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The truth about the French elections

The Marxian is not surprised to find, after a study of the French general election at close quarters, that on making abstraction of all that is really “local colour”, there is a remarkable similarity between the troubles that afflict the “movement” here and those which impede the Cause in England. So much so, indeed, that one is inclined to doubt that France is so much ahead of England in Socialist matters as many would have us believe. Now that the dust raised by the electoral campaign has settled, it is possible to see things more clearly, and a brief outline of the election from the Socialist standpoint may help readers of the SOCIALIST STANDARD to make useful comparisons with the last general election in England.

The first noticeable feature of the campaign was the confusion that reigned in the matter of the number of candidates and the programs for which they professed to stand. The second ballot encourages a plethora of candidates, and most of them appeared to have the same weird combination of the word Socialist among their confessions of faith. But all is not gold that glitters. The commonness of the name is cynically balanced by the rareness of the thing. Indeed, when reactionary cabinet ministers such as Briand, Millerand, and Viviani, lay claim to the name, it is hardly necessary to indicate further the extreme looseness with which the word Socialist is used here.

After some search I discovered among the maze of “Republican Socialists”, “Radical Socialists” , and what not, some who bore the name of “Unified Socialists”, or candidates of the Unified Socialist Party. But as I had already learnt that this party includes such diverse tendencies as those of the anti-Parliamentary Hervé and the Radical Breton, the confusion was scarcely dissipated. Moreover the “Unified Socialists” were sometimes opposed by a revolutionary Socialist candidate, and sometimes supported by Radical and Republican committees. Clearly, then, the fact of being a candidate of the Unified Party was no guarantee of Socialist soundness.

I turned to the manifestos and addresses, and found that the Manifesto of the Unified Party, though it opened excellently with an intelligible statement of the Socialist position, ended wretchedly by tailing off into a supreme insistence on the immediate importance of trumpery reforms such as Proportional Representation. This was also the keynote of many of the election addresses of the “Unified” candidates.

Marcel Sembat, for instance, who was elected outright at the first ballot for the quarter of Montmatre in which I am living, made a great point of Electoral Reform, and his posters on the walls during the election showed him to be most anxious to show how faithful a supporter of the Republic he had been, and how unjust was the insinuation that he was revolutionary or extremist. It is also worth noting that after the first ballot, Sembat and Willm, both staunch “Unified” representatives, wrote a joint letter in support of the candidature of the Patriotic Radical budget-faker, Doumer (who was nevertheless defeated). This infraction of the principle of the class struggle appears to have occasioned little surprise. Moreover, I could fill a page of the S.S. with instances to hand where “Unified” candidates have thrown all Socialist principle to the winds in their desire to get elected.

The closing of the first ballot opened the grand periods of deals and arrangements. In the politick journals such as L’Humanité, details were given day by day of “Socialist” candidates retiring in favour of Radicals and vice versa, side by side with more welcome declarations from other districts of the maintenance if propagandist Socialist candidatures against all comers. The fortnight between the two ballotings is a time of desperate and undignified bargaining practically all round; and many who fought straight at the first, fought crooked at the second.

Some so-called Socialist organisations in England have the second ballot on their programs. Here, where the second ballot exists, nearly everyone curses it, with the confusion of candidatures and the unprincipled barter of the votes received at the first ballot that it encourages. When the members of the French Socialist Party refer to the sacrifice of principle and the compromising deals now so common, they usually blame the individual candidature by arrondissement and the second ballot, and declare that the only remedy is regional proportional representation and vote by party list. Hence practically all the candidates of the Unified Party, instead of standing by Socialism as their sole and sufficient program, gave great prominence to this electoral reform; urging (in common with the Radicals) that it would abolish the confusion, corruption, and irresponsibility of the present system, and encourage the growth of great responsible parties free from the entangling alliances and personal squabbles now so general.

The result of the second ballot was a score for proportional representation and the Unified Party, who gained 23 seats, while the reactionaries gained some and the Radicals lost fairly heavily. The “independent Socialists” suffered so many losses that it is said that practically all that remains of the group is in the Cabinet.

The radicals are so reduced in numbers as to make it almost impossible for them to govern alone. It is significant that they are reckoning on the support of a large section of the “Unified” group, while at the same time they are covering the straighter section with vituperation. Evidently the Radicals are not the dupes of the factitious unity of the “Unified” Party.

The number of deputies elected under the auspices of the French Socialist Party was 76; but one may well ask, is it a Socialist victory?

At all events the electorate is disgusted with the present vote by arrondissement and the corruption and confusion associated with it, and the “Unified” candidates, championing Proportional Representation, profited accordingly. The measure passed by the last Chamber raising the remuneration of deputies to 15,000 francs a year also brought votes to the Unified Party. It is interesting to note that this “reform” was passed into law within a few days, whereas the miserable contributive scheme of old age pensions which gives threepence a day to those contributors who unfortunately live to the age of 65, dragged from session to session, and was only passed into law on the eve of the election. The old age pension swindle, and the eagerness of the deputies to raise their own salaries, roused much indignation. The mover of the resolution for increased pay to deputies was defeated, as were others intimately connected with the measure. The “Unified” members at least criticised the pensions, and for the most part opposed the increased salaries, consequently this brought grist to the Unified mill, while the callous brutality of the Radical chiefs in shooting down workers added still more. Doubtless this does not account for all the increase in the “Unified vote”. An indeterminate portion is probably due to the trend toward the “left” that is intermittently observed among workers the world over. However, the “Unified” vote presents a feature that should not be overlooked. In Paris and the department of the Seine, where socialism is sometimes said to be strongest in France, the Unified Party suffered a check. Several seats were lost and the vote decreased. This the Unified candidates themselves attributed to discontent within the party. In some places “Unified” candidates were opposed by revolutionary Socialists on account of their compromising tactics, and determined efforts were made in many quarters to secure the defeat of, not only traitors without the party, such as the “Independent Socialists”, but also traitors within, such as Brousse, whose defeat no Socialist will regret. The fact that in these circumstances several majorities were reduced and several seats lost gives some support to the cynical paradox that the real Socialist victories were the “Socialist” defeats!

The Anarchists made some attempt at organised agitation by means of posters, but appear to have had little influence on the result, though some of their criticisms were quite justified.

The General Confederation of Labour was quiescent during the elections, though it was to have had its fling on May Day. The committee of the Unions des Syndicats de la Seine proclaimed an unauthorised demonstration on May 1st in the Bois de Boulogne. Immediately the Radical Government, with the renegade Briand at its head, gave strict orders to the soldiery and police to crush any attempt at demonstration, even issuing warnings to the public to keep away from the Bois in order that there may be no “innocent victims”.

The “Confederation” (which is really only an irresponsible committee of the French federation of trade unions - too often bossed by men obsessed with the illusion of the efficacy of the active minority) had on May Day another example of the futility of the idea that it only requires a minority to be intelligent and active in order to entrain the mass. The Federation found, as it has often found of late, that the active minority was not followed. Moreover it became terrorised at the murderous preparations that were being made. It sent a deputation to the Ministry at the eleventh hour asking permission to demonstrate. Briand flatly refused. The committee of the Confederation then countermanded the demonstration, and a special number of L’Humanité was published at eleven on Sunday morning appealing to the public not to go to the Bois to give the Government the opportunity for bloodshed that it sought, but to promenade on the Boulevards. The result was a calm May Day, honoured by an imposing show of armed force both on the Boulevards and in the Bois de Boulogne. It was sufficient to convert any anti-Parliamentarian. Besides innumerable police 20,000 troops were mobilised and Paris was almost in a state of siege. Where were the followers of the Confederation? It was not the proletariat, but the Government that demonstrated this May Day in Paris! Evidently Briand had his eye on the political barometer, for the 1st of May occurred between the two ballots of the election. In order to regain at the second ballot some of the ground lost by his party to the reactionaries at the first, Briand endeavoured to restore the confidence of the bourgeoisie in him by being more reactionary than the “reactionaries”. Sad to say, in spite of this there have admittedly been numerous shameful alliances and arrangements between “Unified” candidates and these same sanguinary anti-proletarian Radicals under the excuse of Republican discipline! Need I say more?

F.C.W.
(Socialist Standard, June 1910)