One of the fascinating things about the present period is how it brings up old issues in a new form. Take the debate which erupted last month among the French revolutionary left about how to react after Le Pen came second in the first round of the presidential election, and knocked out the Socialist Party prime minister Jospin. It was very much a rerun of the arguments over the Popular Front between revolutionaries, Communist Party supporters and social democrats back in the 1930s.
The mood of the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated in opposition to Le Pen was similar to what we’ve seen in the anti-capitalist protests in Gothenburg, Genoa and Barcelona in the last year. But for most of the protesters the way to stop Le Pen was not just to take to the streets. It was also to vote for the Tory Chirac in the second round of the presidential election. ‘Against Le Pen on the streets and in the ballot boxes’ was their slogan.
There was enormous pressure for the revolutionary left to go along with the Chirac vote. The majority of the LCR, the revolutionary organisation which played a leading role in the demonstrations, eventually too came out with a statement which, for all intents and purposes, did so. In this it was following in the footsteps of people like André Nin in Spain and Victor Serge in France in the mid 1930s. They disagreed with Leon Trotsky’s line of outright opposition to Popular Fronts involving major bourgeois parties. They said it cut the revolutionary left off from the mass anti-fascist mood. And certainly, the strident way the other big French revolutionary organisation Lutte Ouvriere argued against a vote for Chirac did isolate it.
There was, however, a major fault with the ‘vote Chirac’ position. It used exactly the same ‘lesser evil’ arguments which led Germany’s Social Democratic Party to back the arch-conservative Hindenburg against Hitler in the presidential election of 1932. Six months later Hindenburg made Hitler prime minister.
Ten years before, the reformist socialists in Italy had relied on the Liberals to protect them against Mussolini’s fascists. In October 1922 the Liberal parliamentarians backed Mussolini’s first government. On both occasions, big business interests had been hesitant about bringing fascists to power, but then decided this was the best way to smash the working class movement at a time of economic and social crisis. The parties they financed changed their attitudes accordingly.
If French capitalism wanted fascism in power today, Chirac would no more be an obstacle than were Hindenburg or the Italian Liberals. He has done deals with Le Pen in the past and will do so in future if it suits him. Only one thing would stop him–the likelihood of mass action on the streets and in the workplaces. Fortunately, the situation in France today is not yet like that in Italy in 1922 or Germany in 1933.
There was never any chance of Le Pen winning the presidency. The combined far right vote of less than 20 percent seemed large because of the near collapse of Jospin’s vote. But it was still considerably less than the combined vote of the left government parties. Among young people, Olivier Besancenot, the LCR’s candidate, got more votes than either Le Pen or Jospin.
French capitalism is not yet in such a dire economic crisis that it is has to turn to a Nazi like Le Pen to maintain its profitability. And, after seeing the scale of the demonstrations on the streets, it is certainly not going to take the risk of the social upheaval involved in gambling on him when it has no need to. The Medef employers’ organisation came out firmly for Chirac and huge chunks of the French press campaigned vigorously against Le Pen. They made sure that even among right wing voters, Chirac beat Le Pen by two to one.
In other words, there was no need for the left to vote for Chirac in order to stop Le Pen getting anywhere near the presidency. At the same time, the left vote for Chirac set a very dangerous precedent. It suggests that the left should also withdraw in favour of the right if this is the only way to stop Le Pen’s party getting seats in the Assembly elections.
None of this means that the millions of votes cast for Le Pen are irrelevant, as has often been implied by Lutte Ouvriere, one of the organisations that opposed voting for Chirac. The size of Le Pen’s own vote matters. It enables him to pose as a major oppositional alternative for people who are increasingly alienated from the political establishment. But he is not interested in the vote as such. This became clear when he split with his former deputy Mégret three years ago. Le Pen wants to emulate Mussolini and Hitler by building a serious, fighting, fascist force and sees the vote primarily as providing him with a launch pad. The traditional base of the French far right is among a section of the well-to-do middle class. He wants to reach out from it to influence sections of the lower middle class, the unemployed and workers.
He believes he can do this if he can pose as the ‘outsider’ opposed to the whole political establishment. As the sociologist Stéphane Wahnich says, ‘Le Pen is dreaming of a duel between the Front National and a Republican Front which will erase the left-right division. He hopes for the formation of Republican Fronts against his candidates in the legislative elections’. He can then appeal to all those who have been let down by the parliamentary left and the parliamentary right.
In such a situation, for the left to withdraw in favour of the right is to play into his hands. There is a need to expose the phoniness of the arguments that Le Pen used to entice support from millions of embittered lower middle class and working class people. But there is also a need to present a genuine alternative to the status quo for such people. And you could not do that by urging a vote for Chirac.
That did not have to mean cutting yourself off from the mass of demonstrators who believed the Chirac vote could stop Le Pen. But it did mean saying to them, ‘We don’t agree, but let’s act together over the things we do agree on–taking to the streets and exposing what Le Pen really stands for’.