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French Presidential Elections: Capitalism Wins

There were eleven candidates standing in the first round of the French Presidential Elections on 23 April, a mishmash of left and right-wing populists and establishment parties, ranging from the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle), the nationalist and anti-US Union Populaire Républicaine (Popular Republic Union), the Gaullist Debout La France (Stand Up France) which is anti-EU, the New Anti-Capitalist Party headed by a Ford factory worker, and Jacques Cheminade, a follower of the American conspiracy theorist, Lyndon LaRouche. As no candidate secured more than 50 percent of the votes the contest is going to a second round on 7 May.

What marks this election out from the others is that the main front runners were outsiders -- Marine Le Pen of the Front National, Emmanuel Macron with his new movement En Marche (On the Go) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the so-called hard Left candidate. What is also unprecedented is that, due to the deep unpopularity of his government, François Hollande decided not to stand again. Working class people are angry that their living standards are stagnating and at what they see as an indifferent and out of touch political elite. Unemployment is running at 10 percent (about 25 percent among 18 to 25-year-olds) of the workforce amidst a slow recovery from the 2008/2009 recession. Moreover, many are dissatisfied with the government's response to the recent terrorist incidents and there are concerns about immigration. This is not unique to France. We have seen how working class discontent has played a part in the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and in the vote for Brexit in the UK.

Because of Hollande's failure to resolve the social and economic problems of French capitalism, 'Socialist' Party members opted for Benoît Hamon, the more radical left winger, to be their party's candidate. His platform included a basic universal income, a tax on robots to pay for the retraining of workers that they replace, a tax on banks' 'super profits' and raising the minimum wage. However, he is trailing in the polls and did not make it to the second round.

Marine Le Pen worked tirelessly to rebrand the Front National as being more of a patriotic party than a fascistic one, with the same appeal as UKIP has in the United Kingdom, and even went as far as kicking her father out of the organisation. However, this has not precluded her from putting forward xenophobic proposals, such as giving priority to French nationals over non-nationals for jobs, houses and welfare and placing new restrictions on immigration. She is attempting to court the working class vote by promising to reduce the retirement age from 62 to 60 and reduce income tax for the lowest earners. She is anti-EU and pledges to renegotiate the terms of EU membership and hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU. A win for her could jeopardise the future of the EU and thus create instability within world markets.

François Fillon of the Les Républicains party was the favourite until he became embroiled in a financial scandal involving alleged payments to his wife for fake jobs. He was standing on a platform of austerity, pledging to reduce public spending and cut a half million public sector jobs. He wanted to increase the working week for some public sector employees, scrap the wealth tax, reduce corporation tax, raise the retirement age to 65 and put a cap on unemployment benefits.

Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister in François Hollande's government, claims that he is revolutionising French politics, but what he is proposing is pretty standard capitalist fare -- lower corporation tax, extending the working week for younger workers and reducing public spending by cutting 120,000 public sector jobs by 2022. He is pro-EU and says he is in favour of a more open France which accommodates cultural and ethnic diversity.

However, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was backed by the 'Communist' Party, was rapidly catching up in the polls and challenging the other front runners. His programme included reducing the working week to 32 hours, increasing the minimum wage and social security, raising taxes on the highest earners and re-negotiating the EU treaties. Like Le Pen, he pledged to reduce the retirement age to 60. That some of his policies were similar to those of the Front National is no accident. Both he and Le Pen were trying to woo the so-called 'left behinds', workers who have seen the demand for their skills eroded and their livelihoods disappear with the economic and technological changes of world capitalism.

Macron is the favourite, but Hillary Clinton was the favourite to win last year's US presidential and the pundits expected the Remain side to win last year's EU referendum in the UK. However, we can predict with confidence who the losers will be and that will be the working class. For all their differences and grand promises, the candidates did not challenge the capitalist system, that is the private and state ownership of the means of production and production for profit, they seek only to modify it. Once elected, their priority would have to be to ensure that French capitalism is competitive and profitable, and if, under certain conditions, this requires that social provisions are cut and workers are laid off, then so be it. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

OLIVER BOND