One in ten people in one of the world's key industrial countries say they will vote in two weeks time for a socialist who calls for 'revolution' to sweep away a 'bankrupt capitalist system'. That poll finding is sending shockwaves through the French political establishment as the country gears up for the 21 April presidential election. Paul McGarr reports from France.
Amiens, a provincial town in northern France, is about the same size as Huddersfield or York. Over 500 people packed into a marquee erected in a town centre park there to hear Arlette Laguiller on Thursday of last week.
Arlette is the presidential candidate of the revolutionary socialist group Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Fight), and polls suggest she is on course to get 10 percent of the votes. 'Always with the workers' read the banner behind her as she spoke on Thursday. The audience gave her a standing ovation as she entered the marquee. For one hour people listened attentively as she denounced the mainstream political parties. As she finished people rose to their feet to join in singing the socialist anthem, the Internationale.
Similar meetings are taking place almost every night as Arlette, a retired former bank worker, criss-crosses the country. Over 1,000 people came to hear her in Strasbourg, 900 in Reims, 900 in Limoges, and almost 700 in Nancy.
In smaller towns the size of the meetings is even more startling. Saint Lo is the same size as Penzance, but 500 people turned out there to hear Arlette. Over 400 people came to hear her in Montlucon, a town the size of Merthyr Tydfil.
France's presidential election takes place over two rounds, with a run-off between the two leading contenders following the 21 April first round. That run-off is likely to be between current French president, the Tory Jacques Chirac, and France's Socialist Party prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Chirac and Jospin are on around 20 percent each, with Arlette Laguiller vying for third place, according to a series of polls.
She is well ahead of the Green candidate, though the Greens are in the country's Socialist Party led coalition government and hold several ministerial posts. The polls also suggest Arlette could get double the vote of Communist Party leader and presidential candidate Robert Hue.
The Communist Party is also part of the government, and has long been the key left wing and working class force in France, dominating the most powerful trade union federation. If the polls are right then the election will show just how many people are prepared to support a strongly left wing alternative to the traditional parties.
Struggle has produced this mood for change
The support for Arlette Laguiller is a reflection of deep anger with France's governing parties. It is also one expression of a more general discontent with capitalist society.
The entire political landscape in France underwent a seismic shift in the wake of the great public sector workers' strikes in December 1995. Millions of workers struck and demonstrated against attacks on welfare by the then Tory government. The strikes beat back the attacks and gutted the government.
In 1997 the Socialist Party, equivalent to Britain's Labour Party, and its Communist and Green allies, won a landslide election victory. The government has been pushed by struggles and protests since to deliver some of its promises, such as a law limiting most people's working hours to 35 a week.
But Jospin, backed by the Communist Party, has also bowed to pressure from big business to push through attacks on working people.
His government has privatised more public services than the two previous Tory governments put together. And it has pushed through some of the welfare attacks that workers struck against in 1995.
Even reforms like the 35-hour law have come with the price of allowing many bosses to impose 'flexible' working. No wonder that three in four people said in a recent poll that they could see little difference between the policies offered by the two main presidential candidates.
Meanwhile there is a continuing level of workers' struggles. One recent wave of strikes and protests involving mainly young workers in fast food outlets and major stores is significant in indicating the mood at the base of society.
McDonald's workers in Paris led the way with a strike which won major concessions from the multinational firm. Now young workers in Go Sport and in the Fnac book and music stores have protested. 'Everything belongs to us!' was the chant on one recent demonstration on Paris's Champs Elysees by young workers from Fnac, Go Sport, McDonald's, Virgin, Disney and Quick.
Same issues as here
'There is plenty of money around. Look how the rich have got richer year after year,' argued Arlette Laguiller in Amiens last Thursday. At the same time 'wages are held down, insecurity spreads, and six million people in this county are living in poverty, some unemployed, some working for poverty pay'. She attacked the government for creating 'a two-tier health service - one for the rich and one for the people'.
'The French government,' she argued, 'like all the governments of Europe, is pursuing a policy of liquidating public services through privatisation'. Arlette's speech focused almost entirely on such immediate bread and butter issues, before ending with a call for a transformation of society.
'The capitalist organisation of the economy is bankrupt. It is incapable of solving the basic problems facing humanity, to feed and clothe everyone, to allow everyone access to healthcare, education and culture. It must be changed, and the only force capable of doing that is the working class,' she told the audience. Afterwards people quickly filed out of the marquee into the night. Many had heard enough to convince them to vote for Arlette.
Laurent, a student, had come to a political meeting for the first time in his life: 'It is true what she says, especially about insecurity, and the kind of jobs and pay people have to put up with. Many of my friends will not vote at all. They think all politicians are the same. But I think I'll vote for Arlette.'
Michelle is unemployed, and also liked what she had heard. 'Arlette understands the problems of ordinary people, not like all those politicians who just lie and are corrupt.'
Jean-Michel works in a local supermarket: 'All the others just go along with the bosses. They don't stand for working people any more. Arlette gets attacked for saying the same things she has when she has stood in previous elections. But I think it's good she has not changed. She says what she believes in and sticks to it. You can't say that about the Socialist Party or the Communist Party any more, can you?'
Voting not enough
The left are not the only force in French society capable of benefiting from disaffection with the government and society. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Nazi National Front party, has been rising in the presidential election polls to around 10 percent.
In the 1980s and early 1990s Le Pen and his party grew to be a serious threat. They were beaten back by a wave of anti-Nazi protests in the mid-1990s, and by the shift to the left in society on the back of workers' struggles. Disillusionment with five years of the Socialist and Communist parties in office has created the space for Le Pen to try and make a comeback.
The biggest current in society is still flowing to the left. The challenge for socialists in France is to build on that in the months ahead. The support for Arlette Laguiller shows the potential, but to realise that potential will mean more than winning votes.
It means involving in activity as many as possible of those who will vote for Arlette. And it means relating struggles on jobs, wages and privatisation to wider social movements and protests - against racism, corporate globalisation, capitalism, and against war.
Unfortunately no organisation on the left in France is doing this consistently. The greatest failing in recent months is to have failed to seriously build an anti-war movement.