The first round of the French presidential elections is on 22 April, with the run-off between the top two candidates on 6 May.
The latest opinion polls put right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), on 26-27% and François Hollande, candidate of the Socialist Party (PS, similar to the British Labour Party), on 28%-30%. These will almost certainly be the top two candidates in the run-off. Here, Hollande is a full 10% ahead of Sarkozy in the polls. Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the fascist Front National (FN — National Front) has also been polling well.
A debate has opened up on the far left about the Jean-Luc Mélenchon candidacy, currently on 16-17% in the polls. Mélenchon split from the Socialist Party in 2008 to form the Parti de gauche (PdG — Left Party). The PdG, the (post-Stalinist) French Communist Party and some smaller fragments together make up the Front de Gauche (FdG — Left Front) for the 2012 election.
The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA — New Anti-capitalist Party), France’s biggest non-Stalinist far-left group, is running auto worker Philippe Poutou. Lutte Ouvrière (LO — Workers’ Fight), another sizeable Trotskyist party, is running Nathalie Arthaud. LO and the NPA’s predecessor organisation, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire — Revolutionary Communist League, have in the past scored around 5% in presidential polls.
This time, however, Poutou and Arthaud’s projected votes are nowhere near the 10% the LCR and LO achieved between them in 2002.
Some on the French revolutionary left are backing Mélenchon. Others stick with Poutou and Arthaud. Below, we print views from French comrades, translated by Ed Maltby.
Create revolutionary current in Left Front
By Le Militant, a socialist journal
In Le Militant, we said in June 2011 that Jean-Luc Mélenchon could come out in the lead in the first round. Not because of our illusions, or enthusiasm, but by cold analysis, which is this: the relations between classes.
We are keeping a cool head: whether it will succeed or not, the movement aims to undo Sarkozy and confront the regime of the 5th Republic and the boss class. We are aiming for that confrontation. If Mélenchon is in the lead then the confrontation will come faster and stronger, and if not it will still advance. In any case, we must organise. In the Left Front in particular, the question is posed of the organisation of the thousands who are mobilised.
That is why Le Militant is taking part actively in the campaign for a Mélenchon vote, and is raising the need for a democratic government which repudiates the so-called “public” debt and breaks with the 5th Republic.
What is at stake in this election for millions of workers is kicking out Sarkozy, while the candidate that the media presents as the only one capable of achieving this, François Hollande, does nothing to lead a mobilisation with a programme which responds to the needs of the working population.
The media and the political establishment want give the impression that:
• Hollande is the only one who can beat Sarkozy, with votes from the centre;
• François Bayrou, candidate of the “centrist” Democratic Movement, with his electoral capital is important and must be addressed;
• that abstention will remain at a high level because working-class and poor voters do not know who to vote for;
• that blue collar workers who are victims of the crisis can only vote for the National Front.
That is why the campaign by the Left Front and Mélenchon has usefully confronted Le Pen and put her on the defensive, and shown that there is nothing inevitable about leaving the political space open to her, by exposing her chauvinistic and racist demagogy.
By building a dynamic campaign that directly challenges Sarkozy, the president for the rich, Mélenchon has created an enthusiasm responding to the needs of the millions of workers who have suffered successive defeats since 2002, notably in the strikes of 2003 and 2010, giving a political opening to the majority rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005. This did not signify a nationalist rejection, but a refusal of the constitutional freedom given to bosses and to the markets to do what they wanted without social restraint.
An anecdote: at the start of the electoral campaign, the leaflets distributed by the PS were blue, the colour that Sarkozy’s UMP uses a lot. Now, PS leaflets are red — the same colour the Left Front uses.
Mass rallies at Bastille on 18 March (120,000 people), at Toulouse (70,000 people), Lille, and Marseille (100,000) have expressed the need for a clearly left-wing campaign to beat Sarkozy. Activists at these rallies will not be satisfied just with voting but want to mobilise beyond the ballot box to stop cuts and impose measures which favour the working population.
Beyond the presidential election, the left as a whole must fight to win a large parliamentary majority, in which the Left Front has substantial weight.
There too, nothing is inevitable. If Hollande is elected, he will want to limit the influence of the Left Front by asserting PS supremacy in the future parliamentary majority, or by looking for alliances with the centre, or by trying to buy the entry of Left Front ministers into his own government.
For now, given that Hollande intends to apply a programme of managing the debt crisis, there can be no question of entering such a government. That would certainly be the first key test of the longevity of the Left Front after the elections.
In any case, with the debt crisis and the “deficits”, and the predictable policy of Hollande for managing the crisis in the same way as Zapatero (Spain) or Papandreou (Greece), social tension will not let up. There is no possible half-way choice: either managing the debt at the expense of the workers and those relying on the welfare state, by means of privatisations, sackings and cutting wages, or the reconstruction of public services and worker’ rights through measures aimed against capitalists. Either ratification of the Sarkozy-Merkel treaty, or repudiation of the debt: no half measures are possible!
Furthermore it is important to note that this is the first time that a left-wing electoral campaign has put the need to finish with the 5th Republic front-and-centre, and the need to return to a real parliamentary regime by calling a constituent assembly. This radical democratic demand is very bad news for all institutions created over the last thirty years through decentralisation and regionalisation, likewise for all the European institutions which are European in name only and which are all political tools for the exclusive benefit of capitalists and bankers.
For the Left Front to play a useful role in the coming period, it needs to orient its programme in a clearly anti-capitalist direction. It is the responsibility of all those who support anti-capitalism and real socialism to work to this end.
This is why Le Militant is proposing to all to create a revolutionary current within the Left Front, pushing for the adoption of an adequate programme to meet the crisis of the capitalists and aid the political and social mobilisation at all levels.
2012 has not yet finished surprising us!
Organise the mistrust!
By Yvan Lemaître, NPA Paris
“Philippe Poutou storms in!” wrote Le Monde the day before one of the main TV broadcasts of the presidential election campaign in France.
Effectively, in a very difficult context, the NPA campaign has seen a turning point ten days before the election of 22 April. Its candidate, Ford car factory worker Philippe Poutou, has met with a lot of sympathy in sticking to a language of breaking with the accepted game of institutional leaders and parties, the routine of language which is hollow and alien to the preoccupations of the population.
It is very difficult to tell at the moment of writing whether that will translate into electoral support. Up until now, the two anti-capitalist candidates, Natalie Arthaud for LO and Philippe Poutou for the NPA, are scoring between 0.5% and 1% in the polls. These scores do not correspond to those of Arlette Laguiller for LO and Olivier Besancenot in the last presidential elections of 2002 and 2007, where together they won around 10% of the vote.
The context is one of the explanations for this. Today, for the majority of voters, it is no longer a matter of punishing the “institutional” [reformist, parliamentary] left, when the Communist Party is falling apart, Marie Georges Buffet [the Communist Party candidate] having got less than 2% in 2007.
The priority is to beat Sarkozy while hoping that Hollande, the PS candidate, will alleviate the effects of the politics of austerity. Even if everyone knows full well that the elections will not change a great deal, they hope that the elections will allow the left — broadly speaking — to come to power and that this will mean protection in the short term. The responses of anti-capitalists win sympathy but do not appear credible at the electoral level: “Okay, you are right, but you can’t do it today”.
This context also explains the second new fact of this campaign after the likely increase in abstention: the dynamic around Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Left Front. The Left Front is a regroupment of a small party, the Left Party founded by Mélenchon, former minister under [PS Prime Minister] Jospin, after his split with the PS in 2009, shortly after the foundation of the NPA, the Communist Party (the activist force in the regroupment), and a number of small groups of the radical left.
Mélenchon has succeeded in creating a dynamic around this regroupment by combining a critique of the PS with the perspective of “citizens’ revolution” — that is, change through the ballot box, within the framework of existing institutions, through a game of parliamentary alliances. Mélenchon has a talent for playing on his ambiguities and succeeding in remobilising the apparatus of the Communist Party while making anti-capitalist postures.
He currently has between 13% and 15% in the polls, a success which expresses a desire to get rid of Sarkozy and his gang, without trusting Hollande, but which remains inside the electoral, institutional framework.
No-one can say today where the Mélenchon adventure will go, partially because we do not know to what extent the current projections reflect the real results which will come out of the polls on 22 April. And above all, we cannot know what the social and economic situation will be after the elections.
One thing is certain: it is urgently necessary to give an organised and reliable form to the mistrust, or rather the total lack of illusions, concerning the PS and Hollande. That form must be capable of following through the critique of the dictatorship of the markets to advance a programme of defending workers and the poor by refusing to pay interest on the debt, with a view to cancelling it; to work for a democratic and popular government which can rely on the support of mass mobilisations; to nationalise the banks within the framework of a public service finance sector under the control of the population.
From this point of view, the campaign of the NPA candidate, Phillippe Poutou, is a staging post to re-launch the dynamic of the NPA, while the demagogy and the ambiguities, including the patriotism, that Mélenchon is pushing will crash into the reality of the balance of forces and the establishment.
Poutou’s campaign is a staging post to pursue the regroupment of anti-capitalists, while working for the unity of all the forces who refuse austerity from left or right.
Mélenchon is two-faced
By comrades in L’Etincelle, a faction of the NPA
Rating at over 13% in the polls and drawing some 100,000 people to the Bastille, the Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has a real dynamic.
This dynamic is all the more interesting because the press presents him sometimes as a “revolutionary” leader. But is that really what he is?
Mélenchon is not new to politics. Joining the Socialist Party (PS) in 1976, he became a member of its leading committee in 1983 (at the same time as his current rival Francois Hollande). Under Mitterrand he progressed within the PS apparatus. He was elected as a PS senator in 1986, and became a minister in the last left government, in charge of vocational education from 2000 to 2002. The career, then, of a PS careerist.
In his programme, there are certain social demands, of which some appear radical, so long as you don’t look too closely. For example, the demand for a minimum salary of €1,700 a month for all, but, watch out, €1,700 “gross” (in fact €1,350 net — the demand of the far left, LO and NPA, is for €1,700 net as a minimum immediately), having taken care to spell out in an interview in a bosses’ newspaper that it would rise to €1,700 “at the end of the parliament” and only for “activities not exposed to international competition”… you might well ask who will really benefit!
This is a simple example of a two-faced politics: one politics for the bosses (that is, the politics that he would really support) and another for the workers.
On the question of job losses though, Mélenchon only has one face. He prefers to play the French nationalist card by supporting different protectionist measures against outsourcing businesses abroad… goodbye to the slogan for “outlawing redundancies” [a widespread, established far-left demand in France], a slogan which would allow workers, if they raised it in struggle, to defend themselves and unite against the bosses whatever their nationality. It is actually difficult for Jean-Luc Mélenchon to not use the word “France” in every sentence, whose “universal interests” he lauds. We’re dealing with an imperialist language here, scarcely dressed up with “left-wing” values.
Because on international questions, Mélenchon is clear: he is the fervent defender of the interests of France, or to put it another way, of the French boss class.
The last example to date is the praise from the arms boss Serge Dassault and the support he has given to the sale of Rafale fighter jets to India. When he was invited on to France Inter public radio lately, the journalist asked him the following question: “Can one support disarmament, and also cheer on the sale of fighter jets?”
Mélenchon’s response: “Let the Russians and the Americans disarm first, and then we’ll talk. France does not threaten anyone!” (He forgot to mention that France is at war in Afghanistan, in Libya, that her army has brought the new President to power in Ivory Coast, etc.). And he continues to express his sympathy for Serge Dassault, the head of the firm of the same name and the sixth richest man in France…
Another, slightly older, example is his insistence in affirming his solidarity with French imperialism in the context of the rigged election of Ali Bongo in 2009, the son of Omar Bongo, dictator of Gabon who was supported by French imperialism. An election which assured the continuation of French imperialism and its businesses (Total, Bouygues, Bolloré, Axa, BNP) in this former French colony.
So, what’s left that’s revolutionary in the Mélenchon campaign?
I am radical, he suggests, but I remain within the capitalist system! Hence his cleverly-chosen phrases about the “citizens’ revolution” and the “civic insurrection”, which stick contradictory words together. On one side, apparently radical measures, on the other, words which lead to an parliamentary and electoralist highway.
And it is exactly there that the principal difference between revolutionaries and the Left Front lies. They call for revolution… via the ballot box.
The fact remains that this campaign has succeeded in attracting many workers and many youth, with whom the revolutionaries have an interest in discussing. But then two problems arise: how to explain, despite (or because of) these limits, the popularity and dynamic of the Mélenchon campaign? How can revolutionaries approach the problem of talking to the workers and youth drawn into the campaign?
In Mélenchon’s success, there is at the same time the political positioning of the man, and his talent as a tribune, which is recognised by the PS candidate, Hollande himself, who sketches the division of labour which has arisen between the two men: “Mélenchon functions as a tribune, but my objective is to become President”.
He capitalises on leftwing votes, which will go to Hollande for the second round. These are votes which would otherwise disappear into abstentions, or go to other candidates, even to the far-right Marine Le Pen, who has not hesitated to present herself as a workers’ candidate.
The rise of Mélenchon relies in any case very heavily on the mobilisation of the Communist Party and its local apparatus, which has taken on a new vigour. And likewise, it owes a lot to the mobilisation of the sections of union apparatuses (in particular the CGT, the General Confederation of Labour) which explicitly support him. It is the CP and a section of CGT members which provide Mélenchon’s activist forces. It is they who are doing the lion’s share of the work of mobilising (by coach) for the rallies and the big public meetings in provincial towns.
The rallies have met with real success, which revolutionaries have to face up to at the same time as presenting their own candidates and programme, especially by taking part in more discussions with the milieu which is looking to the Left Front, including in workplaces. It is a very good thing for us to be able to discuss “reform or revolution” — or, more concretely and immediately, the objectives of the struggles which we must engage in once the election is over.
But to face up to the challenge, the most efficient method remains to present a candidate ourselves, a revolutionary candidate who affirms the objectives of these struggles of the working class. In this campaign, Nathalie Arthaud from Lutte Ouvrière and Philippe Poutou from the NPA, who we are supporting, support these objectives.
This candidacy allows us to raise our programme, for the short period of the election, in front of millions of people. It is a chance that we are taking to popularise our ideas and develop our political implantation.