By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor
French politics today is dominated by three factors: the consequences of Macron’s catastrophic mishandling of Covid-19; the opening shots of next year’s Presidential election and the renewed racist offensive unleashed by Macron’s government in a calculated attempt to resuscitate its support, make people forget about its failure on Covid-19; and finally, to divide and defeat the left.
Covid-19 and the economy
In France, about 95,000 people have died from Covid-19 by the end of March 2021, with the new daily confirmed cases per million amongst the worst in the world at the end of March 2021. As Romaric Godin has explained, France has “a cocktail of ingredients capable of transforming this disastrous epidemic into a lasting economic disaster.”
As in other imperialist countries, the working-class has borne the economic brunt of Covid-19, whilst capitalist profits and the incomes of the wealthiest have soared.
The private sector saw a loss of 360,500 jobs in 2020. Unemployment reached 8.5% in the last quarter of 2020, but it is widely regarded that even these totals mask the huge levels of hidden unemployment and underemployment, up to a level of 21%.
Unemployment affects women nearly twice as much as men. It also impacts more severely on black people and people in unskilled work.
Economist, Charlotte de Montpellier has observed, “However, it is unlikely to return to pre-crisis levels before the end of 2023 or even 2024.”
Macron’s disapproval rating in opinion polls has rarely been less than 58% for nearly a year. Many people on the left have decided never to vote for him again.
However, Macron hopes to have enough votes in the first round in the 2022 presidential election, with a preference for facing Le Pen in the second round.
In an attempt to save his presidential skin, Macron has gone on to a racist offensive, mainly in the form of Islamophobia; including, the Law on Separatism, racist interventions by numerous government ministers, and the recent attack on the national student union, l’UNEF.
He thinks that by exploiting Islamophobia, on which the left has a very poor record of fighting, he can win not only people from the right-wing parties and the far-right but also sectors of the left who fail to consistently stand up to racism.
This has been combined with an attack on civil rights and the resistance to racism in the shape of the Global Security Bill which includes attacks on free speech and the monitoring of policing.
Macron’s boosting of the far-right for electoral gain is not unique. Mitterrand used a similar tactic to divide the right, and Sarkozy adopted Le Pen’s ideas to win over the voters of le Front National. [The precursor to the current party – le Rassemblement National (RN)]
It is important to emphasise that it is Macron, not Le Pen, that is driving the renewed racist offensive. Macron and his allies are openly deploying the racist language of the far-right and the fascists.
Even though there is no sign that the French capitalist class wishes to see Le Pen as President, her progression is worrying and a factor of instability.
The latest racist offensive is primarily an attack on Muslims but also tries to destroy any solidarity and unity with Muslims against the racism they face, by silencing the left and so-called ‘islamogauchisme’, and striking at the self-organisation of black people.
The Islamophobic bill
The Separatism Bill was passed at a first reading in the National Assembly by a majority alliance composed of Macron’s party, the right, and the far-right. On the final vote, the Socialist Party and part of the Communist Party abstained whereas la France Insoumise voted against it. The bill is now in the Senate.
The bill has been attacked for being sensationalist, and open to many different interpretations.
But this suits its aim: to create a climate of suspicion against Muslims. The principle of equality is absent in the bill. It is similar to the rules and legislation prevalent in the French colonies: in short, a “loi d’exception” that discriminates against Muslims.
The bill attacks three civil liberties: freedom of expression, freedom of religious practice, and the right of association.
The Imams will be chosen by the French state, contrary to the law of laïcité of 1905 which separated the state and religion. The Imams, private schools and NGOs will be obliged to sign a charter that dictates what they should believe. Also, Imams can not use the word “Islamophobia” nor talk about Palestine.
If the bill becomes law, it will lead to many arbitrary interpretations by those meant to implement it locally and a big witch-hunt against Imams and other Muslims, including children.
Darmanin and Le Pen
Racism is being whipped up at the highest levels of government, with ministers making provocative statements that worsen the climate of Islamophobia and legitimise the far-right and fascists.
The most shocking recent example has been the holding of a debate on a public television channel between Le Pen and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin about a book he had written. Instead of standing up to Le Pen’s racism, Darmanin accused her of being soft on Muslims.
Silencing the anti-racists
The government and the right are also increasingly using the term “islamogauchisme” [islamoleftism] (a term that was created by intellectuals and later taken up by the far-right and fascists) in an attempt to demonise and silence those on the left who consistently oppose the racist offensive against Muslims.
A good example is the junior minister for Higher Education, Frédérique Vidal, who “has announced that the state will investigate how far ‘islamoleftism’ has penetrated French universities.”
France’s prestigious Scientific Research National Center (CNRS) has condemned the government’s attempt to investigate academics and their research. In a statement, CNRS said that, “The islamogauchisme, political slogan used in the public debate, does not correspond to any scientific reality”…. And it “condemns, in particular, attempts to delegitimise different fields of research, such as post-colonial studies, intersectional studies or work on the term ‘race’, or any other field of knowledge.”
Attack on l’UNEF
The national student unionl’UNEF came under fire from the RN over reactionary claims that its black sections are ‘racist’ against white people and therefore in breach of laïcité.
This is a common lie perpetrated by the far-right everywhere when they deliberately equate bodies of self-organised black people to end racism with exclusively white racist organisations whose purpose is to perpetuate oppression.
Although the initial calls for l’UNEF’s dissolution were led by the far-right, other more powerful forces have also joined in the attack.
The government minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said that these meetings [of black students] could lead to “things that are similar to fascism” and spoke of “legislative changes” to make it illegal.
Mélanie Luce, the President of l’UNEF has defended the union’s record on challenging all forms of discrimination and supporting the right of all oppressed groups to autonomy.
She has been the subject of massive racist and misogynistic abuse on social media.
Solidarity with l’UNEF
La France Insoumise, led by Mélenchon, has opposed the calls for dissolution of the student union.
The solidarity statement with l’UNEF has had support not only from current members but also more than 250 previous generations of activists and leaders from a range of political traditions. Its signatories include Presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from la France Insoumise.
However, it is extremely regrettable that the Socialist Party (SP) has not come to l’UNEF’s defence, notably, the SP mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who has said the l’UNEF stance was “very dangerous” and that “secularism [was] a treasure.”
Mélenchon stands up to racism
The increase in racism, specifically Islamophobia, poses a big challenge to the left. For the left to win it has to consistently oppose Islamophobia and the attempt to rewrite in a reactionary way the original purpose of laïcité.
A hugely significant new positive factor is the strong stand taken by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
As a Presidential candidate, Mélenchon has made important criticisms of Macron’s racist offensive, including opposing Islamophobia. His stand will become even more significant for his progress in his campaign to build a strong, left anti-racist alternative in the Presidential election.
No concessions to Islamophobia
The previous dominant strategy pursued by the left, of making concessions to Islamophobia, only served to legitimise the agenda of the far-right and weaken the working class and other sections of the oppressed.
It was members of the LCR [Revolutionary Communist League] in the 1980s that launched a political attack on school students wearing the hijab with a right-wing interpretation of laïcité. This led to new demands and laws against the rights of Muslims, including the 2004 law to forbid the wearing of the hijab in schools.
However, it is important to note that there was resistance to this attack and some victories, notably, on the right of mothers to wear the hijab when joining their children on school trips.
The resistance to racism is growing
Saturday 20 March saw the UN Anti-racism Day march led by le Réseau d’Entraide Vérité et Justice and la Marche des Solidarités des Sans Papiers. It was attended by about ten thousand people. Its publicity saw support from all the national trade unions and l’UNEF
On Sunday 21 March there was a much smaller demonstration organised by le Front contre l’Islamophobie et pour l’Egalité des droits. It made sure that the opposition to the main form of racism in France today, Islamophobia, was not ignored.
Le Front contre l’Islamophobie et pour l’Egalité des droits has been established with 80 affiliated local and national groups (NGOs) and is building up gradually.
The “Marche Nationale des Sans Papiers” has recently been growing with more than twenty new local groups since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. They are very active and have been the first in the streets in May last year to demonstrate for the regularisation of their situation in the context of the COVID crisis, despite the threat of being deported which always hangs over their heads because of the specific legislative codes applied to them.
Migrant groups have understood that the more they fight publicly, the more the relationship of forces moves in their favour, and the weaker becomes the wall of silence behind which it is easier to subdue them.
Le Réseau Vérité et Justice, which are the committees created by family and friends after the murder of a black person, are also a very important part of the resistance to racism.
The most well known of them is “le Comité Adama”, after the death of Adama Traoré four years ago. It has mobilised tens of thousands of people in rallies or demonstrations to get the truth about his murder at each stage of the judicial process. They are also able to mobilise the black youth in the suburbs who are discriminated against daily by the police under “stop and search”.
Consistent opposition to racism
It would be a huge victory for the ruling class to succeed in isolating and defeating any left challenge in the middle of a huge economic and public health crisis. It would undoubtedly lead to more racism and an escalation of the economic and political attacks on the working class and the oppressed.
The opposition to Macron from the Gilets Jaunes and the pension strikes, shows the potential for a mass, left alternative.
Macron’s attempt to depict himself as the republican bulwark against Le Pen and the RN must be exposed and challenged by a united movement of the working class and the oppressed, with the Muslim and other black communities at its heart.
Consistent opposition by the left to racism, notably in the form of Islamophobia, is indispensable if the right and far-right are to be defeated in France.