French elections: Hollande pays price for austerity

François Hollande

By Najete Michell

The results of the French départemental elections on 29 March were a devastating defeat for French President, Hollande’s Socialist Party (SP) government and a clear rejection of austerity policies.

Following the Charlie Hebdo murders Hollande had some success in placing himself at the head of a broad response. Dubbed a ‘sacred union’, he led a demonstration of four million on 11 January which brought together not just all of the French political parties from right to left but included huge international endorsement. In the aftermath Hollande’s popularity went up a little in the polls.

But the following month the hard reality of neo-liberal economics came back when Valls – the Prime Minister – used special powers to force through a further round of austerity without a vote in Parliament.

The elections on 29 March then saw a catastrophic fall in support for the SP government while the main party of the right, the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), won a substantial victory.

The only real questions in the second round of these elections were just how many departments would the SP lose and would the National Front win 1 or possibly two departments?

The results in the 101 départements showed a huge switch from left to right: the Socialist Party lost half their previous departments, going down from 61 to 33 (although one is led by the Front de Gauche) while the rightist parties went from 40 departments up to 67, two-thirds of their previous total.

The National Front won none.

Inside the UMP, the credit for the victory is disputed, with two different lines in confrontation.

On the one hand, Alain Juppé – who has declared his intention to seek the UMP’s nomination as Presidential candidate next year – has an orientation to seeking unity between the UMP and the parties of the centre-right parties (UDI – Union of Democrats and Independents – and MoDem – Democratic Movement). His strategy is directed against the Front National, whose ideas are clearly shared by many in the UMP. Juppé claims that it is this orientation that won, as locally the alliance of UMP/UDI/Modem was a winning one.

On the other hand, former President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been back in active politics since last autumn, has a different approach. His strategy is to occupy some of the space held by the NF and win back a section of its vote. For over a decade a part of the electorate has swung back and forth between the UMP and the NF. His tactic is to defeat the NF at their own racist game. So, for example, during the election he proposed banning the hijab in universities and imposing a single menu in school canteens which would eliminate meals for Muslim children. His slogan was ‘Ni FN, ni PS’ (neither the NF nor the SP) and he invented a new acronym – the FNPS – saying that a vote for the NF in the first round was a vote for the SP in the second.

Neither Juppé nor Sarkozy can claim victory for their orientation and the fight between the two will heat up over the next year.

As for the National Front, although it gained a quarter of the vote (25 per cent), it did not come anywhere near its goal of becoming ‘the first party of France’. Furthermore its line of ‘neither right, nor left’ meant it could not win any département at the second round, as alliances are needed to gain the presidency of any General Council (the leading body of the département). With the majority line in the NF at the moment being to reject both the right and the left – the UMPS (UMP+PS) – or the system as they call it, such alliances were ruled out. Nevertheless there are sections of the NF that do not agree with this, particularly objecting to some of Marine Le Pen’s anti-austerity rhetoric, and are eager to position the party more clearly on the traditional right.

Despite Marine Le Pen’s aim to make the NF more acceptable, the core character of its programme remains unchanged. It is still racism, but now it is an ‘acceptable’ racism, under the guise of laïcité (secularism) which for many in France, not just the NF, has become a war machine against Islam. Open racism however is now ‘forbidden’ in the NF. Even Marine’s father and NF founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, has fallen foul of this. After some recent holocaust revisionist and pro-Vichyist statements by him he has had to stand down as a candidate and it is possible he will be excluded from the NF. But Islamophobia and racism under the cover of laïcité and anti-immigration rhetoric remains unchecked.

Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen the NF has gone from 18 per cent to 25 per cent of the share of the vote in two years. It has now a number of elected representatives all over France. However, if it is not in a position to win power – as the results of the départemental elections show – it is not because of its xenophobic and Islamophobic stance, which a large part of the UMP shares. The real stumbling block for the French bourgeoisie is the NF’s radical anti-European positions. It will not tolerate any threat to leave the Euro. As a result lately Marine Le Pen has tried to inflect her position on leaving the Euro in favour of a return to the Franc – but this threatens to undermine the NF against the UMP still further as it would begin to have no distinctive position.

On its part, the Socialist Party has again drawn no lesson from this huge defeat and has declared it will carry on the same policy of austerity as before the elections. The only change of tactics is that now they are saying that the main enemy is the NF, blaming the lack of unity of the left against the NF for their defeat! So everybody should unite to fight against the NF. They conveniently ignore that it is the Socialist Party in office that is not only directly responsible for the austerity policy but also the racist climate spreading in France through their persecution of the Roma, of migrants, and their Islamophobic positions.

Furthermore, this ‘all unite against the NF’ strategy led them to call for a ‘republican front’ – unity of right and left – against the NF at the second round, weakening further the working class in facing up to the tactics of the UMP as this meant asking SP voters to support the UMP against the NF in the second round. Of course this was not at all reciprocated as the UMP made sure that their voters did not choose the SP against the NF. 

In many cases voters expressed their discontent by putting a blank or spoiled vote in the ballot box (8 per cent), to which must be added the 50 per cent who abstained.

The Front de Gauche resisted this tide towards the right. The government once again tried to hide its true electoral score: they only register an alliance as the Front de Gauche if the Communist Party forms part of it, meaning its vote is under-counted. The real score of the Front de Gauche was 9.4 per cent overall, and where it made alliances with the Greens it got 13.6 per cent.

But this is clearly not enough.

The government is carrying on its attacks on the population with new austerity measures to come and a bill banning the hijab for children’s nannies to be discussed in Parliament on 13 May.  This government bears complete responsibility for the wave of Islamophobia unleashed by the Charlie Hebdo events. State racism nourishes racism in the population and works hand in hand with that promoted by the NF. Muslim women wearing the hijab are particularly targeted at all levels (work, public services) and above all in street attacks.
It is therefore very important for the radical left to engage in a mass anti-racist campaign along with their fight against austerity to reverse this reactionary tide.