1990s >> 1997 >> no-1115-july-1997

The B team takes over

France’s conservative president, Chirac, called early elections in May and June in the hope of winning five more years in office for his supporters. The voters, however, refused to oblige and elected instead a left-wing government. Chirac remains president but has to cohabit with a government under a “Socialist” Prime Minister and with “Communist” and Green Party ministers.

Needless to say, the new Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, is no more a socialist than Mitterand was. His misnamed “Parti Socialiste” stands for a reformed capitalism not a society of common ownership and production for use not profit. Like the Labour Party in Britain, it is the B team to take over governing capitalism in France when the conservatives are tired or discredited.

Even so, the French PS fought the election on a programme that would have made Gordon Brown’s hair stand on end: increasing the minimum wage, reducing the existing 39-hour week to 35 hours with no loss of pay, 700.000 new jobs in the state and semi-state sector. In other words, unlike New Labour, which has got the message that such a reformist policy won’t work, the PS still believes—at least for vote-catching purposes—that a government can reduce unemployment by spending its way out of a slump.

A disturbing feature of the election was the vote for Le Pen’s Front National. It got 3.8 million votes, or 15 percent of those who voted, its highest ever score in a general election, even though—thanks to France’s two-round election system designed to ensure that MPs are representative of a majority of voters—it only got one seat. Since 38 million people aged 18 or over are eligible to vote in France, this means that one out of every ten French citizens voted for a party led by a fascist and open anti-semite.

As fascism is a reaction to the failure of democratic reformism to make capitalism work in the interests of the majority, where alienated workers mistakenly blame parliamentary democracy or some minority group instead of capitalism for their problems, this is a warning of the further dangers that could like ahead if workers continue to put their hopes in democratic reform of capitalism rather than socialism.

Some commentators have seen the election of the Jospin government as making a single European currency less likely. This is based on the assumption that the new government will honour its election promises and try to spend its way out of the crisis. This would indeed undermine the value of the franc and inaugurate a period of European monetary instability which would make the introduction of a single currency impossible.

The last time a French government tried to spend its way out of a slump was after Mitterand’s election as president in 1981. As we Socialists predicted, it was an utter failure because the capitalist economy is driven by profits, and the prospect of making them, not by government spending, which in the end is a charge on profits.

What happened was that the extra government spending was financed largely by inflating the currency. This undermined the competitiveness of French capitalist industry and led to three devaluations of the franc in an 18-month period. In the end, the austerity policy of the previous government was re-imposed, and tightened. It was one of the most spectacular failures of reformism in recent years.

If the Jospin government does adopt the same policy as in 1981 the commentators will be right. A more likely scenario, however, is the new government explaining that its election promises were only long-term goals, to be achieved within the framework of a united Europe, etc., etc., and carrying on with more or less the same economic policy as the previous government, as Blair and Brown are doing in Britain

Adam Buick