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Mitterrand. A Study in Ambiguity. Philip Short. Review.

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This was written over a month ago. A slightly shorter version was published in the March-April issue of Chartist magazine.

 

Mitterrand. A Study in Ambiguity. Philip Short. The Bodley Head. 2013.

François Hollande’s electoral campaign in 2012 presented him as “Mitterrand’s heir.” Perhaps British readers will come to Philip Short’s biography more interested in the parallels between the former French Head of State’s ‘second family’ with Anne Pingeot, and Hollande’s affair with Julie Gayet. But Mitterrand invites more significant comparisons with the legacy of France’s first, and longest serving, French President.

Mitterrand, marked by “ambiguities” was known as “the Sphinx”, marked by “inner solitude.” He worked in “shades of grey”. His life is littered with riddles. Catherine Nay counted seven ‘Mitterrands’, from a left-wing Léon Blum to the Father of the Nation, in his first term of office alone (Les Sept Mitterrand. 1988). Philip Short has the more daunting task of covering a life and career from 1916 to 1996.

As a student in the 1930s Mitterrand was involved with the far-right Croix de feu. As an escaped prisoner of war he served the Vichy regime and was awarded the francisque emblem for his work. Engaged in the Resistance from 1943, he ended the war in Parliament and served, as a centre-left republican, in a variety of posts under the Fourth Republic. Short, more generously than many, finds excuses for these early years. In the 1930s and the War, he was no anti-Semite. As a Minister of the one of numerous Coalitions during the Algerian War of Liberation he opposed independence, and was just as “blinkered as most of his colleagues.”

Mitterrand furiously opposed De Gaulle’s 1958 “coup d’état” and the 1962 referendum on the direct election of the President. But his failure to speak out against torture and his ambiguity over decolonisation isolated him from the burgeoning New Left that regrouped during those years in the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU). Yet, Short argues, his distance from the “squabbling over political theory” of these factions allowed Mitterrand to rise to lead France’s left. A stunning 37,78% of the vote for his Presidential candidacy (backed the entire left, including the Communist Party) in 1965 brought him back centre-stage.

A Study in Ambiguity recounts how Mitterrand, from creation of the Parti Socialiste in Épinay (1971) to his electoral triumph in 1981 made himself as the undisputed Chief of the French left. Short has a fine eye for the role of ‘clubs’ on the French left, and how French parties come into being around a “new Leader”. Mitterrand, he argues, was able “to forge unity not around a programme but around his own person.”(Page 275)

The Socialist General Secretary rapidly came into conflict with the one French party with a collective leadership, the Communists (PCF). Right up until his 1981 election Mitterrand clashed with the PCF. From unity, over the Programme Commun in 1972, to the break up in 1977, relations were stormy. Short repeats the allegation that the Communists (still hovering around 20% of the vote during the decade) were prepared to secretly support Conservative politicians in an attempt to stop him coming to power.

The victory of the “force tranquille” (a phrase of Victor Hugo) in 1981 put Mitterrand on the stage of history. The new President’s supporters swept through Paris. The Right was “panic stricken”. Elected on a programme promising a “rupture” with capitalism, the new government included 4 members of the (already declining, 12.4% for the Presidentials and 11,26% for the Parliamentary elections) Communist Party. There were nationalisations (36 banks, 5 large industrial groups, and many more), a 10% rise in the minimum wage, the lowering of the retirement age to 60, an increase in holidays to 5 weeks a year, and new rights for employees at work. The Death Penalty was abolished. The first moves towards decentralisation were taken.

For a while it looked as if something resembling the British Alternative Economic Strategy was being put into practice. Nevertheless the core policy, raising incomes to spark a consumer boom, failed. There was immense pressure on the Franc. The French economy did not prosper. Unemployment and inflation rose.

Short asserts that confronted with these economic realities retreat was inevitable. By summer 1982 there was devaluation, and a “four month price and wage freeze, a cap on the budget deficit at 3 per cent of GNP” as well as “a commitment to bring inflation below 8 per cent in 1984. Over the next years, “socialist France had joined the rest of the industrialised world in a forced deflationary spiral to get its economy back into balance.”(P 366) For A Study in Ambiguity “The French Socialists had to absorb in months knowledge which their neighbours had accumulated over decades.”(Page 365)

For some on the French left, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left government ran up against the ‘bankers ramp’ (le mur de l’argent). Was this realism? To Short, Mitterrand and his supporters became zealots for “modernisation” competitively and talked up entrepreneurial “winners” and market flexibility. They would certainly have agreed with Short that the 1981 Projet Socialiste was an “anachronism” and that nationalisation and state controls had proved to be “irrelevant”.

This was not just a “disavowal of everything Mitterrand had stood for” .It was, for many on the left at the time, the replacement of the radical, and ill-defined, socialism of the 1970s by the exploitative “free market norms” of France’s partners. Instead of changing, for example, to a new pan-European left strategy, the Government had taken over the European right’s policies. Thierry Pfister, a direct observer of the shift, ridiculed the vacuity of this “modernisation” without radical content (La vie quotidienne à Matignon au temps de ‘Union de la Gauche. 1983).

Mitterrand won a second 7-year term, in 1988, with the slogan, “neither nationalisations nor privatisations”. While he promised to restore the wealth tax – abolished during his ‘cohabitation’ with right-wing PM Jacques Chirac (1986 – 88) this was “non-campaign”, focused “almost entirely on winning over the political centre.” It was a success.

Was in fact Mitterrand ever interested in more than winning and keeping power? Short argues – deceptions and ambiguities aside – that there was. Mitterrand “began a slow and painful accommodation to the economic and political realities of the world outside.” His values endured, “The construction of Europe and the quest for social justice, the two great causes which had sprung from Mitterrand’s experience as a prisoner of war, and modernisation, which had imposed itself as a necessity during his time of office, are legacy enough.”(Page 582)

Yet Short also describes another legacy. Mitterrand, from the mid-1980s onwards brought the far-right Front National into the electoral arena. In contrast to those who consider this a manoeuvre to split the Right, he states it was designed to “neutralise its venom”. The FN’s entry into the “mainstream of French politics”, he asserts, has warded off the growth of French “diehard racist parties”, to be seen in the other European countries.

As the Front National occupies a leading place in the opinion polls, over the last weeks the streets of Paris have been full of tens of thousands of far-right demonstrators. The sight of religious hysteria against gays and “gender theory”, and the sound of anti-Semitic chants, is perhaps not the kind of achievements the, excellent, Mitterrand. A Study in Ambiguity would wish to celebrate.

 Note: the Front National has since done well in the local elections and promises to do better in the European ones.

Written by Andrew Coates

April 4, 2014 at 11:08 am

France: President Hollande Gives in to Right-wing Hysteria on Family Law.

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French and British Bigots Unite Last Year.

(Reuters) – France’s Socialist government dropped plans on Monday to update family law this year after huge weekend protests by conservatives against gay-friendly reforms they say harm traditional families.

The government tried on Monday to reassure the protesters, who numbered over 100,000 in Paris and Lyon on Sunday, that the new law would not legalise assisted procreation for lesbian couples or surrogate motherhood for gay men who wanted children.

But when Socialist lawmakers insisted they would amend the planned bill to include those reforms, the government announced the draft law – which would also define the legal rights of step-parents in second marriages – needed more work.

“The government will not submit a family reform bill before the end of the year,” the prime minister’s office said.

Sunday’s protesters, many of the Catholics but also some Muslims, tapped continued resentment against the legalization of gay marriage last year to pressure the government not to go further and allow ways to help gays have their own children.

Reactions have not been slow in coming.

Le Parisien reports (freely  adapted),

Ludovine the Rochère, (the ultra-Catholic leader of the Manif pour tous), was glad, “”What stood out in this bill was that it was not conducive to the best interests of children and the family.”

For Yannick Moreau, UMP (main right-wing oppositon)  : “It’s a great victory for the popular mobilisation, quiet and peaceful (…) But we must remain vigilant: there are still ambiguities on the LDCs, the GPA with the circular Taubira which is still not repealed, or  the experiment with ‘gender’ (theory) in 600 of our schools with the  ABCD of equality. “

Christian Jacob, the leader of UMP deputies quipped: “In government, we went from cock up to panic. That said, the real victory will be for us when the government has abandoned its family policy.”

The left has denounced the betrayal of the government in yielding to “extremists.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Co-President of  the  Parti de Gauche (PG) , said that the left was “deceived, repudiated” because “with the PS, the right is cajoled, the bosses’ association, the MEDEFis  admired the church is blessed (…) Our time will come. I call for a severe punishment on the government in (this year’s) elections.

The National Secretary of Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV – part of the government) Emmanuelle Cosse, said, “The day after the mobilisation of the reactionary camp this decision is of great concern. WE hope the government will go back on its decision.

For Inter-LGBT, which represents lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals, the announcement came as an unpleasant surprise. The association stated late on Monday that the Hollande government was “no longer fulfilling their commitments: this follows a row of  setbacks and betrayals over the last months.” Here.

By contrast the ruling Parti Socialiste saluted this as a “good decision”.

Reports indicate that the government considers that this dispute diverts attention from its ‘pact of responsibility’ with employers.

An Ideology of Fear and Loathing.

The Manif pour tous, the Day of Rage, have, in just two weeks, shown that the French far-right is able to get people out in the streets. They come after a year of growing extreme rightist protest.

In some respects there are similarities with the last right-wing popular movement in France, the 1950s Poujadism. In 1956 his Union de Defense Commercants et Artisans (4000,000 members)  won  51 Parliamentary seats with  11% of the vote.

He stood up for rural France, opposed “Americanisation”, stood for maintaining the French Empire (above all,  in North Africa) but above all railed without end against taxation and the malfeasance of the French state.

Poujade’s movement attracted anti-Semites and the far-right, but was not itself fascist.

The Bonnets rouges have denounced taxation, and ecological taxes in particular. The conspiracy theorists of the  followers of Dieudonné echo the “anti-politics”  the Poujadists. His racism, under the name of ‘anti-Zionism’ has attracted traditional Catholic right and some touched by Islamist ideology.

There is a widespread disaffection with politics and the “system”.

There is however little sign of the organised anti-Parliamentarianism that Ian Birchall (hat-tip Paul Flewers) describes as a mark of Poujadism.

A better comparison perhaps would be with the mouvement de l’École libre in 1984.

This was organised by the state-subsidised French Catholic schools (École libre), in defence of attempts by the education Minister Savary to bring them under some kind of public control (Projet de loi Savary). The Law envisaged the creation of ” « grand service public unifié et laïc de l’éducation nationale » – a national secular education service.

That year, after demonstrations across the country,  in June, these movement attracted between 2 million and 850,000 supporters to a Paris march.

Apart from the mainstream French right-wing the Front National was prominent in the ranks of protesters.

A key aspect of its campaign  was opposition to French secularism (laïcité).

Soon afterwards President  François Mitterrand withdrew the proposals.

The latest Manif pour Tous stems from another  religious origin: the defence of the ‘family’ against “la théorie du genre” and LGBT rights.

If anybody is in any doubt about the religious basis of the hysteria against this, and against LGBT rights they should look at this site, famille chriétienne.

It is no coincidence they also rant against the alleged  secularism of the present Education Minister,  La laïcité de combat de Vincent Peillon

An Islamic site, Islam & Info, equals the Christians in broadcasting hatred of sexual equality and gay rights.

They post a video showing little boys being educated into being “good mothers” (“a vidéo montre que les petits garçons apprennent à être de bonnes “mères”).

President Hollande’s capitulation to these forces is unlikely to go down well with one core constituency of his party, teachers.

François Hollande: From One Social Democracy to Another.

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François Hollande: From One Social Democracy to Another.

The sight of President François Hollande as a pudgy Alain Delon, scootering to a gallant assignation with Julie Gayet, has captured the world’s attention. No doubt to be made into a film by the Comic Strip as a hommage to the Nouvelle Vague, this aspect of the Head of State’s life is less important than the other big event last week. At Tuesday’s New Year Presidential Press Conference Hollande announced a major political turn, to “resolutely social democratic policies”.

The former General Secretary of the Parti Socialiste wooed the French employers’, and their organisation, the MEDEF, with pro-“enterprise” proposals. This “pacte de responsabilité” is based on reducing (state) charges on companies. This would be part of an overall reform of taxation, and specifically the gradual abolition of the contribution employers have to make to finance family allowances. Employees will not, he claimed, have to take over responsibility for paying for them. Instead there will be a reduction in state spending and a reduction in the public deficit.

Political Strategy?

For Jean-Luc Mélenchon this declaration was the worst blow to the left since Guy Mollet (Socialist leader in the 1950s) backed the repression of the fighters for Algerian independence. Hollande, the former Presidential candidate of the Front de gauche, stated, was elected to wage war on finance capital. He has now abandoned the battle (Blog 14.1.14). Indeed he had dropped social democracy, the idea that a left government could help share out the wealth produced by growth. Now Hollande, and his Prime Minister, Ayraud, were in reality “social liberals”.

Indeed many people had the impression that Hollande’s objective was to reach out to the Centre. The “pact’s favourable reception by some on the centre-right, such as Jean-Louis Borloo (Union des démocrats et independents, UDI) , suggested an attempt to reach more formal agreement. But “triangulation” is much more probable, as commentators note that the President is reaching out not to right-wing parties but to their electorate (le Monde 17. 1.14)

Taxation and Cuts

What are the assumptions behind this “pact”?

Nasser Mansouri Guilani of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) in l’Humanité (14.1.14) began by observing that projected growth in the French economy for 2014 satnds at a low 1%, unemployment continues to grow, and investment is also down, France is not prospering.

Holalnde, as Mélenchon notes, criticised the financial system and its responsibility for the 2009 crisis. His Projet Présidential began with a call to assert the sovereignty of the Republic against the market. European measures to protect public services and to regulate banking and finance, including an agency of « notation » were proposed. schemes to reduce youth unemployment, measures to protect the jobs in companies of more than 5,000 employees were taken, and an active industrial strategy – persued by his (left-wing) Minister Arnaud Montebourg, were initiated.

This has not, as we observed, resulted in growth. Guilani puts the responsibility for this on neo-liberal economics. Hollande by contrast has turned to the liberal idea that the « wealth creators » need encouragement. They are held back by too much state taxation. Polices that encourage the « offre », that is those producing for the market, must be put in place. The pact is a way to do this. Much is unclear. The “redefinition” of the principle “missions de l’État” is open to many interpretations. But reducing spending means one thing: cuts

Few have ignored that the basis of the new approach responds to long-standing criticisms from business and political leaders in ‘anglo-saxon’ countries that France is too bureaucratic and the economy is hampered by too much state control. As Jean-Paul Agon, CEO of l’Oréal, put it, these are steps in the right direction (Le Monde. 17.1.14). Next, he stated, is a need to change the taxation rates for high earners.

The protests of the « bonnets rouges » in Brittany and elsewhere against the « eco-taxes » have contributed to this focus on state finance and the « problem » of regulation by public authorities. The right, including the Front National, calls for ever more radical reductions in state spending. Members of the (previously governing) party, the UMP, want to 25 hour week abolished, and privatisations.

With union membership at a feeble 7,6% of employees there is little effective working class opposition. We might even ask that if Hollande’s has proposed a ‘pact’ and the employers have responded yes, whether he feels he needs them. The non Parti Socialiste left, largely the Front de gauche (FdG), has responded with  calls for fiscal justice, but, on the evidence, has been little heard. But then reports equally indicate that the Pacte has not been widely greeted by the public either.

A Failure of Equality.

The Socialist Party’s Déclaration des principes (2008) put equality, as the basis for a critique of capitalism, at the heart of its programme. In Les Gauches Françaises (2012) Jacques Julliard asserted that Hollande represented a « third generation » of social democracy. This had the objective of redistributing wealth, from finance capital to employees. Pierre Rosenvallon, from the social democratic « second Left » wrote, in the influential La société des égaux (2011) (partly inspired by Anthony Crosland) of a reformism that would create « common decency » in a more equal society. In this people’s individuality (« singularité ») would be founded in citizenship and community.

It is hard to see how this will come about under François Hollande’s Presidency. As Serge Halimi has commented neither he, nor his Prime Minster, Ayrault, have shown any « pugnacity » in challenging neo-liberalism (Le Monde Diplomatique. January 2014). This, Halmi asserts, reflects a long-term accommodation to market economics, going back to the time of François Mitterrand in the mid-1980s. After efforts to introduce a state-led socialist programme and nationalisation faltered, they changed direction. Under Mitterrrand’s Prime Minister Laurent Fabius (1984 – 1986) – now Foreign Minister – the Socialists encouraged “winners”. Entrepeneurs such as Bernard Tapie came into Mitterrand’s orbit. We will be watching with interest to see if anything similar happens now.

The French Socialists’ modest proposals to change the course of European Union policies have not been heard. Social democracy is weak in Europe and has become weaker still in recent years. That the German Chancellor and her SPD partners have welcomed Hollande’s latest moves indicates that it is the French Socialists and not the European right that have been persuaded to alter direction.

Equality in any form is no longer a priority. With all due sense of proportion, one could say of this latest turn to the market, as Ernest Bevin might have remarked, that once you’ve opened this Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses might jump out.

Mitterrand’s legacy.

President François Mitterrand was the personality who indelibly marked the French Socialist Party’s transition from a party of opposition to a regular participant in government. His socialism, such as it was, barely developed beyond Victor Hugo’s warm calls for social justice. The ‘Sphnix’ was also famously ambiguous. Apart from a hidden double marital life, Mitterrand harboured more grudges than an entire mountain Albanian clan. (Mitterrand. Philip Short. 2013)

François Hollande had a reputation for normality, good humour, and a more ideological socialism, or rather the social democracy represented in the Parti Socialiste’s humanist critique of finance capital. In the last week we have learnt that he too has a compartmentalised life, and that his political comrades know little of his private character (Kim Willsher. Observer. 19..12014). It is now being said that anybody that does not follow the new line will be excluded from power, though there have been  grumbles from inside his own party, and  partners such as the Greens, (EELV).

Hollande’s presidential campaign was an echo of Mitterrand’s 1981 success. He presented himself as a force tranquille. Is January’s move another copy, this time of the former President’s efforts to divide the right ? Will he act equally ruthlessly against his enemies ? Is this move to the market the sign of abandoning any reformist politics?

Of more importance: will the left, which was paralysed during the Mitterrand years, be able to respond with vigorous opposition?

We certainly hope so.

Front de Gauche: Spat between Communist Party and Mélenchon

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Summer ‘University’ of the Front de Gauche has just seen a serious spat.

In his key-note speech on Friday night the former presidential candidate  Jean-Luc Mélenchon ended by attacking his own side.  He accused his comrade of the Left Front, Pierre Laurent, the national secretary of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF)  of being a “back stabber”. (Adapted from Libération).

Laurent’s response was immediate. On Saturday at the opening of the University of the Left Front in Grenoble, Pierre Laurent denounced the remarks as “unnecessarily hurtful” . But he did not want to “continue the controversy”. Whether this was a purely verbal escalation or not  the disagreements about the  article of national secretary of the PCF in the columns of Liberation (1) , which called for an end to “provocation and invectives “overshadowed the first day of debate.

Libération notes that the attendance at this Front de Gauche event was down on last year.

Mélenchon apparently disappeared after making his speech, an absence which did not go down well.

“He is deeply disappointed by what Pierre Laurent said.” one of his supporters remarked. “But this should not last, there is no divorce in the Left Front “.

(1) Laurent notably argued for a strategy for next year’s local elections based on agreements with the (governing) Parti Socialiste. “L’objectif doit rester de faire élire des majorités de gauche en rassemblant communistes, Front de gauche, écologistes, socialistes et forces citoyennes pour empêcher droite et extrême droite de conquérir des villes.” The objective must remain to elect left majorities, bringing together Communists, the Front de gauche, socialists and citizens’ groups, to prevent the right and the extreme-right taking power in our towns and cities.

He also implicitly criticised Mélenchon’s tone in his attacks on the Socialists, and Interior Minister Manuel Vals,. Laurent  agreed that the Minister had made declarations (about Islam, about law and order and immigration) that were both  opposed to the ‘values’ of the left and had had a “calamitous” effect.

But “Pour convaincre, nous ne devons pas confondre la colère et la radicalité nécessaire avec la provocation et l’invective.” To convince people we should not confuse together our anger and radical determination with provocation and invective. Here.

A “reconciliation” is expected today (Sunday).

Former Socialist Mayor of Henin-Beaumont Condemend for Corruption: a Boost for the Front National.

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RFI reports,

The former French socialist mayor Gerard Dalongeville of Henin-Beaumont in northern France has been sentenced to four years in prison on charges of embezzlement and accepting bribes.

While Dalongeville could be released after three years, the Criminal Court of Bethune has also banned him from office for five years and slapped him with a 50,000 euro fine.

The sentence stems from accusations that Dalongeville along with his first deputy in charge of finance Claude Chopin and businessman Guy Mollet submitted false invoices between 2006 and April 2009 that benefitted companies up to four million euros.

Chopin was also sentenced to three years in prison along with a 30,000 euro fine and five years of political ineligibility.

Mollet was sentenced to four years in prison as well as a 5,000 euro fine.

Henin-Beaumont is not just any Northern French town.

Hard-left’s Mélenchon battles Front National’s Le Pen in France’s depressed north

Marine Le Pen campaigns at an open-air market in Henin-Beaumont May 29, 2012; T-shirt reads, “Leave the Euro”

Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

Two former presidential candidates have thrust a small, economically-depressed northern French town into the spotlight by deciding to face off in the race to win its parliamentary seat. The hard left Jean-Luc Mélenchon has taken his campaign against far-right Marine Le Pen to the industrial desert of Hénin-Beaumont.

Legislative elections 2012. First Round.

  1. Marine Le Pen

    FRONT NATIONAL

    42,26 %22 460 voix

    Voix obtenues dans la 11ème circonscription du Pas-de-Calais

    48,21 %5 172 voix

    Voix obtenues dans la commune de Hénin-Beaumont

  2. Philippe Kemel

    PARTI SOCIALISTE

    23,72 %12 609 voix

    Voix obtenues dans la 11ème circonscription du Pas-de-Calais

    16,69 %1 790 voix

    Voix obtenues dans la commune de Hénin-Beaumont

  3. Jean-Luc Melenchon

    FRONT DE GAUCHE

    21,46 %11 406 voix

    Voix obtenues dans la 11ème circonscription du Pas-de-Calais

    21,21 %2 275 voix

    Voix obtenues dans la commune de Hénin-Beaumont

    Second Round.
    1. Philippe Kemel

      PARTI SOCIALISTE

      50,11 %26 814 voix

      Voix obtenues dans la 11ème circonscription du Pas-de-Calais

      44,86 %4 906 voix

      Voix obtenues dans la commune de Hénin-Beaumont

    2. Marine Le Pen

      FRONT NATIONAL

      49,89 %26 696 voix

      Voix obtenues dans la 11ème circonscription du Pas-de-Calais

      55,14 %6 030 voix

      Voix obtenues dans la commune de Hénin-Beaumont

    The 2009 Municipal elections were particularly ‘hot’ (see here).

    The Front National lost to a united “republican front”.

    The former Mining Town – and historic bastion of socialism – faces a renewed challenge from the Front National in the 2014 local elections.

Written by Andrew Coates

August 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm