French election exposes splits in the ruling class

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The French economy is not recovering well from the crash of 2007/8, especially compared to its major European partner, Germany. The French economy only grew by 1.1% in 2016, compared to Germany’s 1.9%. Since the introduction of the Euro in 1999, the profitability of French capital has plummeted by 27%, compared to Germany’s 21% rise. Investment has therefore stagnated, leading to low productivity growth and an unemployment rate of around 10%. The French ruling class has found itself unable to rule in the old way, and so social democracy has collapsed. The Socialist Party presided over the end of France’s famously short working week (see FRFI 251, ‘France: Working class battles ruling Socialist Party’) and has struggled to contain mass unrest among black, Arab and Muslim people. The superprofits of les trentes glorieuses (the thirty ‘golden years’ after 1945) are no longer available to sustain a large labour aristocracy and so its political vehicle, the Socialist Party, is becoming historically obsolete.

Into this gap have stepped two political forces: the Front National (FN) which is drawing votes from the most reactionary elements of the labour aristocracy, and the neoliberal Emmanuel Macron, who is claiming the middle class votes that in 2012 were cast for François Hollande, now the most unpopular president in French history with a 4% approval rating.

Since expelling its openly anti-semitic ex-leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2015, the FN has been trying to distance itself from its overtly fascist image. It remains the party of choice for France’s fascists, however, and the party’s policies have not drastically changed. The 2017 manifesto proposes severe reductions to immigration. Current leader Marine Le Pen argues that French citizenship must be ‘either inherited or merited’ and that all illegal migrants should be ejected. In December 2016 Le Pen announced that she would end free education for the children of undocumented migrants. She advocates stripping ‘extremist’ Muslims of French citizenship and the provision of all services to ‘native French’ before ‘foreigners’. The FN has promised a referendum on EU membership within six months of coming to power. Like Italy’s Northern League and UKIP in Britain, the FN represents the most reactionary elements of the petty bourgeoisie, current and former labour aristocracy, and a dissident section of the ruling class which believes in the fantasy of an independent French imperialism. Le Pen is currently polling in joint first place, with Macron, at around 26%.

Macron is a former investment banker who served as Economy Minister in the second government of socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls. He is running as a candidate for the Association for the Renewal of Politics – better-known as En Marche! – a party he founded in April 2016 shortly before resigning from his ministerial position. During his time in the Socialist Party he supported the conservative wing which is often compared to the ‘Third Way’ politics of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. He was a staunch supporter of the El Khomri Law, an all-out attack on labour rights. On 23 February Macron outlined his economic proposals. These include cutting corporation tax from 33.3% to 25% and eliminating 120,000 government jobs. Macron has argued that his party is the ‘only pro-European party in France.’ A supporter of the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), a trade deal between Canada and the EU, he argued that the deal does not need to be ratified by the member states as this would ‘undermine’ Europe. Macron advocates the creation of a joint investment budget and a finance minister for the Eurozone, as well as regulation of foreign investment into the EU. Like any bourgeois politician, Macron makes a big deal of the distinction between refugees ‘in need’ and ‘economic migrants’. He supports greater immigration because refugees represent an ‘economic opportunity’ for France. Simultaneously he considers the Frontex EU security agency ‘insufficiently ambitious’ and has called for greater investment in border controls. He also believes the period of consideration for asylum claims should be significantly shortened and that all those who fail should be immediately deported. Macron, much like François Fillon, represents business as usual for the French ruling class and the interests of European imperialism. Bond markets responded well to the announcement of ‘centrist’ François Bayrou’s withdrawal from the race and his backing of Macron.

Fillon, currently in third place in the race, was the former prime minister under the centre-right Republican Party of Sarkozy. He has tried to present himself as the respectable voice of the right, as ‘Mr Clean’. In January 2017, however, accusations emerged that he has paid family members at least €680,000 of public money in salaries for jobs that did not exist. A preliminary investigation was opened on 25 January and on 24 February it decided to push ahead with a judicial investigation. On 7 March, le Canard Enchainé published fresh revelations that Fillon accepted an interest-free undeclared loan of €50,000 from a billionaire businessman in 2013. Fillon has denied any wrongdoing and has refused to step out of the race. Fillon’s policies include the creation of 160,000 more prison places and the adoption of annual quotas for immigration which would depend on the ‘social and economic capacities’ of France. He wants to reduce immigration to a ‘minimum’ and wants to make provision of all social services for migrants conditional upon two years’ residence. Like Le Pen he considers France ‘at war’ with Islamic extremists whom he labels ‘totalitarian’ and he argues that ‘every person who has a relationship with this enemy must be arrested, interrogated and tried.’

Voters will go to the polls for the first round on 23 April. If no candidate secures 50%, a second round will be held 14 days later between the top two candidates. All signs point to a run-off between Le Pen and Macron. A recent BVA poll predicted that in this second round, Macron would beat Le Pen by 61% to 39% or Fillon would beat her 55% to 45%; and a Harris Interactive Poll suggested that Macron would beat Le Pen 60% to 40%, or Fillon would beat her 57% to 43%. However, their calculations could well be overturned.

Whoever wins, French capital will remain in trouble, and the French ruling class will continue to respond by savaging wages, labour rights and welfare, ruthlessly attacking migrants, Muslims and black people and securing profit sources abroad, particularly in the Middle East and central Africa. None of the electoral alternatives offer a positive outcome for the working class. The hope for positive change lies not with the bourgeois electoral circus but with mass resistance spawned by the crisis, from the recent resistance to the El Khomri Law to the protests against racist police brutality. The role of socialists in France must be to organise to harness this resistance.          

Séamus Padraic


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 256 April/May 2017