is reason to fear that many of those who could strengthen the social movement, whose interests would benefit from a break with capitalism, might, in fact, feel lost and discouraged and give up.
This danger is increased if the left forces do not convince people of their determination, of their intention of governing in the interests of working people, and that a transformation of society can work.
To convince people and to persevere, these forces cannot do without the actions of citizens. I am convinced that this activity is indispensible here and now, at the stage of drawing up a political project itself. The broadest possible popular participation in the building of its political content and for giving birth to a totally renewed democratic approach, is essential to open the way – not for a period of alternation in office, but to one of transformation, of revolution. This is the meaning of the popular dynamism that we are trying to build today with the Left Front.
The Communists are aware that such a movement can only be born of the confrontation of ideas and projects in an assembly that goes beyond their own organisation and even goes beyond the organisations with which it initiated the Left Front.
We have proposals to foil the logic of capitalism, which we are contributing to the debate. These proposals turn around some key points: a social revolution against the power of the financial markets; a civic and democratic revolution against Sarkozyist monarchism; a revolution in our ways of life against the logic of profit that alienates; a new international logic of cooperation and of solidarity with the peoples of Europe and of the world (which implies the radical reform of the existing EU treaties).
The mission of the Left Front is to become an area and an instrument that offers a new perspective, at the heart of the left, to those who are fighting the right today but who are nevertheless not ready to give the Left forces a blank cheque. The essential objectives are to carry out another policy and to carry on politics in a different way, because the issue is to determine how we, who constitute this society, wish to live together in the 21st Century.
It is in this spirit and inspired by this determination that the French Communist Party has launched an appeal to create, starting this autumn, the conditions for a massive popular assembly, so as to establish in democratic discussion the shared project that will open up a credible perspective of change, based on a majority of ideas arrived at together and controlled and carried forward by this broad assembly.
Translation from French: Jimmy Jancovich
* This article was written in September 2010 while the described events were still in progress.