CHRIS HUTCHINSON interviews JEAN ROCH-FORT
Emmanuel Macron, a French banker and longtime establishment politician, emerged victorious on a “third party” ticket in this year’s French elections. His victory follows the breakdown of the traditional center left and right capitalist parties through major corruption scandals.
The candidate of the Republicans, a center right-wing party, Nathan Fillon, was particularly ridiculed for his outrageous nepotism and boldfaced lies. Candidate Marie Le Pen, of the far-right National Front (FN), lost decisively in the run-off election. While significant numbers of workers voted for Le Pen, it is also true that they voted in substantial numbers for other candidates like reformist Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front.
In general, the contradiction and surge of support for non-traditional parties in this year’s election highlights the anger of the working class with the continued capitalist austerity assault. The introduction of the “Loi Travail” was a major attack on French workers in 2016. The labor law was a tool to benefit the corporations and their shareholders by hamstringing the unions and allowing the bosses to more easily fire workers, lower wages, and attack collective bargaining to increase ruling-class profits.
In opposition, over a million workers and youth poured on to the streets on the night of March 31, 2016. The occupation of public squares during the “Nuit Debout” movement failed to stop the labor law but certainly played a role in shaking up this year’s election. A French trade unionist and activist in the New Anti-Capitalist Party, Jean Roch-Fort had this to say about the electoral race:
JFR: What stands out is how poorly elected Macron was. First, without even taking into account the part of the population that doesn’t have French citizenship, you have less than 67 million people composing the French population. 18.5% are under the age to vote, 10.5 % are disenfranchised. Among the voters, 18% of the population abstained, 4.5% left a blank vote, and the spoiled ballots reached a historic high of 1.6%.
Of the 31% of French people who voted for Macron, around half did it just to oppose Le Pen. So, you have around 18% of the population that supports Macron, which is a very low percentage for someone who’s just been elected.
Significant minorities of the working class voted both for Le Pen but also for Melenchon [in the first electoral round], who defended a kind of reformist outlook. And between the two rounds of the presidential election, we could see a sizeable portion of youth and workers who said, “We want neither Le Pen nor Macron.” You had spontaneous high school demonstrations under that slogan, and several trade unions—for example, the national CGT federation of chemical industries—officially took that stand.
A large number of workers so despised the previous government and Macron, who was one of the main architects of the Loi Travail, that they were immune to the pressure to vote for Macron at all costs. This was a much weaker outlook than in 2002, when Jacques Chirac and Le Pen’s father were the two standing in the second round of the presidential election.
There is a significant minority that has been electorally won to the FN, but they are far from all being fascists: it is all the treasons of the traditional left that has enabled the FN to pose an “anti-system” force. The hatred for austerity and the traditional political forces is running deep, and that’s what makes the situation unstable. Even Macron has temporarily succeeded in presenting himself in the eyes of a mainly middle-class audience as the new kid on the block, capable of waging a new politics.
CH: In the U.S., we’ve seen those sympathetic with the far right emboldened following the election of Trump. Covered widely on social media, the recent murder in Portland, Ore., of two men and serious injury of a third for defending a Muslim woman against harassment is clear indication of a small but growing far-right trend. The U.S. media portrayed le Pen and Trump as having similar Islamophobic and anti-immigrant views. Did this election see a rise in popularity of the far right? Has the far-right movement gained influence and been emboldened? How can we stop them?
JFR: “The FN has had a difficult time. They prepared this election campaign for a long time, and they draw a negative balance sheet of it. Their leadership doesn’t agree on how to proceed now. They are having a difficult strategic debate. The FN is the result of an institutional strategy of sectors that come from the fascist tradition; they try to seize power basically through elections, but even now the ruling class doesn’t want the FN to rule, they don’t need them to rule.
There is pressure on them to alter their program to make it acceptable for the French bourgeoisie. A part of the FN leadership wants to adapt and drop the slogan of opposing the euro currency, while a part wants a hardening of the “anti-EU” profile of the FN. For now, they are not in a good position.
But the main danger is not the temporary success of the FN to this or that election. The problem is that the policies waged by all the successive governments for decades have paved the way for a reinforcement of their ideas. The best way to fight the FN is not to vote for the ones who pave the way for them but to overthrow them and capitalism altogether!
CH: The New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) got on the ballot and put forward an independent socialist option to the ruling elite and reformist parties but did not make it out of the first round of voting. The goal was not solely to get elected but rather to put forward a program for workers to take on the capitalists. Jean reflected on the impact of the NPA campaign:
JFR: Philippe Poutou made a kind of breakthrough when he quite explicitly attacked Fillon and Le Pen in the main TV debate. He attacked them for being capitalist politicians and lackeys of the status quo. He denounced the financial scandals they are involved in, and other candidates did not dare to do this.
Poutou denounced Le Pen for refusing to go to the judge that summoned her because she had misappropriated money from the European parliament. Poutou said that while le Pen could use her parliamentary immunity, when workers face repression, they don’t have immunity.
The NPA campaign put to the fore the division between the bourgeoisie and the workers right in the middle of a somewhat “polite” and dull debate. After that debate, he was viewed with sympathy by lots of workers. In the campaign he appeared like an average worker that is not a politician. But I think the NPA campaign might have done a better job of promoting current social struggles, struggles that didn’t stop despite the electoral period.
CH: Jean, what are the NPA’s plans after the elections? How do you see the anti-capitalist movement going forward?
JRF: As the elections were coming to a close, a very original initiative took place, the Social Front, with the active participation of a handful of revolutionary militants.
Several trade unions and militant collectives organized a demonstration on the day before the elections and another one the first day after Macron was elected. Some 3000 people showed up at the first demo and almost 10,000 at the second one, despite the fact that not a single naitonal trade union or political leadership has supported this effort, and despite the state of emergency.
It was possible because during the Loi Travail movement, different militant sectors from different traditions learned to work together. And also because a process of differentiation inside the labor movement is under way, with trade-unions especially breaking.
The Social Front aims at regrouping the militants who want to fight the government and who want to regroup the struggles. And now, in part thanks to the formation of this front, there is a big debate in the trade-union movement about a key question: should we discuss with and meet the new president as if it were possible to negotiate with your class enemy or should we at once organize the resistance?
The Social Front organized another demo, this time in front of the parliament, the day after the general elections. If this initiative is a success, we hope to pressure the labor leaders to call for a national strike quickly, because Macron has already stated that he will destroy the Labor Laws without even consulting the parliament.
Photo: Workers in Paris protest the Loi Travail in May 2016. Thomas Samson / Agence France-Presse