Shift to the right? French are as bolshy as ever

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France has not at all moved to the right. It is simply a scared country, a country afraid of losing its job, afraid of losing its public health care and pensions and schools and afraid of the crime that comes with increased poverty.

The French aren't supposed to be Thatcherites at heart. They're supposed to have a revolution every fortnight, no? Over, like, Camembert that's not runny enough or something. How can these anti-war, Palestine-sympathizing cheese-eating surrender monkeys be voting for a shouty pro-American with a seriously hopped-up short-man syndrome?

For 15-odd years now, we have been hearing nothing but how unremittingly bolshy the French are, how grève-happy they are, how unwilling they are to give up their public services and strong social protections.

Dating back to the massive month-long strike of 1995 that enjoyed an easy majority of public support and which forced conservative then-prime minister Alain Juppé to withdraw his government's plans for structural adjustment, France has been known as the land that never learnt the meaning of TINA — There Is No Alternative — the last Keynesian strong-state hold-out.

In 2005, the French delivered a forceful pro-European but anti-neo-liberal (although in France, of course, it's just brusquely, unadornedly and decidedly more honestly called “anti-liberal”) rebuke to the monetarist technocrats of Brussels via their “No” vote in the referendum on the European Constitutional treaty.

Then last year, students occupying their lycées and universities won a remarkable victory over the CPE, a regressive labour law that targeted young workers, and in the process destroying utterly the presidential ambitions of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who'd tied his reputation to the passage of the legislation.

What happened to France's renowned vas-t-en-guerre gauchisme? Is the Anglophone press right? Has France really careened to the right? Did they really see The Economist's Sarko-as-Napoleon cover and think, “Zut alors, zhey are right. What we need eez a good dose of ze rosbif Englishwomanman Margaret Thatcher's medicine. Zat short leetle nain de jardin eez ze man for ze job!”

I'm not so sure. Or, rather, yes, there is a rightist spectre haunting France at the moment, but it is the right of nationalism, xenophobia, racism and law-and-order judicial conservatism, rather than the right of Hayek and von Mises. This is not necessarily any consolation.

The narrative we have been fed — even in soi-disant progressive publications such as the Guardian and the Observer — is that France has tired of strikes and a “bloated” public service. Even the “elephants” — the big shiny buttons of the Parti Socialiste — such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn (known as DSK) literally not minutes after Royal's defeat called on the party to abandon its old-left socialism in favour of the modern social democracy of the rest of Europe's Labour and social democratic parties. The PS needs to “modernize.” If Sarko is to be France's Thatcher, then the PS needs to produce France's Blair.

The truth is that France has already had both its Thatcher and its Blair. The late François Mitterand may have been elected in 1981 on quite a strong left Old Labour-type platform, but within months, he had shifted to the right to such an extent that it was he who was known as the Thatcher of France.

Lionel Jospin's Socialist administration privatized more than all the previous conservative governments had done, and do we have to be reminded that Jacques Chirac was a conservative of the same party as Sarkozy, and in whose cabinet Sarko served?

Very far from the party's own caricature of itself, the PS is hardly some gaggle of Marxist unusualists hawking inky two-colour revolutionary newspapers outside metro stations. It is no different from any other social democratic party around the world: the PS has long since made its peace not only with the market, but with neo-liberal structural adjustment.

I wonder which Ségolène campaign DSK was watching. After years of anti-liberal resistance, the No vote, and two resounding victories for the left in the 2004 and 2005 elections, this election was Sego's to lose. But instead of capitalizing on the growing discontent with neo-liberal reforms, Royal at best offered up a wet serviette of leftish-esque but ultimately contentless platitudes. The abiding thrust of her campaign was a flag-and-anthem, morals, order and family courting of the centre. But why vote for a spleenless, left version of Sarkozy when you can get the real deal?

And this was indeed the Sarkozy they were voting for. The exit polls show that the number one concern of Sarkozy voters was the “fight against insecurity” — insecurity being the French term for lawlessness or increased crime. Some 88 per cent of Sarkozy voters wanted a return to “a society with more order and authority.” A further 26 per cent of Sarkozy voters felt that the “struggle against immigration” was the most important issue, compared with five per cent of Royal voters who felt the same way.

This has been called the “Lepenization” of French politics, after the leader of the far-right Front National, 82-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen. Sarkozy has been assiduously courting far right voters both during the campaign and during his career as interior minister.

When the traditional champion of jobs and public services — in this case the Socialists and the Parti Communiste, who in coalition with the PS supported neo-liberal reforms under Jospin — abandon their traditional constituency, fear and the easy sureties of the right that soothe such fear fill the void.

In the first round, Le Pen shockingly came first amongst blue-collar voters, with 26 per cent — his highest score in any category. In the second round, according to Ipsos/Dell, 46 per cent of blue-collar voters supported Sarkozy; 44 per cent of voters of “modest means” supported him; 32 per cent of those who normally vote for Les Verts (the Greens) supported him; and even a full 12 per cent of those who normally support the far-left parties supported him.

Surprisingly, this is all actually a reason to be cheerful. Blue collar and other working class voters supported Sarkozy out of fear for their jobs and public services — wrongly angry at immigrants for causing unemployment and creating the insecurity in their neighbourhoods. Instead they should be blaming the corporations and the wealthy for undermining the France of the “Trente Glorieuses” of the 50s, 60s and 70s that they remember, but no one outside the far left locates the problems with the market.

What this means is that it is quite wrong of The Economist and the Financial Times to assume that support for Sarkozy means support for his economic programme. People voted for Sarkozy despite his economic programme, not because of it.

When Sarkozy goes after the right to strike, the 35 hour work week and undermines social services, watch for these middle-aged blue collar Sarkozy voters to be back dans les rues, and watch them push Sarkozy into retreat, just as they did to Juppe, Raffarin and de Villepin.

But will the PS be able to profit from it? If the lesson they have learnt from this election is that they need to move still further to the right, then they are only committing political sepuku, from left to right. It is unlikely we'll be seeing Royal or any other socialists leading the manifestations that are sure to kick off in the coming months.

So what of the far-left and les Verts? The collapse of the gauche de la gauche vote after 2002 is almost total. In 2002, the combined far-left vote won around 13.5 per cent, and the Greens won a further 5.5. This year, the far-left vote fell off a cliff. Together they won just under nine per cent. (4.1 per cent for Olivier Besancenot of the League Communiste Revolutionaire [LCR], 1.9 per cent for Marie-Georges Buffet of the Communists [PCF], 1.4 per cent for Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière, and 1.3 per cent for José Bové).

The Greens managed a risible 1.5 per cent. However, this was entirely to be expected. After the first round of the 2002 presidential election, left-wing voters found to their utter horror that they had to choose between conservative crook Chirac and the fascho Le Pen, in the second round. Such voters for the most part this time were successfully scared into voting for Royal or Bayrou in the first round to keep out Le Pen, however much they sympathized with the far-left.

But for the Communists, their abysmal showing — 1.9 per cent for — is actually in keeping with their downward trajectory since their participation in the Jospin government of the “gauche pluriel.” If Communists will participate with Socialists to cut social programmes and public services and do nothing to defend jobs in the wake of delocalization, and the Socialists have a better chance of getting in anyway, what purpose is served by voting PCF at all?

The PCF are not solely to blame — sectarianism on the part of all groups involved was surely at play. Breaching the five per cent barrier brings whichever party that achieves it no small chunk of public funds.

The only party on the left to come out of this election to improve its standing is the LCR. Bescancenot dropped only 0.2 per cent from 2002, and actually increased his result in terms of the number of votes. Why is this?

Well, he is very “mediatique” — he's a charismatic, cherubic, witty 32-year-old postman who is regularly on television chat shows. He's a young worker running against all the lawyers, businessmen and professional politicians one finds running in any election anywhere in the world. He's the revolutionary socialist you'd take home to your grandmother as much as down to the picket-line. In poll after poll, he is regularly voted amongst the most popular politicians in the country, even if admiration doesn't always translate into winning ballots.

Interestingly, previously his support was isolated in pockets across the country. Now, his support seems fairly even across the various departments, ranging from 4 to 5.5 per cent. The wealthier jurisdictions and overseas departments and territories of course are what brought him down to a solid 4.1 This evenness however across the country provides a strong basis for those who will be organizing the resistance to Sarkozy's attacks that are sure to come in the next few weeks and months.

It seems clear then, upon a closer look at the results, rather than imposing on the results what the editors of The Economist and the Financial Times — or Sarkozy himself — want to see in them, that France has not at all moved to the right. It is simply a scared country, a country afraid of losing its job, afraid of losing its public health care and pensions and schools and afraid of the crime that comes with increased poverty.

The long-term goal must, of course, then be to win back those Sarkozy/Le Pen voters who would otherwise be natural voters of the left. To do this, the left must make these voters not afraid, or rather to focus their fear in the correct direction — not the immigrants and Muslims and youth, but the bosses, the corporations, the wealthy and the deathless politicians that serve only them.

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