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A long but informative analysis of the French 2002 elections.

by Charlie Post*

The French "Earthquake"

The mainstream press in France and around the world
greeted the results of the first round of the French
Presidential election on April 21, 2002 with cries of
"earthquake, shame, and disaster." At the center of
their coverage was Le Pen's National Front's (FN)
"break-through." The far right, anti-immigrant
candidate had come in second with nearly 17% of the
vote, closely trailing the incumbent traditional
right-wing President Chirac who polled only 20%. Not
only had the sitting President of the Republic
received only one in five votes, but voter support for
the "government" or "pluralist left"— the parties who
were the main parliamentary supporters of Socialist
Prime Minister Jospin since 1997—had collapsed. The
Socialists (PS) and Communists (PCF), who had received
nearly 32% of the vote in the 1995 Presidential
election and nearly 40% of the vote in the 1997
Parliamentary elections, received less than 20% of the
vote in 2002. Mentioned only occasionally were the
nearly 3 million people— 11% of the total—who voted
for the candidates of the revolutionary left, the
retired bank clerk Arlette Laguiller of Workers'
Struggle (LO) and twenty-nine year old postal worker
Olivier Besancenot of the Revolutionary Communist
League (LCR).

When examined closely, the French elections reveal a
deep political polarization. While voter participation
in France (like most of Europe) remains much higher
than in the US, those who voted "none of the above" by
staying home on April 21 jumped from 21% in 1995 to
28% in 2002. The approximately 2.2 million fewer
people who voted in 2002 account for much of the
collapse of the "government left." In 1995, Jospin
received 6.9 million votes (23.2%). In 2002, his vote
dropped to 4.5 million, a mere 16.18% of the total.
Increased voter abstention also accounts for the NF's
"break-through" to second place in the first round. Le
Pen received only 200,000 more votes in 2002 than 1995
(4.7 million versus 4.5 million)—not a "ground swell"
of support for the far right. However, voter
abstention among those who traditionally voted for the
"government left" allowed Le Pen to garner the 17% of
the vote to qualify for the second round.

The revolutionary socialist left, not the
anti-immigrant far right, made the biggest gains in
the first round. In 1995, Laguiller of LO received
approximately 1.5 million votes, nearly 5% of the
total. In 2002, the two candidates of the
revolutionary left2 doubled their total vote to nearly
3 million and more than doubled their percentage of
the total vote. The relationship of forces on the
French left has been transformed profoundly. While the
Socialists' support dropped from 23% to 17%, the
Communists' saw their support drop from nearly 9% to
less than 4%. Today, the PCF—the traditional party of
unionized industrial workers in France—ran behind both
of the revolutionary socialist candidates in 2002.

Who is responsible for Le Pen's Success and the
collapse of the "Government Left"?

Not surprisingly, much of the mainstream press and
many spokespersons for the "pluralist left" in France
attempted to blame the 11% of French voters who cast
"protest votes" for the revolutionary left for Le
Pen's second place showing. Like the claim that those
who voted for Nader in the 2000 US presidential
elections "helped elect Bush," it does not stand up to
close scrutiny. Nader's vote in Florida did not
provide Bush's "margin of victory" (actually the vote
of the Supreme Court did). Nor did the far left's vote
provide Le Pen's "margin of victory" over Jospin in
the first round. Instead, massive voter abstention led
to Jospin's poor showing.

The "government left" in France was responsible for
its own demise in 2002. In the US, eight years of
Clinton and the Democrats carrying out policies that
promoted capitalist globalization—NAFTA, GATT, welfare
reform—alienated many traditionally Democratic voters
in 2000. In France, five years of the PS-PF-Green
government pursuing neo-liberal policies alienated
large numbers of working class and young voters in
2002. The Jospin government and its "pluralist left"
supporters in Parliament carried out policies
indistinguishable from that of the right in France and
the rest of Europe—policies that remove any and all
legal obstacles to the free operation of transnational
corporations in the capital, labor and commodity

While elected on the pledge to enforce the 35 hour
week and reduce unemployment, the Jospin government
allowed employers to use the 35 hour law to impose
"flexible" schedules (changing shifts, ten hour days,
etc.) on French workers. With unemployment remaining
near 10%, the Jospin government did nothing to stop a
wave of large-scale layoffs at major corporations
(Mulinex, Michelin, Danone, Marks & Spencer,
Whirlpool) while continuing to cut spending on social
services such as health, social security (unemployment
insurance) and pensions. The "government left" also
carried out more sweeping privatizations of publicly
owned industries in five years than the Conservative
Thatcher and Major governments in Britain carried out
in fifteen. At the European Summit in Barcelona a few
weeks before the election, Jospin and Chirac agreed on
plans to privatize the state electric power company,
to reduce the state deficit through further austerity
measures, and to push back the retirement age five
additional years.

During the campaign, both Chirac and Jospin embraced
Le Pen's calls for "law and order"—a not so vaguely
disguised appeal to anti-immigrant racism. Not
surprisingly, opinion polls published during the
campaign indicated that nearly 75% of the voters had
difficulty distinguishing the political program of
Jospin and Chirac.

The French "government left" is of course not alone in
its drift to the right and embrace of neo-liberalism
and anti-immigrant policies. The traditional reformist
left (the Socialist, Labor and Communist parties)
across Europe—and the liberal Democratic party in the
US—have all abandoned government regulation of
capitalism and the welfare state for the new "free
market" orthodoxy. How do we explain this "paradox of
reformism"? How have parties committed to "practical,"
pro-worker reforms under capitalism (rather than the
"unrealistic" goal of socialist revolution) become the
agents for the dismantling of the social gains workers
have won under capitalism?

Reformism—the notion that capitalism can be made to
function to the mutual benefit of both capitalists and
workers through state intervention (social welfare,
regulation of markets, etc.) — is the world-view of
the officialdom of the trade unions and of
parliamentary political parties tied to the labor
movement. Both the trade union bureaucracy and the
professional politicians seek to advance the interests
of their working class members and constituents
without endangering the institutions—the unions and
parties—that provide their income and privileged place
in society. Mass, disruptive strikes and street
actions, while potentially the most effective way to
wrest concessions from capitalists and the state, can
go down to defeat, threatening the existence of the
unions and political parties. Thus the union officials
and parliamentary politicians pursue reforms through
the "safe" mechanisms—the grievance procedure,
institutionalized collective bargaining and election

The success of reformism depends upon the state of
capitalist accumulation—healthy profits for
capitalists are the condition for concessions to the
workers. Reformism seems to work during those
exceptional periods of capitalist development (like
the two decades after the Second World War) when
profits are high and competition is abated. Under such
circumstances, capitalists concede reforms to
bureaucratic unions and reformist political parties in
order to prevent social disruptions that may threaten
competitiveness and profitability.

Reformism faces a crisis when profits inevitably fall
and capitalist competition is heightened, compelling
capital to attack previous pro-worker reforms in order
to restore and maintain profits. Eschewing militancy
and direct action by workers and other oppressed
people, the labor bureaucracy and reformist
politicians have no choice but to make concessions to
the employers' offensive and to administer capitalist
state austerity in periods of capitalist
restructuring. Put simply, the reformists' adaptation
to capitalist globalization and neo-liberalism is the
inevitable outcome of their politics.

Unfortunately for the reformist left in France and
throughout the capitalist world, the neo-liberal
policies they are compelled to pursue undermine their
legitimacy and support among their working class
constituents. Those workers who can keep their
full-time, year round jobs are faced with longer
hours, falling real wages and speed-up. Growing layers
of workers, especially young people, immigrants and
people of color, face growing insecurity of employment
as low-wage, part-time and temporary work replaces
full-time, year round employment. The social welfare
programs that had once provided some security in the
capitalist labor market are dismantled, leading to a
downward spiral of wages, working conditions and

Faced with these realities, significant layers of
working people become disgusted with the parties of
the reformist left that they perceive—correctly—to be
no different from the parties of the explicitly
pro-capitalist right. These working people find their
situation intolerable and seek radical alternatives to
the politics of traditional political establishment,
both left and right. In other words, the impact of
capitalist globalization and neo-liberal policies
nurtures the collapse of political "middle" and
working people's desire for radical alternatives to
the status quo.

Why Did So Many Workers Vote for both the Far Left and
the Far Right

Both the far right, anti-immigrant Le Pen and the
revolutionary socialists Laguiller and Besancenot
attracted the support of workers seeking a radical
alternative to the neo-liberal, pro-corporate
globalization political status quo in France. Such
divergent political responses to the crisis of the
traditional reformist left seems, at first glance
paradoxical. Why should the people in the same social
class, effected by the same attacks from capital and
the state, respond to the appeals of both a right-wing
demagogue who scapegoats immigrants and two
revolutionary socialists who clearly target capital as
the common enemy of all working people?

This paradox appears repeatedly in the history of the
working-class movement under capitalism-- a history of
both solidarity and common struggle; and a history of
racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant nativism. This
paradox is rooted in the structure of capitalism,
which simultaneously "pushes together" and "pulls
apart" the working class. Under capitalism, workers
are brought together in cooperative work relations at
the workplace. As "collective producers," workers
experience their common interests, struggle with their
employers, and have the potential for developing a
radical, anti-capitalist consciousness and politics.
But workers are also pitted against one another on the
labor-market, competing for jobs (and with them
housing, education for their children, etc.)
Competition among workers is the breeding ground for
racism, sexism, and nativism, as one group of workers
attempts to defend its position in the labor market
against other groups of workers. In the absence of
effective class against class organization and
struggle—militant unions and vibrant social
movements—it is quite logical for individual workers
and groups of workers to attempt to defend their
declining working conditions and living standards at
the expense of other groups of workers.

Le Pen's populist quasi-fascist ideology,3 which
combines anti-immigrant racism, French nationalism and
hostility to the Europe Union, appeals to those
workers whose experience has led them to despair class
organization and struggle. Along with sections of the
impoverished middle classes (the self-employed,
managers, supervisors and professionals), the NF won
support among sections of the French industrial
working class that have born much of the impact of
capitalist globalization and restructuring over the
past twenty years. This was the case in the
"rust-belt" in the north and east of France, where
employment in the large auto, steel and other metal
working factories have declined with the introduction
of new technology and the outsourcing of operations to
southern Europe. On a smaller scale, the appeal of
Patrick Buchanan's anti-immigrant, anti-"free trade"
program to workers in the US represents the same

There a minority of older workers (over 35 years old)
found Le Pen's combination of immigrant bashing and
hostility to the European Union's removal of tariff
protection for French industry and agriculture very
appealing. This was especially true among some those
whose traditional class organizations—the PCF and the
CGT unions its leads—have been ineffective in the face
of the neo-liberal offensive. For those who experience
capitalist globalization as an intensification of a
"war of all against all," Le Pen's scapegoating of
immigrants for rising crime, declining living
standards and the collapse of social services appears
as "common sense."

Support for the revolutionary left, both the LO and
LCR, reflected the strength of renewed class
organization and the growth of the anti-capitalist
global justice movement in France. The massive public
sector strikes of December 1995, spearheaded by
transit and postal-telecommunication workers, marked a
turning point in the recomposition of the French labor
movement. Important rank and file currents had existed
in the CFDT (the SP led trade union) since the early
1980s. These currents were able to provide leadership
to the mass, cross-union assemblies that initiated and
led the public sector workers' revolt in 1995. Since
1995, strikes and other industrial actions have
continued in the public sector, with many fewer
strikes in the private sector because of higher
unemployment. Continued workplace militancy
strengthened left-wing currents in the CFDT and
promoted the growth of the SUD, an independent,
militant and democratic union based primarily in the
public sector. Alongside these industrial struggles
has come the emergence of a large and vibrant
anti-capitalist global justice movement in France,
spear-headed by ATTAC (the movement to tax financial
transactions), and important movements against racism
and fascism, and among the unemployed and immigrant
workers "without papers."

The strength of the new workers' and social movements
made the appeals of the revolutionary left for class
solidarity and militancy in opposition to capital's
neo-liberal offensive appear "realistic" to a sizeable
minority of workers and young people in France in
2002. Repulsed by an reformist left that had abandoned
all pretenses of defending the interests of working
people, the workers and young people who voted for the
LO and LCR were those mostly like to have experienced
the power of class and social struggle. The fact that
11% of the electorate was willing to "waste" their
vote on revolutionary candidates who had no chance of
winning office is a clear indication of a new popular
radicalism and power in the France. On a much larger
scale—corresponding to the greater strength of labor
and the social movements in France—the revolutionary
left's strong vote parallels the strong showing of
Ralph Nader's anti-corporate campaign in the 2000 US

The different relationship of the LO and LCR to the
recomposition of the French labor movement and the
rise of new anti-capitalist social movements was
reflected in the differing sources of their support.
LO's activity is centered in private-sector industries
and in factory level locals of the Communist led
unions of the CGT. LO abstains from involvement in
broader rank and file currents, like the SUD and the
opposition in the CFDT, and has dismissed the
anti-capitalist global justice movement and other
social movements outside the workplace as "middle
class." Not surprisingly, Laguiller did best among
older (over 35 years old) workers in the north and
east of France—former Communist voters who had not
completely despaired of class politics despite the
bankruptcy of the PCF after five years in the Jospin

By contrast, the LCR is deeply embedded in the new
labor and social movements. It's members play leading
roles in the SUD and the CFDT opposition currents, and
in ATTAC and the organizations fighting fascism,
racism, and unemployment and for the rights of
immigrants. Besancenot received the second largest
share of votes among young people (18-24 age group),
winning 13.9% compared with Chirac's 15.7%.

What's Next in France?

The news of Le Pen's second place showing in the first
round sparked an immediate revulsion among broad
sectors of French youth and working people. Beginning
on Sunday, April 21 2002, the LCR and the anti-fascist
network Ras l'Front, sometimes joined by local
Socialist and Communist youth organizations, using
activist networks on the web, called actions in
various cities across France. By Monday, April 22,
thousands of high school and college students marched
against Le Pen across France—with nearly 100,000
people demonstrating in Paris. This wave of street
demonstrations culminated in the May Day
demonstrations across France. Organized by a broad
front of the "government" and revolutionary left, the
unions and the social movements, these actions
mobilized nearly 2,000,000. Although not accompanied
by strike action, these demonstrations were the
largest in France since May 1968. Drawing in workers
and youth far beyond the 11% that voted for the
revolutionary left, the anti-Le Pen, anti-fascist
mobilization demonstrated an "instinct for unity"
among all segments of the labor and social movements
against the threat of the far right.

Not surprisingly, Le Pen was thoroughly trounced in
the second round. The entire "pluralist left" and the
French employers' association actively campaigned for
Chirac in the second round. Many of the young people
and workers who had demonstrated against Le Pen in the
two weeks between the rounds under the slogan "Votez
escroc, pas fach"—Vote the crook (a reference to
corruption in the Chirac administration), not the
fascist—went to the polls with clothes-pins on their
nose. Voter participation jumped from 72% of the
electorate in the first round to 81% in the second.
Chirac garnered all of the increased votes, out
polling all of the non-NF candidates in the first
round. Le Pen's 18% represented a rise of only 500,000
votes, mostly those who had voted for his former
colleague, Megret, the fascist MNR's candidate in the
first round.

The French left was sharply divided over how to
approach the second round voting. The reformist
"government left" actively campaigned for Chirac. Like
the pro-Democratic party left in the US in 2000 who
argued for support to Gore to defeat Bush, the
reformist left in France argued that Chirac
represented a "lesser evil" compared to Le Pen. The
revolutionary left, both the LCR and LO, rejected the
idea that the incumbent President represented a
"republican barrier" to the advance of fascism. They
pointed out that the "pluralists left's" failure to
distinguish itself from the right over the past decade
had created the environment for the growth of Le Pen
and the far right. LO and the LCR explained that the
election of Chirac would open a new stage in the
struggle against capitalist globalization and
neo-liberalism. Only massive street mobilizations
against fascism and the far right, and continued
struggles in the workplaces and in the streets against
the employers' offensive and government austerity
would stem the rightward tide.

While the two main organizations of the revolutionary
left were united their rejection of "lesser evilism"
and in their support for the anti-Le Pen
mobilizations, there were important tactical
differences between the LO and LCR on the second round
voting. LO called for its supporters to either abstain
from voting or cast a spoilt or blank ballot. This
appeal had little resonance as voter participation
jumped in the second round and only 4% of voters cast
spoilt or blank ballots. The LCR, while consistently
criticizing the "lesser evilism" of the Socialists and
Communists and refusing to campaign for Chirac,
adopted what some in its leadership called a
"juridical formulation"—a call to "bar the far right
in the streets as in the elections." Leaving open the
possibility of voting for Chirac, the LCR was in tune
with most of the anti-Le Pen mobilizations in which
the LCR played a much greater role in than the LO.

The parliamentary elections in June will provide
another measure of the relationship of class and
social forces in France. The LCR approached LO to run
a joint slate, uniting the far left's votes and
possibly bringing revolutionaries into the French
National Assembly for the first time since the 1930s.
Unfortunately, the LO rejected this call for unity
among revolutionary socialists in France.

For the LCR, a joint slate with the LO would be an
important step toward building a new working class
political party in France—a party "to the left of the
(government) left." Such a party would unite militant
trade unionists with the activists in the social
movements (global justice, anti-racist/anti-fascist,
immigrant rights, etc.) around an explicitly
anti-capitalist program "for a different Europe, for a
social policy opposed to that of the French employers'
organization, for a different type of globalization,
and against war."4 The LCR believes that a party to
"the left of the left" could also attract
disillusioned Communists, Socialists, and Greens,
providing a clear working class and popular
alternative to Le Pen and the NF. While rebuffed by
the LO, the LCR is running independent trade unionists
and social movement activists, former Communist and
Socialist party supports on its slate for the
parliamentary elections.

Ultimately the creation of a new workers' party in
France, and of the success of the struggle against Le
Pen and the far right will depend upon the broadening
and deepening of workplace and social struggles.
Chirac has made clear that he will continue the
neo-liberal offensive against workers' rights, social
welfare, and immigrants. Effective mobilizations
against the employers' attempt to impose US-style
"flexibility" (ability of employers to dismiss workers
without cause) in the French labor market, against the
victimization of immigrant communities in the name of
"law and order", and against the neo-liberal plans of
Chirac and the European Union are key to building a
viable revolutionary, democratic and socialist
political alternative in France. For the first time in
fifty years, the revolutionary left in France is in a
position to make a major contribution to building such
an alternative. The failure of to build the workers'
and popular struggles today will only reopen the road
to the far right in the future.

* Charlie Post teaches sociology in New York City, has
been active in rank and file organizing in the
American Federation of Teachers and is a member of

2 In early 2002, the LCR approached LO about running a
united revolutionary campaign with Laguiller as the
presidential candidate. The LO, in a sectarianism that
marks much of their practice, refused. The result was
two revolutionary socialist candidates in the first

3 While the ideology and program of Le Pen and the NF
has a strong resemblance to that of fascist parties,
the current NF is quite different from classical
fascist organizations. Classical fascist organizations
are not simply far-right, populist electoral parties.
They are social movements that can mobilize a private
militia—gangs of storm troopers in Germany in the
1930s, skinheads in Europe today. In the 1970s and
1980s, Le Pen's NF was a classical fascist
organization—complete with a private army it used
against immigrants, the left and organized workers. In
the early 1990s, Le Pen and the majority of the NF
leadership jettisoned their armed gangs to become a
strictly electoral far right party similar to other
far right parties that target immigrants in the rest
of Europe. Megret's MNR, a split off from the NF,
remains a classical fascist organization. It garnered
only 600,000 votes, a mere 2.3% of the vote.

4 Interview with Daniel Ben-Said of the LCR, Socialist
Worker (Britain), 1798 (May 4, 2002)

homepage: homepage: http://www.leftturn.org

numbers 30.May.2002 18:04


I don't think the LCR ran a candidate in 95. So their gain undoubtedly came fron disaffected social democrats in the PS and the PCF.