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France: Front de Gauche calls huge march against austerity, for democratic renewal

Jean-Luc Mélenchon addresses the May 5, 2013, mobilisation in Paris. Part 2 below.

By Dick Nichols

May 11, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On May 5, the largest left protest ever against the policies of a French Socialist Party (PS) government took place in Paris. To the stirring sounds of the protest anthem “On Lâché Rien (“We Don’t Give In”), up to 180,000 workers, pensioners, unemployed and students marched from the Bastille to Place de la Nation.

They were demanding an end to economic austerity and for a democratic Sixth Republic that would overturn the present Fifth Republic, which is dominated by corrupt and entrenched financial and political elites. The symbol of the march was the kitchen broom, for the “clean sweep of this insufferable political atmosphere”, called for by Front de Gauche (Left Front) leader and 2012 presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

On the day tens of thousands marched with brooms or brushes in hand.

Mélenchon first initiated the idea of the protest after the explosion of the “Cahuzac affair” in early April. This blew up when now-disgraced budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac finally came clean and confessed that his denials that he had maintained a tax-dodging Swiss bank account were simply lies.

After some give-and-take among the Left Front’s nine affiliated organisations, May 5 was called as a “Citizen’s march for the Sixth Republic—against finance and austerity”. Participants were obviously protesting against the systemic corruption revealed by the Cahuzac scandal. But their anger was most of all directed at the total failure of Socialist Party president François Hollande and the government of prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to counteract the austerity imposed by a European Commission, operating under the German hegemony of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) government of Angela Merkel.

In the words of a popular chant on the day: “We didn’t vote for that!”

A year ago PS candidate Hollande won the presidency on a platform promising growth, jobs and action against “finance”. That particular Hollande went missing in inaction almost immediately, as the French economy headed towards recession and official unemployment rose from 10% to 11%. Youth unemployment has hit 26.9%, with 900,000 young people in France neither working nor studying.

Comments by marchers (as reported by Mediapart, Liberation and Le Monde) reflect bitter disappointment with Hollande’s record:

Holland has gone on his knees before MEDEF [the main employer organisation]. It’s a catastrophe, a blatant heap of bullshit. I was expecting nothing, but this, it’s worse than nothing. -- Xavier Mathieu, worker leader at Continental factory at Clairoix, site of three-year struggle against “restructuring”.

I would never have expected to see Rom people with their caravans being chased off the streets in the middle of winter, nor unionists from factories in struggle being driven back with rubber bullets by the riot squad while protesting outside the headquarters of the financial institutions that close down their workplace… Damn this Fifth Republic, which stops ordinary citizens from being heard and breeds a caste of crooks who stash away millions while we battle to put aside twenty quid. -- Jeanne, self-employed taxi driver.

I didn’t choose the PS and do paste-ups for it … to see it vote as quickly as possible for the national deal on labour market reform [between two minority union confederations and MEDEF].” – Socialist Party member.

Taking back the street

There was another important motive for May 5: the need to counter the mobilisations of the right and far-right (now in ever more open alliance) against the government’s “marriage for all” law.

This reactionary offensive is linked to the continuing and alarming rise in support for the xenophobic National Front (FN). A Future Thinking France poll taken in early May showed that if a presidential election were held today it would result is a run-off between former president Nicolas Sarkozy and FN leader Marine Le Pen!

If François Fillon were the conservative candidate instead of Sarkozy the run-off would be between Le Pen and either Fillon or Mélenchon.

In effect, the unprecedented collapse in support for Hollande (down to 23% support in the latest poll, with only 9% support among workers) is unleashing a massive struggle for the hearts and minds of millions of disillusioned and angry people.

“We came up to Paris so the French could see workers, wage earners who cop it in the neck from finance, not homophobes”, said a General Confederation of Labour (CGT) delegate from Fos-sur-Mer (near Marseille).

A Le Monde reporter interviewing protesters driving to Paris in a bus from the Loire valley got a similar response from a community service worker: “I fear the worst, an explosion of violence in the country. People say: ‘It’s time to smash up everything.’ You can feel the anger growing everywhere. We mustn’t let people think that the only alternative to the PS is to link up with the right, i.e., the extreme right. The situation has gotten so bad than many voters who have been waiting a year for change are now wanting to turn towards Marine Le Pen. Those people are going to be hard to convince. That’s why we’ve got to be there in droves today.”

Workers

A feature of the march was the presence of workers from the big workplaces resisting restructuring, with contingents from the steel industry of the Lorraine, Renault, Unilever and Air France featured near the head of the march. They gave it a fighting tone.

Notable, too, were crowds of disappointed young people who had voted for Hollande with hope and enthusiasm a year before. Not all were Mélenchon supporters, whose unrelenting verbal attacks on the PS grate with some. But, in the opinion of PS supporters Clémentine and Noémie it was “important” to participate in the large march of citizens; they would have liked to see more PS members and office-holders come out openly about their real sentiments about the course of the PS government, “because there are socialists here in the street, that’s for sure”.

Also present, alongside the mass of Left Front supporters and its affiliate organisations was a broader range of political forces, including some leading members of the Greens (EELV), along with its 2012 presidential candidate Eva Joly, as well as other ecological organisations.

The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), which supported the march as a protest against the Hollande government’s austerity policies, while opposing the Left Front call for a Sixth Republic, was also out in force.

Sandra Demarcq explained the NPA position in an April 25 article in the NPA paper Tout Est à Nous: “The Left Front conceives this new republic as an assembly-based regime within the framework of bourgeois institutions conceived in order to manage this system … the necessary breakthrough, based on the mobilisation and involvement of the greatest number, is not at the heart of the process of the Left Front …

“Our approach is that of a democratic and social republic which breaks with capitalism and its institutions … That is the meaning we give to our presence on the street on May 5.”

On his blog Mélenchon compared the emotion of the march to a huge 2005 protest in the successful campaign for a “no” vote in the French referendum on the European constitution. “What could be seen and felt, in a way that was so contagious and to the point of jubilation, was the joyful character of the march. …This joy was a sign of the high level of everyone’s political consciousness at the stakes involved in our success. I’ve already had innumerable proofs of that in the conversations on the social networks and in the force of the replies given to the crude belittling by the media … The great majority of those who came knew they were taking part in an unprecedented event. And that this demonstration of force one year after the second round of a presidential election contained a political message of primary importance.”

Socialist Party attacks

The turnout was a victory against all the forces trying to portray any mobilisation against the Ayrault administration as a gift for the right. This was not only the predictable line from government ministers but also of some within the EELV, which has two posts in the Ayrault cabinet.

Mélenchon in particular has been the target of increasing PS fire. A “theoretician of chaos”, according to interior minister Manuel Valls. The Left Front leader was also the target of attacks by PS secretary Harlem Désir and government spokeperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem on the day before the march.

For Vallaud-Belkacem, the clean sweep proposed by the Left Front candidate “by itself sums up the political impotence of which Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the bearer”. Contrasting the government’s “pragmatic reforms which aim to changes the lives of the French” to Mélenchon’s “outbursts”, she concluded that “through his big catchphrases he unfortunately does nothing but stir up a breeze”.

For Désir, Mélencon’s “exasperation” would lead to frustration without outlet, undermining the need for “the whole left” to act together for jobs and social justice.

In a sign of its bunker mentality, the government and the SP leadership has taken to describing Mélenchon and the Left Front as “far left”. The point of this tactic is to exacerbate tensions within the Left Front, working especially on the nerves of the Communist Party (PCF). This, the main force in the alliance, has abandoned its traditional perception of the PS as its preferred potential ally but many of its municipal organisations still govern in coalition with the PS.

Yet abusing the Left Front as “radical left” is unlikely to work, for the simple fact that the Ayrault government remains bent on its neoliberal course, implementation of which is the price of a recent relaxation by the European Commission of France’s national public deficit reduction target.

On the day after the march Ayrault went so far as to deny that austerity even existed in France (despite implementing the biggest national budget cuts since World War II) and took the opportunity to announce plans for the partial privatisation of state industries.

On the same day Valls calculatedly stated that the May 5 convergence had only attracted 30,000 — a crude attempt to provoke Mélenchon into an outburst that could be used against him within PS ranks and the left more broadly.

What next?

Will May 5 mark a change in French politics? For the Left Front the answer depends on whether the dynamic of the day can be developed and deepened. May 5 certainly marked an important first step in expanding support beyond the frontiers reached by Mélenchon’s presidential election campaign, but much remains to be done.

On May 6, the Left Front announced its program of follow-up activities. These include a May 16 demonstration outside parliament in support of two Left Front legislative initiatives (a “social amnesty” for all union and social activists facing criminal prosecution and a ban on sackings by firms paying share dividends); expansion of citizens’ marches across regional France on June 1-2; a June 9 women’s march against austerity in Paris and a June 16 conference to discuss the content of a Sixth Republic, a proposal that originated with PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent.

The role of the conference will be, in Mélenchon’s words, to “prepare the foundation of a program which can bring together the forces for a popular left alternative to the Ayrault government.”

The fightback dynamic unleashed on May 5 was acknowledged by all forces on the left. Former NPA spokesperson Olivier Becancenot described it as a “great demonstration of the anti-government left”. Even those like Lutte Ouvriere who denounce Mélenchon as “trying to rerun the same scenario” as Hollande (“with thundering speeches and promises he knows can’t be realised”) acknowledged its force.

That day the parts of Mélenchon’s speech that were most applauded were those dealing with the need for a democratic Sixth Republic enshrining participation, responsibility of representatives and the right of recall. All left forces are now challenged to define their concrete relation to the process of constituting a Sixth Republic.

The fact that Jean-François Copé the leader of the main conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), called on May 4, for a “new 1958” (a reference to General de Gaulle’s coup d’etat that ended the Fourth Republic and ushered in the Fifth), was a surely reminder to everyone that the struggle for democracy lies at the very heart of the battle against neoliberal austerity.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewals European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article also appeared in Green Left Weekly.]

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