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Beating Sarko

Wednesday 2 May 2007, by Mouvements (independant journal of the left)

After the first round of balloting in the French presidential election, how can we evaluate the political dynamics now at work? Why are we convinced that – whatever our reservations – we must do everything in our power to assure the victory of Ségolène Royal in the second round?

1. In a time of generalized suspicion of politicians and parties, and in spite of a high percentage of undecided voters just before the polling, the very high level of participation (83.7% of registered voters) shows that the trend of rising abstention in recent elections does not necessarily mean that French citizens are beating an individualistic retreat from politics, nor that they are uninterested. The deep current of politicization now crossing French society can be seen in the ballot box but also, sometimes, in the streets. However, today’s politicization is dissociated from any sentiment of organizational belonging; parties play a much lesser role than before as channels of communication between the political system and civil society. As Mouvements has been saying for a long time, it is urgent to invent new political and organizational forms.

2. Once again, the rules for direct election of an all-powerful president, keystone of the French political system, are revealing their perverse effects: the excessive personalization of the campaign and the triumph of “politics-as-spectacle”; the pressure to “vote useful” which limits the emergence of new political alternatives, etc. Decidedly, these rules need to be reformed significantly. The president should be more of a moral authority presiding over the institutions than a monarch of the republic.

Fortunately for the left, the political balance of forces is not measured only by the presidential election, as demonstrated by the broad mobilization against the CPE (a youth work contract scheme) in the spring of 2006, the recent rise of the global justice movement, or, in a more ambiguous way, the referendum on the European constitutional treaty (May 2005).

3. With roughly 36% of the vote, the left, all tendencies included, has registered its lowest score in decades. This defeat is all the more marked in that, despite the sharp drop in the score of the far-right FN (National Front), this party still registers in double figures (10.4%) while Nicolas Sarkozy embodies a more distinctly reactionary stance than Jacques Chirac. A victory by Sarkozy on May 6th would have every chance of reinforcing nationalistic, xenophobie, machista and authoritarian tendencies in French society.

Not content to capture the vote of many Le Pen supporters, Sarkozy has also drawn inspiration from Le Pen’s style, his political culture and even his program, thus provoking a significant chance in the discourse of the republican right. He proclaims his intention to bring about a Thatcher-like revolution, and although he is not certain to be able to impose this on French society, the risk must be taken seriously.

It would be an illusion to believe that a more resolutely left-wing orientation would have allowed the Socialist Party to attract more support. We need to keep in mind the profound effects of three decades of increasingly precarious status for workers, the loss of credibility of the programs and organizational modes of the left, as well as the crisis of collective identities, at a time when the cohesion of the nation is relativized by the state decentralization and European integration, while Europe has not yet replaced the nation as a pole of political identification.

4. The Socialist Party has gained momentum over the past months. It has recruited tens of thousands of new members; its mobilizations have been strong; and the score of its candidate – 25:9% – is quite respectable. However, much of this support was due to the pressure to “vote useful”. Under the impetus of Ségolène Royal, a significant ideological renovation has been undertaken within the party. To date, however, its content has been confused and its coherence has yet to be found. It is marked by some progressive tendencies (for example, on state institutions and on ecology) and by other, more conservative ones (for example, on security and on schools), while its economic vision hovers between Blairism and the Scandinavian model.

Ségolène Royal has not succeeded in reconciling the “outsider” image that brought her initial popularity with the status of official candidate of her party. Above all, social democracy has been unable to establish hegemony over a political space of sufficient dimensions to capitalize on the latent discontent of the French people and promote a credible alternative.

5. The organizations of the “left of the left” have missed an historic opportunity in this election, two years after the “no” vote on the European constitutional treaty and a year after the revolt against the CPE (youth work contract). For reasons we need to examine, it ceded to division – four separate candidacies – and were thus unable to adopt a coherent strategy vis-à-vis the Socialist Party. They are, for the most part, way behind in renewing their world view and their political program. For example, it has not seriously evaluated the conditions and consequences of a real break with neoliberalism and they hide too often behind comfortable slogans that give the impression that the costs would be low. They have been, on the whole, incapable of weighing into the public debate.

The 4% score of Olivier Besancenot [32-year-old postal worker and candidate of the LCR – Revolutionary Communist League], relatively high in a context of pressure for a useful vote, can by no means constitute the basis for a future recomposition of the left, given this organization’s strategy. In the absence of a very broad social movement, it is difficult to see how this situation could change.

While the LCR may continue to manage its capital of support, the PCF (French Communist Party, whose candidate Marie-Georges Buffet scored only 1.9%) seems likely to continue its agony. The candidacy of José Bové, representing the global justice movement, got under way very late and was in itself symptomatic of the failure of the “left of the left” to unify.

The successes of the Besancenot campaign, and to a lesser extent that of José Bové, are not likely to change the overall picture. Compared to the mass support for the Communist Party up to the 1980s, or even to the emergence of the global justice movement in recent years, they are not very significant.

As for the Greens, divided and lacking in credibility (their candidate Dominique Voynet, scored only 1.5%), they are faced with either lasting marginalization, satellite status with respect to the Socialists, or a withdrawal to “fundamentalist” ecological positions. Ecological questions are of greater urgency than ever, but it by no means certain that the Greens themselves will continue to play a central role in articulating them.

In the foreseeable future, the left of the left and the Greens will no doubt be able to play an important role in certain mobilizations, but it will take extraordinary efforts on their part to shift in their direction the center of gravity of political debate and struggle in France.

6. On the other hand, with his score of 18.5%, François Bayrou, centrist candidate of the UDF (Union pour la démocratie française), does stand a chance of modifying the panorama of French politics in a lasting way. The UMP’s attempt, a few years ago, to hijack the center has clearly backfired. Bayrou’s perseverance in resisting takeover – first representing only a tiny minority and now nearly a fifth of the electorate – makes it seem likely that this effort will not be stopped by a few reversals. By installing the center as a force distinct from the right (half its voters come from the left), Bayrou has made it a potentially pivotal location of the political system, for the second round of balloting on May 6th and beyond. (If a dose of proportional representation were to be introduced into the legislative election process, as Bayrou wishes, this would help to stabilize the center more durably.)

The current emergence of the center cannot in this respect be compared to that of the FN (National Front) in the 1990s, since the far-right FN was not able to negotiate any significant political alliances. Since the Socialists have no more potential allies of influence on its left, they will be obliged to open up strategic negotiations concerning an alliance with the center, which is after all the norm in several other European countries. Many on the left are likely to see this development as a major step backward from a renewal of the plural left, but it could be replied that the Socialists have little choice; in any case, the process is already under way.

7. These tendencies do not spell good news for the left. However, the defeat Sarkozy could limit the damage. A Royal presidency would not automatically open the way to a renewal of the perspectives of the left, but it would increase its chances to weigh in with proposals for a broad institutional reform and a rehabilitation of politics through a promotion of new practices; to promote a new project for Europe which the citizens themselves can finally begin to appropriate; to supersede the alternative between neoliberal economic policies the status quo of a largely obsolete and unjust welfare state; to transform social relations through a real policy of struggle against inequalities and discriminations and the recognition of diversity in French society; to radically transform the prevailing mode of economic growth, taking into account ecological challenges. The task may be difficult, but the electoral defeat is not inevitable. Whatever else we may think of the personality and program of the Socialist candidate, there should be no hesitation in supporting her on May 6th in order to defeat Sarkozy.

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