Jordan Bardella Jordan Bardella. Photo: BootEXE / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

As the social explosion continues in France, John Mullen writes from Paris on the way in which the far right is trying to build support, despite the strong working class movement

The inspiring revolt in France is moving into its fourth month. Thursday 13 April saw the twelfth day of action against Macron’s plan to make everyone work two years longer. There were demonstrations in hundreds of towns, and many high schools, universities, motorways and railway lines were blocked. The western towns of Caen, Rennes and Brest were thoroughly blockaded. The following day, Friday, over 200 demonstrations were held across the country.

The anger against an attack which, in a context of austerity and inflation, was the last straw for millions, remains powerful. Fifty rappers held a concert in the Paris suburbs to raise money for strike funds. Airport strikers report that delayed passengers very often express their support for their strike. Macron and his Prime Minister Borne can hardly leave their offices without demonstrators harassing them (this is one of the reasons Macron swanned off to China this week). Even in the Netherlands, Macron’s arrogant speech was disrupted by demonstrators. Sophie Binet, newly elected this month  General Secretary of the CGT trade union confederation declared on Thursday that Macron “will not be able to govern until he has withdrawn this reform”.

Although the strategy of repeated days of action is tiring many people, and national union leaderships are still refusing to organise an indefinite general strike, the movement shows no signs of going away. Many of the ongoing strikes have stopped, but others (such as in the postal services of some towns) have just started up.

Macron’s aim, to stage a decisive defeat for trade union organisation, has been an abject failure. His is very much a bruised presidency, and his government has had to retreat on half a dozen other questions in recent weeks, for fear of pouring oil on the flames. Money was found for student grant increases, and a plan for compulsory national service was shelved, as was a racist immigration law. His relations in parliament with the traditional conservatives of Les Républicains are in tatters, as these MPs react despite themselves to the huge pressure from their constituents. Meanwhile, the strength of the movement on pensions is giving workers confidence in many sectors and strikes over wages are becoming more common.

Referendum project

The least combative union leaders, backed by Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel, are now calling to campaign for a referendum on the pensions law. The French constitution allows a referendum to be forced on the government, if a couple of hundred Members of Parliament and 4.8 million citizens (10 per cent of the electorate) sign a demand. The Communist Party has been putting up posters for weeks prioritising this option. But such a campaign would take many months, and the dynamic of the present uprising would be lost. Nevertheless, the idea has quite a large following among demonstrators this week, as the movement slows a little. The initial request for a referendum project was refused by the Constitutional Council on Friday 14 April, but a reworded request may be allowed next week.

The Constitutional Council (which is made up of old, rich ex-politicians and top civil servants), meeting on Friday, could have blocked the pensions law for procedural irregularities and allowed Macron a way out, but it instead gave the law the green light. Macron will no doubt officially sign the measure into law this weekend, but the mobilisation will continue.

The revolt has huge consequences for every political force in France. Last week, I wrote about the consequences for the radical and revolutionary left. In the present article I want to look at French fascists and how they have reacted to the movement. It is common to hear in France today that Le Pen and the far right will be the main beneficiaries of the current crisis. Is this true and why would that be so?

The right-wing media who support Macron’s neoliberalism repeat this idea that Marine Le Pen will be the one who most profits from the present situation. Macron has always wanted us to believe that he is the best defence against the far right, whereas the very opposite is the case. In 2017 when Macron was first elected, Marine Le Pen got ten and a half million votes. After five years of Macron’s austerity and racist policies, she got two and a half million more.

The far right still has a fascist core

Le Pen’s far right organization ‘National Rally’ (previously the National Front) has 88 Members of Parliament and controls two town councils among the 279 larger towns in France. It has been very successful ridding itself of the image of a fascist organization, changing its name, expelling some nazis, and putting forward sophisticated well-dressed spokespeople, many of them women. This process has been much aided by the cooperation of the mass media, and by endless complacent interviews on television talk shows. Macron has helped even more, by putting the RN’s favourite subjects at the centre of political life with a series of racist laws and campaigns.

But the RN still has a fascist core in its membership and in its policies. The centre of its politics is instituting laws which discriminate against non-French nationals, whether in distributing welfare benefits and social housing, or in hiring workers. It aims to attack Islam, to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in the streets of France, and to ban the production of halal meat. The building of fake ‘national unity’ between ‘truly French’ workers and bosses is meant both to repress class struggle and allow even more authoritarian rule, and to make workers pay for the crisis,  in a horrific combination which Europe has seen before.

The RN has however  been unsuccessful in building local party organisation to match its massive electoral appeal. For several years, the party has not been able to organise street demonstrations of many thousands. So this month, when the left and the unions can put two or three million people on the streets, the fascists can seem momentarily invisible and irrelevant.

And class struggle is bad for fascists. Over the last few months, the talk is all about how to defend the retirement age at 62, and how taxing the rich could pay for our pensions. The lines are drawn between workers and the small privileged elite who defend Macron. Nine out of ten working people, from almost all blue-collar workers to many senior managers, oppose Macron’s reform. No one can pretend that Macron’s attack is the fault of immigrants or Muslims. The far-right agenda seems irrelevant. 

A taste of our power

In addition, the experience of the mass revolt contradicts all the values of the far right. Millions in the streets, with tens of thousands of home-made placards, and lots of creative graffiti and activist songs,  show a spirit of popular self-organisation, not of unity behind a supposed national saviour. The favourite demo song ‘Here we are!’ gives a taste of this. ‘Here we are, here we are! Even if Macron doesn’t like it, here we are! For the honour of the workers and to build a better world – even if Macron doesn’t like it, here we are!’

The experience of the most active gives workers a taste of our power – mass workplace meetings every couple of days, blockading motorways, or seeing the rubbish bins pile up in the streets and watching society gradually realise how important your work is, all contribute to a strengthening in class consciousness. And when the energy workers cut off the power from right wing MPs’ office buildings, and put hospitals on free electricity, millions of workers see a glimpse of a possible future. This joyous unity in action is the opposite of the fear and isolation which fuels the far right. The huge demonstrations in smaller towns (sometimes a third to a half of the population, in towns such as Albi and Rodez, and the biggest for many decades in Vannes or Saint Malo) are particularly impressive. And a new generation of 13 to 18 year olds involved in blockading their schools and demonstrating, sometimes collecting money for strike funds, is learning class struggle: we will see them again in the years to come.

Although Le Pen and her cronies denounce Macron’s pensions law as ‘unnecessary and unfair’ they cannot support the mass trade union revolt, they are against trade unionism. They say that people are right to demonstrate, but RN activists dare not appear publicly on the demonstrations for fear of being thrown off (union leaders having specifically said they were not welcome). At the same time,

with one eye on her large following along small employers, Le Pen denounces “the war between rich and poor” and claims that to pay for pensions France needs to exclude non-French nationals from welfare benefits.

Another key fact is that half the police force vote for the fascists, so Le Pen cannot possibly denounce police violence, as the movement is doing more and more, faced with vicious repression against both adults and children. Children arrested for blockading their high school in Sevran near Paris were kept for 30 hours in cells, not allowed toilets, and subjected to racist insults. Other demonstrators have been severely injured by tear gas grenades fired deliberately (and illegally) at their heads. A recording obtained last week by national newspaper Le Monde featured a policeman threatening to break a young man’s legs -“we’ve broken plenty of arms and heads already” he boasted.

So the RN leadership’s discourse on the pensions movement has been almost inaudible, except for a pathetic attempt to suggest there would be more money for pensions if France “was not spending money on immigration”, or that the large proportion of old people in the population might be compensated for if the French government officially encouraged French women to have more children.

Could the far-right profit electorally?

In this context, the RN is playing another card: working hard at being ‘respectable’, putting forward the idea that it represents a realistic governmental option, which has never been tried. So its young, sharply dressed president, Jordan Bardella, is loudly denouncing some of the excellent parliamentary obstruction carried out by La France Insoumise MPs, claiming that La France Insoumise is a threat to democracy. Some of Macron’s ministers are pushing in the same direction. Darmanin, the Interior Minister, recently declared that Marine Le Pen was much more respectful of the French Republic than was La France Insoumise. 

As experiences elsewhere in Europe have shown, although big capital and money markets prefer traditional conservatism to the far right, they are far more scared of the radical left than of extreme right-wing parties. This is why Macron and others are concentrating their fire on La France Insoumise and its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Endless smears have been bandied about over recent years, accusing Mélenchon of being close to Putin, of being antisemitic, of not caring about violence against women, and so on. This will continue and the whole of the left must respond.

With the help of right-wing media and Macron’s policies, the far right is succeeding in its building of a respectable image, and is doing well in the polls. A recent study put La France Insoumise and the Rassemblement National at 26% each if there were parliamentary elections now. If Macronism collapses electorally, which seems likely, a couple of million Macron voters could well move to the RN. Le Pen hopes in parallel to attract a few well-known MPs from the traditional right into her organisation.

In a poll this week, conservative magazine Le Point found that 55% of French people felt that Marine Le Pen ‘had a real chance’ of becoming president at the next elections in 2027. She remains popular among working class people (over 15% of trade union members voted for her last year), and 60% of French people consider she is ‘close to the preoccupations of ordinary people’, despite her only real response to unemployment being to exclude non-French nationals from certain jobs. In reality, RN members of parliament, or of the European parliament, have voted against workers many times : for example, they voted against sex equality at work, against raising the minimum wage and student grants, against sanctioning multinationals for human rights violations, against finding more money for hospitals, and against freezing rents. The list is a very long one.

At their 50th annual conference last November, the leaders of RN insisted on the need to set up many local initiatives in order to put down roots in different towns. Although there is sadly no national mass antifascist campaign, local opposition can be mobilised.  On 1st May, international workers’ day, the RN is hoping to organise a national meeting and banquet in the port town of Le Havre. Preparations are underway for a counter-demonstration. We need this to be the beginning of broad and radical antifascist action.

John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist living in the Paris region, and a supporter of La France Insoumise

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Mullen

John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.