Whilst the upcoming Greek elections may be more pivotal, the looming double defeat for the right in France will be very significant. It may mark a turning point against the austerity tide that has swept across Europe in the wake of the crisis.
In the Presidential elections Francois Hollande, the candidate of the Socialist Party (the equivalent of the Labour Party) won a convincing victory. He is the first Socialist president in France since Mitterand who left office 17 years ago.
In the first round Sarkozy’s UMP, the main party of the right, got 27% of the vote, a huge drop on the 39% it received five years ago.
The Socialist party took 29% of the vote, a distinct improvement on its performance in 2007. Together with the other left parties such as the Greens and Left Front, the left-of-centre parties received 47% of the vote.
Many commentators are focusing on the far right Front National’s vote of 14%, a 4% improvement on their 2007 result. But that year was an electoral blip for them as Sarkozy ate into their electoral base. This year’s vote is barely different from results at nearly every other parliamentary election since their emergence as a force in the mid-eighties.
Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Left Front vote, at 7%, was, as expected, lower than in the first round presidential election. In the assembly elections more people are likely to return to traditional voting patterns, particularly as there was widespread speculation as to whether the Socialist Party would win a majority. Also, the Left Front received much less media attention in this round.
7% is a more than respectable vote for the radical left in an election that sees the return of the centre left to government. It confirms the fact that overall economic crisis and Sarkozy's austerity policies have mainly shifted people to the left.
The Front de Gauche can expect to win 15-18 seats in the second round. This is because of concentrated strength in some areas largely due local historical strength of the Communist Party, still the backbone of the Front de Gauche.
Crucially, the Front de Gauche has managed to unify the bulk of the radical left vote, something that has eluded the french left for years.
The revolutionary groupings that stood independently fared badly. Lutte Ouvriere and the New Anticapitalist (NPA) party together dropped from 3.4% in 2007 to 0.98%. For the latter party, built around what was the LCR, there is a major crisis with one section leaving to join the Front de Gauche.. The rise of the the Front de Gauche and Melenchon has both squeezed them electorally and created a big debate about how to relate to people breaking from neoliberalism.
Unfortunately, Melenchon didn’t manage to get into the second round and so will not be in the next parliament. He had decided to challenge the leader of the FN Marine Le Pen in her bid to get into parliament. The battleground for this monumental face off was the a town in the economically depressed town in Northern France, a region where industry was decimated in the 1980s and 1990s much like parts of Northern England and Scotland.
The seat was previously held by the Socialist Party but their candidate was not re-standing. The local PS, which also controlled the town hall, had suffered corruption scandals.
The hope was that if Melenchon got into the second round, the overall left vote would get behind him to keep out Le Pen. It was a gamble, however, which did not pay off. Though the Socialist vote dropped ten points to 23% they beat Melenchon into third place on 21.5%. He needed 22.37% to get into the second round.
Marine Le Pen got 42.36% a massive improvement on the previous FN vote, with a different candidate. In this election Sarkozy's UMP did not stand and instead backed a small centrist party which got 7%. Previously, in 2007, the UMP had come second in the area.
The Front de Gauche here clearly underestimated the resilience of the Socialist Party, and the FN’s potential in some instances to channel discontent. It was probably a mistake for Melenchon to risk not getting in to the Assembly.
But it's important to have a clear view of the balance of forces in the country as a whole. The second round looks likely to deliver a left-dominated National Assembly which would mean that assembly, the presidency, the Senate and nearly all the regions would be under centre left control.
The Front National vote is of course worrying but commentators who focus on their result tend to overestimate their progress and risk making them the centre of attention.
By following suit the left is in danger of getting distracted from its main priority. The key task for the left is to build effective resistance to austerity. This is overwhelmingly the first concern of millions of working people in France and across Europe and elsewhere. A serious assault against the neo liberals would marginalise the far right by providing focus and hope for those bearing the brunt of the cuts.
Left to its own devices, the Hollande government is unlikely to chart a radically new course. But expectations will be high.
The Front de Gauche is now in a position to build a movement aiming to pressure the Hollande government to make a real break with neoliberalism.
Danielle Obono, leading member of the Front de Gauche will be speaking at the Coalition of Resistance Rally on Tuesday June 19th at Friends Meeting House, Euston, London.
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