Thursday, May 10, 2007

French elections: darkening clouds

7 May 2007. A World to Win News Service. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy in France’s presidential elections represents a serious turn for the worse for the people of that country and the world. This is not to say that he and his opponent, the Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal, represented two opposing roads. One reason she lost is that she went from trying to pass him on the right on some key campaign issues to refusing to commit herself on others. While the candidates did differ on some questions, they both represented a certain consensus in French ruling circles, and that consensus stamped the campaign with its character. But both the campaign and its results have made a real difference.
In his victory speech, Sarkozy declared that his election had put an end once and for all to the lingering influence of the revolutionary upsurge of May 1968. (His claim to represent the “anti-68s” is well founded: he got his start in politics as a member of the right-wing vigilantes organized by the de Gaulle government to fight demonstrators.) He pledged “to give greater value to work, to authority, to respect, to merit.” In the French political context, these words are recognizable to everyone as a combination of the slogan of the Pétain government under the Nazi occupation in World War 2, “Work, family, fatherland”, and the Thatcherite (or Reaganite) free market policies designed to put an end to the long-standing social pact between France’s ruling capitalists and a section of France’s working and middle classes. Sarkozy declared, “I want to give French people back the pride of being French – to finish with repentance, which is a form of self-hate.” This was directed against French people who criticize the country’s colonial and slaveholding past, a subject of great controversy because of what it implies about France’s role in the world today. He also said, “I’d like to tell our American friends that they can count on our friendship.” This was widely understood to mean that France will drop its criticism of the US-led war in Iraq (which has long been Sarkozy’s position) and is likely to back the U.S. in its confrontation with Iran. France is the only country besides the US with a nuclear aircraft carrier, and that ship is cruising near the shores of Iran today. In light of a threatened US nuclear attack, Sarkozy’s criticism of the US on the issue of global warming just doesn’t amount to much.
The first few minutes after the announcement of the election results revealed a lot. Before appearing at the victory rally, the winner insisted on stopping off at Fouquet’s restaurant on the Champs-Elysées – a notorious symbol of the French superrich reputed to refuse service to women dining without men. One of the first to kiss him when he climbed onto the stage was Faudel, a popular young singer of Algerian descent. This was supposed to show that you don’t have to be white to love “Sarko”. As if in response, another entertainer broke into “Algiers, that France where I was born,” a celebration of French domination of Algeria much appreciated by unrepentant colonialists.
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The election night triumphal attitude of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the fascist National Front, is one of this election’s great ironies and a bitter example of how the electoral system really works. The dismantling of the “French social model” – a welfare state with state capitalist enterprises – took place to a large degree under Socialist-led governments. Fed up with not getting what they thought they’d voted for, so many voters rejected the Socialist Party in the last presidential race in 2002 that Le Pen came in second in the initial round of voting. This sparked a very positive protest movement that drew many immigrants and others from the proletarian suburbs into the streets of Paris and other city centres and into the political life from which they are normally excluded. Then, under the slogan of uniting to stop Le Pen, the vast majority were induced to “Hold your nose and vote” for Jacques Chirac – who made Sarkozy his top cop and most visible minister, a perch he used to prepare to succeed Chirac. In this year’s election, after the first round in which Royal and Sarkozy emerged as the frontrunners, the same slogan was recycled by Royal against Sarkozy. But the logic that led people to put their hopes in voting has led them to exactly where they are today: very unhappy, especially the lower classes and all those with any sense of justice. When the results came in and the media asked Le Pen how he viewed them, he said he considered this election a great victory for his party because both candidates had embraced his ideas. Sarkozy’s promises were fine, he said – the question was whether or not he would fulfil them. (Part of the explanation for Le Pen’s exclusion from the prevailing rightist consensus is his insistence that France must leave the European Union. This may play well with some of the lower classes, which is why some “leftists” spout similar slogans, but it makes him a pariah with France’s ruling classes.)
Another irony is that Royal and her Socialist Party were just as eager as Sarkozy to proclaim this election as symbolizing the end of May 1968. This was explicitly stated by Socialist leader Bernard Kouchner, one of the first student leaders to abandon revolutionary politics more than three decades ago, who said that even though Royal lost, the conversion of the Socialist Party to a “normal” European social-democratic party would be a great victory. It was notable that Royal never even used the word socialism in her campaign. Her disagreements with Sarkozy were relatively petty and narrow. In their televised debate, which was almost universally watched in France, she chose not to call him out around the issues where he is most widely hated. By the same token she failed to use what should have been her greatest advantage: the fact that Sarkozy, from early on, had the lead in terms of the number of people who intended to vote for him, about a third of the electorate, but also had the distinction of being the country’s most frightening politician in the eyes of many more people. Instead of trying to expose and oppose his positions, she followed a strategy of assuming that all those who hated Sarkozy would have to vote for her no matter what, and focused on trying to appeal to the very same opinion that Sarkozy was trying to appeal to, and on the same narrow- minded and backward basis.
For instance, Royal and Sarkozy both kept that debate focused around two issues: the 35-hour week and pension funding. As Royal pointed out, for the previous five years Sarkozy’s party had led a government that had the power to overturn France’s 35-hour work week and chose not to. She and Sarkozy both promised to keep that law on the books, with the difference being that she called for “consultation” on “reforming” it, without making it clear what that meant, while Sarkozy called for “paying people more for working more”, that is, eliminating taxes and other charges to employers on overtime pay so as to encourage them to get people to work longer hours. As Karl Marx pointed out a century and a half ago in calling on workers to fight for an eight-hour legal limit to the work day, in a given society a given standard of living is considered acceptable, and if workers can attain that by working more hours they are less likely to struggle for higher wages, even if the lack of free time stunts them physically and intellectually. Further, the 35-hour week has been a hoax as well as a diversion. Just as in Germany, when a similar work-week reduction was introduced by law, the number of hours people actually work has tended to be more. Some statistical experts claim that the real average workweek is longer in France than in many other wealthy countries.
More basically, what is most important about the 35-hour week is that it represents the Socialist Party promise of a capitalist society where workers and employees can live the good life. Three things are wrong with this: 1) What is the meaning of a good life in a society where profit rules, and the vast majority of people are slaves to capital and can never realize their potential as thinking and acting human beings? 2) Even when France was most “Socialist”, during the Mitterrand government in the 1980s, France’s working people were split into those with some comfort and security, no matter how meagre, and those with none. 3) Much of the wealth of France, like all the imperialist countries, comes from French capital’s ability to fatten off globalized investment and the division of the world into oppressed and oppressor nations.
These issues were absent from Royal’s discourse. Rather than blast Sarkozy for his most infamous action, when he called housing project youth “low-class scum” and vowed to “clean them out with a high-pressure hose”, she countered with a proposal that young people in trouble with the law (another definition of housing project youth) be sent to camps run by the military. She did venture to bring up a particularly notorious case where police looking for someone to deport to fulfil Sarkozy’s quota ambushed an elderly immigrant in front of a school where he had come to pick up his granddaughter. Although Royal didn’t mention it, what was special about this incident was that, when the school head was arrested for placing herself between the grandfather and the police, many people came forward to say she had done the right thing and pledged to act likewise.
Yet Sarkozy taunted Royal and beat her down on this question by demanding that she say whether or not she was in favour of allowing all “illegal” immigrants to stay in France – to which she would not answer yes. Sarkozy’s avowed intention of “cleaning out” many immigrants was a central issue to many millions of people in this campaign, a major reason why the percentage of people who voted was so high. Further, when it came to France’s role in the world, she followed Sarkozy in keeping silent concerning French neocolonialism in Africa, for instance, about which there is little debate among France’s “political class”. She was also silent about his pro-Israel bent, which represents a shift from France’s traditional policy of seeking to own or influence Arab regimes. (For instance, outgoing President Chirac is moving into an apartment owned by one of Lebanon’s most economically and politically powerful families.) Nor was there any discussion at all about France’s attempts to secure a place in the American “new world order”. Overall, many people felt that love him or hate him, “Sarko” was saying what he thought, while “Sego” was evasive and dishonest.
George Bush was said to be the first to call and congratulate Sarkozy. But Royal, during the debate, put forward as her role model German Chancellor Angela Merkel – another Bush ally who is the head of the centre-right Christian Democrats and doesn’t even claim to be any kind of leftist. Not that a “real” leftist president is what France needs – it already had that with Mitterrand, and that was no good either. But this is a striking example of how far the political spectrum on the Continent and internationally has moved to the right. Even France’s Communist Party has gone from being a major revisionist force (it had so little in common with communism for so long that it tried to put down the May 1968 upsurge) to irrelevant, eclipsed by a Troskyist party whose programme is a recycling of old and now abandoned Mitterrand-era Socialist promises.
Even if Royal had won, it is unlikely that there would have been dancing in the streets around the Bastille like when Mitterrand won in 1981. The hope for a new world through elections has largely evaporated among those who most long for such a change. The most many progressive people hoped for this time was staving off the worst – but worse was on the agenda no matter who won. There was dancing in the street on election night, not at the Bastille, once a symbol of popular revolt, but at the Place de la Concorde on the rich and rightist end of town. In the housing projects and proletarian neighbourhoods where vans packed with suited-up riot police stood ready to pounce, the sullen silence was punctuated now and then by burning cars. Many immigrants and other working class people regard the results as a direct and mortal danger to their hopes of living a normal life. Despite the prevailing sentiment of being stunned, some students and other youth staged rowdy street protests in Paris and especially other cities, including Rennes, a stronghold of last spring’s student and youth movement.
Sarkozy’s promises to make France more like the UK or the US (and Royal’s agreement with that as a goal, especially Blair’s Britain) are particularly ironic in a country where life for many ordinary people has been slightly less harsh than in those two “models”. France has been able to take shelter from some of the economic, political and military winds sweeping other countries. That period may be coming to a close.

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