The stunning results of last weekend’s French presidential elections sounded a warning bell for progressive forces everywhere.
For the first time since 1969, all left-wing candidates failed to reach the second round of Frances run-off election. This defeat signals the broader lefts weakness in the face of the militarization of corporate globalization since September 11.
The combined vote for all leftist candidates far exceeded the seventeen per cent that went to neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen. But the practical reality is that the race for French President will pit the right (Jacques Chirac) against the far right (Le Pen).
Several factors converged to produce this victory for the right. All have reflections in Canadian and global politics.
A Fractured Left
The far left remains stronger in France than anywhere in North America. Three Trotskyist candidates together took ten per cent of the vote. The Green Party won five per cent. The once-powerful Communist Party took three per cent.
Meanwhile, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin ran a campaign barely distinguishable in its embrace of neo-liberalism from the centre-right platform of President Jacques Chirac. Jospin received sixteen per cent of the vote — just one point behind Le Pen, and three behind Chirac, but not enough to stay in the race.
Voters stayed away in droves this year. Turnout was just 71.5 per cent, the country’s worst showing since 1958. This crisis of representative democracy often benefits the right, and this crisis is spreading across the globe.
The strategic problem: the French left failed to present a united vision of an alternative to neo-liberalism. Divides are widening between the “social left” (movements and groups) and the “political left” (parties). Meanwhile, social democratic parties are embracing neo-liberalism. And the fracturing of the rest of the left means just one realistic alternative to neo-liberalism is presented during elections: right-wing populism.
French social democrats may blame far-left parties for the defeat. No question, these parties did campaign in the belief that Jospin would easily make the second round without their support. But the real problem is that social democracy has become hard to distinguish from the centre-right … while parties further to the left have developed no strategy for winning mass support for a progressive alternative to neo-liberalism.
Fuel for the Right
The militarization of corporate globalization is polarizing society. The “war on terrorism” has dramatically boosted anti-Arab racism. Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians is fanning fires of anti-Semitism. Jean Marie Le Pen reflects both forces.
Anti-Semitic attacks have multiplied in France since Israeli aggressions intensified. And during the election, Le Pen told Le Monde that no new mosques should be built in France (a land with six million Moslems) until Saudi Arabia allows the construction of a Christian church.
The security state emerging in North America and Europe since September 11 also favours the extreme right by playing on and intensifying people’s fears of terrorism and crime. Le Pen’s campaign stressed law-and-order issues, and he has consistently blamed immigrants for rising crime rates.
In the election’s aftermath, the French left is already mobilizing against racism, xenophobia and Le Pen. But it will pay a heavy price for failing to anticipate the rise in support for the right.
The French election results are not isolated. Extreme-right parties have been elected recently in Denmark and Italy. Germany may be next. And this is happening despite rising energy among anti-globalization and anti-war forces in Europe.
While there has been no rush to support Canada’s far right in the wake of September 11, we are witnessing a fracturing of the left. There are deep divisions between the social left and the political left. Low voter turnouts do not help.
The militarization of the neo-liberal agenda — and the failures of the political left everywhere except Brazil — point to the need for new strategies.
We need to develop an analysis of the links among the neo-liberal agenda, the “war on terrorism” and Israeli aggression in the Middle East. I believe we are witnessing a new, highly militarized stage of corporate capitalism, a new form of imperialism. Accounts of pre-war Nazi Germany sound eerily familiar.
No matter how strong our social movements become, if they have no reflection on the electoral level, we can expect to see growing support for the extreme right — whether in the form of social conservatives in North America; neo-Nazis in Europe; or Moslem and Hindu fundamentalists in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
This does not mean we should support right-wing social democrats. Instead, we must forge new political alliances that include anti-neo-liberal social democrats, socialists and Greens. These alliances must also embrace the new generation of activists, many of whom describe themselves as anarchists.
Growing mobilizations against war, the Israeli occupation, anti-Semitism and racism are critical to countering the rise of the far right. But they are not enough.
Despite the distaste for political parties among North America’s broad left, and despite continuing sectarian divisions in Europe, no task is more important than creating a new kind of political party that is democratic and pluralist. A party that can engage citizens in politics and present a clear alternative to neo-liberalism based on participatory democracy and economics.
So far, the only examples are the Workers Party in Brazil and the Scottish Socialist Party, but groups in countries around the world are raising this issue to the top of the social justice agenda.