France is facing a political identity crisis before its presidential election in April but left unity would offer a cohesive and principled programme of renewal. Scott Hiley reports
THIS spring, the people of France will go to the polls to replace deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande and choose a new National Assembly.
Set against the backdrop of high unemployment, slow economic growth, a string of terror attacks and the influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war this year’s elections have less to do with politicians or parties than with a clash of visions for France’s future.
At issue are France’s place in the EU, its openness to immigrants and refugees and the fate of a social model based on strong protections for workers and the unemployed.
Current President Francois Hollande hails from the pro-business wing of the centre-left Socialist Party. He was elected in 2012 with the support of the Left Front coalition on a promise to protect social programmes and renegotiate an EU treaty that places stringent fiscal limits on France.
Despite his campaign rhetoric, Hollande’s economic policy was textbook neoliberalism. The signature achievements of his time in office were two laws that met with massive protest from the labour movement and the left.
The Macron Law, proposed by minister of the economy Emmanuel Macron, weakened protections for workers’ time off and privatised billions of euros’ worth of state-controlled assets.
The El Khomri Law, named for the minister of labour but often referred to as the “loi travail,” or work law, modified labour law to dramatically increase the power of employers in negotiating with unions. It also capped the legal penalties payable to workers in cases of unfair dismissal.
The Macron law met with protest, but the El Khomri faced a backlash that nearly paralysed the country as the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) — France’s most powerful union federation — took to the streets.
In the end, the government used a rarely invoked constitutional provision to force the law through the National Assembly without debate.
Discontent with Hollande and with former prime minister Manuel Valls has also been fuelled by a string of terror attacks in France and by the imposition of a “state of emergency,” restricting civil liberties and giving the government expanded policing powers, that has been in place since November 2015.
Christiane Taubira, France’s first black woman minister of justice and the voice behind a landmark marriage equality law passed in 2013, resigned from the government in protest at a constitutional reform that would allow the government to strip native-born French citizens of their citizenship.
Finally, France is divided over how to respond to the influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war. Fearmongering from the far right was expected, but even the ruling Socialist Party voiced a xenophobic tone, with then-prime minister Valls warning that migrants were a threat to the very idea of Europe.
Critics from the left, like communist and MEP Patrick Le Hyriac, insist that Europe has an obligation to welcome those refugees and that immigration is a source of cultural wealth rather than a threat. Towns around France have organised independent initiatives to welcome refugees and integrate them into the life of the community.
It is in this fraught political climate that we have to understand the rise of the far-right Front National (NF) led by Marine Le Pen.
During Hollande’s presidency, the FN moved even further into the mainstream of French politics. Its politics are roughly equivalent to the Trump wing of the Republican Party and are racist, anti-immigrant, against participation in the European Union, opposed to equality for women and LGBTQ people, pro-military and pro-police.
But, like Trump, they drape their reactionary politics in populist pandering. To give a sense of how cynically the NF capitalises on economic insecurity, a recent publicity campaign showed white people with traditional French names, each facing economic hardship. On each is a slogan like: “Too bad for Pierre, he’s not an immigrant,” along with a misleading statement about social benefits available to immigrants.
French elections happen in two rounds — a first round open to all candidates and a runoff between the top two with greatest share of the vote from the first round.
Based on current polling, Le Pen stands to capture almost 30 per cent of the vote in the first round, but is unlikely to win in a runoff. Francois Fillon, from the socially conservative, pro-business Republicans, was positioned as the second place candidate of the first round until a corruption scandal compromised his credibility with voters.
Instead, current polls show Emmanuel Macron in second place. Macron is a young, charismatic former minister running as an independent. His movement, En Marche! (Moving Forward!), is named for his own initials.
Macron is progressive on immigration, LGBTQ rights and the legacy of French colonialism, which he calls “a crime against humanity.” However, he has drawn the ire of the labour movement for the anti-union, pro-austerity policies he pursued during his time as minister of the economy. Still, he consistently leads Fillon by a few points in the polls.
The Socialist Party primary produced a surprise victory for Benoit Hamon, a young rebel who was fired as minister of education after criticising the economic policies of Hollande and Valls. Hamon has called for a “renegotiation of the meaning of work,” with proposals like a universal basic income, support for innovation and measures to protect workers from occupational burnout.
Finally, Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the left-wing France Insoumise (Rebellious France) movement stands fifth in current polls.
In November, the membership of the French Communist Party (PCF) voted to support Melenchon’s campaign rather than running its own independent candidate.
In a statement released just after Fillon’s disgrace and Hamon’s victory in the Socialist primary, the Communist Party’s national executive committee interpreted the results as a rebuke to those trying to portray a right v far right, Fillon-Le Pen “nightmare” as a foregone, conclusive choice for the elections.
“The women and men of France… are speaking out,” PCF leaders noted, “refusing to simply accept the offered scenarios, refusing to follow certain politicians down the blind alley of their policy proposals.” Pierre Laurent, national secretary of the PCF, has emphasised the need to unmask politicians who hide a reactionary agenda with a veneer of social concern.
Le Pen, whom Laurent accused of giving the far-right agenda a “social makeover,” sits atop that list. However, he added, the left needs to show Macron’s platform for what it is — an “Uberisation of society,” where working people face increasing insecurity.
French Communists continue to pursue a policy of “convergence” on the left, calling for public discussion among all anti-right, anti-austerity forces (including independents, Socialists, and Greens) to establish a common agenda based on regulation of the financial sector, support for social welfare programmes and sustainable industrial development. Beyond a set of shared ideas, such an agenda would lay the basis for a progressive majority in the legislature.
The PCF sees winning such a majority as essential to preserving social security, protecting workers’ rights and saving the institutions of the French Republic from the farright onslaught.