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The left has only itself to blame

The right-wing election victory in France should never have happened, writes Philippe Marlière.

December 1, 2007
8 min read

An eclectic coalition cheered the election of Nicolas Sarkozy on 6 May.American neocons, the European Commission, the European right and the New Labour leadership all celebrated the large victory of the right-wing candidate after another impressive turnout. They hailed the ‘sincere friend’ of the United States, the supporter of greater flexibility on trade, the man who will introduce a good dose of Thatcherism in France and the partisan of a short, practical European constitutional treaty.

These proponents of the Anglo-Saxon ‘free market’ model hope that Sarkozy will put the left in its place.And who knows, maybe he will convert the French to the neoliberal agenda that, so far, a majority of them has stubbornly rejected.

In France and across the world, there is a real shiver about this election: will Nicolas Sarkozy manage to stop the cyclical movements of rebellion against neoliberal policies? Over the past 15 years, French workers have successfully defeated the greatest attacks on their social state. This is unique in the west. This French singularity angers those who feel that neoliberal economics are not politically and ideologically driven, but the best science can offer.

In 1995, the general strikes against the austere policies of the Juppé plan paralysed the country’s transport for over a month, yet they received great popular support. The government had to withdraw the plan and subsequently the right lost the 1997 elections. In 2005, the French voters rejected the European constitutional treaty by a large majority, on the grounds that the document would facilitate the dismantling of public services and would place Europe under the yoke of unfettered markets. In 2006, protestors saw off the attempt by the De Villepin government to undermine labour laws for younger workers.

Will Sarkozy emulate Margaret Thatcher and tame the French trade union movement? Will he manage to undo French labour laws or undermine the right to strike? Will he, in short, break the strong egalitarian ethos of French society? And, if he is successful, will the Socialist Party finally cease to be ‘socialist’ altogether and come in line with the post-Thatcherite New Labour?

It is too early to answer those important questions. However, it is possible to reflect upon the demise of the French left.

First, the left should have never lost this election. After three resounding electoral victories against an unpopular right-wing government in 2004 and 2005, this crushing defeat is quite extraordinary.

Despite a robust anti-Sarkozy mobilisation in the second round, Ségolène Royal was more emphatically defeated than Lionel Jospin in 1995. Given the tactical voting on the left, her 25 per cent in the first round constituted quite a mediocre result. In other words, Royal did not prove an electoral asset as expected, but rather a liability.

Second, Royal was facing the most detested and loathed French politician (except Jean-Marie Le Pen). Borrowing heavily from the American right on economic and moral issues, Sarkozy’s politics are totally at odds with the more egalitarian, secular approach to politics of mainstream French politicians. It is also ironic that Sarkozy managed to come out of the televised debate against Royal as the calmer and more tolerant of the two.

Third, it is clear that voters have shifted to the right when one looks at the presidential election results. In particular, Sarkozy has appealed to large sections of the working class (some of them being former Front National voters). However, there is nothing new here.The trend started in the 1980s, but it did not stop the left from winning a number of elections since then. Furthermore, it seems unwise to jump to the conclusion that popular support for the right represents an adhesion to Sarkozy’s free-market policies. Things are more complicated than that.

It is clear that Sarkozy’s strong stance on immigration, law and order and national identity appealed to working-class voters. It is far less obvious that the same voters would approve of the policies of economic deregulation, or back the dismantling of the social state.

Sarkozy shrewdly talked about the ‘right to work more and to earn more’, an indirect attack against the 35-hour week implemented by the socialists. Royal did not argue consistently against this fallacy.

Currently, any working hour above 35 hours is paid at a higher rate. Sarkozy plans to scrap those higher rates. This means that most workers may soon have to work more and earn less than at present. Instead of counter-attacking on this point, Royal could only evoke the rigidity of the law, giving further ammunition to Sarkozy to rubbish a truly progressive reform.

Fourth, the socialist candidate focused the first part of her campaign on the issue of ‘participating democracy’; a theme that appealed to the middleclasses, but has not struck a chord with the rest of the population. Critics described the whole experience as gimmicky and not a genuine exercise in direct democracy along the lines of the participatory budgeting of the Workers’ Party in Brazil. ‘Participatory meetings’ were organised across France, but they mainly attracted Royal’s supporters of Désir d’Avenirs clubs. After promising the public that it would have a stake in the drafting of her manifesto, Ségolène Royal’s controlling approach proved very disappointing. In reality, her policy platform was a compromise between some of the moderately reformist aspects of the socialist programme and her taste for Blairite soundbites on law and order.

Furthermore, there was no clear evidence of genuine popular input in the ‘presidential pact’ that was put to the French voters.

Conversely, Royal did not consistently attempt to underline the correlation between free market policies, social insecurity and delinquency. When Sarkozy declared that people ‘are born paedophiles, and it is also a problem that we do not know how to treat this pathology’, he amazingly got away with it. Royal could only reply that it was a matter for the scientists to discuss. The patriotic overtones of her campaign (the flag, the national anthem) looked artificial and out of step with the internationalist tradition of the Socialist Party. It was above all an awkward move given that this is the natural territory of Le Pen and Sarkozy.

Ségolène Royal is obviously not the only person responsible for this débâcle. The sectarianism of far left parties that failed to unite in the first round played an important part in demoralising leftwing voters. Further to its successful campaign against the European constitution in 2005, the far left could not agree on a common candidate. All the major parties of the left are to blame for this incredible missed opportunity.

Both the Communist Party (PCF) and the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) wanted to impose their own candidate (respectively Marie-Georges Buffet and Olivier Besancenot). The internal struggle to lead the antineoliberal camp appeared to be more important than a realistic and effective opposition to Royal’s Blairite line.

The late involvement of José Bové – the altermondaliste activist – further fragmented the far left. Had it rallied behind a common candidate, it could have hoped to score above 10 per cent of the share of the votes. Instead, many voters who supported those parties in 2002, transferred their votes to the socialist candidate in the first round. Their main objective was to avoid a repeat of 2002, when the left failed to qualify for the second round.

It remains to be seen whether the French radical left – one of the most important in the west – can overcome those sectarian divisions in the future. Sarkozy’s hard right policies and the prospect of the Socialist Party shifting further to the centre, could offer that opportunity. But it is not clear whether the ‘old enemies’ on the far left will decide to seize it.

Because it is the main party on the left, however, the Socialist Party must take most of the blame.The party ‘elephants’ decided to back Royal in late 2006, despite the fact that until then she had played only a minor role in party debates. They did so because at the time opinion polls predicted that she would easily beat Sarkozy.

Consequently, the moderate but socially reformist programme of the party was shelved. Royal was given carte blanche to develop her campaign themes, mixing Blairite soundbites, humanistic generalities and tough remarks on law and order.This was at best an erratic campaign, at worse, a farcical one.This electoral episode has underlined once more how cynical and how detached from popular realities this current socialist leadership is.

Philippe Marlière is senior lecturer in French and European politics at University College London

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