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The French elections: Mr Nasty wins

The recent round of elections in France resulted in the rout of the French Left. Were the workers wrong not to vote for them?

I wonder if you can still buy that little gadget which used to be sold in joke shops. It was a black plastic box with a slot on the top. You put a penny in the slot and it made a weird grinding sound which suggested that something amazing was about to happen. After about 15 seconds a small flap opened and a plastic hand flashed out and pulled the penny down into the box from which it could not be rescued.

Clunk!

The sudden shock of seeing one’s own credulity taken advantage of and the resulting gasp of recognition is what many people may have experienced after the French Presidential electoral campaign in May. Nicolas Sarkozy – a kind of Gallic equivalent of Margaret Thatcher – is now in power for the next five years. France is no longer the exception in Europe.

Strangely enough although he managed to gain a large slice of the working-class vote, Sarkozy actually promised very little to the workers. Indeed he can be counted on to increase exploitation, unemployment and poverty. The reformist “Socialist Party” (PS) represented by Ségolène Royal promised a hell of a lot more but the voters seemed unconvinced.

As always the presidential election was presented by some as an almighty struggle between Left and Right with Sarkozy quite effectively playing the role of Mr Nasty. By contrast, Ségolène Royal proved to be completely ineffective. Her insipid and uninspired version of social reformism fooled no-one. To make matter worse, she presented herself in interviews as someone with a calling, an instrument of destiny. (Well, she does come from the same area as Joan of Arc).

For his supporters Sarkozy was represented as the epitome of modernity, economic liberalism, dynamism, and Blairism. His early morning jogging sessions contrasting with the more sedate political tradition of the conservatives in the party he inherited from Jacques Chirac. Royal was castigated for having expressed the outdated values of the Left, public sector immobilism, heavy taxes, anti-americanism and (dont laugh) Marxism.

So much for the media Punch and Judy stuff. In reality this was a typical election under modern capitalism. Media constructed stereotypes, disinformation, mystification and rumour crowded out reasoned argument and the impartial presentation of the facts. In the final analysis, the differences between the candidates were often minimal.

European Constitution

Anyone who knows anything about French politics knows that the real agenda of the election was the European Constitution problem. Because of growing distrust of an increasingly free-market Europe, the projected constitution originally dreamed up by Giscard DEstaing was thrown out in a referendum in 2005. Besides being a set-back for capitalist politicians bent on creating a single competitive space to counter the other big capitalist nations, this was an issue which neatly divided the PS into two groups, the pro-constitution leadership and the anti-constitution left-wing with its popular base.

As a result Royal was obliged to promise yet another referendum on the issue whilst Sarkozy promised to negotiate a mini-constitution which would be ratified by parliament, short-circuiting the scruffy Euro-sceptics who were inevitably enough presented as extremists. With Royals idea being a clear non-starter, the capitalist money was clearly on Sarkozy from the start, all the more since Sarkos treaty could be ratified with the social aspects of the constitution edited out.

One of Sarkos first moves after the election therefore was to meet Angela Merkel to talk about the issue. With Merkels government currently putting the German welfare state on a slimfast diet with active help from the Social Democrats this is one obstacle out of the way. In Britain, Sarko can count on New Labours dyed-in-the-wool opposition to a social Europe.

As for French PS, well, their Mr Europe Jean-Pierre Jouyet has just joined Sarkos government. He was already on a train to Brussels on 15 May and nobody is calling him a traitor to the socialist cause (not even Royal, a close personal friend)

Thirty-five hour week

With the one really important electoral issue for the capitalist class out of the way, the secondary but routine issues of screwing the working-class called for more expeditive methods.

Shortly after the election the various trade union leaders could be seen going to see the new President one by one. (Trade union unity is not fashionable in France. Each union leader was interviewed separately.)

Wearing the pinched faces of tribal chieftains invited to meet the new colonial administrator, the leaders attempted to gain a little negotiating leeway from a government which is fully committed to ramming home some pretty unpopular measures: restrictions on the right to strike, more flexible employment contracts, attacks on public sector retirement pensions, restrictions on entitlement to unemployment benefits etc.

Strangely enough, there was never any question of abolishing the 35-hour week; the flagship reform of the Jospin government, despite the fact that the conservatives had been moaning about how it penalized (their) business interests for the last five years. In fact, because the 35-hour week permitted capitalists to modulate working hours to meet fluctuations, it gave the employers the flexibility they needed to meet fluctuations in demand at low cost.

This issue did however allow Sarkozy to propose the defiscalization of overtime as a solution to the problem of a low and falling standard of living: ‘work more to earn more ‘being the slogan. Not everyone was taken in by this idea. After all, overtime already tends to be paid at a higher rate and it’s the bosses who decide the working week anyway. And it’s difficult to see how this could be a solution to the deep-seated unemployment problem of the French economy. Joblessness is currently running at 9 percent.

Other measures introduced by Sarko include the usual neo-liberal medicine of tax breaks for the rich, the reduction of taxes on inheritance, and - a lollipop to the so-called middle-classes - tax allowances for workers with mortgages. The problem is that all these gifts have to be paid out of a state budget severely limited by the heavy and growing national debt currently equivalent to 60% of GNP. The solution is the so-called ‘social VA.’, the idea of shifting the burden onto the population as a whole remembering that the workers spend proportionately more on consumer goods than the wealthy.

Were the workers stupid?

Of course, it’s tempting to see in the election of Sarko yet another illustration of the stupidity and blindness of the workers. This theme is doing the rounds right now together with the Leninist theme of the need for an enlightened leadership.

Why didn’t the workers vote for their proclaimed friends on the Left who promised them so much more? Why did they vote for their open class enemies?

In fact, on the European issue, as we have seen, Sarko and Sego probably shared a lot more than they are prepared to admit. Royal’s party led by Jospin accepted a European agreement which committed France to raising the official retirement age to 65 though this has yet to be take place.

It could be argued that the ‘social VAT’ issue is conclusive proof of the stupidity of the French workers. But here, of course, there has been deliberate deception by the Sarkozy government. The measure was in fact deliberately downplayed by ministers until Fabius, a former French Prime Minister in the Mitterrand government, craftily winkled it out of the economics minister on TV.(This is already causing chaos in the government’s presentation of its ‘reforms’)

On the other hand, Fabius will be well aware that this type of regressive tax is currently being practiced by the coalition government in Germany. It therefore has the official backing of the Social Democrats, the European allies of the French PS.

As for the defiscalization of overtime issue this has to be placed in context. The PS’s 35-hour week has proved to be very unpopular with production line workers who now find their leisure periods moved around at the whim of their employer in a way which is often totally destructive of family life. Many have also suffered from stagnant wages as a result of these changes. The promise of more work for more pay clearly appeals to workers who are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet.

Royal’s electoral programme was a barely credible wish-list of social reforms, many of them very desirable in themselves: slightly higher minimum wages, more money for hospitals, universities, schools, better pensions and so on. However when she was asked what miracle ingredient was going to be used to finance her programme (somewhat compromised by the profligate State spending of the last 25 years and the resulting heavy national debt) she mentioned ‘growth’ on the assumption that the French economy was just waiting for a nod from the left to get its arse into gear. In actual fact, whoever won the election a period of working-class belt-tightening was clearly inevitable and only a fool could believe in the promises of the P.S.

But if the official reformists in the PS were prepared to make the most unreasonable promises in order to get elected, the Leninist left was hardly less extravagant. And here there were three official Trotskyist candidates competing with the Communist Party to make bigger promises. All of them promised better public services, higher wages, better pensions and a reduction in unemployment presumably on the assumption that capitalism existed simply for the benefit of the workers. Few took them seriously.

In the end, Sarkozy’s triumph was largely due to the confidence which people place in capitalist politicians of both Left and Right. Sarko’s programme, which will not in any way satisfy the expectations of the workers who voted for him, seemed almost purpose-built to create a hysterical leftwing reaction. Because the Mr Nasty image presented by Sarkozy provided only a very wispy smoke-screen behind which the Left could hide its manifold weaknesses, the Right had a strategic advantage from the start.

But then again this is the way elections always take place in capitalism. Voter invest a lot of hope in the mystifying images that are placed before them. There is a lot of noise and movement, a feeling of anticipation.

And then the penny drops.

MALCOLM MANSFIELD