French President Nicholas Sarkozy will hopefully be thrown out in the approaching elections, in a vote against austerity.
Islamophobia following the shooting of seven people by a French Algerian gunman in Toulouse had seemed to boost the French right.
The fascist National Front’s Marine Le Pen is polling 13-16 per cent. Le Pen blames immigrants for unemployment and is rabidly Islamophobic, claiming that Parisians are being secretly fed Halal meat. She has seized on the shootings in Toulouse to attack Sarkozy over immigration.
The shootings by 23 year-old Mohammed Mera left three Jewish children, a rabbi and three soldiers dead. Mera cited revenge for the deaths of Palestinian children and the French occupation of Afghanistan as his reasons.
The seeds of this tragedy were sown by French foreign policy and Sarkozy’s years of vitriol against Muslims and immigrants. He banned Muslim street prayers and agrees with the National Front that halal meat is a “main preoccupation” of voters. In 2010 he banned the burqa, and rounded up Roma gypsies to expel them from France. Following the Toulouse shooting he has leapt into action with raids and arrests of 29 “Islamists”.
But there is a hopeful challenge emerging on Sarkozy’s left.
The Socialists (the French Labor Party) have had just one President since 1958, but party leader Francois Holland looks set to win on a promise of “growth not austerity”.
Hollande is not anti-austerity per se, as his commitment to avoid budget deficits shows. Unemployment and austerity are big issues in France. Unemployment stands at a 12-year high and unpopular reforms in 2010 increased the retirement age from 60 to 62, despite powerful strikes among petrol, transport, electricity and dockworkers.
Hollande’s unambitious campaign has opened up the space to his left—now filled proudly by Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front, a breakaway from the Socialist Party. Mélenchon has brought the working class back onto the streets, leading a demonstration of 70,000 in Toulouse. He calls for a “citizen’s insurrection”, speaks of “bashing bankers” and imposing a 100 per cent tax on earnings above €360,000. In response to Hollande’s meek appeal that he is “not dangerous”, Mélenchon proudly declared, “I am dangerous… Dangerous for financial interests.” He is polling 15 per cent.
Mélenchon’s campaign is a breath of fresh air. His has inconsistently opposed Islamophobia, but is showing there is a clear alternative—fighting Sarkozy and austerity, not immigrants and Muslims.
I was present at Mélenchon’s final rally in Paris, which was attended or followed live on screens around the country by several tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters. I agree that the rise of the Left Front has been the most significant development for leftists during the campaign.
Mélenchon has turned out (rather surprisingly) to be an eloquent, fiery speaker with a neat line in bashing the bosses, the traditional right and especially the fascist National Front.
His rhetoric is radical and inspiring, with references to the French Revolution of 1789 and the Popular Front of 1936, and his meetings conclude with the singing of the Internationale followed by the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. His favourite word is ‘revolution’, or even ‘insurrection’ – always followed by ‘in the ballot box’. One of his models is the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
I think we should be wary of his contradictiuons, while applauding his ability to inspire and give confidence to workers after the defeat of the 2010 pensions strikes.
I’m not sure we can say that he has “inconsistently opposed” Islamophobia. Rather he combines a radical defence of secularism (he supports measures to ban the veil, for example) and the ‘universalistic’ French model of integration with opposition to scapegoating Muslims – reflecting some of the contradictions of the French left. My impression is that he has moved in the right direction, which we should welcome while continuing to point out the weaknesses and dangers of his position.
My own organisation, the New Anticapitalist party, was represented in the election by an unknown factory worker, Philippe Poutou, who fought a brave campaign and attracted considerable sympathy. But the NPA has been sidelined by Mélenchon and his Communist Party allies. It has made mistakes in relating to Mélenchon supporters, and is now deeply divided. Many members have left the party, while others have remained (so far) while declaring their support for Mélenchon.
Mélenchon has said he will not join a Socialist government committed to managing the system, and has pledged that he will never go back on his support for radical measures like restoring the previous pension age, raising the minimum wage and imposing a maximum on the ‘fat cats’ and so on. But it remains to be seen how far this ex-Socialist minister and the CP – who have previously accepted a junior role in government – will actually go in opposing Hollande (supposing he wins the election of course) as he applies austerity measures ‘with a human face’. Revolutionaries need to steer a difficult course between following a left-reformist leader like Mélenchon, and sectarian criticism from the sidelines. With the NPA weakened and divided, French anticapitalists will be faced with difficult choices in the next few months.