No ‘honeymoon’ for Hollande as French government continues austerity

French parliamentary elections - final results

By Abelle Moreau

The outcome of the French elections marks a turn in the political situation in France, which will now play out with implications for all parties.

Francois Hollande’s ‘honeymoon’ with French voters has been one of the shortest on record.

Having run his election campaign claiming he would reject Sarkozy’s austerity policies and insist on a ‘growth strategy’ alongside debt reduction, no new policies have materialised.

Unemployment has continued to rise, the manufacturing sector contracts, large tax rises have driven hostility among the better off and the much vaunted pressure on Germany and Merkel to agree to a European growth strategy has not produced any concrete action.

The promised increase in the minimum wage means it will go up 2% rather than the previously announced 1.4% – making a few centimes difference.

Unlike Sarkozy, who had an extended period of high popularity when first elected, Hollande’s approval ratings fell from 63% after his election to 56% at the beginning of July, and fell again to 53% after the mid-July announcement of closures and job losses in Peugeot.

This is likely to worsen as the SP reneges on its promise to create 65,000 public sector jobs (in education, criminal justice and the police), instead saying this will be over 5 years and introduced alongside a 2.5% annual reduction in jobs (15,000 jobs a year) in other parts of the public sector.

But it is not the UMP, Sarkozy’s party, that is likely to gain from this. After its thorough defeat, the UMP is in internal turmoil, with a question mark over whether its unity is sustainable.

The chief beneficiary is likely to be Marine Le Pen’s extreme right National Front, which did well in the elections and now stands to gain from the inevitable disappointment of the hopes that the French working class have invested in Hollande and the SP, reinforced by the concessions to its chauvinist and racist agenda from the UMP.

The only real alternative to the austerity policies of both SP and UMP and to the rise of the neo-fascist right, comes from the left current led by Jean-Luc Melenchon. Although under-represented in its number of deputies, the Front de Gauche put up a very effective campaign in both Presidential and Legislative elections, on clear policies rejecting austerity and cuts, opposing imperialist interventions and against reactionary social policies.

It is now at the centre of a further regroupment of the forces to the left of the SP, and is the best hope of preventing disillusion feeding the forces of the far right.

Hollande and the SP crowned success in the Presidential election with a virtual clean sweep for the Socialist Party in the National Assembly.

Of the 577 seats of the National Assembly, the Socialist Party took 280, up 94 seats, and with its allies took 331 seats overall, up by 118 in total – well in excess of the absolute majority of 289. At the same time the right fell by 116 seats.

Having won an absolute majority, the SP can now set the legislative agenda without needing the support of the Front de Gauche.

But the real outcome was far from being a ‘pink wave’ – although a clear majority of the French population wanted to get rid of Sarkozy

The real relationship of forces was most clearly shown by the first round of the presidential elections when all parties stood, the turn-out was at its highest of all the various election rounds, and there were no ‘deals’ to skew the vote.

In these elections the combined vote for the SP (Hollande 10.2m votes), the Front de Gauche (Melenchon 4m votes), the Greens (800,000 votes) and extreme left (600,000 votes) was 15.6 million.

But the combined vote for the UMP (Sarkozy 9.7m votes) and the National Front (Le Pen 6.5m) was higher totalling 16.2 million.

A further 3.2 million votes were cast for the centre party the Modem (Bayrou). Although Bayrou called for a vote for Hollande in the second round – expressing the extreme political hostility to Sarkozy in the country – the natural position of this party is more to the right.

The clean sweep for the SP was therefore less down to active support for the left, and more due to two mutually reinforcing elements: on the one hand, the voting system, and on the other, the electoral strategy of the National Front.

Firstly the whole electoral system is distorted by the presidential system, whereby the President is elected first, then the Assembly. Logic would suggest the reverse order, with the head of state arising from the National Assembly majority.

One consequence of this is the regular high abstention rate at the legislative elections. Having already made a clear ideological choice on the presidency, interest declines for the Assembly elections.

This trend was reflected in these elections with 42.8% abstention at the first round of the legislative elections and 44.6% at the second, compared to 20% at the presidential elections.

Secondly the system is in no sense proportional. Parties that get less than 12.5% in the first round are eliminated before the final run-off, and usually the others withdraw ensuring a run-off the two top candidates.

This system encourages first and second round deals and local alliances between parties that can distort the results further.

In these elections, a deal between the SP and Greens not to run against each other in certain seats ensured that the Greens were elected in a greater number of areas than would have been the case otherwise. So the Greens gained 17 Assembly seats, when they only had 800,000 votes in the Presidentials.

While the Front de Gauche, which had 5 times as many votes – 4 million in the Presidentials – faced the active hostility of the SP and won only 10 seats.

As in similar systems, the French electoral system ensures a disproportionate number of MPs for the winning party, and under-represents the smaller parties. The Socialist Party and the UMP got 68% of the vote but 94% of the seats (541 of the 577 seats of the National Assembly).

The second key factor in the result was the approach of the National Front.

In the choice between the SP and the UMP – in the second round of the Presidentials and in many seats in the Assembly second round – it would seem obvious that it would support the UMP. But its new leader, Marine Le Pen, sees the UMP as the major round bloc on the path the electoral advance for the NF, and so instead declared war on it.

While the party decided no formal abstention policy, Le Pen personally declared she would abstain in the second round of the Presidentials.

However, NF voters did not entirely abstain. In the past, the NF vote at the second round mainly went to abstention, with some voting for the Socialist Party. This changed in this presidential election, when the second round abstention was quite minimal, making the final gap between Sarkozy and Hollande narrower than expected. 60% of National Front voters chose Sarkozy in the second round.

But this was not the case in the legislative elections.

In seats where the first round vote split fairly evenly between the UMP and the NF (with each gaining around 20-25%), the National Front opted to stand as third candidate in the second round.

This led to 32 ‘triangulaires’ – constituencies where a third candidate from the NF stood in the second round. Only 2 NF candidates were elected, in seats where the vote split three ways SP/UMP/NF, so it nowhere had an absolute majority. But this tactic frequently prevented the UMP gaining a majority in the second round and let the SP through. (NB a third fascist, Jacques Bompard, was elected for a different group.)

Although the SP and the left advanced against the UMP in the big cities and the west of the country, where the National Front has no implantation, in other areas the votes deserting the UMP appear to have strengthened the NF.

The NF appears to have gained most at the expense of the most right wing UMP current, La Droite Populaire (the Popular Right), which has very similar policies to the NF.

While the UMP as a whole lost one third of their seats, the Droite Populaire current lost more than half (from 43 to 19), mainly due to the UMP vote splitting to the right resulting in ‘triangulaires’ that the SP won.

This demonstrates the likely future trend, which is an entrenched extreme right current in the French masses, which was drawn under the electoral umbrella of the UMP while it was in power, is now voting to the right of the UMP, strengthening the NF.

Above all the French elections were a severe defeat for the UMP, the party of former French President Sarkozy. It follows UMP losses in a series of local and national elections (to senate, regional and local bodies) throughout its 10 years of existence.

The UMP was formed in 2002 to unite the divided forces of the right, of which the two main parties were the Union for French Democracy (UDF) and Rally for France (RPR), meaning the right’s vote was no longer split at elections, which had greatly benefitted the Socialist Party.

Sarkozy was able to complete this unification, and get rid of his rival Chirac, with his election as president in 2007.

Sarkozy’s project was clear: to ratchet up the exploitation of the French working class and break its resistance through Thatcher-like ‘reforms’ of labour rights and an assault on the welfare state. This was accompanied by reactionary social policies to attract National Front voters – on law and order, racism and other ‘values’ as he put it – and strongly pro-US, pro-NATO, international policies reflected in stepped up French support in Afghanistan and the key role played by France in the NATO war on Libya.

All these policies – especially the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Roma campaigns – were deepened with the outbreak of the economic crisis. This met no resistance from the alleged ‘centrist’ currents within the UMP. A paralysis that was again confirmed when they hardly reacted to the sharp turn at these elections towards winning support from the NF with Sarkozy praising the ‘French’ character of the ‘values’ of Le Pen and co.

At the legislative elections, a new concession was made to the National Front with the line of ‘ni-ni’ (neither-nor), i.e. the UMP called for a vote ‘neither for the socialist candidate, nor for the National Front’ when it was a run-off between these parties in the second round. Previously the line had always been for a ‘republican front’ against the NF candidate.

As was predictable, the effect of these politics has been to boost the support for Marine Le Pen and to legitimise her ideas. Two thirds of the UMP membership now agrees with adopting the values of the NF.

In the leadership of the UMP a debate is opening up on how it can return to power. While only one or two of its leaders have advocated electoral alliances with the NF, outside the party, 66% of its electorate are in favour of such an alliance.

The Front de Gauche is the only current that really takes the fight to the NF.

This is reflected in the decision of Melenchon himself to stand against Marine Le Pen in the seat of Henin Beaumont. This is a very working class constituency where a history of Socialist Party corruption meant that she had a serious chance of winning. Melenchon’s campaign exposed her real politics and offered a progressive alternative to the NF, contributing to her defeat.

Despite the stakes in this battle, an indication of the political bankruptcy of the SP, is that when SP national secretary, Martine Aubry, came to the seat to campaign, she spent her whole time attacking the Front de Gauche, rather than Le Pen.

This contrasts with the principled approach of the Front de Gauche itself, which called for a vote for Hollande in the second round of the Presidentials and went on to call for a vote for the SP against the UMP in the second round of the legislatives.

With only 10 MPs elected, the Front de Gauche could not form a formal parliamentary group with the right to propose bills etc for which 15 MPs are required. Therefore it has made an agreement with 5 MPs from the ‘outre-mer’ constituencies. These are the representatives from the remaining colonies of France – mainly small islands – that have regularly returned left deputies who form a bloc with the ‘alternative left’. The SP placed them under enormous pressure not to form a group with the Front de Gauche.

Despite the constant attacks from the SP, the Front de Gauche is continuing to campaign, and further forces are joining it.

Most recently a current called Gauche Anticapitaliste, which split out of the extreme left New Anti-capitalist Party on 9th July, has decided to join the Front de Gauche.

Despite the limited possibilities of parliamentary action to change the line of the SP or inhibit its legislative programme, the Front de Gauche will continue its campaigning in and outside the assembly against austerity and cuts, against new imperialist adventures and against racism and the extreme right.

Building this current is not only the necessary response to the continuing attacks on the living standards and well-being of the French population, but is the best way to create an alternative to the racist right.