French Political Paradoxes

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Patrick Le Tréhondat & Patrick Silberstein

IN THE WAKE of the June 18th elections to the European parliament, the political situation in France appears disconcerting.

Paradoxes #1 and #2

After ten years of “socialist” management of the capitalist crisis, the right rebounded triumphantly in March 1993, and in the space of six months its movement inflicted two major defeats on the Balladur(1)/Pasqua(2)/ Méhaignerie(3) government. The conservative right, believing it had opened some new elbow room, tried to directly impose some of its most reactionary plans and failed to do so.

Meanwhile, the traditional left does not have the slightest ability to benefit from the social malaise in order to rewin the confidence of the masses of people that have continued to abandon it. With 14% of the vote, the Socialist Party is paying for its ten years in power, during which it failed to bring about even minimal social reforms, preferring instead to zealously attend to managing the system. Today, the party is submerged in a deep crisis(4); it is trying desperately to regain a “left” influence, all the while defending its program from when it was in power.

Next to it, the Communist Party, in disarray from the collapse of Stalinism, is incapable of offering a plan and stagnates at about 6%. It recently proposed a “pact of popular unity” which for the moment has only found a small echo, even among its own ranks.

Paradox #3

During the electoral campaign, there was really only one person capable of putting forth a truly left discussion: defending the public services (health and education), denouncing fascism, defending the rights of the immigrant population, and harshly criticizing the unemployment. That person was Bernard Tapie, a shady businessman, who literally bought a small, moribund center-left formation (the MRG) to propel himself to the front of the political scene (with the support of President Mitterand). On a clear populist platform, he was able to win 12% of the vote, and an even higher percentage of the youth vote.

Paradox #4

The right went into the elections deeply divided on how to respond in the long run to the social and economic crisis, and came out deeply divided as well.

Traditionally organized into a neo-Gaullist branch (through the RPR of Jaques Chirac) and a democratic-liberal branch (through the UDF of Giscard d’Estaing), the right has been threatened for several years by the rise of the National Front (FN), which declares itself a “popular, national, and social right.” The FN has stabilized its electoral base at around 10-15% on the national level, but its support reaches 20-25% in several poor working-class outskirts and in the south of the country.

The right’s division lies mainly in three areas: how to regulate the crisis, the question of the role of the state, and the integration of Europe. The UDF holds a neo-liberal perspective and pushes for as much integration into the European Union as possible. Meanwhile, the neo-Gaullists point out the risk of social destabilization which could otherwise favor the left (had the left been able to offer a progressive alternative to the Maastricht treaty) as much as Le Pen’s fascist party; they call for the return of a state that actively intervenes in French society, and for maintaining the role of the national parliament in social and economic decisions as opposed to building a supra-national European power. All the while, this division — which first appeared during the referendum on the Maastricht treaty — is deepening even inside these two formations in the governing right.

Paradox #5

The current RPR prime minister, Balladur, has established himself as a possible candidate for the next presidential elections to thwart the ambitions of Jaques Chirac. He is assembling around himself those in the RPR who are in favor of a Maastricht Europe. But, in the elections of last June, there was a heavy competition for votes between the list of the pro-Maastricht right and the list of De Villiers, which is anti-Maastricht and very conservative, and which the National Front can point out has a program 90% the same as its own. Surprisingly, De Villiers obtained 12% of the vote, half of which came from RPR supporters.

There is a division and radicalization of the conservative electorate toward extreme right ideas, and part of this electorate appears to be breaking with the traditional right and able to vote for the fascist candidates against both the left and the RPR-UDF candidates. With all these divisions, the traditional bourgeois parties have not been able to fully take advantage of the profound weakening of the left.

Paradox #6

Divided, the right is radicalizing and is coming to agreement on at least one thing. From the democratic-christian center to the RPR, there is a unanimity — and at times an interparty contest — to limit access to citizenship for immigrants and to weaken their status in French society as much as possible. These politics, coinciding with the themes of the fascist extreme right, have encouraged an atmosphere of racism. They have not been met with a strong response, since the workers’ movement is weakened and noticeably lacks solidarity with its immigrant component.

Paradox #7

The present situation is the product of a long social and economic crisis that France has known for twenty years, and in which the ten years of Socialist government have been the deepest.(5) These ten years have seen not only rising unemployment and worsening living conditions, but also a crisis of the traditional workers’ movement (both politically and in the unions)(6) and its socio-political basis.

All of the social concepts that laid the basis for the formation and development of class consciousness have disappeared. The notion of solidarity, the vision of class, and aspirations for “social change,” for “reform” (not to speak of hopes for a radical social change) have been wiped out. Without an immediate political perspective (now that the united left and then the Socialist Party in office, so much awaited from 1958-1981 to begin transforming society, has produced the well-known results) and without an alternative political and social project (the collapse of Stalinism has, in its current phase, amplified this situation), the French workers’ movement has entered into the deepest crisis of its history, even while the offensive of capital and of the state continues to accelerate.

We therefore have to harness the possibilities for founding a new emancipatory project, based on new social experiences, and comprised of the best of the old program of the workers’ movement, even if all of the social and political actors are still not completely aware of the defeat that has been dealt them.

Paradox #8

Since its menacing victory in the March 1993 elections, the right has undertaken vast plans for reform that nothing has seemed to be able to stop. Between March and October 1993, the social movement seemed incapable of offering the least resistance to this offensive. Then, in October of 1993, a plan to reform Air France sparked a major rebellion that obliged the government to abandon its project and forced the director of the nationalized company (who was close to the Socialist Party) to be dismissed.

Several months later, a plan to redistribute public funds in favor of private schools crystalized a strong opposition, which culminated in a demonstration of more than a million people. The government had to withdraw the plan immediately. The same scenario repeated itself last May, when a plan to reduce the minimum wage for youth was introduced and withdrawn in the face of a mobilization of youth.

In the face of these successive pushbacks, the parliamentary left has shown itself incapable of advancing alternative proposals. The social forces that have been fighting back in the streets therefore do not recognize it as a political force capable of bringing forth solutions to problems, or of playing any kind of role in relation to their concerns. It is strange when the deputies of the right are the ones who demand, for their own interests, the dismissal of the ministers involved in these three episodes that weakened the government.

Paradox #9

This political absence of the left has allowed the government to retake the initiative in all of the areas where its reforms have been contested. At Air France, several months after the victorious strike, a new director held a referendum about wages and working conditions, in which the entire company voted. A new plan for the company closely resembling the old one was proposed. The referendum put the union “out of play.” In effect, this consultation (billed as “democratic”) and its course, in which they have pretended to “open the books” of society, has posed some frightening questions. Between the “yes” of acceptance and a “no” of resistance that offered absolutely no alternative response to the proposed restructuring, a certain disorientation set in among the workers; they voted 80% in favor of a plan they had rejected in struggle several months before.

Such a defeat after a major victory once again demonstrated the inability of the workers’ movement to respond to the new strategies of capital. The latter, seeing the weight of the economic crisis in the social conscience, and also the aimless disinterest of the working class in its own self-determination — has successfully replicated this type of “consultation” over the past few months in more than a hundred enterprises.

Paradox #10

The results of the European elections already mentioned clearly show an unfavorable relationship of class forces. In particular, the prospects of seeing the right carry the presidential elections may now loom larger.

Still, the social movement has not been completely defeated. In the last several months, an initiative against unemployment has shown some possible paths for reconstruction. A national march in Paris on May 28, against unemployment and for the reduction of the work week, was an important success. The marchers poured out from all of France.

Unemployed, homeless, and unionists found themselves together for the first time. The encounter constituted an event in itself. It forced the unionists and the left militants side by side with sectors usually without a space for political expression. Conversely, the marginalized forces regrouped into base committees, where the relearning of forms of collective action was very important. And during the march, a separate but equally significant and symbolic encounter took place: an anti-nuclear demonstration fused with that of the unemployed. The anti-nuclear activists declared themselves against the cutting off of electricity for the unemployed, while the marginalized forces denounced the financial bungles for which the public electric company was responsible.

This coalition(7) is of a type radically new for the French social movement, which has been dominated by the communist and social-democratic parties and marked by their experiences in government. It explicitly poses the problem of how to articulate transitional demands for the reduction of the workweek as a response to unemployment. One finds in it certain elements of what could constitute the outlook of a “third party” for France.

Paradoxes #11 and #12

In effect, new spaces are opening up to the left of the SP(8) and the CP,(9) even if they remain extremely limited. After the break of the Chevènement current in the SP, and after the two general shake-ups within the Communist Party, the possibilities for building common actions and discussions with sectors of the ecological movement,(10) the left eco-socialist movement (AREV), or the revolutionary movement (LCR) are becoming clearer. This scenario could take the form of a confederation. Each of the participating organizations would keep its independence, but such a confederation might take action to prepare the conditions for constructing a new social and political bloc. It could gain new energy and forces by pulling together the large number of militants who do not wish to choose between the organizations but would work for a unified platform for action and debates.

Still, during the European elections, the plan was defeated, since the group of organizations was incapable (in reality because of the refusal of the ecologists and the Citizens’ Movement) of presenting a common list of candidates. The defeat was politically expensive for everybody involved; yet in the best scenario, it might wake up these forces and open up the possibility for a single candidate in the May 1995 presidential elections.

Even so, the apparent interests of these organizations are not the only obstacle to reorganizing the ecological and alternative left. The overall difficulty is obvious from how rare it is that social movements pass beyond the defensive stage in order to push for such a regroupment and oblige their constituent forces to rearticulate their responses and their program in response to new social, cultural, and political realities. It is astonishing to note that during the Air France confrontation, not one of the parties was able to propose — though they were eager to<197>a radical perspective as an alternative to the government plan. This despite the fact that the tradition of the international workers’ movement bears numerous examples of alternative responses and counterplans articulated by the workers themselves, based on social and ecological criteria, that have allowed the workforce to retake the initiative.

Paradox #13

The situation in France is not exceptional when compared to what we are familiar with in the countries of Maastricht Europe. Except for Great Britain, where a Labor Party victory may soon take place, the right is consolidating its positions in the face of a left in disarray, which senses well that a new epoch has now opened up and the old points of reference have been thrown into disarray. The urgency is urgent, for behind a right in crisis and a lost left is emerging the specter of fascist forces that today has pushed itself into government in Italy and is implanting itself primarily in France and Belgium.


  1. Edouard Balladur, RPR, Prime Minister.
    back to text
  2. Charles Pasqua, RPR, Minister of the Interior, hostile to the Maastricht treaty.
    back to text
  3. Pierre Méhaignerie, centrist, Minister of Justice.
    back to text
  4. Michel Rocard, General Secretary of the Socialist Party and former prime minister, who aspired to be the presidential candidate in 1995, was forced to resign.
    back to text
  5. Near the end of 1993, there were 3,774,632 unemployed in France and nearly three million temporary or part-time workers; this makes a total of eight million people in a “particular” situation in the labor market.
    back to text
  6. From 1974 to 1993, the number of unionized workers declined by 60%. The level of unionization stands today at around 10%. The number of strike days has continued to decline since 1975.
    back to text
  7. AC (Agir contre le Chômage — Fight Unemployment) unified, through its initiators, unionists, ecologists, and militants from various left formations. The marchers were welcomed in several villages gov-erned either by the SP or by the CP.
    back to text
  8. The former Defense Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement — who broke with his party during the Gulf War and who was clearly opposed to the capitalist Maastricht unification treaty (against the Socialist Party) — put forth a rather nationalist perspective in opposition to the treaty, even though the campaign ended up pulling together the left opposition to the treaty, including several leaders of the feminist movement. As the candidate of the coalition opposed to the treaty from the left, he only obtained 3%of the vote. He created his own organization, the Citizens’ Movement.
    back to text
  9. The latest break is that of the current of Charles Fiterman, former Communist minister from 1981-1984.
    back to text
  10. The ecologists, divided, and above all refusing to work in the social arenas and to construct an alliance with the critical left.
    back to text

ATC 52, September-October 1994