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Dan Gordon © 2002

 

 
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The most boring election in the history of the Fifth Republic? Had the only two candidates been Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, certainly. The same moribund duo as in 1995 – Chirac Prime Minister as long ago as 1974, Jospin First Secretary of the Socialist Party as long ago as 1981 – have failed to spark the imagination of the electorate, who look likely to grant the pair barely 40% of the vote between them. A campaign that started with Chirac speaking of his "passion" and Jospin of his "desire" has seen little of either. Enlivened only by last year's revelations that Jospin had been a Trotskyist mole inside the PS from 1971 to 1987 and by Le Canard Enchaîné's exposé of the suspiciously large amount of public money spent on food by Jacques and Bernadette Chirac during his years as mayor of Paris, the campaign has been dominated by a curiously un-French ideological consensus between the two men.

Jospin has often been portrayed in the British media as an old-style socialist in opposition to Chirac's Blairite / Schroederist / Clintonian "Third Way". There is some truth to the idea, put about by Jospin's supporters, that his is the most left-wing government in Europe today; but in a field dominated by the likes of Blair and Berlusconi, this is a dim achievement. Certainly Blair would never introduce a 35-hour week. And if a law entitled "social modernisation" was passed in Britain it would undoubtedly be, in contrast to the one introduced by Jospin's Communist coalition partners, an act to make it easier rather than harder to sack workers. Yet the Left's five years in power have also seen more privatisations (including France Telecom and an astonishing one thousand smaller concerns) than under the previous right-wing government, cuts in corporation tax, and the continued enforcement of racist immigration laws. Jospin's Marxism is as much a relic as the Afro he sported in the 70s.

In the run-up to the election, Jospin has been borrowing ideas from New Labour, notably in the field of law and order; the French Left's attempts to be even tougher than the Right are wearily familiar to British eyes. Despite the fact that crime levels are low and the numbers of policemen high in France compared to Britain or Germany, the nightly TV news gives the impression of a society on the brink of anarchy, with young criminals running riot thanks to decades of soft treatment. Jospin's government has sought to exploit this paranoia by passing a "security" law which criminalizes a variety of sinners: international terrorists, young people who make a noise in the stairwells of flats, and ravers will soon be a thing of the past. Oblivious to the international reputation of the French police for racism and brutality, Chirac, Jospin, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, and of course the two far Right candidates Jean-Marie Le Pen and Bruno Mégret have made "security" their chief theme, proposing yet more policemen with tougher powers as the answer. The outgoing president even pronounced a doctrine of "zero impunity", despite the fact that he has used his own position to seek immunity from allegations of corruption.

Jospin's own website greets visitors with a competition to choose the best slogan from such vacuously Blairesque formulations such as "Jospin tomorrow for a certain future". He has even directly lifted that all-time classic "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime!" (older readers may remember a Turtle editorial which satirised this by placing it next to "Avanti popolo!"), with no apparent fear that voters may be put off by such a direct link to the ringleader of "Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism". Indeed, it appears that the BBC correspondent in Paris was asked by a senior member of the PS if they could be put in touch with Alistair Campbell. And to top it all, one of the first things the Socialist candidate said of his election manifesto was that it was "not socialist"! Early in the campaign, three-quarters of the public told opinion pollsters that they saw no difference between Chirac and Jospin's programmes. An example of this was provided in the discussions at the Barcelona summit over the creation of a Europe-wide market in electricity. Both Chirac and Jospin rejected wholesale privatisation of Electricité de France, in order to pose to the electorate as defenders of public services. Nothing could be further from the truth: EDF is to opened up to private capital, and a similar fate awaits the postal service, due to be opened up to competition. British readers familiar with PFIs, PPPs and the like will recognise these as classic recipes for privatisation disguised as non-privatisation.

No wonder, then, that so many voters are looking for alternatives to this soggy consensus. It is just as well that a record sixteen candidates have surmounted the hurdle of getting five hundred elected officials to sign their nomination papers. France's tradition of robust ideological debate, absent from Jospin and Chirac's campaign, survives among what are referred to as the "small candidates", who in fact together represent a majority of public opinion. So what alternatives are there on offer?

Well, the Far Right is cashing in on the contemporary French culture of insecurity; Le Pen is still commanding a double figure score in the opinion polls, a fact that would be shocking were it not for the fact that neo-fascism has established itself as an almost banal part of the electoral scene in both France and other European countries in the past two decades. Those who wrote off the Far Right after the split in the Front National by Le Pen's rival Bruno Mégret in 1998 may now have to eat their words. Though Mégret, who has more following among local élites than his poor opinion poll ratings suggest, is basically pro-American and Le Pen is anti-, the two leaders have no real differences on domestic policy in what is essentially a clash of personalities between a weedy intellectual and a thuggish ex-paratrooper. Le Pen himself at 74 is almost certainly having his last outing as a candidate, but his ideas will leave a poisonous legacy, in a world already contaminated by the events follwing 11 September. Tensions are running high, and the once big anti-racist movement is in poor shape, riven notably by repercussions from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Then there is Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Jospin's former Interior Minister, who early on the campaign looked like being the chief beneficiary of Jospin and Chirac's yawn-inducing politics. Chevènement represents an odd mixture of Right and Left. His much publicised visit to the Porto Alegre world forum in January was symptomatic of how the French political class's response to the anti-globalisation movement contrasts to that of their British counterparts. While on the other side of the Channel everyone from Ken Livingstone rightwards queues up to denounce anti-globalisation demonstrators as mindless thugs, in France most mainstream politicians (with the exception of the neo-liberal followers of Alain Madelin, who is only getting about 4% in the polls) have sought to show that, hey, they too are worried about globalisation. Both Jospin's PS and Chirac's RPR also sent representatives to Porto Alegre, Jospin's aides swapping their suits for T-shirts as they tried to look comfortable in photo-opportunities alongside Brazilian landless peasants. On the one hand, it is surely a Good Thing that mainstream politicians are actually confronting the real problems facing the world, instead of pretending they don't exist as so often happens in Britain. On the other hand, of course, there is a danger that the protest agenda is cynically recuperated for something very different from what the protestors want.

Which is where Chevènement comes in. Once the leader of the PS's left wing, Chevènement is still anti-capitalist and anti-American (his supporters nickname him "Che"), but combines this with a nationalist and authoritarian agenda- - in the process attracting many recruits from the hard Right -- proposing the re-establishment of "republican order" as the solution to globalisation. Which in practice means the programme for his first hundred days in office revolves around putting lots of juvenile delinquents in prison. Just how this will solve world inequalities is not clear. A national series of public meetings began in Nice with Chevènement cultivating the aura of a schoolmaster from the Third Republic, praising the virtues of the French nation, and resurrecting the hoariest myths about how the French republic stands for universal principles (how many colonial massacres has that justified?) He attacked Daniel Cohn-Bendit for saying that the history of the French nation has come to an end, and suggested that even the Right has forgotten the nation. It was this brand of fundamentalist Jacobinism that led to "Che's" resignation as Interior Minister in 2000, denouncing Jospin's proposal for a mild measure of autonomy for Corsica as the death knell of the Republic.

Ironically in view of his distaste for Blair, Chevènement's speech was preceded by a slick New Labour-style audio-visual display. A series of clips with rousing music portrayed him as the heir to 1789, the revolutionaries of the nineteenth century, the Spanish Republicans, the French Resistance, May 1968 -- despite his speech attacking '68 for introducing a generation of softness -- and today's anti-globalisation movement -- despite the meeting being held in the same posh conference centre as the EU summit of 2000 against which anti-globalisation demonstrators had protested. The function of "Che's" meeting was very much, like a New Labour conference, to acclaim the leader, with no opportunity for questions from the floor. It culminated in a giant tricolour descending onto the stage as the French national anthem played. A long way indeed from the internationalist and democratic ideals of the anti-globalisation movement.

It is hard not to conclude that Chevènement simply wants to replace American global hegemony with French global hegemony, by tapping into a feeling held by many that France is inherently a progressive country. While British lefties often have a healthy contempt for nationalism, enjoying nothing more than a good moan about Britain, many of their French counterparts view France as an island of socialism to be defended against a sea of néo-libéralisme anglo-saxon, and are ignorant of the very existence of anti-capitalist or anti-war movements in the UK, never mind the USA. There is a unfortunate inability to distinguish between quite justified revulsion at the arrogant, criminal actions of successive US governments around the world, and simple anti-British, anti-American xenophobia. I have even been told by a Chevènement activist that the weakness of the far Right in Britain proves that Britain is already a "fascist country"!! (Turtle readers will need little convincing that the absurdities of more than two decades of Thatcherism in Britain are a justified target for polemic. Yet why always identify what is so clearly the international phenomenon of neoliberalism as belonging entirely to two countries, thus making its victims and opponents in Britain or the USA into part of the enemy, and allowing its proponents within the EU to pose as false allies?)

This intellectual slovenliness mirrors the arguments of apologists for US hegemony, who damn both reasoned opposition and simple prejudice under the catch-all heading of "anti-American" (attentive readers will note that I have already used this term myself: any suggestions for a more accurate alternative?). It is important for critics of US foreign policy not to fall into the trap of saying that everything American is bad, everything anti-American is good: this is as crass as the Bush doctrine which holds the opposite. Such prejudices are not shared by those in France who are actually most active against the global power of big business. As one member of the anti-globalisation movement ATTAC pointed out to me, much of their programme is taken from the American Left. The heroic anti-McDonalds campaigner José Bové, who unfortunately decided not to stand for President, could easily have allowed himself to be portrayed as a plucky Gallic fighter against "Anglo-Saxon" conspiracies. Yet Bové has made it clear he has no truck with this kind of inward-looking nationalism: he speaks fluent English (having lived in the United States) and situates his own activities within the international struggles of peasant farmers against agribusiness.

In reality of course, contrary to Chevènementist wishful thinking, France too is a capitalist country in which you can find, not least in Nice, similar injustices to those which disfigure other such contemporary societies: grim estates with 37% unemployment in the same city as billionaires' luxury residences; people whose work has contributed for decades to France's prosperity, and their children born here, being still treated as "foreigners", their culture belittled and continually scapegoated for a failure to "integrate"; people begging in the streets for money to pay for operations (in a country whose health service is rated the best in the world by the WHO); African street vendors who have done nothing wrong being rounded up by police and replaced by South American jumper salespeople in a bizzare kind of ethnic cleansing ahead of the arrival of tourists for the annual carnival -- and so the list goes on. Recent figures indicate that French bosses have awarded themselves a 36% pay rise over the last year, thus making them as grossly overpaid as their American counterparts. And French corporations have been every bit as rapacious as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. I speak as a former regular traveller on the late but not lamented Connex South Central train company, which was a subsidiary of the Compagnie Générale des Eaux before that was taken over by French conglomerate Vivendi. And then there's Sodexho who profit from the misery of asylum seekers by running the voucher system, and are the largest investors in the Prison Realty Trust / Corrections Corporation of America -- the world's largest for-profit prison corporation.

Yet no-one, in Britain or France, talks about "French neo-liberalism", because France is by definition the country of revolution: its politicians often use rhetoric which is to the left of their policies. Nor does anyone talk about le neo-liberalisme européen, despite the fact that many current threats to French public services come from the EU: double standards at work, surely? (If French readers are offended by any of the above, let me point out that I am equally critical of similarly complacent myths that Britain is somehow special -- exceptionally tolerant to immigrants, behaves according to rules of fair play and so on...)

If music and location are anything to go by, the Communist leader Robert Hue's meeting marked a slight contrast to Chevènement's. The Internationale as well as the Marseillaise this time, despite the contradiction between the internationalist sentiments of one and the nationalist ones of the other, which ought to have been apparent to anyone raised outside the Left-patriotic traditions of the PCF (Parti Communiste français). And the meeting was held in the working-class district of St. Roch, which first returned a Communist member of parliament in 1936, in a sports hall which had served as the headquarters of the 2000 counter-summit. There is no doubt that despite its evident decline (the PCF has for several decades been said to be in crisis, but political scientists assure us that it really is this time, with Hue finally overtaken in the polls by the far left), the PCF still has a genuine presence among the electorate in its fiefdoms, bussing in an admittedly predominantly elderly audience of a thousand for the meeting. Hue used the occasion to mark out clear differences between him and Jospin, galvanising the faithful with themes such as opposition to electricity privatisation, but at the same time defending the participation of Communists in the present coalition government, as the only thing preventing France from having "une politique à la Blair". Though the audio-visuals preceding were internationalist in theme, featuring solidarity soundbites from the Malian minister of culture and a British trade unionist, Hue's speech was not above a bit of xenophobia, arguing that the main threat from electricity privatisation was that nuclear power stations -- "our independence!" -- would fall into the hands of "Anglo-Saxon pension funds".

Hue's predicament -- the tension between principles and the compromises of power -- applies equally to the Green candidate Noël Mamere, who is also positioning his election campaign to the Left of Jospin. The antagonism between the two is mutual: Jospin has dismissed out of hand Mamere's demand for an end to nuclear power as the price for Green participation in a future coalition. The state of the environment in Nice is reason enough for some radical measures: in the Alpes-Maritimes department, 86% of journeys are by car, and just 3% by train. Law-and-order-obsessed politicians allege the existence of "zones of non-law" in mostly immigrant-populated suburbs where the writ of the French state no longer runs, but if there is a "zone of lawlessness‚ in Nice, it lies in the behaviour of motorists, not the sans papiers.

Mamere has also taken a principled stand against the obsession with "security", proposing a variety of libertarian measures from the legalisation of cannabis to the disbandment of the Renseignements Généraux, the branch of the police who spy on political movements. Unfortunately I was unable to admire Mamere's fine moustache in person, as he was detained from attending his election meeting here in St.Laurent-du-Var by the fatal shooting of a colleague near Paris. Local Green councillors held the meeting for him, which was open to questions from the floor, reflecting their belief in participatory democracy, but which was almost entirely concerned with local issues rather than the national ones decided at election time. Mamere's themes therefore contrast to those of the main candidates, but suspicions of opportunism in the political trajectory of the former TV presenter, and the fact that the Greens are tainted by many for their participation in Jospin's government, limit his chances of picking up left-wing protest votes.

These votes are, instead, going to 62 year-old retired bank clerk Arlette Laguiller, by far the most prominent and popular of the three Far Left candidates, who is at present enjoying unprecedented 10% ratings in the opinion polls, double that of her already-remarkable 1995 result. This is all the more striking considering the nature of her party, Lutte Ouvrière. It is, to say the least, not a broad-based party of the far left: it's not Rifondazione Communista, it's not the Scottish Socialist Party. Rather, take the most sectarian outfit who have ever tried to sell you a newspaper, and imagine them with these poll ratings. LO was founded in 1940 (under its real name of the Union Communiste Internationaliste) and has made a virtue out of a refusal to adapt to changes in French society since. Party members still use pseudonyms, as if they were living in Tsarist Russia, and they are bound by puritanical restrictions on their private lives. There's no 35-hour week for the Lutte Ouvrière comrades: even having children is frowned upon, as it leaves less time for agitation. It is not surprising, then, that LO is estimated to have only one thousand full members, which indicates a ratio between voters and members of approaching three thousand to one.

It is unlikely that one in ten French people is now a fully-fledged Trot: rather it is a negative protest vote -- often by voters involved in social movements that LO despises as "petit-bourgeois" -- against a political class perceived as having lost touch with reality and an established Left who seem to have forgotten about the injustices that caused them to come into existence in the first place. And LO's politics are suitably embittered enough to attract the most fed-up of voters: their MEPs and local councillors are renowned for rejecting any positive proposal as collaboration with the bourgeoisie. The mainstream Left are seriously worried about Laguiller: Hue spent more of his speech attacking her, on the grounds that her votes are lost in a useless ghetto of protest, than attacking Chirac. Communist propaganda suggests that a vote for Laguiller is simply a way for champagne socialists to assuage their consciences while changing nothing in the real world. This is not altogether accurate, since LO's best results have been in economically depressed industrial towns like Calais, rather than the trendy parts of Paris. Since this strategy -- in the best tradition of Communist denunciation of any rivals to its Left -- does not appear to be working, Hue seems now to have backtracked, stating that Laguiller is not his main enemy.

Significantly, it is not the organisation LO, but Arlette herself -- now so famous that she is known by her first name alone -- who embodies the spirit of revolt, having achieved status as a national institution though the publicity she has received at every presidential election since 1974. With her catchphrase "Travailleuses, travailleurs" and the evident contrast between her life in a one-bedroom flat in a run-down suburb and that of France's political élite, Arlette has become a kind of Mother Theresa figure, a saint whom it seems churlish to criticise. This was evident at her election meeting in Nice, attended by a good five hundred people, at which the strangely wooden nature of her speech, read out from a pre-prepared text, contrasted to the rapport she had on a one-to-one basis with people afterwards. Sitting on the stage, she almost cried as people came up to get her autograph and tell her how much she meant to them, as if she was Nelson Mandela. There is certainly a need for such an uncompromising defender of workers' rights after so long when they have been trampled on. Lefties everywhere will take heart if Arlette manages to beat Le Pen and Chevènement into third place, since the hopes she symbolises transcend the narrow platform of LO

But the problem is not what Arlette is against. It is what she is for. In discussion with a LO activist afterwards it was obvious to me how far they are trapped in a timewarp where tolerance, open-mindedness and any questioning of the morality of fighting with tanks and bombs if necessary, are equated with selling out. No questions from the floor were allowed at the meeting (as with Hue and Chevènement), the audience's main role being to applaud and sing the Internationale at the end. The newspaper Lutte Ouvrière openly talks of destroying the apparatus of the bourgeois state, which hardly inspires confidence in their commitment to democratic means. As Mamere has remarked, if Arlette comes to power, he will take to the maquis. Personally, I feel that for the Left to respond to social-democrats‚ adoption of the most extreme dogmas of neo-liberalism by clinging to the most extreme dogmas of Trotskyism -- what you might call the comfort blanket syndrome -- is a curious response. Why should our response to the contempt of politicians for democracy, as they hand over the planet to big business in violation of promises to the contrary, be to have an equal dismissal of democracy? It is the most obvious truism to complain that Blair, Jospin and co. are not revolutionaries: given the past record of certain revolutions, this may well be a good thing. What is far more worrying is that they are not reformists, either: they no longer represent a project for transforming the world to make it more just, but are in many cases making it less so. To demonstrate that what passes for social democracy in Europe today is too far, much too far, to the Right, it is not necessary to try and prove that Lenin was right after all. Jospin today is light-years away from the PS of the 70s, which promised a "break with capitalism". There is, in short, a worrying silence where social democracy used to be.

Rivalling Laguiller for unreconstructed Trotskyism is Daniel Gluckstein of the Parti des Travailleurs, which is best known for the membership of one Lionel Jospin when it was called the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste. The story of camarade Michel (Jospin's pseudonym of the time) shows that there is more to the PT than meets the eye: while Lutte Ouvrière are at least sincere in their opposition to everyone in power at present, the PT / OCI has such a mysterious history of influence within the established Left that it has been referred to as the Socialist Party's fifth current. Indeed, during Jospin's rise up the ranks of the PS, it appears that François Mitterand was well aware of his membership of the OCI: inside the bizarre triangle between Jospin, Mitterand and the OCI's founder Pierre Lambert, it is far from clear just who was manipulating whom. The PT are, leaving aside a record of beating up political opponents, nothing if not good republicans: contact was finally broken with Jospin not, as you might think, because he had become a manager of capitalism, but because Jospin was willing to compromise over the possibility of Muslim girls wearing headscarves to school – which was anathema for the PT as staunch defenders of secularism. But as for the present election, Gluckstein's campaign takes the prize for the most honest assessment of his chances: having no chance of winning, and arguing that in any case elections change nothing, Gluckstein has urged his supporters not to vote for him but instead to spoil their ballot paper! This strategy appears to be working, propelling his poll ratings to the stratospheric heights of 0%. His answers to a Le Monde questionnaire of candidates was also entertaining: while the other candidates treated readers to such interesting snippets as that Le Pen's favourite woman politician of the twentieth century is Margaret Thatcher or that Arlette drives a Renault Clio, Gluckstein coyly refused to answer such intimate questions as "What is your favourite food?" and "What was the last film you saw?" as an invasion of his privacy.

A more engaging personality is the 27 year-old Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, who apart from the old charmer Chirac himself, strikes me as the candidate who would be the best company for a night out. Having been banned from appearing in Nice by the notoriously Right-wing mayor Jacques Peyrat, Besancenot spoke in the nearby town of Antibes, attacking the shortcomings of the government with good humour and none of the strident hectoring often found on the Far Left. Along with Mamere, he was the only candidate to open up the debate to the floor, which is surely the point of having public meetings. A postman with a history degree and a record of involvement in all the major social movements of the past decade, Besancenot has clearly been selected to pick up the youth vote. The LCR itself, always the trendiest of France's Trotskyist currents, has steered away from past ultra-Leftist stupidities (in the mid 70s, barely a demo passed without the LCR's service d'ordre turning up with crash helmets, iron bars and Molotov cocktails) and even jettisoned some of the least defensible dogmas of Leninism, such as the idea that the Bolsheviks‚ massacre of mutinous socialist workers in Kronstadt in 1921 were A Good Thing. They are keen on the anti-globalisation movement and on strikes by McDonalds, Pizza Hut and FNAC workers (though even Robert Hue has had photo-opportunities with the latter). Like Arlette, they propose the right to vote in all elections for all immigrants, a measure proposed only for local elections by the PS, having failed to honour this pledge promised as long ago as 1981. Besancenot was also the only candidate to state explicitly at his election meeting that he was opposed to French nationalism and European nationalism. However if his 1% in the polls is anything to go by, such ideas have little resonance at the moment. The LCR will also have to go further in abandoning its Leninist structure and ideology, which are obscured by the friendly surface, if it is to succeed in its aim of contributing to a future renewal of the Left.

And that, leaving aside the odd minor centre-right and centre-left candidates, and that of the Countryside Alliance-style Chasse Pêche Nature Tradition, none of whom I know enough about to offer a commentary, is it: the iconoclastic comedian Dieudonné abandoned his campaign some weeks ago, alas. So at the end of the day, while the "small candidates" make up for in ideological variety what is lacking in Chirac and Jospin, there is a dearth of new ideas. It's a little depressing that the three main alternatives to the Chirac-Jospin consensus are to be found on the ultra-authoritarian Far Right, in Chevènement's authoritarian national-republicanism and in Laguiller's authoritarian Bolshevism. Chevènement has decried the tendency to extremism in the rise of Le Pen and Laguiller, but if we define extremism as a closed ideological system, impervious to rational critique by those who do not accept its main premises, arguably Chévenement too is an extremist. In his case the unquestioned premise is the French state embodies the values of liberté, egalité and fraternité; for Le Pen it is that certain groups of people living in France do not "belong" in France; for Laguiller it is that all social conflicts can be reduced to a struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, of which the Party has (or should have) a monopoly of representation. This is not to say all politicians are the same, but real dangers exist if these are the main alternatives to an inadequate consensus. As in other countries, an injection of fresh ideas into the electoral arena is desperately needed before people give up on democracy altogether.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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