Issue 266 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Wrong to back Chirac
We are from the French group Socialisme par en bas and we have read the letters (July/August SR) on the Chirac vote. We think that the issue is taken on in a very abstract way. So we would like to share some of our experience in the struggle against Le Pen in France between the two rounds of the elections.
On the evening of the first round of the presidential election a lot of our comrades met at our office. Decisions were quickly taken. First we had to fight Le Pen and try to organise people around us. Secondly we said we would not call for a vote for Chirac. Then we were on the streets together with 30,000 people up until 5am next morning. There followed demonstrations every day. The youth were on strike, and on the streets. The argument that really dominated in the press was the call for a vote for Chirac, and the stigmatisation of abstentionists and of those who had voted for the radical left. There has been no real fight against the Le Pen vote organised by the dominant left parties. One Socialist Party former minister said, 'Vote Chirac but stay at home or you'll be playing Le Pen's game.'
In this situation we were able to be at the heart of the anti Le Pen mobilisation. We were able to argue why fascism exists, what it is, and how we fight it. We published a special issue of our monthly paper. The front page was 'No Vote for Le Pen, No Quarter for the Nazis, All on the Streets 1 May'. The back page was 'Le Pen to the Seine, Chirac in Jail'.
We had some difficult arguments with people on the demonstrations, but because we didn't put the issue of the vote as an obstacle to the common fight against Le Pen, we weren't cut off from the mass of those who wanted to fight.
One of the arguments was that we had no choice but to vote for Chirac, although most people were disgusted at doing so. There were good arguments about the limits of democracy. The fact is that the right has made alliances with the Front National in the past.
There was no risk of Le Pen being elected, but even if there had been, the question would not be to vote for Chirac but to begin to organise an insurrection and to prepare to take arms. The question was not only this election but also the next ones. The government has been elected with a very low level of real support. The balance of forces still favours the left in struggles. The attacks of the right have begun but they are hesitant about direct economic attacks. They try to begin with more ideological things such as immigration and repression of the youth. The battle has just begun.
I disagree with those who argue it was right for socialists to call for a vote for Chirac in the second round of the French presidential elections (July/August SR). John Shemeld's analogy of the football match is misleading, because a football match is a self contained event, whereas the election took place in the wider context of political polarisation going on in France. That polarisation existed before the election, and continues after it. The most important aspect of this polarisation is the anti-capitalist movement.
In such a context, it was vital that socialists both built the movement on the streets against Le Pen, but also countered arguments within the movement which could potentially weaken it in the longer term, such as the one that the left should vote for Chirac.
When mainstream politicians argued that everyone should unite behind Chirac in the second round of the election, they did so not only to ensure that Chirac won with a huge vote. They did so also because they saw an opportunity to undermine the militancy of the anti-capitalist movement by arguing that in the face of a 'common enemy' all 'reasonable people' must put aside their differences and stand together. Chirac and his friends were only helped in their efforts when socialists, however temporarily, said essentially the same.
In addition, many of those who voted for Le Pen did so because of disillusionment with the mainstream politicians who have done nothing for ordinary people. In the wake of his victory, Chirac is attempting to shift the whole of French politics to the right, preparing the ground for further attacks on working class people. For socialists to fall in behind Chirac in the election was to undermine their ability to pose an alternative after the election.
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John Shemeld, Jamie Rankin and Phil Webster argue that it was right to call for a vote for Chirac in the French presidential elections (July/August SR).
Rankin in particular dismisses the experience of the fight against fascism in the 1930s as having no relevance today. In fact applying the lessons of a period when the stakes were even higher is crucial.
In both the Spanish and French elections of 1936 most of the left supported unprincipled alliances with liberal capitalist parties against the fascists. In both cases, the far right was defeated electorally, only to triumph by other means. The revolutionary movements of both Spanish and French workers were held back and ultimately betrayed by their leaders' alliances with so called 'democratic' bosses.
Just because Chirac is not likely to invite Le Pen to form a government in the near future does not make this historical experience lose its force. Chirac has played an important role in boosting Le Pen, both indirectly, by attempting to steal his clothes on racism and 'insecurity', but also directly by making local alliances with the Front National against the left. Chirac will do this again if it suits him.
Not calling for a vote for Chirac is not the same as calling for abstention which implies that there is no difference between the fascists and the Gaullists.
At this year's Unison conference Tony Blair's supporters sought to blame the Socialist Alliance for the BNP's success in the local elections in Burnley and the French revolutionary left for Le Pen's vote in the presidential elections. Calling for a vote for Chirac gives ground to this argument.
Chirac has been able to exploit his success in the presidential elections to unify the non-fascist right and win the parliamentary elections. The far left has failed to fully build on its vote in the presidential elections.
Campaigning against the Nazis is only half the fight. It is also vital to offer a socialist alternative to the social democratic parties whose betrayals are opening the door to the far right.
John Shemeld's letter (July/August SR) was well argued. Indeed for five minutes he convinced me.
But then I tried to relate that to my experience in the May elections. I stood as a Socialist Alliance candidate, and while we were canvassing on the estate, people kept bringing up the issue of asylum seekers, but the same people agreed with everything else we were saying! That is because we were talking about how neo-liberalism is making people's lives shit. We stuck to our guns and argued against the racism and people respected us for that, especially because our counter-argument that the rich were the real enemy and were trying to scapegoat refugees did strike a chord.
Of course some of our support came from traditional old-Labour supporters, but our appeal was wider because we also said that voting for the Socialist Alliance would put a fire cracker up New Labour's arse. We got 11 percent of the vote in a solidly working class ward. I know for a fact that a fair number of people who voted for us were racists, and some would have voted for the BNP if they could. They voted for us, even though all of our election material said that we defend asylum seekers, because they were voting for a fight. They believed we were different from New Labour, and that we were outsiders who share their anger. We have to remember that most BNP voters are not hardened Nazis, and angry workers who listen to the BNP will also listen to us. These workers can be won to anti-racism.
Sabby Sagall's article on anti-Semitism (July/August SR) takes a very superficial attitude towards anti-Jewish sentiments in the Middle East.
While there has often been a tendency for protests in the Middle East against Zionist colonisation and discrimination to degenerate into a pogrom against Jews as a whole, the rise of extreme Islamic sentiments has been accompanied by the popularisation of prominent features of European anti-Semitism. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion do a roaring trade in the Middle East, and only recently a Saudi Arabian newspaper retailed the very European myth of the Jewish blood sacrifice.
When one looks at the utterances of Osama Bin Laden about how 'the Jews' control the US, and considers the indiscriminate targeting of Jews by Palestinian suicide bombers, it is clear that, whatever its roots in an opposition to Zionism, anti-Semitism in the Middle East has developed a dynamic more or less identical to the most violent examples of European anti-Semitism. All Jews, be they fascistic Zionist settlers or socialists dedicated to a just solution to the Palestine-Israel crisis, are a target.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Sagall's article is that he implies that anti-Semitism in the Middle East is less harmful than its European counterpart, and is of little consequence. Although its root cause is different, anti-Semitism in the Middle East is as dangerous to its targets and as corrupting to its perpetrators as it is in Europe or anywhere else.
A mistake appeared in Sabby Sagall's article. Page 21, first paragraph in the second column, second sentence should read: 'In Jewish municipal elections in Warsaw in 1936 Zionists polled 22 percent of the vote compared to 30 percent for the socialist anti-Zionist Bund.'
Joe Cardwell and Mike Gonzalez are absolutely right to emphasise the links between sport and nationalism (July/August SR). Cardwell quotes Orwell: 'Sport is war minus the shooting.' In Turkey it includes the shooting as well! Every time leading Istanbul team Galatasaray beats foreign opponents (alas, quite frequently in recent years), crowds take to the streets, shooting in the air in celebration.
Many have been killed by stray bullets, and many others in traffic accidents caused by drunken cavalcades of flag-waving supporters. These have been accidental deaths. The murders of two Leeds United supporters in Istanbul's central square were not.
The team's flags are often outnumbered on these celebrations by the Turkish flag. In a country where the fascist National Action Party (MHP) is part of a coalition government, having polled 18 percent in the last general election, fascists find it easy to sway these crowds their own way. Shouts of 'Turkey is the greatest' are suddenly followed by 'Down with the PKK' and 'Death to Kurds'.
The success of the Turkish national team at the World Cup has made all this much worse. Not only because it has generally taken the atmosphere of nationalism to fever pitch, but more directly. The press here has reported that some members of the team are Islamic fundamentalists. What is much more relevant is that some are fascists.
The World Cup has made these people national heroes. Can anyone doubt that the filth they spout will now carry more weight, that the flag-waving crowds are now more likely to vote MHP? Nobody in Turkey, on the right or the left, thinks for a moment that football is 'just a game' or that waving the flag is just a bit of harmless exuberance.
In his article on asylum seekers, 'Labour puts asylum seekers in focus' (July/August SR) Solomon Hughes refers to focus groups as 'guided discussions which reflect the prejudices of their organiser more than public opinion'.
While it's absolutely right to be sceptical about Philip Gould's use of focus groups, they are also a valuable research tool. They have been used by critical social scientists to investigate how opinions are formed collectively--and how they can change collectively.
I'd refer interested readers to work done by the Glasgow Media Group, to Michael Billig's writings and especially to a fascinating book by William Gamson, Talking Politics, which shows working class Americans to be far more politically aware than their leaders think.
Martin Smith's otherwise reasonable article on trade unionism (July/August SR) was spoiled by an inaccuracy. Paragraph 16 contains the following sentence: 'In an attempt to appease management he has signed a no-strike deal'. This is not true and if you can produce the agreement to support this assertion I would be amazed, as no such agreement exists.
Inaccuracy in the press is part of the world we live in but in a measured article accuracy should be at a premium.
CWU general secretary,
I apologise to Billy Hayes for any misunderstanding. I accept the criticism that the CWU did not sign a formal no-strike agreement with Royal Mail. However, I do believe that this was at least temporarily the effect on the ground of the 'moratorium on strikes'.
The union made clear the implications of this agreement in a number of official statements. CWU News (14 September 2001) states, 'The CWU has agreed to suspend any ballots for industrial action,' and later in the press release the CWU states, 'Royal Mail will continue to achieve the goal of a strike-free business.' A subsequent article in CWU News (10 October 2001) states, 'Royal Mail will not implement any unagreed changes in working practices at local level and the union will suspend any threats of industrial action.'