MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 4

International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

Notes of the Quarter

France: Deals with the devil

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

After losing their majority in last year’s national elections, conservatives in France have shown that they are willing to make a deal with the devil to hold onto their seats. Mainstream conservatives from the Union for French Democracy (UDF) in several regions sought the support of the fascist National Front (FN) in order to win regional elections on March 20. Seven UDF councillors were elected regional presidents (similar to governors in the U.S.) with FN backing, including such prominent figures as Charles Millon who was France’s defense minister from 1995 to 1997.

But the conservatives’ deal-making blew up in their faces. Far from staving off defeat, alliances with the fascists have only created more problems for the already fragile conservative coalitions. Many people across France are questioning the mainstream right’s legitimacy after the pacts. Moreover, not only did the right lose seats to the left in the wake of the uproar caused by the alliances, but the maneuver has actually spurred a swing to the left across France.

The leadership of the main conservative parties, the UDF and the Rally for the Republic (RPR), raced to denounce the deals and immediately forced five of the FN-backed councillors to resign. President Chirac (of the RPR) called the FN “racist and xenophobic” and has vowed to change voting laws to end proportional representation, a system of voting which can give an advantage to smaller parties. Millon, who was elected with FN support, turned around and called Le Pen a “1920s fascist.”

Despite embarrassed denunciations from Chirac and other conservatives, the recent crisis reflects a trend that has been growing for years as conservatives have adopted a strategy of conceding to the political program of the fascists in order to beat the left competition. Chirac may complain today that Le Pen’s party has nothing to do with “French values,” but when it comes to the question of law and order and immigration controls the mainstream right has been more than happy to accept FN positions as their own. In many areas, the FN has set the political agenda for the mainstream parties.

Now, the FN stands to reap the rewards of the pact instead of the conservatives. Until recently, many considered the FN, which garners support by channeling people’s fears of high unemployment into anti-immigrant scapegoating, a marginal force in French politics. That situation has changed. While the conservatives clearly hoped to hold onto power by relying on the support of the “marginal” FN, the latest maneuver actually brought the FN one step further into the mainstream of French politics. Le Pen’s number two man Bruno Megret argued that the FN was now seen as a “legitimate, democratic movement” because of the alliances, and argued that the FN has become the third pole of French politics.

The FN stands to benefit further from the crisis. The fascists have already built a considerable base in the South, where they control three towns and command a stable portion of the vote. While nationally the FN vote has stabilized at 15 percent, in Provence-Alpes Côte D’Azure region the fascists won a terrifying 27 percent of the vote in the last elections. As conservatives scramble to piece together their crumbling coalitions, Le Pen can once again pose the FN as the one party untouched by scandal and corruption, and as the one unwavering voice of national pride left in France.

Yet if the March elections showed the consequences of mainstream pandering to the far right, they also exposed the other face of social polarization in France. Most people in France are looking to the left, not the right. While the FN vote remained largely stable, the left won the greatest share of the popular vote – 40 percent compared to the conservatives’ 36 percent and the FN’s 15 percent. The revolutionary left represented by Lutte Ouvrière and Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire won almost one million votes.

Perhaps even more important, the conservatives’ deal-making provoked a huge upsurge in antifascist and antiracist organizing. In the wake of the recent election fiasco, 200,000 people mobilized in anti-fascist demonstrations across France, including a demonstration of 50,000 in Paris endorsed by all of the main left parties as well as anti-fascist and revolutionary organizations. These demonstrations are adding to the pressure for social change spurred on by the large unemployed occupations and student protests that have taken place since last fall.

The latest round of antifascist organizing is forcing politicians who have long remained silent to take a firmer stand against the FN. In early April, France’s highest court banned FN-run police and prison unions, arguing that the unions were only FN front groups which did nothing to represent workers. Any attack on the FN is welcome, but the recent alliances prove that we cannot rely on the politicians and the courts to stop the FN. More important, the same politicians and courts which preside over high unemployment and growing bitterness cannot be relied on to solve the very problems which the FN nazis feed on.

While the level of polarization – and struggle – is sharpest in France, the picture is similar across Europe. In Germany, fascists are once again on the rise (the Chicago Tribune reported that hate crimes have increased from 254 in 1989 to 2,353 in 1996) at the same time that the mainstream right has fallen into decline and the majority of people are looking to the left.

If SPD leader Schroeder defeats Chancellor Helmut Kohl in German elections later this year, social democratic parties will have replaced long-entrenched conservative governments in Britain, France and Germany. And while the shift to the left in elections reflects workers’ disgust with decades of attacks under conservative rule, each of these politicians faces challenges that they will not be able to meet. After having agreed to the terms of the European Monetary Union, each leader is faced with the problem of how to squeeze workers who are already facing decades of declining wages and record-high unemployment rates. As the unemployed movement in France has shown, this will be no easy task.

The recent events in France show that an alternative is possible – an alternative that can stop the fascists, and can build on the sentiment for change that brought down the conservatives. The question that remains is whether socialists will rise to the challenge.

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