To see only a fascist threat in the demonstrations in France of Sunday 11 January would be to misunderstand the nature of the mass sentiments which they expressed.
The demonstrations were in no sense a Pegida-style wave – had they been, we would have seen a daily explosion of attacks against people of Arab-Muslim heritage and against Muslim places of worship: and a completely different climate. To be sure, there was a flurry of several dozen such incidents, but a “French Pegida” with four million participants on one Sunday across the whole country would make for a sinister remake of Kristallnacht, or a menacing prologue to such an event.
We saw two phenomena on Sunday 11 January. On the one hand, a profound wave expressing attachment to “the Republican values of freedom, equality, fraternity and secularism”, and in particular freedom of expression, the desire for a day-to-day life which is free of discrimination and racism. On the other hand, we saw the government’s attempt to take charge of the calls to demonstrate which originated with the unions and the left, with the ridiculous “demonstration of 50 heads of state”. This operation was explicitly aimed at creating and maintaining for as long as possible a “National Union” which would allow Hollande to climb again in the polls, given that his popularity has fallen uninterruptedly since 2012, under the effects of his policies.
Unfortunately for Hollande, his surge in the polls as a “head of state who faces up to his responsibilities in a crisis” will not last, because the right, led by the UMP, have already broken the momentum of this National Union – which hardly lasted a week because from the bosses’ point of view, serious business (the economy and social questions) requires attacks of an unprecedented intensity.
With the Macron Bill (named for the Minister of the Economy who wrote it), Hollande has given up on “social liberalism” and taken a turn to straightforward economic liberalism. The chief aim of this Bill is a serious attack on the Labour Code by removing the special status of Sunday and night work; by throwing systems of staff representation into question (DP [‘staff delegates], CE [works council], CHSCT [health, safety and working conditions committee), and the employee claims court [justice prud’homale]; and by giving bosses more rights to fire workers without justification. (For briefing on these systems see here).
The reading of the Bill in the National Assembly begins on Monday 26 January. On this date, the unions, mainly the CGT, FO, FSU and Solidaires, and in some cases the UNSA, are calling for a demonstration, but the desire of the big union centres (CGT and FO) to avoid a confrontation with the government’s entire policy are hampering the mobilisation that is needed. The Catholic CFDT union federation, champion of social liberalism, is playing the game of collaboration with the government and the bosses, but the situation is such that in sectors where bosses are carrying out ferocious exploitation, the structures of the CFDT can call for strikes like the current road hauliers’ stoppage, which is flaring up over pay demands (the inter-union CGT-CFDT-FO-CFTC-UNSA alliance is calling for 5% pay increases but the bosses are insisting on 2%).
Even if Hollande has won himself a 15-minute reprieve in the polls around the January attacks, his newly-won capital with the media is melting away like snow.
With regards to what is written in the Anglo-Saxon press, or heard from leftwing activists from the Anglophone world, we should clear up a few things.
First of all, laïcité [secularism] and atheism are not the same thing, and they exist on different levels. Atheism is a philosophical conviction which can be held by people who are anti-secular in practice (i.e., who wish to impose a belief in a world without god, who are against religion) just as much as by people who have a secular world-view (who express and develop their convictions without wishing to impose them by force or by law).
So one could be a Christian, or a Muslim, secular or anti-secular (like the fundamentalists who proclaim that humans must be ruled by the word of God).
In this way, a secular state is a state which guarantees freedom of conscience for all, which includes religious freedom. It is democracy applied to the realm of ideas, not the suppression of unpopular ideas. A state which calls itself atheist can only be a totalitarian dictatorship – Stalin, Mao and Enver Hoxha have given concrete examples of this.
In a secular state, citizens are free to believe in a religion or not, they have the right to change their religion or philosophy, they are free to worship (or not). But this religious practice has a limit: it must be private (within churches, mosques, synagogues or other temples) and may not impose itself upon the public domain. A distinction must be drawn between cultural practices and the expression of ideas via publications or public conferences, which are subject to free discussion and criticism in the public realm (e.g. a philosophical or religious debate on a public TV channel). There is no crime of blasphemy!
For this to be possible, the secular state must have nothing to do with religion or priesthood. There is no official state religion, nor religious authorities who hold public office. And the state does not spend public money on churches: let believers subsidise the needs of their priesthood! In this sense, France is not fully secular, because for historical reasons, there are local situations (in Alsace-Moselle and some overseas territories like Guyane [in South America, but officially a region of France]) where the state supports religions and priests.
The secular state does not discriminate against believes or non-believers. It guarantees civil and civic equality for all citizens, of all genders! Secularism is of a piece with feminism and the right of all to define their own sexuality.
In a secular state, laws may only issue from the public debates of elected officials and not from the application of religious texts imposed by priests.
A fully secular state is impossible under capitalism – only the socialisation of the means of production and full democracy will make it possible. Nevertheless, in a capitalist society, the secular advances which have been won are a means of helping the development of the class struggle and the organisation of the exploited for this struggle, in particular at the level of ideas.
Certain remarks on the so-called secularism of Marine LePen and the Front National.
Le Pen and the Front National are not secular because they refuse Muslims the right to have their religion and practise it. When the Le Pen family speak of Muslims, one must remember that they use the word as a coded way of talking about Arabs. This is nothing but a hoary old deception, part of the far right’s racist stock in trade, perpetuating the member of the colonial period when natives of colonised countries suffered domination and worse; the memory of the Algerian war when the colonised proudly rose up against oppression.
The same goes for Germany, where Pegida is taking aim at Turkish immigration under the guise of denouncing Islam.
Today in France, the far right is developing various targets for racist hatred. In the first instance, there is hatred against immigrants of French citizens of Arab-Muslim background, mainly those from the Maghreb. Then there is anti-black racism against black people. These two forms of racism come from the tradition of colonialism and slavery and are reproduced by current social conditions (precarity, mass unemployment, demolition of public services, the degrading living conditions of the suburbs, fear for the future in the context of globalisation), combined with the presence of millions of citizens from non-European backgrounds.
Recently we have seen a return of anti-Semitism, thanks in part to the anti-imperialism of fools, notably in relation to the question of Israel-Palestine, and used by currents of political Islam. Let us not forget that the old reservoir of Catholic anti-Semitism from before the war and Vichy France has always been a part of the traditional far right, of which the FN is the major legatee. The Soral-Dieudonné double-act are aiming for an alliance of the fascism of poor whites of days gone by, and the fascism of the oppressed youth of the suburbs [banlieues], cemented by the hatred of Jews and the demonization of homosexuals.
During the demonstrations against gay marriage, sectors of the Catholic-fundamentalist far right (Civitas), or blood-and-soil fascists (les Identitaires) or sectors of the hard right in the UMP, but also some parts of the Catholic hierarchy, tried to create a new hate figure by targeting homosexuals of all genders. Ironically, the FN, some of whose recent leaders who are close to Marine Le Pen are famously gay, had a much more moderate attitude on the subject. MLP even tried to play the card of defending homosexuals against the “Muslims”, who are supposed to all be fundamentalist homophobes.