French politics after the fall of Sarkozy

A young supporter of the Front de Gauche (Left Front).

By Murray Smith

June 7, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- After long months of campaigning, the French presidential election came to a close on the evening of May 6. As predicted, the victor, and therefore seventh president of the Fifth Republic, was Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande. However, the margin of victory, at 51.6 per cent to 48.4 per cent, was narrow, and closer than any of the polls had foreseen.

So France now has a new president and a new government, presided over by long-time Hollande ally and Socialist Party stalwart Jean-Marc Ayrault and composed of members of the Socialist Party and its Green and left radical allies. Of course, this government has necessarily an interim character, since it does not have a majority in parliament. Whether it wins one or not will be decided in parliamentary elections to be held in two rounds on June 10 and 17.

Election campaign

First of all, let us look at the lessons of the election campaign, which began in earnest last autumn, and moved into top gear in January. (Although Nicolas Sarkozy only officially launched his campaign in February, he had in fact, using his status as incumbent, already been campaigning for months). Hollande and Sarkozy were from the beginning the obvious front runners. Hollande began the contest with an opinion poll giving him a 39- to 24-point lead over Sarkozy, but that steadily declined over the following months. Sarkozy’s biggest problem, which he never succeeded in overcoming, was his unpopularity among wide layers of society after five years in office. That was also a permanent advantage for Hollande. But it was never going to be sufficient.

Hollande had to try and come across as positive, while on the other hand seeking to avoid making too many firm commitments. When he launched his program in January he affirmed his “determination to master finance”. He later designated the world of finance as his “principal adversary”. Unfortunately, he said pretty much the opposite shortly afterwards to British journalists. “The left was in government for 15 years in which we liberalised the economy and opened up the markets to finance and privatisations. There is no big fear."

Hollande did however propose a tax on financial transactions, the restoration of a tax on stock exchange operations abolished by the right wing in 2008 and the separation of retail and investment banking. He also denounced the excesses of finance in a general way, and expressed a desire to ban “toxic financial products” and speculative products”, but without specifying which ones and how. And he made headlines by promising to raise the top rate of income tax to 75 per cent. Along with this went a discourse on the importance of pro-growth policies, something which in the course of the campaign appeared increasingly in phase with some other European leaders. And when 25 countries of the EU signed up to the fiscal pact in February, Hollande announced that if elected he would renegotiate it. He also promised to create more posts in the public sector, particularly in education, although it was not always clear how many were new posts and how many replacements for those retiring. On wages he was quite discreet, eventually conceding under some pressure from the Left Front that he would make a minimal increase in the minimum wage.

Sarkozy began by trying to maximise the fact that he was the sitting president, citing his experience in handling the crisis in 2008-09, as against Hollande who has never held public office at national level. It made some impact, but not enough, hardening his own supporters more than winning new ones. Hollande, to many people’s surprise, more than held his own against a very aggressive Sarkozy in the one face-to-face televised debate four days before the second round.

As the campaign wore on, and particularly between the two rounds, Sarkozy swung increasingly to the right in search of the far-right National Front (FN) voters he had won over in 2007 and who, disillusioned, were going back towards the FN. He stressed issues of law and order, immigration and attacked the Muslim population, making in particular a huge issue of halal meat. This was not only denounced by the left, but criticised by some of his own supporters as alienating the centre. But it was unfortunately effective. In fact, Sarkozy won more than 40 per cent of FN voters in the second round, although FN leader Marine Le Pen had announced she was voting blank, as against about 20 per cent who voted for Hollande. Sarkozy also won more than 40 per cent of those who had voted for the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, who had announced that he was voting for Hollande, whereas Hollande got about 30 per cent.

In fact it was the big jump in the total left vote -- 45 per cent to the Socialist Party, Greens, Front de Gauche (Left Front) and far left partes -- in the first round compared to 2007 and the fact that a very large part of it voted Hollande in the second round that clinched it. There was also a clear class content to the vote. According to a survey, Hollande won 54 per cent of the votes of those who manage to survive “with some difficulty” and 62 per cent of those in “great difficulty”. Compared to 2007, Sarkozy lost support in the last two categories but actually gained 1 per cent among those who live “quite easily” and a whopping 16 per cent among those who live “very easily”.

The campaign was not by any means reduced to the duel between Sarkozy and Hollande. In 2007 the confrontation between Sarkozy and Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal had been perturbed by Bayrou, who looked at times as if he might conceivably edge out one of the two main candidates and get into the second round, and who ended up with 18.6 per cent of the first round vote. This undoubtedly reflected a significant layer of voters who were somewhere between Sarkozy and Royal but opted for Bayrou rather than choosing. Bayrou stood again but ended up with only 9.1 per cent, losing 3.5 million votes. This time, rather than an undecided centre layer, there was an increasing polarisation as the election went on. This polarisation was partly expressed in the opposition between Hollande and Sarkozy, but the two candidates who best represented it were Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front, who won 11.1 per cent, and Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who came third with 17.9 per cent. None of the other candidates got over 3 per cent.

Left Front (Front de Gauche)

Melenchon’s program, of which 400,000 copies were sold, presented quite clearly and unambiguously an alternative to the left of Hollande. It was opposed to austerity, against cuts in public spending, for a repeal of Sarkozy’s pension “reforms” [cuts], against privatisation and for defence of public services.

It argued for progressive taxation, rising for example to 100 per cent for incomes above 360,000 euros per annum. It proposed a public banking pole to provide credit for the productive economy, controls over the financial sector and a reorientation of the economy towards the production of useful goods and services.

Melenchon proposed a program for a Sixth Republic, parliamentary rather than presidential, with democracy extended to the workplaces. Melenchon, who has some problems confronting the widespread Islamophobia in France because of his very traditional left republican secularism, had gone about combating racism and very forcibly defending immigrants and their contribution to French society. On the international level, the Left Front called for France to withdraw from NATO.

The whole campaign was conducted in a way that put the accent on mass mobilisation and class struggle. And the response was terrific. From the beginning the size of public meetings dwarfed previous Left Front campaigns. The high points were huge open-air mass meetings – probably 100,000 at the Bastille in Paris on March 18 (the anniversary of the Paris Commune), with later meetings on a similar scale in Marseilles and Toulouse.

Melenchon’s success certainly owed a lot to his own energy and oratorical and communication skills. But there was much more to it than that. He was a long-time Socialist Party member, a former senator and a figure on the left of the party. His current, For a Social Republic, played an active part in the united left campaign against the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, alongside the Communist Party (PCF), the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and other forces. Melenchon left the Socialist Party in November 2008 with 2000 people and founded the Left Party. At the beginning of 2009, in the run-up to the European elections, the Left Party joined with the French Communist Party and a smaller formation, the Unitary Left, which had left the newly formed New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), to form the Left Front. From an unpromising start, the Left Front got a creditable result, 6.5 per cent, and over a million votes. In particular it overtook the NPA, which had been launched with quite a dynamic behind it after the second presidential electoral success, nearly 1.5 million votes for the LCR candidate Olivier Besancenot. The NPA had refused to join the Left Front.

The Left Front’s success was repeated and amplified in the regional elections of 2010 and the cantonal (local) elections of 2011. As the Left Front advanced, the NPA was further distanced and increasingly some of its local and regional sections broke ranks and formed electoral alliances with the Left Front.

This period from 2009 is important. It enabled the forces comprising the Left Front, with different histories and different political cultures, to learn to work together, to build confidence. In the process they proved wrong the many commentators who predicted that it would collapse because of internal dissent. The most remarkable result came in June 2011 when, in an internal election, nearly 60 per cent of Communist Party members voted to endorse Jean-Luc Melenchon as the presidential candidate of the Left Front, in preference to Andre Chassaigne, a leading and very respected figure in their own party. Certainly the party leadership had proposed Melenchon. But even so no one would have predicted such a result a year or two before.

In fact the figure of Melenchon, particularly the way he necessarily dominated the presidential campaign, tends to hide the real relationship of forces within the Left Front. All its components gained from the election campaign. The Left Party has recruited 3000 and may now have around 10,000 members; the Unitary Left has less than a thousand. The other forces that joined the Left Front during the presidential campaign can be counted in the hundreds rather than the thousands. The Communist Party has around 120,000 members of which 70, 000 are said to be in good standing (in the June 2011 consultation 48,000 members voted). It has recruited 6000 new members in the course of the election campaign.

Communist Party

The PCF’s engagement in the Left Front appears as the logical pursuit of an orientation gradually developed over nearly 10 years, which can be summed up as follows: unity with other left forces on a line of clear demarcation from the Socialist Party. This orientation was first demonstrated on a national scale in the 2005 referendum. The PCF had experienced a long period of decline from the early 1980s on, reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and manifested a certain disorientation in the 1990s, not helped by its participation in the “plural left” government of then Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin from 1997-2002. The party claims, credibly, to have arrested its decline since 2005 and begun to recruit. The parenthesis of the failure to have a common candidate of the radical left in 2007 and the disastrous PCF presidential campaign of Marie-George Buffet that followed has been described by present PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent as “an accident”.

The decline of the PCF had opened the way for far-left organisations, especially Lutte Ouvriere and later the LCR, who began to be successful on the electoral level from 1995 onwards. The culmination of this were the scores of Besancenot in 2002 and 2007 and the launching of the NPA. It is even clearer in retrospect that the NPA, in presenting itself as an alternative to the Left Front rather than joining it, took the road of increasing marginality, leading to crisis and splits in its own ranks.

Melenchon received nearly 4 million votes in the first round of the 2012 presidential election. Where did they come from? We can assume that he took the 700,000 voters who opted for Buffet in 2007, and indeed the million or so who voted for the Left Front in 2009-2011. Surveys also show that he took a lot of the million votes that were lost between Besancenot’s score of 2007 and the 400,000 of NPA candidate Philippe Poutou in 2012. He also did well among first-time voters. That leaves a lot. Looking at the first-round score of Hollande, who only gained 770,000 more votes than Royal had in 2007, it seems likely that Hollande will have picked up votes from those who backed Bayrou in 2007 and lost votes to Melenchon: so there was a movement of voters from Bayrou to Hollande and Hollande to Melenchon. This is confirmed by an IFOP opinion poll that estimated that 30 per cent of Hollande’s first-round voters had hesitated between him and Melenchon.

This probably explains why Melenchon, who had been regularly credited in the opinion polls towards the end of the campaign with 14-15 per cent of the vote (17 per cent in one poll), ended up with just over 11 per cent. This gap between expectation and reality initially led to some disappointment by those involved in the campaign. But objectively it was still a very good result. You have to go back to 1981 to find more than 4 million votes for a party to the left of the Socialist Party.

National Front

The score of the National Front made a great impact. Nevertheless, although Marine Le Pen’s vote was considerably greater than the Left Front’s, the progression is less spectacular. The FN vote was 6.4 million, 17.9 per cent. In percentage terms it is more than the score of her father in 2002 when he spectacularly beat Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin and made it into the second round, but less than the combined scores of Le Pen and FN dissident Bruno Megret in that year. However in terms of votes it was a million more. It is generally recognised that the drop in the FN vote between 2002 and 2007 was due to Sarkozy’s success in winning over FN voters.

A closer look shows that in 2007 the FN vote held up in populous areas such as Pas de Calais and Somme, dropping by only around 2 per cent, and fell much more sharply in middle-class areas where voters defected to Sarkozy in large numbers. In 2012 the FN increased its vote practically everywhere, although much less markedly in the working-class areas in the Parisian region, where Le Pen’s vote was systematically below her national percentage and she was quite often pushed into fourth place by Melenchon.


Although the Ayrault government is functioning and taking some decisions, in an institutional sense France is in limbo. According to the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the president has considerable powers if backed by a parliamentary majority. If not, the president’s authority is much more circumscribed and has to name a government that does have a majority. This situation, known as “cohabitation”, has already occurred under the Socialist Party’s President Francois Mitterrand from 1986 to 1988 and again from 1993 to 1995 and under conservative Jacques Chirac from 1997 to 2002. The result was conflictual but not a political crisis. But in these previous cases the political, economic and social situation was much less acute. Now, after five years of financial and economic upheavals, France -- like her European neighbours -- is faced with the sovereign debt crisis, the banking crisis and the crisis of the eurozone.

In a broad sense, on the basis of what Hollande said in his election campaign and of what he did not say, he was not exactly in line with the European policy of austerity and structural reforms. This was commented on very critically by such publications as the Economist and the Financial Times. The Economist devoted two major features to the campaign with front-page headlines “France in denial – Europe’s most frivolous election” and “The rather dangerous Monsieur Hollande”. The gist was that Hollande (and even, to a lesser extent, Sarkozy…) was not doing his duty by failing to warn French people of the austerity and counter-reforms that were coming.

The programs that are propounded, and imposed on the weaker members, by the European Union-European Central Bank-International Monetary Fund “Troika” comprise policies of austerity, budget deficit reductions, cutting public expenditure, labour rights and pension cuts, privatisation. These are not the policies that Francois Hollande was elected on. According to European Commission forecasts, France is expected to meet its budget deficit target of 4.5 per cent of GDP in 2012. But whereas Hollande is committed to a target of 3 per cent in 2013, the commission estimates the deficit will be 4.2 per cent. The 1.2 per cent difference comes to 24 billion euros and if Hollande sticks to the target he will have to find them somewhere. On pensions, Sarkozy succeeded in 2010, in the face of massive protests, in raising the retirement age to 62, pretty modest by current European standards. Hollande promised to partially go back on this and make it possible for some very limited categories of workers to retire at 60. On labour reforms he has said practically nothing, except to promise repeal one of Sarkozy’s last measures in which taxes on employers were reduced and the tax losses were compensated by a rise in the indirect value-added tax (VAT) – thus going in the wrong direction according to conventional European capitalist wisdom.

Hollande has also made no concrete proposals to cut the public sector and ruled out further privatisation. He proposes to reduce the budget deficit by 40 per cent with tax raising and 60 per cent spending cuts, but remains vague about details. On June 6, Hollande’s finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, reiterated the commitment to cut the budget deficit but refused to be drawn on details. In reaction to Brussels’ calls for labour market reforms, deregulation, pension cuts, Moscovici – who is no leftist – replied: “We will make structural reforms, but they will be ours … we have our own way.”

At the moment the Ayrault government is sending out positive signs on some issues: easing the policy regarding illegal immigrants, some reforms of the justice system, fulfilling the election promise on pensions. A modest increase in the minimum wage is in view, for the first time since 2006.

But on the central economic and social questions there is not likely to be much movement before the second round of the parliamentary elections on June 17. Hollande has ordered a report from the Cour des Comptes, the national audit agency, which will conveniently arrive at the end of June, after the elections. He has planned a “social summit” with employers and trade unions for the beginning of July.

Pressures on Hollande

For the moment France’s European partners and the markets are letting the Socialist Party get on with its election campaign. But the honeymoon will not last, already there are rumblings. Assuming that Hollande has a majority in parliament, he will in very short order be confronted with the budget deficit and he will come under intense pressure from European institutions and governments and from the markets. Last week, the European Commission called on France to cut public spending and implement structural reforms – we can safely assume it did not mean in France’s “own way”. Simultaneously, Hollande will feel pressure from the unions and more broadly from those who elected him. He will have to explain how he can reduce the budget deficit without austerity policies. In a wider sense, he will have to come out with something more concrete concerning the renegotiation of the fiscal pact, and explain precisely what he means by growth. Because in the present situation growth can mean relaunching the economy with a policy based on demand, which implies increasing wages, public spending, progressive taxation of personal and corporate wealth and reducing unemployment. Or it can mean supply-side labour reforms to make it easier for employers to sack workers, reduce employment rights and weaken collective bargaining. In other words, a policy of “growth” based on cheapening of labour costs, with perhaps an easing of austerity, but no letting up on reduction of the public sector, privatisation, etc.

On June 5, hundreds of members of the main trade union federation, the CGT, demonstrated in front of the regional government in the southern city of Toulouse demanding “a real industrial policy”. The week before, the CGT national leadership had given the government a list of 45 enterprises that were either closing down or cutting back, with a potential loss of 45,000 jobs. One of the most high-profile jobs in the Ayrault government went to Arnaud Montebourg, a leader of the Socialist Party left, who was given the title of minister for “redressement productif”, which can roughly be translated as “rebuilding the productive economy”. Montebourg has announced that he will “open firm discussions” with employers while predicting that he would “meet with some failures”.

In fact Hollande will have to make some clear decisions. In the present situation in Europe he does not have to undertake any very radical reforms to provoke the ire of European political leaders and the markets. He simply has to not do, or to do only slowly and reluctantly, what they are telling him to do. It is quite unimaginable that a country as important as France would be allowed to calmly pursues policies out of sync with its partners. Pressure will come in the form of strong recommendations and eventually financial fines from the European institutions. More importantly it will come in the form of the markets raising the cost of government borrowing.

In the debates on the international level, Hollande will have to take a position in the discussions over banking union and fiscal union, on the attitude towards Greece and Spain, notably at the EU summit that begins on June 28. None of the choices he has to make will become any easier in a context of deepening crisis of the eurozone, with a real possibility of its break-up.

Looking at the record of the French Socialist Party over the last 30 years and of social democracy in Portugal, Greece and Spain over the last couple of years, it would be unwise to bet on Hollande resisting the pressure of Europe and the markets. It is not however entirely ruled out that he will try and do so to some extent and that at the head of such a key country as France he will be able to find some room for manoeuvre. That would be a further factor of instability in Europe.

Parliamentary elections

It would be futile to speculate on the outcome of the parliamentary elections. For the moment the polls do point to a victory for the left, but far from an overwhelming one and with the Socialist Party probably dependent on the Greens and possibly the Left Front to have a majority. But it is useful to look at the way the different political forces approach the elections.

For the Socialist Party the objective is quite clear: to have a parliamentary majority, if possible without having to rely on the Left Front. Sarkozy’s UMP aims ideally to win the elections, but failing that to save as much as it can of its parliamentary group. But it is approaching these elections in a state of latent crisis which can become more open and sharper after June 17. Sarkozy’s withdrawal from the political scene, permanent or not, opens the way for a war by different clans for control of the party, the main contenders being the present general secretary Jean-Francois Cope and ex-prime minister Francois Fillon, with former foreign minister (and prime minister in the 1990s) Alain Juppe in the background.

Over and above personal rivalries, there is a political choice to be made between the UMP remaining a mainstream centre-right formation or becoming open to alliances with the far right. Assuming it loses the elections there is no certainty that the party will remain united.

That is certainly the outcome sought for by Marine Le Pen, who would like to reorganise the political spectrum by linking up with sectors of the traditional right and would even be ready to abandon the National Front name. She is in fact already conducting the FN’s parliamentary campaign in the name of “Rassemblement Bleu Marine”, a play on her own name. To carry out her strategy she needs to get a group of MPs elected – something the FN has only ever done in 1986 when there was briefly a system of proportional representation. (Le Pen herself is trying to get elected in a working-class constituency in northern France – where Melenchon has also chosen to stand).

One sign to watch out for will be any deals after the first round whereby the FN would support some UMP candidates in the second round in return for reciprocal support to some of its own candidates. One of the first cracks has just appeared, with a UMP candidate in the south of France publicly offering to back the FN candidate in the second round if he gets more votes in the first round, in exchange for a reciprocal promise from the FN.

The aim of the Left Front is to have as big a group of MPs as possible, moving from less than 20 presently to 30, 40… and if possible for a left majority to be dependent on its votes. The objective would be not to set itself up in systematic opposition to Hollande, as the far left is already announcing it will do, but to adopt a position of supporting measures that go in the right direction and opposing others, a correct but not uncomplicated strategy.

In any case, given that Hollande will be caught between the rock of international pressure and the hard place of the class struggle in France, any strategy aimed at exerting pressure on the government could not only be parliamentary but based on extra-parliamentary mobilisations.

As to the big question of whether the Left Front would join a government under Hollande, for most of its components the answer seems to be a clear no. As regards the Communist Party, a decision to participate in government seems unlikely but not absolutely impossible. In any case the decision will be taken very quickly after June 17.

Whether or not France has a left government, however moderate, will be a factor in the European crisis. As will be the strength of the Left Front and the role it is able to play. Increasingly, of course, what happens in one country will influence and be influenced by events elsewhere. That goes especially for the radical left. So on the evening of June 17, all eyes on the French left will not only be on the election results in France. They will also be watching Athens.

[Murray Smith is a member of the anti-capitalist party Dei Lenk (The Left) in Luxembourg. This is a slightly amended English version of an article written for the Danish web magazine KritiskDebat.]

Latest opinion polls put the PS as single largest party, but they may need the EELV (around 18) to have a majority, Left Front on 20-24 seats- FN may get in 2, but still unsure- they will however get 12.5% in over 200 seats to go through to the second vote

Socialist Worker 2307, 16 June 2012