Issue 263 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

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FRENCH ELECTION

Whither France?

The message to Le Pen was clear
The message to Le Pen was clear...

As polls closed after the first round of the French presidential election on 21 April exit polls were expected to confirm that the second round on 5 May would pit the incumbent prime minister, Lionel Jospin, against the outgoing president, Jacques Chirac. Before the evening was out, however, Jospin had withdrawn from political life, Chirac had achieved the lowest ever score of a standing president and the shocking revelation that he was to face not a Socialist but the fascist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round brought thousands of protesters onto the streets, sparking a nationwide wave of anti-fascist demonstrations which show no sign of letting up.

There are three key elements to the vote. Firstly it represents a significant victory for Le Pen's Front National (FN) only three years after suffering a damaging split which saw the chairman, Bruno Mégret, forming a rival party. One of France's principal anti-racist associations, the Manifeste contre le Front National, were so confident that Le Pen and his party was finished that it dissolved itself in 1999. Today, when Mégret's 2.34 percent is added to Le Pen's score, the total vote for the extreme right stands at 19.2 percent, just behind Chirac's 19.88 percent. In nine of France's 22 regions Le Pen emerged as the leading candidate. The prestige of qualifying for the second round offers the far right an opportunity to rebuild which it should never have been granted. Although the likelihood that Le Pen will become president on 5 May is remote, there is a real chance that FN deputies will be elected to the National Assembly in the June parliamentary elections.

Secondly, however, although the FN vote has more than held up since the last election, this is not the product of a generalised swing to the right but of a profound crisis of mainstream politics. The combined vote for Chirac and Jospin, the candidates of France's two largest parties, was less than the number of abstentions, which amounted to a record 11 million and included 40 percent of young voters. Chirac looks set to be elected after polling a lower first round score than any of the candidates who went on to lose the second round in the last three elections. The mainstream right as a whole won 4 million fewer votes than in the last presidential election in 1995, compared to a drop of 1.5 million for the parties of the mainstream left. The biggest losers of all the partners in Jospin's governmental coalition, aside from Jospin himself, are the Communists (PCF) whose vote plummeted to a new low of 3.37 percent, the worst vote in the party's history. More people opted to spoil their ballot papers than voted for Robert Hue, the candidate of the PCF (once the largest single party in France).

Thirdly, the election is remarkable for the performance of the Trotskyist left, which scored over 10 percent of the poll. It also improved on its 1995 result by more votes (1.4 million) than the far right, whose total vote went up by 1 million. Arlette Laguiller's score, at 5.72 percent, represented a slight advance on her 1995 vote and confirmed her as the candidate most identified with the defence of working class interests. The extraordinary performance of Olivier Besancenot, a young postal worker standing for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), who came from nowhere to win over 1 million votes, including the votes of 13.9 percent of those under the age of 25, reflected his ability to articulate anger at the compromises of the left in government in a way which expressed some of the dynamism and confidence of anti-capitalist youth. In total 13.5 percent of manual workers voted for the far left against only 5.3 percent for the PCF.

Le Pen's success, then, takes place in a vastly different context from the situation which saw the party rise from obscurity to 15 percent of the poll between 1983 and 1995 against a backdrop of bitterness and demoralisation. Today's context is one of intense polarisation at the heart of which is a crisis of neoliberalism and social democracy. The left's failure to deal with social inequality means that Le Pen has been able to pick up electoral support from significant numbers of disaffected workers and the unemployed. Only 12 percent of manual workers are believed to have voted for Jospin, less than half the proportion voting for Le Pen. The Socialists, however, have only themselves to blame for their defeat after running a Blairite campaign which began with Jospin denying that his programme was socialist and ended with him unable to counter Chirac's obsessive focus on law and order, an issue which post 11 September has become the perfect vehicle for Le Pen's racism.

During the early part of the campaign attention focused on how little difference there was between Chirac and Jospin's programmes, a fact reinforced by their show of unity at the EU summit in Barcelona. 'We're not talking enough about workers. We must reassure our social base,' warned a leading Socialist, who also pointed out that the word 'worker' did not even appear in Jospin's programme. By this time, however, it was too late. The campaign was merely reflecting the Socialists' failure to deliver meaningful social reform over the previous five years. The Socialists were elected with the highest proportion of working class support in 1997 on the back of a wave of militancy and anti-racist activity which, among other things, threw off course the FN's attempts to present itself as a party which could defend workers' interests. But Jospin's government has squandered the chance to improve living conditions for ordinary people, hence the dramatic fall in support for Jospin among workers.

At the same time the election also shows that left opposition to the Socialists is now generalising beyond the mainstream parties. This means that the LCR and Lutte Ouvrière were able to win more support between them than the combined Green and Communist vote. It also means that the far left has a tremendous responsibility today. This is twofold. Voters are being offered a choice between a fascist candidate and a corrupt right wing president with an abject personal record of pandering to racism, whose party gave the FN its first electoral breakthrough by concluding a local alliance with it in 1983. In the immediate future, then, it is vital that Le Pen is stopped, but opposition cannot be confined to calls for a 'Republican Front' behind Chirac. The tremendous anti-fascist mobilisations which saw school students leave their classrooms on the day after the election to join 150,000 on the streets of over 30 towns will be central in defeating Le Pen. The lesson of the previous wave of anti-racist protests which targeted the FN in the mid-1990s is that such opposition must not let up until the organisation is smashed beyond repair.

But if the FN is to be marginalised a credible political alternative to the mainstream left must also be developed. The far left now has an unprecedented opportunity to help build such an alternative and unite those breaking with the Socialist and Communist parties with anti-capitalist, anti-racist youth against fascism, capitalism and war. In particular Lutte Ouvrière must take responsibility for its vote, something which it failed to do in 1995.

This means breaking with its policy of abstention on the question of fighting fascism and taking initiatives in the struggle against Le Pen. But it also means offering a political home to the many thousands of workers looking to the far left, one whose ambitions soar beyond the small-scale operations within which the revolutionary left has been confined for too long. Immediately after the election one newspaper quoted the reaction of someone who had abstained in the vote. His first thought had been to leave the country, but 'now I've told myself to become active politically, to stop being passive'. What kind of political activity such people are drawn to, and its chances of success, will depend to a large extent on the choices made by revolutionaries in the coming weeks.
Jim Wolfreys


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • President Bush is making so many blunders in his speeches that the White House is editing them out of official transcripts. Bush has recently called on Americans to volunteer for 4,000 years of public service rather than 4,000 hours. He also said Japan had been an ally 'for a century and a half' instead of half a century.

  • Got a beef with your local McDonald's? If so, getting an apology may be more expensive than you think. When Chilean resident Carmen Calderon complained that her son got food poisoning after eating one of their burgers she was slapped with a $1.25 million lawsuit. McDonald's strategy is now to try and impose huge fines on people who complain about their service in order to deter others.

  • Star wars
  • The US military claim tests for their Star Wars defence programme have been a great success. However, it has been revealed that the tests have been downgraded in complexity and many missiles carry a beacon which guides the interceptor towards the warhead.

  • FRENCH ELECTION

    'Halte au fascisme, halte au capitalisme!'

    ...and it was taken to the streets of France
    ...and it was taken to the streets of France

    They came in their tens of thousands, young and old, black and white. Within hours of the news that Le Pen had come second in the first round of the presidential election, the boulevards of central Paris were filled with protesters. Many were in tears of shock and emotion. One young woman had painted 'J'ai honte' ('I am ashamed') on her forehead.

    I was on a feeder demonstration that marched first to the Place de la Republique on its way to the traditional gathering place for protesters, the Bastille. As we passed metro stations and cafes people responded to the call 'Dans la rue!' ('Onto the street!') and joined the march. Demonstrators hugged each other as they found friends in the crowd--they were on their mobile phones--'We're going to the Bastille. You must come'.

    The size and energy of the protest showed that the opposition to Le Pen wanted to get its voice heard and get organised. Some demonstrators talked of organising a strike, others of smashing Le Pen's march on May Day.

    And still the march grew, reaching up to 30,000 people. This magnificent, spontaneous demonstration of disgust and anger proclaimed 'Halte au fascisme, halte au capitalisme!'.

    It was nearly 1am before we finally arrived at the Bastille--the square was packed. More feeder marches arrived. People clambered up the monument to drape hand made banners. There were a few red flags of the Trotskyist LCR, stickers from the Greens and Ras l'Front, the anti-racist organisation. Improvisation was the order of the day (and night!). Protesters rifled through shop rubbish bags to find anything to write anti-fascist slogans on. It wasn't long before frustration and enthusiasm meant we were on the move again. The call went out, 'To the Elysée!' (the presidential palace).

    It was a young demonstration. People crowded on their balconies of the beautiful old buildings along the way banging saucepans, holding up lighters and candles and applauding. Others played militant rap music from speakers on their window sills. By three in the morning there were still thousands trying to break through police lines at the Place de la Concorde to get to the Elysée. They didn't get there, but that didn't matter--the point had been made, and not only in Paris. That such protests could be rallied within hours and last through the night showed how widespread and how deep the hatred of Le Pen and his ideas is--and how great the potential is for building a force that can take him on.
    Judith Orr


    FASCISM

    How to fight Nazi trouble up at mill towns

    Can Le Pen's success be repeated in Britain? This is the big question as we go to press, with local elections only days away. The Nazi British National Party hopes that it can capitalise on despair among working people after five years of a Labour government to win people to its message of hatred.

    Warning bells rang last June, when Nazis scored high votes in the old textile towns of north west England, especially Oldham and Burnley. Now they are hoping to capitalise on these votes to win seats on the local councils there and so provide a focus for their racist views.

    The threat from Le Pen has forced even New Labour ministers to speak out against the BNP. Tony Blair has come out against Le Pen, and David Blunkett has urged Labour supporters to turn out to defeat the BNP. Even tabloids like the Sun have called on their readers not to vote Nazi. These moves indicate how seriously the ruling classes in Britain and France take the threat of Le Pen, and how worried they are about the rise of fascism.

    People in Burnley march against the closure of old people's homes
    People in Burnley march against the closure of old people's homes

    The attacks on the fascists are to be welcomed, since they help those campaigning against the BNP to find an opening among some Labour supporters who are now considering voting for the fascists and to convince them that such a move would only help create further divisions inside the working class. But events of recent months have shown that the Nazis have to be campaigned against and defeated on the ground.

    The BNP's strongest challenge is in Burnley, where it is standing 13 candidates. In Oldham it is standing another five. The Anti Nazi League has established itself as a local force in Oldham through a relentless campaign of exposing their lies which has brought local anti racists together. The anti BNP campaign in Burnley has brought together the trades council, anti racists, Labour councillors, the Socialist Alliance and community campaigners. Thousands of leaflets have been distributed.

    Burnley and Oldham are typical of working class areas which have suffered years of neglect and which have gained little from a Labour government. Labour's restrictions on public spending and failure to improve health, education and housing has left many working class people competing over scarce and inadequate resources. Some take the mistaken view that a 'protest' vote for the BNP might get them some attention, while Labour takes its working class supporters for granted. We have to get across that such a vote will only worsen working class conditions. At the same time socialists have to begin to provide an alternative to Labour's record which can provide results over issues such as defending council housing or the NHS. This can help to undercut racism.

    It is impossible to judge the effect of the campaigning against the Nazis, although the news from France will help to galvanise all those who oppose the Nazis in the final week of the campaign. It is important to try to stop them gaining a foothold which they can use to try to emulate the French Nazis. But whatever the BNP vote in the north west and elsewhere, its support can be undercut. That means building a mass Anti Nazi League which unites all those trade unionists, the Asian communities, Labour supporters, anti racists and socialists who see the growth of fascism as the serious threat to working class organisation and democracy that it is. The lessons from France show the dangers of fascism--but also the mass response which is possible through demonstrations and protests.


    ELECTIONS

    A left response to Europe's right turn

    Four years ago it all looked so different. Social Democratic parties had swept to office in all but three European Union states, in some cases, as in Britain, putting an end to over a decade of right wing rule. Now Le Pen's success in France has underlined the failure of those governments and the bitterness they have created. His breakthrough in the first round of the presidential election comes after a series of successes for fascist and far right forces in Europe.

    Two years ago Jörg Haider's Freedom Party entered the Tory-led coalition in Austria--it is still there. The Italian government of right wing tycoon Silvio Berlusconi came to power last year. It contains members of Gianfranco Fini's self styled 'post-fascist' National Alliance. Last November the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party took 22 out of 179 parliamentary seats. The maverick hard right candidate Ronald Schill took 19.4 percent of the vote in local elections in Hamburg, Germany, last year.

    In the last few weeks Pim Fortuyn's far right formation in the Netherlands got a third of the vote in Rotterdam, and the Popular Party in Portugal got 8.8 percent of the vote in an election that saw the Conservatives oust the centre left.

    These results are a sign of one side of the polarisation in European politics to the right and the left as the parties of the centre are seen not to deliver. Some of Europe's Christian Democratic parties have learned the lesson and are pitching themselves to the right over immigration, law and order and other themes.

    So the CDU in Germany has selected a hard right candidate, Edmund Stoiber from Bavaria, to fight the general election later this year and has campaigned over immigration.

    The far fight formations vary from the hardened Nazis of the DVU in Germany, Le Pen's National Front to looser groups such as Pim Fortuyn's in the Netherlands. All of them, however, seek to consolidate a base on the right and their growth directly encourages Nazi forces inside and outside those parties.

    Even Le Pen is a long way short of translating votes into a coherent Nazi machine with paramilitary forces at its core. However, he will do that given space. Stopping that means building the forces on the other side of the polarisation, the left, and those forces reaching out to the mass of workers still influenced by the social democratic parties--through united activity against the fascists and against attacks from the bosses.
    Kevin Ovenden


    THE BUDGET

    Not very taxing on the bosses

    Gordon Brown given a clear message on budget day
    Gordon Brown given a clear message on budget day

    A terrible squealing and squawking has been set up by the ruling class and their experts as they pretend to be 'shocked' by Gordon Brown's Budget. Stephen Radley, chief economist at the Engineering Employers Federation, set the tone when he told the Financial Times on 19 April of 'widespread anger' among his members. 'Some of them feel they have been shafted by the government,' he whined. Ian Fletcher, head of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, was equally furious. He complained that the rises in National Insurance contributions for the poor and the workers were to some extent 'cushioned' by tax credits for families with children, while tax cuts for 'business' had been 'overshadowed by the scale of the tax rises'. On all sides comes the awful din of wealthy outrage that a Labour government has dared to tax the employers and the rich to pay, of all things, for something the employers and the rich don't even use--the National Health Service!

    What is the truth behind the squealing? Well, this year (2002-03) the total extra charge in National Insurance and tax on the ruling class is nil. Tax relief for the rich and the employers (including fantastic handouts to big companies for their 'research and development') comes to nearly £500 million. Even next year (2003-04), when the full extent of Brown's increases in National Insurance charges comes into effect, the cost to employers (£3.9 billion) will be heavily 'cushioned' by yet more tax relief for business and shareholdings amounting to £1.4 billion, and the year after that (2004-05) there is still £1 billion of tax relief for the rich and the employers. Some big companies, especially the big drug companies like GlaxoSmithKline, will actually benefit from the budget package.

    Even the experts hired to speak up for the rich know that public services have been so dreadfully run down by the Tory government and its New Labour successor that much more money needs to be raised in tax to keep them up to the miserable standard to which they have sunk. The question for socialists is not whether more money needs to be raised, but how.

    The obvious answer is that most of the money should be raised in income tax. The more people make, the more tax they should pay. But the chancellor and the prime minister made such an obvious remedy impossible when they recklessly included a pledge in the Labour manifesto not to increase income tax in the entire period of this parliament--all the way (at least) to 2005. That way they knocked out the fairest way of raising tax, and were forced back onto the alternative of increases in National Insurance.

    Unlike income tax, National Insurance contributions are not 'progressive'. They do not do more damage to the rich than the poor. They are flat rate increases, payable by all workers. Pensioners, even billionaire pensioners, don't pay a penny towards National Insurance. Income from rent and dividends does not count when National Insurance contributions are assessed. But the worst aspect of National Insurance contributions is that the mega-rich are actually excluded from paying them.

    While the poor under a certain level of poverty don't pay income tax , the very rich over a certain level of wealth are 'cut off' from paying any more National Insurance contributions. Gordon Brown's budget makes a pathetic attempt to cover up this grossly regressive aspect of National Insurance contributions by, for the first time, insisting that rich people who earn more than the 'cut-off' rate (£31,000 a year) now have to pay 1 percent of their earnings in National Insurance contributions. This has set off the predictable howl of indignation from the rich. But deep down the rich are thanking their lucky stars that the demon Brown has accepted the basic principle that the rich and very rich should be sheltered from National Insurance contributions.

    Their real feelings were revealed two days after the budget, and buried deep in a Financial Times supplement that only the very rich were expected to read. 'Top rate earners', revealed Financial Times writer Kate Burgess, 'will breathe a sigh of relief. Many were expecting Brown to abolish the upper earnings limit and levy a flat rate of National Insurance contributions on all earnings above £4,615 at, say, 10 percent. That would have meant those earning, for example, £100,000 a year would have had to stump up an extra £7,000 a year.' How terrible! The article went on, 'If this limit had been abolished individuals might have had to pay 11 percent on all earnings. That would have hit wealthy consumers' discretionary spending.' I think she means luxury spending. In the same article Eleanor Dowling, senior tax consultant at something called Mercer Human Resources Consulting, makes the same point in a different way. 'This is the first rise in direct taxes since Labour came to power,' she says, 'and it isn't that onerous.'

    So the National Insurance rises are nothing like as bad as the rich feared or pretended. But that isn't the only objection to Brown's budget. He has bet everything on improving the National Health Service. Though education has been helped slightly, the other public services, most notably transport, have been left to rot. Everyone can rejoice at more money for the NHS, but there could have been much much more if it had been raised not by a payroll tax that falls on NHS workers as much as anyone else, but by income tax and especially by the long-forsaken supertax which would scoop more and more money from the burgeoning menagerie of fat cats.

    It is as though Blair and Brown decided they must raise much more money for the NHS, but resolved in the process not to do too much damage to their friends and benefactors among the very rich. From now on, moreover, they will be straining every muscle further to ingratiate themselves with the rich and to 'mend the fences' they never erected in the first place.
    Paul Foot


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