French elections 2017: discussion document 3

Submitted by martin on 24 April, 2017 - 7:28 Author: Miles Darke

The discussion document states that “Macron was a right-wing minister in the current government, led by the Socialist Party; was before a top civil servant, then a banker... He is being backed against the SP's official candidate, Benoit Hamon, by many leading SP right-wingers.” This introduction underestimates quite how right-wing Macron is. The former banker has famously said, to paraphrase, that what France needs is “more young people who want to become billionaires”. The law which bears his name proposed a program of massive deregulation. It eliminated job protections for a variety of occupations, and relaxed statutory limits on night and weekend work. Additionally, it ensured employers no longer face imprisonment for a ‘Hindrance Offence’. Even many ever rightward-drifting Socialist Party deputes could not bring themselves to vote for the bill, and over 2000 amendments to the bill were made. The Macron Law was eventually forced through in 2015 using executive powers (article 49.3).

\An additional attack on the French working class came with the El Khomri Law, which also launched massive attacks on the working class – reducing overtime payments, dismissal settlements, and maximum daily working hours, making it easier to sack workers, and the extension of the ‘Offensive Agreements’, as well as hugely undermining collective bargaining agreements. The El Khomri Law was passed, whilst Macron served as Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs.

The Nuit debout movement, which organised huge demonstrations (hundreds of thousands in March and April 2016), occupations, city assemblies, and strikes across many industries, in oil refineries, airports, docks, railways, warehouses and more, was explicitly against the new labour reforms, introduced by the government in which Macron was a key minister. Former Socialist Party membership or not, he is a thoroughly anti-working class candidate.
What do you say to those workers involved in Nuit debout? Fight against the law, strike, risk arrest … but vote for the guy who launched these attacks? We cannot take political responsibility for calling on workers to vote for a thoroughly anti-working class candidate, just because the alternative is an even more right-wing candidate. That is straightforwardly the politics of 'the lesser evil'.

There are many reasons to oppose voting for ‘the lesser evil’ in bourgeois elections. History has shown that it is a slippery slope, both in terms of candidates, and outcomes. Blindly supporting any Democratic candidate to stop a Republican has just led to more triangulation by the Democrats, and more ever more right-wing candidates, from Gore to Kerry to Obama to Clinton. Some argued in 2010 that in marginal seats in the UK, where there were no socialist candidates, or that the Labour Party would never win, they should vote Lib Dem to keep out the Tories. (The recent announcement of the General Election in June has bizarrely raised the spectre of tactical voting or even a ‘Progressive Alliance’ amongst parts of the left again. Such short memories!) But where does this logic end up? Would you vote Tory to keep out UKIP? Would you vote UKIP to keep out the English Democrats? Would you vote English Democrats to keep out the BNP? The 'lesser evil' is always a slippery slope to the 'greater evil'.

Some French leftists argued to vote UMP to keep out the Front National. But Sarkozy still bulldozed refugee camps. Some argued for an Obama vote to keep out McCain and Palin. But Obama still launched drone strikes. Voting for one bourgeois candidate over a much worse one will not stop increasing inequality, labour reforms, unemployment, racist murders by the police. These candidates are never an alternative to far-right candidates, because they are responsible for causing the conditions (poverty, unemployment, welfare cuts) that allow the far-right to multiply. The document itself recognises this, saying that we were right to disagree with leftists in 2002 who argued for a vote for Chirac to stop Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Furthermore, it discredits socialists to denounce bourgeois politicians for their neoliberal policies one minute, and then call for votes for them the next. Take the American Presidential election last year. Bernie Sanders had a clear message, which was that both Democratic and Republican administrations were in hoc to Wall Street, had deregulated the financial sector, and made attacks on the working class. The solution was to tax the billionaires to fund free education, healthcare reforms, and a minimum wage increase. He specifically contrasted himself with Hilary Clinton, for example, saying on an NBC interview that "I want to break up the Wall Street banks. She doesn't. I want to raise the minimum wage to fifteen bucks an hour. She wants $12 an hour. I voted against the War in Iraq. She voted for the War in Iraq. I believe we should ban fracking. She does not”.

Once it became clear Clinton had won the primaries, he then called for voters, who he had been telling for months why they needed to support him and not Clinton, to back and vote for Clinton.

Clinton received 70,000 less votes compared to Obama in 2012, and third-party candidates received nearly 5% of the popular vote, as opposed to 1.7% in 2012. A great many potential Democratic voters, attracted by Bernie Sanders’ radical anti-establishment arguments, would have been disillusioned by Clinton’s economic orthodoxies, and either switched to Trump (on the basis of his anti-establishment rhetoric), voted for a third-party candidate, or not voted at all. Calling for a vote for Macron would follow the same pattern: some, disillusioned, would not vote at all, whilst some would be attracted to the ‘anti-globalist’, anti-establishment rhetoric of Le Pen, seeing the left calling for a vote for a politician of the current government, as further proof of its cowardice in the face of elites, or even of active support for them.

Or to choose another historical example, there are lots of comparison to be made with the French election and the German Presidential election of 1932. In that election, large parts of the left, notably the SPD, voted for Von Hindenburg to keep out Hitler. Hindenburg and Ludendorff virtually governed Germany as a military dictatorship in the final years of WW1. Throughout the 20s Hindenburg defended his war record. He was a thorough reactionary, with contempt for democracy, and who had approved austerity measures after the Wall Street Crash, leading to mass unemployment.

In the September 1930 federal elections, the Nazis achieved an electoral breakthrough, gaining 17 percent of the vote, up from 2 percent in 1928. On a slower scale, the FN gained only 0.2% of the vote in the 1981 legislative election, but have achieved a big swing now. And in the same way that some are now calling for a vote for Macron to keep out Le Pen, the SPD, in panic, called for a vote for von Hindenburg in the 1932 Presidential elections, to keep out Hitler. They didn’t even run in the first round, to then call for a vote for von Hindenburg in the second round, but openly called for a vote for him in the first round, in their own propaganda. Both because they mistakenly thought it would prevent Hitler from coming to power, and because their commitment to parliamentarianism meant that they hoped Hindenburg would keep Bruning as Chancellor. They tolerated Bruning's cuts for fear of a fascist government and lost credibility. (See Richard J Evans p.279 The Coming of the Third Reich) By contrast, the KPD stood on its own platform, and attracted votes from disillusioned former-SPD voters, e.g. from the left-split from the SPD, the SAPD. The KPD's leader Ernst Thalmann got 3.7 million votes, or 10%, in the first round.

What was the result of the SPD voting for the lesser evil? Von Hindenburg dissolved the Reichstag twice in 1932. The Nazis then win 230 seats in the federal elections in July 1932, and become the largest party in the Reichstag. Von Hindenburg then appoints Hitler as Chancellor on 20 January 1933, the KPD is banned the next day, and the Enabling Act, granting dictatorial powers to Hitler, is passed on 23 March – with Hindenburg still in the Presidential role until his death in August 1934.

Fascism was not stopped, the conditions that led to the growth of support for the Nazi Party continued to grow, and the SPD discredited itself in the process. In that election, even facing an existential threat, the KPD was right not to vote for bourgeois politicians.

But so then why vote for the Labour Party? The Labour Party is very much the exception in Europe, given the presence in most countries of a historic Communist Party as well as many other Trotskyist groups, a Socialist Party, and straightforwardly bourgeois parties, liberal and conservative. Not so in the UK. The Labour Party has from its inception been the main working class party in the UK.

Socialist groups were involved in its creation, like the SDF, socialist groups affiliated to it, like the ILP, as have several trade unions. Its trade union affiliations make it responsive to working class pressure in a way that other parties are not. It has structures, like motions to CLPs, elections for positions, a national conference, that mean we can intervene in and argue for our politics, and for the national party to become more socialist.

It has also historically had a bourgeois leadership that seeks to undermine its working class base, leaning to parliamentarianism and away from social and labour struggles, that tries to ‘concrete’ over the democratic structures, strip policy-making decisions from national conference, and ignore the ones it does not like. Hence our characterisation of the Labour Party as a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. At different times, one of the poles has been in ascendance, but its fundamental character has remained the same. (And additionally, we have not blindly orientated to the Labour Party, but have argued that if its character were to change, then so would our orientation to it. When conference was briefly abolished in 2007 there were discussions in the group about whether its bourgeois leadership might have won definitively and whether we should walk away or not.) Macron’s En Marche! does not have the working class base, sovereign conferences or local membership bodies, or union affiliations in which the working class can fight for its own policies.

There can be no comparison with the Labour Party.

It also for this reason that if Melenchon were to make it to the second round, we should not call for a vote for him either. Some recent polls from Le Terrain suggest that both Le Pen and Melenchon are on 22%, and so the second round could potentially be Melenchon vs Macron. (Although, of course, other polls indicate a clear third place for Melenchon, and if we learnt anything from 2016 it was the unreliability of polls during crises).

Neither Melenchon’s La France insoumise nor Macron’s En Marche! have the democratic structures in which the working class can fight for its own policies. Both were created in the last two years from above, essentially as vehicles for the Presidential election of their respective leaders. Neither would be accountable to working-class organisations.

(Additionally, Melenchon is a soft leftist, who allied with the Stalinists in the creation of the Parti de Gauche, later breaking from them to be more right-wing. He is explicitly anti-EU and some kind of economic nationalist. Melenchon once said an interview that migrant workers '[steal] the bread from the workers who are there'. Melenchon’s movement has called for social-democratic demands, like a repeal of the El Khomri law and minimum wage increases, but it also calls for extensive renegotiation of various EU treaties, none of which will be met, with a ‘Plan B’ of exiting those treaties, which can only boost the anti-EU, ‘Frexit’ arguments of Le Pen.) Both candidates are, at root, bourgeois politicians, one of them left-leaning, and socialists should not advocate a vote for either. If this is true of a Melenchon/Macron race, it is also true of Macron and Le Pen.

\The document states that “a strong vote for such [revolutionary socialist] ideas will be the best way to rally forces and prepare for social battles against a profit-prioritising, worker-bashing government under whichever of the front-runners becomes president.” This sentence is crucial. The problem with the document is that its conclusions do not follow from this clear statement. Whichever of the bourgeois candidates win, there will be attacks on the working class. We should prepare for the coming fights, not take political responsibility for calling for votes for one of them. We stand for independent working-class politics, and so in the first round, we should call for a vote for Poutou. In the second round, whether Melenchon/Macron or Macron/Le Pen, in the absence of a socialist candidate, we should not call for a vote for any of these candidates.