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Ian Birchall

A murky business

(April 1981)

From Socialist Review, 18 April-16 May 1981: 4, p.13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ian Birchall looks at the contenders for the French presidential elections

The persons who framed the constitution of the French Fifth Republic were no fools. Presidential elections every seven years, parliamentary elections every five years, both by direct universal suffrage. As a result France finds itself in an almost permanent pre-electoral situation.

As a result the forthcoming presidential elections (scheduled for April 26 and May 10) radiate nothing so much as boredom. The leading contenders – retiring president Giscard, Gaullist Chirac, Socialist Mitterrand and Communist Marchais – are all familiar faces who seem to have been around for a long time. Giscard’s probable victory (though polls suggest it could be a close-run thing) will come more from lack of enthusiasm at the alternative than from any positive merits in Giscard’s record.

When he was elected in 1974 Giscard promised to restore the economic balance of the country within thirty months. In fact, despite the much-publicised scandals (notably the Bokassa diamonds) which have characterised his regime, the most striking fact about Giscard’s seven years in office has been the consistent deterioration of the economy.

Over the last five years unemployment has doubled, reaching a figure of 1,680,000 at the beginning of this year. Inflation has risen from 9% to 14% a year over the same period. Meanwhile various social security allowances have been cut.

Giscard’s years of office have been marked, not only by new laws strengthening police powers, but by an alarming rise in the degree of brutality and open racism on the part of the police. And new laws have been introduced aiming at 200,000 repatriations of immigrant workers per year.

On an international level Giscard has continued to defend French imperialist interests in Africa. While he has been in power French troops have made military interventions in Mauritania, Zaire and Central Africa. In France’s West Indian colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique repression of nationalist movements continues.

Giscard’s failure to win the confidence of large sections of the French bourgeoisie is shown by the widespread support for Jacques Chirac, the candidate who claims the mantle of General de Gaulle (although, as always with dead prophets, there are rival claimants). He is promising to cut public spending by 30,000m francs (about £3,000m) in his first year in office.

Giscard’s greatest asset is the disarray of the reformist left. Never since the mid-sixties have relations between the Socialists and Communists been so bad, and rank-and-file trade union cooperation between militants of the two parties is often rendered almost impossible.

Mitterrand, who has just enough chance of winning to make him wary of promising much, is waging a largely negative campaign. He is concentrating on unemployment, the need for an alternative to Giscard, and France’s role in the world. While Mitterrand’s accusations that Giscard represents a privileged clique are undoubtedly true, there is nothing in Mitterrand’s policies that goes beyond the limits of a timorous nationalist reformism. Indeed, some of his sharpest criticisms of Giscard have centred on the fact that Giscard is not anti-Communist enough – that he was not quick enough in condemning the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

A left alternative

Marchais’ campaign, unhampered by any danger of victory, is marked by a demagogic leftism, aimed more at Mitterrand than Giscard. (Though Marchais’ populist image was somewhat dented by his recent inability, on television, to answer a question about the price of a Paris underground ticket). But above all the CPs policies are marked by deep nationalism; Marchais has called for the nationalisation of the Michelin company because it invests abroad. The CP’s recent campaigns against immigrants are, of course, notorious (the Moroccan CP has recently denounced the ‘racism’ of the French party). The other main plank of Marchais’ politics has been a slavish defence of Russian foreign policy – this too has taken a knock recently, as a result of an article in Pravda which spoke highly of Giscard’s record, especially in foreign policy.

The CP’s current sectarian line is causing problems in its own ranks. Scarcely a day goes by but Le Monde carries reports of CP members being’ expelled, resigning, or signing manifestos calling for radical changes in the party. While such activity is largely confined to the party’s intellectuals, there is evidence of deep discontent, which might erupt in more dramatic forms after a bad electoral result.

On the first round of the election, Mitterrand will probably get something over 20%, and Marchais between 15% and 20%. It is therefore obvious to anyone who can count that Mitterrand can only win on the second ballot if the CP vote switches behind him.

Both sides, however, are playing hard-to-get, and studiously refusing to enter into any negotiations. Marchais has refused to promise CP support on the second ballot while keeping his options open by saying that he may call for a vote for Mitterrand if the CP’s vote on the first round is high enough.

Marchais has been demanding that Mitterrand promise to include Communist ministers in his government. Mitterrand has, however, refused to have any truck with this, thereby usefully improving his appeal to the middle ground as a solid anti-Communist. Mitterrand simply hopes to get Communist’s votes without making any concessions. He will get some, but probably not enough.

The revolutionary left

Since the 1974 election the Giscard regime has introduced new electoral regulations. making it harder for candidates outside the political mainstream to run for the presidency. All candidates now need five hundred signatures from certain categories of elected officials – primarily mayors.

The only candidate of the revolutionary left who seems certain to run is Arlette Laguiller, of the Trotskyist organisation Lutte Ouvrière, who got over half a million votes in 1974. LO has a smoothly functioning apparatus, and is clearly more adept at chatting up mayors than anyone else on the left.

Unfortunately Laguiller’s campaign seems to be confined to the level of abstract propaganda. LO announces, quite correctly, that the workers should look to struggle, not the ballot-box – but fails to offer any advice as to how such struggle is to be developed. Moreover, the propaganda is not pitched at a very high political level. The main posters for the Laguiller campaign bear such slogans as: ‘To tell them some home truths, Arlette Laguiller’; ‘Arlette Laguiller, the plain-speaking of a woman of the people’ – and even ‘Arlette Laguiller, for all women.’

Alain Krivine, of the Ligue Communist Révolutionnaire, (French section of the Fourth International) is also hoping to stand again, as he did in 1969 and 1974, although the LCR seems to have had trouble finding friendly mayors over the last two or three months.

At the opposite pole from LO, the LCR is putting all its emphasis on the reformist parties. The LCR holds that the defeat of Giscard is a necessary ‘precondition for any significant rise in the level pf class struggle in France, and therefore is giving priority to the demand that the CP and Socialists shall agree to support the best-placed left candidate on the second round. This demand, while not incorrect in itself, seems to channel all the LCR’s propaganda into purely parliamentary forms. A typical LCR poster reads: ‘On the first round, Vote Against Giscard without voting for the splitters. Vote for Alain Krivine.’

In short, the French presidentials look like being a bitter harvest for all concerned – except Giscard d’Estaing.

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