The New York Times and Washington Post in the U.S. and the Guardian in England presented France’s local elections on March 30 as a breakthrough for the French far right, along with substantial gains for the center-right.
But the real key to understanding developments in France is the record level of abstentions. Nearly 40 percent of the electorate withheld their vote in the March 30 second round. This abstention shows the “center-left” has lost working-class voters and is a massive rebuff to the current government of President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose policies have been as anti-working class as that of their center-right opponents.
For decades, Hollande’s misnamed Socialist Party (PS) and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), which is tightly tied to French big business, have alternately administered the French government. Both these parties supported French colonial rule in Algeria, currently back France’s imperialist adventures in Africa, support French membership in the European Union and agree on imposing austerity on the French workers.
In France, the extreme right-wing, incarnated in a racist, anti-immigrant party called the National Front (FN), has said it wants to become the country’s third electoral force to assure its influence over French policies. FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who died in 2011, had established its earlier fascist image based on his role in the French occupation army’s torture of Algerian liberation fighters during Algeria’s war for liberation.
To increase its electoral appeal, Marine Le Pen, the current leader of FN, has softened the FN’s fascist image. The FN is also “Euroskeptic,” which in the current situation means it can pretend to oppose the EU’s anti-worker austerity measures.
The “left” pole in the elections includes the French Communist Party (PCF), the Greens, the Party of the Left (PG) that brought together diverse left forces a few years ago, and even smaller parties like Workers Struggle (LO) and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NAP).
In the first round of elections on March 23, the PS won far fewer votes in major constituencies than it did six years ago, when the last municipal elections were held. Worried by the results, the PS government announced it was going to “accelerate its program of economic recovery.”
What did this mean? That the Hollande-Ayrault government intended to increase anti-working class austerity, which then compounded its electoral setback. A sharp and significant rise in unemployment in February underlined the impact of this announcement.
According to Jérôme Métellus, writing on the blog La Tribune, which represents the views of a caucus inside the PCF, “This gap between the optimistic discourses of the government and the brutal reality of the current social situation is an insult to the millions of victims of the capitalist crisis.”
Métellus continued, “The capitalist crisis engenders a polarization and increasing political volatility. There are sharp changes in public opinion, sometimes toward the left and other times toward the right,” especially since austerity in France is affecting relatively privileged sectors as well as the poor and nationally oppressed, like the North African and Black communities.
In these days of crisis, the FN attracts votes beyond its traditional small-business base, since it presents itself as opposed to the system and to the European Union. The EU has demanded each member cut social services, public jobs and raise taxes.
Métellus feels that unless the PCF and the PG clearly present a socialist alternative that calls for the abolition of capitalism and its crises, and abandon their “electoral opportunism and reformism,” their results will not be “brilliant.”
Preliminary official results on March 30 gave the “left,” by which they mean the PS and the smaller workers’ parties, 42 percent of the vote. The right — mainly the UMP but also some smaller fringe parties — received 49 percent. The far-right FN got 9 percent. According to Le Parisien, 15 cities where the PS had control fell to the UMP, and eight cities, none over 20,000 people, went to the FN. The PCF said that most of their mayors were voted back into office.