The victory of "the centre" is only temporary, argues John Mullen
Macron’s “neither left nor right” movement, “The Republic on the Move” will have a huge majority in the new French parliament. The Socialist party was crushed and the right-wing Republicans badly wounded. The fascist FN was held back to some extent, and the radical Left La France Insoumise got promising results, though considerably lower than at last month’s presidentials. This movement is now the focus of a potential fighting left alternative.
The presidential elections in May showed a tremendous polarization in French politics. The fascist vote of over seven million in the first round, on the one hand, allowed the Front National an unprecedented centre stage in political debate. On the other hand, we saw an excellent result - also over seven million - for the radical left programme of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his France Insoumise movement. There was a sharp decline of those parties which have governed France for decades - the Socialist Party and the Republicans, and an increased marginalization of those revolutionary organizations which fielded their own candidates. The legislative elections, whose first round was on Sunday 11 June, show that uncertainty and polarization continue to be the central features of the political situation in the country.
Victory in the second round of the presidentials fell to Emmanuel Macron, a Blairite option from the point of economic policy, and a modernizing one from a social point of view (not so firmly wedded as others to postcolonial racism and islamophobia: indeed, Macron declared a few weeks ago that colonialism had been “a crime against humanity”). But for the new president to put into practice his policies (of which smashing up labour protection laws were the first priority) he needed a majority in parliament, although he had no real party machine behind him, having split away from the Socialist Party to form an opportunist “neither left nor right” movement, “The Republic on the Move”. As we shall see, his gamble has paid off, for the time being.
The legislative elections happen in two rounds in each constituency. After yesterday’s first round, any candidate who received more than twelve and a half per cent of the number of registered voters in the town may go through to the second round next Sunday. This has meant almost everywhere two candidates in the second round.
The first shock of the results was that abstention was at a record high: turnout only around 49% nationally. Millions felt there was nothing for them in this election, or that Macron’s party was bound to win anyway. The large number of candidates may have also contributed to the abstention rate. My own town, Montreuil, had 20 candidates (a socialist, a communist, a radical left France Insoumise, three Trotskyists, a Green, a right winger, a fascist and a dissident ex-communist were the main players).
Macron’s party, La République en Marche, began with a powerful dynamic from the presidential victory, and was able to attract voters both from the Socialist Party and from the traditional right Republicans. Of its 525 candidates, 80 left the Socialist Party to stand with Macron and 40 left different wings of the traditional Right. Macron has made much of the fact that more than half of his candidates have never held elected office, even on a town council. But his renewal does not involve many working-class candidates: only two of the 525 are manual workers, 11 are farmers, 87 are teachers or school heads, 71 are management consultants and 156 own their own business! He claimed an image as a party of renewal, reinforced by the fact that he himself is only 39 years old. In addition, he got a significant boost from a section of the population, looking for political stability, who voted Macron “to give him a chance”, since he had been elected president.
Meanwhile, Macron’s first weeks in office are showing us good reasons to fight against him. He has announced that it is urgent to reform the labour code (which is mostly made up of rules which protect workers by imposing national minimum standards for working conditions, health and safety, redundancies, union representation and so on). He is pushing for more Sunday work and night shifts. He has declared he will push through his “reforms” (read “attacks”) at the end of the summer, without a debate in parliament. Of course, he has been careful not to go into too many details of the neoliberal changes he has in mind, and is organizing multiple “consultative talks” to try to get some of the union leaders on board, but the threat is very clear.
Much of what Macron plans to do when he gets his majority is still unknown, but the few hints given are dreadful. He suggests he will cut unemployment benefit for anyone who refuses two job offers, for example. He has announced he will abolish worker contributions for national insurance, “in order to increase your buying power”, but does not say how he will find the money to fund health and pensions otherwise. He plans to further cut pensions in the public sector, presently calculated as a proportion of final salary, by basing the calculation on a much longer period. He promises to abolish local rates, (again “to put money back in your pockets”) but will not say how local public services will be paid for. When the results came in, Macron got 32 % of the votes nationally, and will clearly obtain a huge majority in the National Assembly next week.
Thankfully, the fascists have seemed unable to build on their strong showing at the presidentials. Le Pen’s party got around 14% (a similar score to five years ago). Obviously, this is still worryingly high, and in twenty different towns the fascists came first. The FN previously had two MPs and it is estimated they will have only one or two after next week. Meanwhile, the traditional Right maintained 22% of the vote (35% five years ago) and is expected to get around 80 MPs.
The radical Left La France Insoumise got 11% (down from 20% at the presidentials), hit by the abstention rates but also by the fact that no alliance could be agreed with the Communist Party. The Communist party, proud of their real but limited policy achievements on town and regional councils tended to see the France Insoumise as Johnny-come-latelys, while many supporters of the France Insoumise could not accept the regular alliances with the Socialist Party at various levels entered into by the Communists. Nevertheless, the France Insoumise is now by a very long way the principal force of the anti-austerity Left. The popularity of the FI programme (more left-wing even than Corbyn’s) shows clearly the space for a new Left movement. FI campaign groups around the country attracted many new activists, and 75 or so FI candidates are through to the second round. The movement, it is estimated, will have 15 or so MPs after the second round, (it didn’t exist five years ago), depending on the week’s campaigning. The Communist party (2.7% of the national vote in the first round) is also expected to have four or five.
The Socialist Party, who were the government until a month ago, saw their vote collapse to 7,5% of the vote (as against 40% five years ago). Over two hundred of their MPs lost their seats. The General Secretary of the party, Cambadélis, lost his, obtaining less than ten per cent of the vote. Ex-presidential candidate Hamon lost his too, coming in fourth in his constituency. Former minister Filipetti, and several other ex-cabinet members were also out on their ear. All in all, this constitutes a historic defeat for the Socialist Party, and the organization may not survive the shock. Its disappearance would have a huge effect on the possible reconstruction of a real fighting Left.
Obviously, Macron’s victory is unwelcome news. But there is every chance that popular resistance will make his life very difficult. Because of the electoral system and the abstention rates, Macron’s likely huge majority in parliament is based on the votes in the first round of just 16% of registered voters! The percentage of voters who supported his party is the smallest for a newly elected president for many decades. His attacks on the labour law, on the other hand, are opposed, according to polling, by 50% of the population. The potential for a fightback is clear. Already, his election as president was greeted the following day by significant counter-demonstrations.
Macron’s breakthrough has involved a sweepout of hundreds of established politicians who have been managing neoliberalism these last twenty years and are often hated for it. But the change in personnel has not given us a government with new ideas: Macron is an admirer of Thatcher and is hoping to follow her example in accelerating worship of the market God and destruction of what he sees as the false idols of public service and nationalization. Nevertheless, the French ruling class would have preferred the established parties to have remained in place: their new standard bearer is an amateur.
Polarization will continue, despite the temporary victory of “the centre”. What La France Insoumise can build as a radical left alternative organization now that the Parti Socialiste is out for the count, will be a crucial project, which all anticapitalists should be involved in. There is a need both for independent revolutionary analysis and structuring, and the building of this wider political movement, whose future is not yet written.
John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.
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