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Left Socialist Blog

From one French left to another: President Hollande and Manuel Valls.

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French President: Laughing-Stock?

“Il s’est présenté comme l’homme qui n’aime pas les riches. En réalité, Le Président n’aime pas les pauvres. Lui, l‘homme de gauche, dit en privé ‘les sans-dents’, très fier de son trait de humour”

He puts himself forward as somebody who doesn’t like the rich. But in fact, the President doesn’t like poor people. The ‘man of the left’, proud of his joke, calls them, in private,  the “toothless”.

Merci pour ce moment. Valérie Trierweiler. 2014

Valérie Trierweiler’s account of her life with President François Hollande remains a best-seller. Its portrait of the former Paris Match journalist’s love, her saintly devotion to public life and her deep left roots, his ruthless pursuit of power, his cheating, her shattered private life, and his (alleged) disdain for the less well off, is not widely accepted as reliable political history. But on Page 179 one thing stands out. An opinion poll in May this year registered 3% who wanted the partner of France’s First Lady to stand again in the Presidential elections of 2017.

This may be an extreme result. But at present Hollande’s personal unpopularity stands at over 70% of voters. 80% of French electors are unhappy with his policies. Only 15% have any confidence in him. The traditional right is engaged in a battle for control of their party, the UMP. Ex-President Sarkozy, despite the ‘Bygmalion’ scandal over corrupt election funding that makes anything in the UK look pretty small beer, has returned to the scene. On the far-right, Marine Le Pen, continues to figure prominently in the opinion polls. Nobody on the left – least of all Jean-Luc Mélenchon now calling for a ‘Sixth Republic’ – offers a serious electoral alternative.

It is no coincidence that in this climate of frustration recent weeks have seen violent protests following the death of the young botanist, Rémi Fraisse during protests at a dam project in Sivens. The new wave of autonomists and those involved in the “Zones à défendre’ – Zadists – may be attracted by a spectre risen from the grave: the Comité Invisible. The authors of the post-Situationist L’insurrection qui vient (2007) have just heralded, in a new pamphlet (À nos amis) revolutions ‘everywhere’ (discussion in English here). Perhaps. But the banlieue, if not exactly quiet, quieter than expected. The new French ‘Intifada’, announced from the predominantly (by no means exclusively) Muslim poor suburbs, has not, yet, happened (and with the example of the Da’esh its Islamist side looks less and less appealing).  (1) 

While waiting for them to become visible, and reluctant to pay for what should be free literature that offers details of the “soulèvement” (uprising) underway, we remain in mundane domains. The fate of the French left is being played out inside the institutions of the 5th Republic. The politics of the French Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste, PS) are at the centre. The PS in its Déclaration de principes (2008) dropped one half of its traditional Jaurèsian ‘synthesis’ – democratic Marxism and pursuit of the class struggle – and concentrated on the other – democratic and Enlightenment values. (2) In his electoral programme François Hollande appealed to equality and declared war on “finance”. But his attempts to ‘master’ financial markets, and influence the European Union to support pro-growth policies instead of continued budgetary ‘rigour’ soon ebbed away. We might say then that the leadership of the PS has drifted away from any social democratic reforms. That it now concentrates on promoting France as a “competitor” on the world market.

The details of this retreat are not hard to find. Since 2012, public sector workers have had their wages frozen, the minimum wage (SMIC) has only increased…minimally (0,8% since July 2012), it’s been made easier to sack employees, pension rights have been eroded, regressive indirect taxes (VAT ‘social’) have gone up, and the famous tax on Fortunes (Impôt sur la Fortune) adapted so that it has considerably less effect than its (rich) detractors asserted. (3) A vast recruitment drive for new teachers, that is, plans for 60,000 new posts, has so far resulted in 3,856 new jobs (Le Monde. 6.1.14). Despite some youth job creation unemployment has risen by half a million since May 2012.

Turn Rightwards.

After the disastrous local and European election results this year Hollande pushed out left-wing Ministers, Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, the Greens (Europe Ecologie-Les verts, EELV) quit, and installed a new Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. Valls, on the PS’s right. As Interior Minister Valls heavy-handed approach to law and order, Roms had already earned him the hostility of the Greens and the left. This is said to have hastened the departure of the EELV from their position as junior government partners.

Valls admired Tony Blair, and appears determined on emulating his ‘progressive’  pro-business policies. A marginal figure for a long period (he got a humiliating vote in the PS open ‘primaries’ for Presidential candidate) this choice appeared a desperate one. It was based more on his apparent popularity to ‘tough minded’ voters, not too fond of migrants or too scrupulous about how criminals are treated.

But Valls has also floated the idea that there should be a wide-ranging re-alignment in French politics. The idea of a ‘common home’ for the centre (by which is meant those who have backed right-wing governments and presidents in the past) and the (economically) liberal ‘centre-left’ (in Mandelson speak, ‘progressives’) is modelled on Italy’s Partito Democratico. It is aimed at ‘reform’ of the country’s ‘restrictive practices’ (employment protection laws – to begin with), balanced budgets (welfare cuts) and pro-business (tax cutting) policies. This may not be a viable strategy, (the idea extends to changing the PS’s name) but it has attractions for many sections of the French political scene. Eradicating any form of democratic socialism from mainstream Hexagonal political life would be an, intended, bonus.

Not surprisingly Valls has faced great hostility within his own party. Inside the National Assembly, the 41 ‘frondeur’ deputies, and outside, the Appel de 200, have attacked Valls. They have voted against his ‘reforms’ (such as on labour ‘flexibility’ such as Sunday Working). A new current amongst activists, Vive la Gauche has emerged. The ‘social democratic’ wing of the Socialists has rallied around the unlikely oppositional figure of Martine Aubry, the Mayor of Lille and a long-standing player in the PS. Long associated with the Rocardian reformist wing she has now called to drop the “old liberal recipes” for economic reform, for investment, not cuts. While some note a lack of clear ambition to lead the Parti Socialiste her criticisms have been widely heard. In the meantime there are reports of members’ disillusion resulting in a catastrophic loss of party membership. (Le Monde 30.10.14)

To the Socialists’ left the Front de Gauche (FdG) has not developed into a vibrant and attractive alternative. Jean-Luc Mélenchon now, apparently, considers that the real fight is between the People and the “oligarchy”. The PS and Hollande the “old” left have become pillars of this elite. The Parti Communiste Français (PCF), part of the FdG, have by making some municipal election agreements with the Socialists, are….the conclusion is obvious.

Demanding the real “sovereignty” (‘profoundly anti-capitalist’) of the People Mélencohon’s ambitions rise to the creation of a New 6th Republic. (Nouvel Observateur. 8.10.14.)In the meantime the (still?) leading public face of the FdG looks to the prosperous medium-sized town of Grenoble, where his small organisation the Parti de Gauche, allied with the EELV and local left-winger against the PS and the PCF, and now control of council.

The resulting Mouvement pour la VIe République (M6R) has not won over the masses, although parts of the FdG, such as Ensemble, have backed the project. Mélenchon himself has become associated with Green protests, like the one at Sievens already cited. One is reminded of the British left’s interest in democratic reform, and ‘new politics’ (of whatever stripe) which always seems to rise when there is little prospect of socialist policies being implemented by any government.

Economics first.

In reality it’s the conflict outlined above, over economics, which is redefining the nature of the French left. Does the left represent the working majority, and the ‘poor’ (sans-dents), equality and collective rights? Or is the ‘left’ iitselfan ‘outdated’ concept (as they said, way back in the 1930s) and what’s needed is ‘production’ ‘flexibility’ entrepeneuriship and growth before anything else can be achieved? Or is it impossible to get the latter without the labour (socialist) movement leading their direction? It must be said that the, formal, split between France’s Parliamentary and trade union left does not help weigh the outcome of the clash between these perspectives in favour of this latter possibility.

These are the terms of the political and ideological battles underway. They are not concerned with “culture wars”, like the one underway over Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français (defending Vichey, battling ‘political correctness’), or the half-hearted dispute around Marcel Gauchet (an unoriginal theorist of ‘totalitarianism’ who’s apparently also got some rightist inclinations). It is not the “republic”, since there is no movement outside political enthusiasts, a declining constituency, for this ‘revolutionary’ change. It’s not even over Race and Ethnicity (important though these issues are). The root of the far-right Front National’s popular appeal is economic: a rejection of migration (like its homologue UKIP) and the effects of the market, unemployment and low wages (offering a ‘national’ economic policy as an alternative).

The Socialist Head of State is, we are informed, a great football fan. He does not believe that the score is final until the match is ended (Le Monde 5.11.14). If at the moment he might be a laughing-stock (as Trierweiler helpfully calls him, the object of “risée générale’), perhaps. But the “reforms” of his new Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, may finally bear fruit. Enterprise will be set free, growth will return, and unemployment) will go down. Yesterday Hollande has – widely – stated that he will not seek re-election is he fails to cut the dole queue. 

We shall see on the 15th of November whether the French Trade Unions and left – who plan a day of action against government policies – if any serious alternative is emerging.

MOBILISATION NATIONALE LE 15 NOVEMBRE !

(1) The French Intifada. The Long War Between France and its Arabs Andrew Hussey. 2014.

(2) On Jaurés’ synthesis see: Jean Jaurès. Gilles Candar. Vincent Duckert. Fayard. 2014.

(3) Dossier.: Politique Française sans Boussole Le Monde Diplomatique. September 1014.

“Le Parti communiste organise, ce week-end, en Seine-Saint-Denis, une conférence nationale. Objectif : poser de nouvelles pierres à la construction d’une alternative aux politiques d’austérité, que le président de la République devait une nouvelle fois défendre jeudi soir. ” Humanité 7.11.14.

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