FRANCE'S PRESIDENTIAL election was the result of mass disillusionment with five years of government by the Socialist Party and its coalition allies, the Greens and the Communists. The vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen was terrible, with just over four and a half million people backing the Nazi leader. But it was almost exactly the same vote Le Pen got in the last presidential election in 1995.
He got into the second round of voting, due on 5 May this time, because of the collapse in support for the government parties. A record number of people simply didn't vote-almost 28 percent of people stayed at home. That was a sharp leap from the 21 percent who didn't vote in 1995. The Socialist Party is roughly equivalent to Britain's Labour Party.
Its candidate, France's current prime minister, Lionel Jospin, got just 16 percent of the vote on Sunday. Only 4.3 million people out of 40 million potential voters could be persuaded to back him after the experience of his five years in office.
Back in 1995 Jospin had got over 23 percent of the vote, and ran the Tory Jacques Chirac close in the second round run-off for the presidential election. But millions of working class people who backed Jospin five years ago refused to do so now. The Communist Party has long been a key force in France, and its leader, Robert Hue, got almost 9 percent of the votes in the 1995 presidential election. Five years of supporting Jospin's government, with Communist Party members holding key ministerial posts, have seen that vote collapse.
On Sunday Hue achieved the Communist Party's lowest ever vote, getting just 3.5 percent. The Greens are also in the government, and they got just 5.3 percent of the vote on Sunday.
Jospin, who was humiliated on Sunday, became prime minister a few weeks after New Labour came to office in Britain in 1997. He rode to success on a wave of strikes and protests.
In 1995 Tory prime minister Alain Juppé had launched a major assault on the welfare state. Millions of public sector workers struck and demonstrated. The strikes beat off the attacks, broke the back of the Tory government, and pushed the mood in France sharply to the left.
Jospin benefited from that mood when the 1997 parliamentary elections saw a landslide victory for the Socialist Party, along with the Communists and Greens. People's hopes were high that the new government would deliver change. Those hopes have been dashed in the years since.
Privatisation worse than under Tories
JOSPIN'S KEY pledge was to cut unemployment by introducing a 35-hour working week law, limiting hours so companies would take on more workers. Unemployment has gone down a little. But it is still running at almost 10 percent-far higher than in Britain, for example. This scale of joblessness has left deep pools of poverty and despair across France. The jobs that have been created are often on temporary contracts and with few rights.
The number of agency workers in France increased by a staggering 70 percent between 1998 and 2000. Even for workers with jobs, the 35-hour law has often come with a major increase in flexible working. In the last year multinationals such as Moulinex, Michelin, Danone, Marks & Spencer, Whirpool and others have also pushed through massive job cuts. Jospin and his government stood by and did nothing as thousands of workers were sacked and whole towns devastated.
On other fronts too the government has betrayed the hopes of its supporters. Homelessness and bad housing are a scandal that blights France's cities. Over six million people in France are living below the official poverty line. Pushed
Jospin has also pushed through many of the attacks on the welfare state that workers struck against in 1995, with attacks on health, social security and pensions. Jospin has also privatised more than the previous two Tory governments put together. And the Communist Party minister of transport has been at the centre of pushing through major privatisations such as that begun in Air France. This miserable record left people feeling there was nothing worth supporting from Jospin and his allies.
11 percent voted for revolutionaries
ONE HOPEFUL sign amid the awful shock of the election result was the number of people who voted for socialist candidates. They stood for a real fight against the despair and misery that Le Pen has fed off. Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Fight) got 6 percent of votes. This was down on the 10 percent earlier polls had suggested she might get, but was still almost 1.6 million votes.
Olivier Besancenot, a young postal worker and the candidate of the LCR (Revolutionary Communist League), polled 4.3 percent, some 1.1 million. He had been showing a much lower vote in earlier opinion polls, as he was almost unknown. But during the campaign his vote grew as he tapped the wider anti-capitalist feeling in society.
Along with candidates of smaller left groups, explicitly revolutionary socialist candidates in all polled 11 percent of all votes cast, not far short of three million. They and the millions who voted for the Communists, Greens and Socialist Party can all be united in a mass movement to stop Le Pen.
Alongside that it is urgent that the left offers hope to people driven to despair and demoralisation. That demands more than telling people that there is no alternative to the dismal policies offered by the Socialist Party and its allies. Hope can only come from a left which offers a real fight to attack the social conditions Le Pen feeds off, and which stands for a challenge to capitalism and the horror it brings.
The far left in France is in a position to offer that hope if it rises to the challenge. Workers have been fighting in France in recent years, and the anti-capitalist feeling is as great there as in its neighbours like Italy and Spain, which have seen huge eruptions of protest recently.
If the left united in a single genuinely socialist anti-capitalist organisation it could tap that mood in society, and offer an alternative to the system whose decay fattens Le Pen's Nazis.
THE SOCIALIST Party's election campaign was totally uninspiring. Jospin began by saying his programme 'was not socialist'. Indeed he sounded so much like the Tory Jacques Chirac that three out of four people in polls said they could see no difference between the two.
Ross Harold of Socialist Worker's sister paper in France, L'Etincelle (Spark), says, 'This result is a terrible shock, but it is the result of the failure of the governing parties. 'For five years they have carried out right wing policies, and the result has been to completely demoralise and disorientate whole sections of the population.'