By Najete Michell
Although the March elections in France were only at a local level, they took on a national character. They were the first elections since the Socialist Party (PS) formed the government in 2012 and were therefore the first opportunity to test the level of discontent at its record so far.
Among working class voters the general attitude, which was reflected in the March results, is that they voted for Hollande to reverse Sarkozy’s neo-liberal policies that were crashing living standards and attacking social gains, but instead Hollande has just continued the same policy and even worse. The last two years have seen more austerity, attacks on trade unions rights, rising VAT and other attacks on the living standards of the population. During the electoral campaign – a period when governments usually announce populist measures in order to get elected – instead Hollande announced proposals to cut €50bn from the state budget and reduce unemployment benefits, while announcing measures aimed at saving businesses €30bn in costs including cancelling retrospective tax bills.
The impact of this was that a very high proportion of the electorate – 38.50 per cent – chose to abstain. Analysis shows that it was people who generally vote on the left who abstained – rejecting Hollande, understanding the right would be worse, but not convinced the forces to the left of the PS have a viable alternative.
The Socialist Party won 38 per cent of the vote and lost 155 councils, while the mainstream right gained 46.5 per cent of the vote. Alongside this the extreme right National Front gained in implantation, with 1381 councillors elected (from a total of 200,000 up for election) and winning in 11 councils. A further 3 councils were also won by the extreme right from other small fascists groups. The NF share of the vote was only 6.5 per cent, but as this is the share of the national vote and the NF did not stand everywhere it is hard to judge their real current level of national support.
The rejection of the PS austerity policy was clearly strongest in the most working class areas. Among the 155 councils it lost were a number of important towns like Toulouse, Amiens, Angers, Saint Etienne, Reims and others. Historic bastions, like Limoges – which had been socialist for a century (since 1912) – and Nevers were also lost. Additionally towns which had voted for the French Communist Party (PCF) for decades – like Bobigny in the so called ‘red suburbs’ of Paris – were also won by the right.
Nationally, the right won 60 per cent of towns compared to 44 per cent at the last municipal elections in 2008. The right was very organised for these elections, building up to them over the last year with street demonstrations, some extremely big, against gay marriage and against eco-taxes in Brittany. Some minority fascist groups joined these mobilisations.
The dissatisfaction with the Socialist Party government has created the conditions for the real beginning of a growing local implantation of Lepen’s extreme right party. As people have lost confidence in the two main parties – the right wing UMP and the Socialist Party (PS) –Marine Lepen has come up with the formula of opposing the ‘UMPS’ i.e. there is no difference between the UMP and the PS, and the National Front is the alternative. Her strategy of trying to win from the bottom up, i.e. at local elections, opposed to her father’s which was to address only the top elections at a propaganda level, has had some successes.
The PS, as part of its complete adaptation to the demands of capital, also set out to weaken and paralyse the only determined opposition to both the right and extreme right, namely the Front de Gauche (Left Front). It persuaded the Communist Party to break with the Left Front (of which it was a core component) in a number of towns, by offering it seats in return for an electoral pact. The damage from this was significant but nevertheless what remained of the Left Front (primarily Melenchon’s Parti de Gauche with smaller allies) won 11.43 per cent of the vote. In 2012, the Left Front’s presidential candidate, Melenchon, got 11.1 per cent.
In many towns the Greens, which were in coalition with Hollande nationally, joined with the Parti de Gauche (the Left Party) in these elections, effectively forming part of a left opposition not just locally but to the national policies of the government. This had some successes, as in Grenoble where this type of alliance gained 40 per cent, whereas the joint PS-PCF list got 26 per cent.
Hollande’s response to this electoral trouncing was not to reverse course but to signal a deepening of austerity. In the post-election reshuffle he appointed Manuel Valls, the former interior minister and most right-wing among the leadership of the PS, as the new Prime Minister. This will mean increased austerity and racist attacks.
Hollande has drawn all the wrong lessons from the results of the elections. Rather than understanding the government’s vote fell because the policies of austerity are deeply unpopular and a left alternative is needed, instead he appears to have concluded that it was not right-wing enough. His response it to try to beat the right at its own game and move even further to the right. This will not aid the PS, which is heading further towards disaster. In endorsing the right’s policies it will simply build the support for both the right and the extreme right.
In a significant step, the Greens responded to the election results and the appointments of Valls by resigning from the government.
A national march against austerity in Paris on 12th April, led by Melenchon and the Parti de Gauche with the support of other left parties and trade unions, was also supported by the Communist Party. The latter is once more opposing the national government now that a pact with the PS to hang onto seats in the municipalities is no longer needed!
The demonstration mobilised 100,000 against austerity, in a sign that despite the overall shift to the right in French politics, a left can still be built that presents a real alternative and the French working class will still resist austerity.