Should the French left have voted Chirac?

Submitted by AWL on 14 May, 2002 - 11:57

John Bulaitis (a supporter of the "Socialist Solidarity Network", now living in France) and Martin Thomas (Alliance for Workers' Liberty) debate whether socialists should have supported a vote for Chirac in the second round of the French Presidential election.
John Bulaitis writes:

I am currently in France and witnessing at first hand the magnificent mobilisations against the Front National. But I have taken the time to check the websites of the British far-left. If anything displays the dogmatism and sectarianism of much of the British far-left, it is the position taken in relation to the second-round of the elections.
The question posed is very simple. Are you in favour of an electoral defeat of Le Pen or not? Yet, reading the articles on France, I find it hard to find straight answers. The Socialist (26 April) claims that "a strong showing of ballot papers rejecting both Chirac and Le Pen would be a warning of opposition to the capitalist policies which both advocate". In other words, the best thing to do is spoil the ballot.
Of course, Chirac and Le Pen both represent capitalist policies. What an amazing discovering The Socialist has made! But if the contest had been between Jospin and Le Pen, they too would have also both represented capitalist policies.
The point is for the millions who have mobilised in France, Le Pen represents much else besides. Imagine what images his call for "transit camps" to store immigrants in before they are deported conjures up in a country that saw "transit camps" set up by the Nazis for the Jews and resistance fighters, before they were deported to the other form of "camp" - the death camp.
The FN may not be a classical fascist party. But a FN victory would pose a serious threat to the workers' movement, the left, the minorities, women and youth in France.
As for Socialist Worker (4 May) one scratches one's head to work out what is being advocated. But the interview with their (French) sister organisation strongly implies that an abstention is the best approach. And, it should be remembered that the SWP's French group supported Lutte Ouvrière in the first round of the elections, against the less sectarian LCR campaign which raised centrally the anti-globalisation struggle. And Lutte Ouvrière is now arguing strongly for a spoilt ballot position.
And then there is the CPGB who call for an "active boycott" - whatever that means. According to Weekly Worker (2 May), the slogan "Votez escro, pas fascho (vote for a crook, not a fascist) Â… plays into the hands of the ruling classÂ…" because "a sweeping victory for Chirac" would be claimed as "a vote of confidence in the current order."
The truth is, the youth who took to the streets and raised this slogan have a revolutionary instinct a thousand times stronger than our CPGB scribe.
It is self-evident that the slogan itself implies no illusions, or support for Chirac. The very fact that hundreds of thousands have been taking to the streets each night, culminating in the historic 2 million strong May Day demonstrations shows it is understood instinctively that the fascists will be defeated by the mass movement and not simply at the ballot box. Otherwise, why take to the streets?
Those who argue for a boycott, of whatever form, are in practice suggesting that the result of the second round in terms of votes cast does not matter. But it is only necessary to pose the question as to why this mass movement has developed in the first place? The spark was the electoral success of Le Pen in the election's first round - in other words, the threat of Le Pen winning the second round and becoming President of France. That is why everyone who has taken to the streets understands that the result of next Sunday's election matters, except of course the hardened sectarians who have sheepishly followed the wake of the movement.
For the youth who spontaneously came out on the streets, who have grown in confidence as the demonstrations have developed, who have triggered the biggest demonstrations since the Liberation, the result next week is absolutely vital. And, their instinct is correct. If the FN were to receive 25%, 30% or 35%, then inevitably the dynamic behind the party would be strengthened. That would be a defeat.
If the FN were to gain such a vote, the youth and those who have mobilised would be on the retreat. On the other hand, if the FN vote were to go down, then the dynamic of the FN could be checked. Doubts would set in amongst some of its less committed supporters. Those in the mass movement against it would become even more confident.
The outlook of those on the demos in Paris is that they are going to vote, not for Chirac, but against Le Pen. In that sense, the LCR's position in France, criticised in Weekly Worker is not ambiguous but is understood perfectly by all participating in the mass movement, even if not in the Weekly Worker editorial office.
The idea that Chirac and his reactionary politics will be strengthened by a crushing defeat for Le Pen is an argument that at best completely misunderstands the position in France, and at worst reveals a haughty contempt for the youth and others who have taken to the streets.
In fact the opposite is the case. If a campaign along the lines suggested by the CPGB, and Lutte Ouvrière in France, had some success and many abstained, thus leading to a higher percentage for the NF, then Chirac would feel more confident in carrying out his right-wing agenda. He would probably feel the pressure to orientate even further towards the right to appease NF voters. And the pressure would be on the social movement to hold in check, because the argument would be that, if you don't, there is the NF waiting in the wings.
On the other hand, Chirac and his supporters are beginning to realise that they face the problem of "legitimacy" if elected by 85-90% of the vote. In that situation, paradoxically, Chirac would be a weakened presidency, elected with a historically low vote for a sitting president in the first round, and with the votes of the left in the second round. Chirac knows that. The movement instinctively understands that, which is why on the May Day demo, many people were already raising the slogan: "pour un troisième tour social".
Perhaps the politics of abstention make some individuals feel that they have done their revolutionary duty by not voting for a bourgeois candidate. But since when have Marxists been opposed on principle to voting for a Bourgeois candidate when tactically it can advance the movement? The British far-left is once again demonstrating its sectarian dogmatism, rather than knowing how to engage with the mass movement.

Martin Thomas replies:

"All methods are good", wrote Leon Trotsky, "which raise the class-consciousness of the workers, their trust in their own forces, their readiness for self-sacrifice in the struggle". The Italian revolutionary communist Antonio Gramsci expressed the same thought. "The decisive element in every situation is the force, permanently organised and pre-ordered over a long period, which can be advanced when one judges that the situation is favourable (and it is favourable only to the extent to which such a force exists and is full of fighting ardour); therefore the essential task is that of paying systematic and patient attention to forming and developing this force, rendering it ever more homogeneous, compact, conscious of itself".
The central, all-defining axis of all our activity as Marxists is to help the working class to organise itself independently from, and in opposition to, all factions of the capitalist class, to gain confidence in its own strength, and to look to its own efforts to remake society. For that reason, it is a principle not to vote for bourgeois politicians like Jacques Chirac. If the presidential run-off in France had seen Lionel Jospin of the Socialist Party confront Le Pen, a good case could be made for voting for Jospin, not because Marxists support Jospin's politics, but because we support the labour movement, even under bad leadership, and a vote for Jospin could be a vote with the labour movement to assert itself against Le Pen and prepare the way for replacing Jospin with a better leader. No analogy in Chirac's case: we do not support his Tory party, the RPR, any more than we support Chirac himself.
Can there be exceptions to the Marxist principle of not voting for bourgeois parties? Maybe. But then a special case must be made. No such special case can be made for 5 May. Workers could have voted against Le Pen by casting blank ballots much better than by voting for Chirac. Arlette Laguiller did call for blank ballots. Olivier Besancenot's LCR first blurredly suggested blank ballots or abstention, then on 28 April, shamefully, went over to voting Chirac.
Suppose, to take the extreme case, that the LCR, and the Communist Party and Socialist Party too, had called for blank ballots and been able to convince all their voters. Then the second-round result would have been maybe 30% Chirac, 17% Le Pen, 38% blank votes, 15% abstentions. Le Pen's vote might have been sizeably lower in that case, since the strong blank-vote movement would win over some disoriented people who would otherwise vote Le Pen as the only way of expressing their utter disgust with the status quo. But, in any case, that a compact force of 38% would defy both Chirac and Le Pen would be a tremendous, self-boosting gesture of working-class political independence, sufficient not only to push back Chirac's coming attacks but to put social revolution on the agenda.
There were never going to be that many blank votes. If the revolutionary left had had the power to swing that many votes just by its leaflets between the first and second rounds, then it would also have had the power to top the poll in the first round! But examining the extreme case shows up the cravenness of the "vote Chirac" argument. Oh no, it wails, in that case the bourgeois media could report that Le Pen got 36% of the valid votes! No-one would notice the blank votes?
Those who will renounce rallying their own forces and vote Chirac just to get "a good press" from the bourgeoisie will never teach the workers self-reliance. In actual fact, the debate about voting Chirac or voting blank was a debate about how many of their three million voters the revolutionary left could hold to an independent position in the second round. They were never going to be able to hold them all. It was a new, loose, unconsolidated three million, not a compact electorate "pre-ordered over a long period".
Despite Laguiller's call for a blank vote, 72% of her first-round voters went over to Chirac. That 4.8% voted blank is an excellent result in the circumstance, especially given the not-very-adroit manner of Laguiller's appeal, which must have come across to some people as dismissing Le Pen as no threat at all. As the French Marxist bulletin Liaisons puts it, "To the contrary of all the official analyses, it must be said that the maintenance of a high level of blank votes and abstentions is an important sign for the future of the social movement's will for independence".
Ah, but what if the revolutionaries abstaining meant Le Pen winning? Well, there should be a limit to the "what if"s.
Are John Bulaitis, the LCR and their co-thinkers proposing a general rule of always voting for whomever seems best placed to defeat the far right, even if it's someone like Chirac? In that case the rule would mean voting for a Tory in an election in Britain when they're the best-placed against the BNP, for example, in the manner of the SWP's abject 1990s slogan, "Don't vote Nazi".
It would mean that the revolutionary left should have avoided standing in the presidential first round, and corralled as many of their supporters as they could into voting Jospin, so as to avoid the risk, which actually materialised, of Le Pen going forward to the run-off. One implication of revolutionary socialists voting Chirac in the second round was to condemn themselves for having dared to stand in the first round.
They're not arguing a general rule? They're arguing that there was something special about this particular vote, the presidential second round, which made it an exception? Then they have to argue their case on the actual circumstances, not on "what if"s. The shortest answer, however, is that if the situation in France were different, and a fascist seizure of power really were an immediate risk, then the revolutionaries should be working for a general strike and the creation of workers' militias - not for a Chirac vote! In that situation, president Chirac would be likely to bring Le Pen to power - as president Hindenburg, the Social Democrats' "lesser evil" against Hitler in the presidential poll in Germany in 1932, installed Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933.
Ah, but the left-wing Chirac supporters voted with gloves on their hands and pegs on their noses, they marched on the streets - so wasn't voting Chirac all right really? Just a little bit of paper in the ballot box! Just a tiny breach of principle, not a big one! Excuse us for a minute or two in the polling booth, and then we'll be back to class-struggle politics! We weren't really supporting Chirac!
Not supporting him? No - just voting for him to occupy the most powerful position in France! How much more support could Chirac ever have hoped for from the revolutionary left? He could hardly have hoped that the LCR would disband and join the RPR.
Of course no second-round total for Chirac, however big, could make everyone forget that his second-round voters had voted differently on the first round. Of course it could not wipe out the impetus from the street demonstrations. But it could help. There is a flat contradiction between John Bulaitis' anxious electoralism about votes for Le Pen and his bland assurance that Chirac gained nothing by getting more votes. In relation to Le Pen, Bulaitis argues that everything must be subordinated to the task, not even of reducing his vote, but of reducing its appearance in the bourgeois media, its headline percentage. In relation to Chirac, just the opposite: extra votes for him didn't matter, or may somehow have weakened him! The double standard makes no sense. Either votes are important, or they're not.
They are important - which is why we should not cast our votes for Chirac. As Liaisons points out, Chirac has been "helped by those according to whom we have just seen a referendum for the Republic - the [very undemocratic] 5th Republic - by way of the Chirac vote and who thus pave the way for a new left-right 'cohabitation' after the legislative elections... We have just seen a little coup d'etat to save the rotten regime of the 5th Republic.
"Forty-four years ago, the paratroopers of Colonel Massu and the Algiers Committee of Public Safety installed De Gaulle in power, and the left of the time saw him either as the saviour of the Republic, or as the lesser evil. In the last fortnight, a junior officer of the colonial army, a former torturer, has served to deprive the workers and democracy of the possibility of throwing out Chirac in these elections and to create pressure on them to vote for him and thus facilitate his work in future".
But, as Liaisons also remarks, nothing is settled. "To beat the right in the legislative elections; to push forward candidates standing for a break [from the 'republican' consensus]; to construct, with the revolutionary left and the forces available, socialist and democratic alliances against the bosses, the right, and the 5th Republic - those are the tasks posed now, each one linked with the others".

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