Ahead of Elections, A Turf War Rages Among the French Left

Richard Greeman Jun 8, 2017

Montpellier, France — The good news this May was that French voters rejected far-right Marine LePen by a two-to-one margin in the second round of the Presidential election.

“At least the French aren’t jerks like the Americans!” were the first words that passed the sweet lips of my Provençal partner Elyane when the radio announced LePen’s defeat. As the New Yorker’s Borowitz Report was headlined: “French Annoyingly Retain Right to Claim Intellectual Superiority over Americans.” Aside from this moral victory, the poor French people have little to be happy about.

The bad news was that France ended up electing Emmanuel Macron president, an efficient technocrat who consciously incarnates French capital’s need to eliminate the ‘French exception’ and level the wages, rights and benefits of the French common people down to European Union average (which includes Romania and Bulgaria).

Faced with Macron’s calmly-worded, reasonable, deliberately transparent class war agenda, it should be obvious that France needs a united left of parties, unions, social movements and local associations to oppose it during the upcoming legislative elections on Sunday and later in the streets. Such a powerful coalition from below came together spontaneously during the spring of 2016, in opposition to Macron, then Economy Minister, and President François Hollande, as they attempted to impose the pro-business labor reforms. There were strikes, blockades, occupations and all-night discussions. Where is it now?

The Divided Left

Alas, more bad news. The French left today is totally divided, splintered as never before. As I reported last month after May Day, the labor unions couldn’t even agree to march together. This Sunday, June 11, French voters will face the first round of elections to the 577-seat National Assembly. These elections will decide whether President Macron will have a legislative majority with which to govern unopposed, and the opposition parties seem hopelessly divided.

Last week, I watched a young, idealistic Communist Party candidate practically in tears at a Médiapart round-table. To his vexation, at least four leftist parties were competing against each other in the first round in his popular Paris district. This Communist candidate was heartbroken because during the Presidential election, his party supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unbowed coalition with all its strength, and now Mélanchon had sent an Unbowed candidate into his district to compete with him in the legislative election. A fratricidal stab in the back! Why?

Historically, in multi-party systems, left parties negotiate alliances and coalitions so as to agree on a single candidate, presumably a strong one, in each local district, so as to maximize the chance of winning nationally. Each party in the alliance gets assigned a certain number of prospective seats in the National Assembly in proportion to its size — subject to much haggling and horse-trading. Some negotiations between Mélanchon and the Communists were held last month, but apparently, they broke down early. This, in spite of the fact that Mélenchon had previously headed the “Left Front,” a coalition including the Communists and his own “Left Party,” a left split from the Socialists dating back to 2008. Alas, as so often happens in party politics, control trumped goal. The Communists, who still have representatives in the Chamber and control local offices in many districts, wanted to protect their turf. Mélanchon wants to dominate the left through his Unbowed movement.

“We’ll go down into the streets and throw the bastards out,” she calmly replied. “ We’re good at that.”

Mélenchon’s strategy, based on strength of the 20 percent of the electorate that voted for him in the presidential election, is apparently to run candidates in every possible district with the goal of winning an (unlikely) parliamentary majority. Under the constitution of the Gaullist Fifth French Republic, this would oblige President Macon to appoint Mélanchon Prime Minister (an arrangement known as “cohabitation”) and share power. In Sunday’s first round Unbowed candidates who get 20% of the votes would theoretically place into the second round in a field where the Right is also splintered. Along with Macron’s handpicked new faces running on his En Marche ballot line, there are also several traditional conservative parties and of course the far-right proto-fascist National Front that won a third of the votes in May’s Presidential election.

Thus, according to Mélanchon’s strategy, the Unbowed candidates could conceivably beat the Macronistas and the LePenites and end up with a majority in the second round, automatically making him Prime Minister. On the other hand, the more the left field is crowded, the greater the chance of a repeat of the presidential election:  Macron’s En Marche facing off against the National Front in the second round, giving Macron an easy majority and marginalizing the left for the next five years. This would be the tragic consequence of the left’s disunity based on turf wars and party politics where control trumps goal.

On the other hand, even in the minority, Mélenchon’s Unbowed group will likely emerge as the hegemonic organization of the left for the next five years, well placed for the next elections in 2022. There is not much competition remaining. The electorate of Communist Party, despite its hold on office and ties to the CGT labor union, has shrunk to not much bigger than the Trotskyist New Anti-Capitalist Party, part of which has joined the CP in a coalition called Ensemble.

The Socialist Party (SP) has also shrunk, having disgraced itself in power. President Hollande, with only 4% approval, didn’t even dare run in the primaries, an historical first for an outgoing president. The Socialists’ right wing has followed Macron in deserting the sinking ship. The SP’s presidential candidate, a young leftist named Hamon who won the primary, seems a refreshingly sincere and honest social-democrat. He is attractive to voters who consider Mélenchon a dangerous demagogue and are suspicious of his apparent support of Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and his flirtation with the idea of a Frexit

Who is Macron?

A brilliant young graduate of France’s elite state graduate schools, originally founded by Napoleon to run his Empire, with a successful career in banking and public administration, Emmanuel Macron is well read on nearly every subject and totally confident of his competence and right to rule. He coolly showed himself a statesman last week, castigating Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. Speaking in elegant, charmingly accented English (a first for a French President) he famously concluded: “Let’s make the planet great again.” Macron’s government is composed of neoliberal technocrats. Unlike the usual political hacks, his ministers are younger, more dynamic, more diverse — fresh political faces, half of them women, recruited directly out of the economic establishment like Macron himself. This is a new broom eager to sweep clean, so watch out.

As a candidate Macron made his program absolutely clear. He pledged to strip French workers of what remains of their rights and protections by further expanding his labor reforms, which make it easier for companies to lay off workers and shred collective bargaining agreements. However, even if Macron does not win a majority in the second round of the legislative elections on June 18, he has promised to impose his neoliberal class war program by decree. That’s how Hollande’s Socialist government passed its pro-employer labor reforms last summer, after a very hot spring of strikes, blockades, mammoth demonstrations and opposition from many Socialists in the Chamber.

Macron also supports downgrading France’s wonderful social security system, which includes healthcare, unemployment insurance, retirement, minimum survival income, housing subsidies and welfare for the poor. The Sécu, as it is known, was created after World War II by workers’ organizations coming out of the Resistance, when the de Gaulle government depended on Communist support to stay in power and the French industrialists were in disgrace for their vile collaboration with the Nazis during the occupation. The idea of the “social wage” — in addition to a salary — was enshrined in France’s post-war constitution.

The Sécu remained a self-governing, non-state national institution even after de Gaulle placed business representatives on the board to undermine it. Today, the government votes on its budget. As for unemployment insurance, which is governed by a bi-part commission of unions and employers, Macron would put the state in charge, with budgetary powers. The impact of these reforms will be to break up the semi-autonomous Sécu and turn its functions over to the state. These changes will allegedly rationalize the system and reduce costs, but in fact, they are designed to progressively shrink the social safety net that has made ‘the French exception’ so popular. A grim prospect for average French people and lovers of France’s quality of life.

Last week, I got to discussing the intricacies of the impending elections with my neighbor — a poised, well-educated young mother from a respected local family. When the truth finally dawned on me that with the left divided there very little hope remains for Social Security and fair labor laws, I blurted out: “What will the French people do?”

“We’ll go down into the streets and throw the bastards out,” she calmly replied. “ We’re good at that.”

Photo:Jean-Luc Mélenchon at a rally in Paris. Credit: Laurent Sauvebois.

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