The sudden purge of France’s cabinet was neither the beginning nor the end of the crisis that has gripped French politics under Socialist Party president François Hollande.
In prime minister Manuel Valls’s new team, former banker and architect of austerity Emmanuel Macron is in and critics of Hollande’s austerity programme are out. But those who were pushed out or jumped were hardly the left wing radicals portrayed in the press.
Take Aurelie Filippetti. She uncomplainingly headed the culture ministry as it pushed through cuts in a long dispute with entertainment workers. Now she laments that ever harder and faster austerity is squeezing out any attempt at making policy “realistic, but still of the left”.
The new cabinet can now probably be counted on to unite behind €40 billion of tax breaks for the bosses and €50 billion more cuts planned for this autumn. But the government’s authority is weaker than ever.
It had already alienated coalition partners the Greens and a big chunk of the Socialist Party backbenchers in Valls’s first reshuffle five months ago. The collapse of Hollande’s support in parliament is outpaced only by the collapse of his approval rating — from 60 percent in 2012 to just 17 percent now.
The main beneficiaries are the far-right, particularly the fascist National Front. This summer it topped the polls for the next presidential election. But it is far from alone. Its recent successes followed a year of mass protests against gay marriage. Hundreds of thousands of bigots regularly took to the streets, including violent racists and Nazis chanting “Jews out”.
The centre-right UMP is in little better shape than Hollande. It cleaned up in local elections and is set to take control of the Senate — but really only by default. These Tories took 18 months of bitter infighting to pick a new leader, only for him to resign in a corruption scandal. Leading figures called for former president Nicolas Sarkozy to come back and save them even as he was being arrested and placed under an investigation that could see him jailed.
And what about the left? After all, we’ve heard the story of politicians’ authority collapsing under the weight of their austerity before, in Greece. There the result was the advance of the left wing Syriza, which former minister Jean-Luc Melenchon hoped to emulate in France.
He lampooned Hollande as “Hollandreou” after Papandreou, the leader who effectively wrecked Greece’s social democratic party Pasok. Melenchon built an audacious electoral challenge to austerity through the Front de Gauche, an alliance of his own split from the Socialists, a number of smaller far-left groups, and the electoral machine that is the French Communist Party.
But barely two years after the local and European elections this alliance exists in name only. The Communists and the rest of the Front ran separate campaigns in local elections, and abandoned their common summer school for separate events including a desperate “brainstorming day” for Melenchon’s Left Party.
Now Melenchon himself has resigned from the organisation’s leadership, hoping instead to recreate some of its initial excitement by campaigning for constitutional reform.
Instead of benefiting from the government’s crisis, the Front de Gauche became a casualty of it. The weaker the government looked, and the stronger the threat from its right, the more the Communists in particular felt duty bound to stand with it.
The same logic that kept them from challenging Hollande at elections has kept the dissident MPs from voting against him in parliament and the union leaders from leading strikes. Far from stopping the bigots and the Nazis, this disarms the one force that could — the working class.
Many of its best militants, even on the revolutionary left, are still reeling from the missed opportunities of the mass strikes over pensions that were sold out in 2010. Since then the high level of struggle that has shaped the situation in Greece has been missing in France, and that has made all the difference.
Among the bosses, panic at the return of the eurozone crisis is piling on top of decades of accumulated resentment at their frustrated attempts to push through neoliberalism. Their austerity isn’t working, but they have nothing else. Even Germany has begun slipping back towards recession, and France barely saw a recovery to begin with.
Thus the two great opposing classes of modern society find themselves paralysed, bringing on a crisis in all the parties that seek to represent them.
The field is left open for the fascists to build a monster out of the human dust in between — a monster that, given long enough and a deep enough crisis, could break the deadlock by liquidating democracy and smashing working class organisation to give the bosses free rein. This nightmare is still far from inevitable. But it looms larger on the horizon all the time.
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