The Presidential elections in France : Polarization and crisis

This not-very-short article  (1) is an attempt to explain the election results of the first round and the perspectives for the radical Left in France. Right now all French political parties are in serious crisis, because of the fact that neither the ruling class nor the working class has managed to make a decisive breakthrough over the last few years. What is going  on in these parties in crisis can be particularly opaque to outsiders, and more than usual, foreign newspapers were misleading about many aspects of the crisis. So here goes.

Massive politicization

The first round of the presidential elections in France on Sunday April 22 saw a record turnout. The shock of seeing the far right candidate make it through, in 2002, to the second round run-off galvanized voters to turn out to make sure this could not happen again. In addition, the fact that these elections marked the end of the reign of old man Chirac, and the fact that the two favourite candidates, Sarkozy (right) and Royal (Socialist) were newcomers to the presidential race encouraged interest. Just as important was the fact that the mass movements of recent years – to defend pensions in 2004, against the ultraliberal European constitution in 2005, against the First Employment Contract in 2006 – have increased and deepened popular interest in politics.

Indeed, the campaign was followed closely by many millions of workers. Peak time political interviews of more than an hour in length got TV audiences of eight or nine million watching them. Mass meetings of all candidates attracted record numbers.

This interest helped not just the mainstream parties but also the radical Left. Rallies of the radical Left candidates (there were four of them, five if you include the Greens) drew thousands at a time, night after night. The websites of the radical Left were inundated with visits. The political situation was highly polarized.

From the point of view of the Left the main element to keep in mind is the huge gap between the level of anger and class struggle, and the implantation and influence of  Left  political organizations. Despite huge mass movements in 2003 and 2006, the victory against the European constitution in 2005 and the riots in 2005, no Left organization has become significantly larger and more influential. This is the background for the general desire for a new united political force, which is harder to get than to dream of .

Poor election results for the radical Left

Taken as a whole, the results of the radical Left were not good compared to 2002. Three million more people voted this time round, but the radical Left as a whole got two million fewer votes. This is the lowest radical Left vote for a decade. This despite our much higher profile during the campaign, and the stunning success of many of the mass meetings, in particular those of Bové and of Besancenot.

The results of the first round   (2)
(N B :Bear in mind that we can never know how many votes are “protest votes”, how many are “tactical votes” and how many reflect real agreement with programmes and principles. Everybody understands that they are not electing someone when they vote in the first round)

Besancenot (LCR)    1 498 581     4.08%
Buffet (Communist)   707 268  1.93%
Bayrou (“Centre-Right”)  6 820 119  18.57%
Bové (For a United Radical Left) 483 008  1.32%
Laguiller (Workers Struggle)  487 857   1,33%
Voynet (Greens)   576 666  1.57%
De Villiers (Far right)   818 407  2.23%
Royal (Socialist Party)  9 500 112  25.87%
Sarkozy (Right)   11 448 663  31.18%
Le Pen (Front national)  3 834 530  10.44%

Let’s look at the most important results from Right to Left before exploring the lessons to be drawn for anticapitalists.

First the fascists. The very high turnout helped ensure that the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen was down from 17%  last  time to 10.4% this time (and he lost a million votes compared to 2002). This is naturally excellent news, as is the fact that he ran a very passive campaign with very few mass meetings, but his electoral support is still dangerously high and  he is capable of pushing the whole political debate rightwards in particular on questions of immigration. Cases in recent weeks of Muslim and Jewish graves being desecrated and of other racist attacks confirm what we have always known – every vote for Le Pen is an encouragement for some racist thug to beat up or kill an immigrant, a Muslim, a gay person or some other scapegoat. For those tempted to think that Le Pen is becoming more moderate, remember he made the headlines during the campaign by saying that Sarkozy could not make a good French president, since his grandparents were Hungarian and Jewish. As one commentator pointed out, if we add the votes of Le Pen and De Villiers “ despite Sarkozy’s hard-line on immigration and law and order, 4.6 million French voters (one person in eight) still supported far right and ultra-conservative candidates.”

The favourite for becoming the new president next week is obviously the Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, who would like to become the Margaret Thatcher of French politics  and push the neoliberal agenda decisively further. He got more than 30% in the first round.

He wants to overcome the waves of workers’ resistance which since 1995 have very much slowed down the attacks on workers living standards, without ever coming near to reversing the steam. Fast-talking, sharp-tongued and abrasive, Sarkozy unlike Thatcher claims to look forward to a New Conservatism, not back to Victorian values.  He has won quite a lot of votes which previously went to Le Pen, through a series of media coups. He has been denouncing young disaffected youth as “scum”, backing police violence to the hilt, and most recently proposing the setting up of a “Ministry for immigration and national identity”. In this way he wants to wink to Le Pen’s voters that he too sees immigrants as a threat to “our” national identity – classic scapegoat stuff.  At the same time he woos Muslim leaders with talk of measures of multiculturalism normally taboo in France across the whole of the political spectrum.

Sarkozy is a dangerous man : a rabid supporter of Bush’s war for oil in Iraq, and a great believer that workers should work harder for less money. All the Left will have to mobilize to keep him out of the president’s palace, and it will be an uphill struggle.

The surprise “third man” of the election was François Bayrou, with 18.5 %, a man described by a rather unsympathetic Times journalist as  “a part-time horse breeder from the Pyrenees”. A right wing old-timer, he gained a lot of support on a “neither right nor left” platform, claiming that such divisions were old-fashioned now and calling for the establishment of a US-style Democratic Party. When neither Right nor Left are convincing, these arguments can work. In addition, he obtained a huge number of votes from right wingers who do not like Sarkozy’s  aggressive and parvenu style, and he obtained a lot of Left wing – and even far left - tactical votes from people who believed (as the polls said) that Bayrou would have  a better chance of winning against Sarkozy in the second round than the Socialist Royal. Finally he gained a good part of the vote of sexists who normally vote Left but refuse to vote for a woman.

Let’s move onto the other candidate who will be in the second-round run-off, the Socialist Party candidate, who is running at around 47% in the opinion polls.  Ségolène Royal,  and her programme, are the result of a compromise inside her party. Royal is not Blair from 1997. Blair had already crushed the Left of his party and was busy holidaying with billionaires and declaring New Labour to be “the party of business” before 1997. Royal is only at the very beginning of such a process. The internal life of the Socialist Party remains a (distorted) reflection of class struggle and the Left still has a lot of influence. The Left of the PS was very influential in the 2005 victory against the ultraliberal European Constitution. The strength of this Left and, even more, the mass strikes and movements of the last few years have obliged Royal to include  several clearly Left-wing measures in her programme. She proposes building 120 000 units of social housing a year and making pension increases for poorer pensioners. She proposes reserving development grants to companies who promise not to lay off workers, and she says she will massively increase the number of crèche places available in public nurseries.
 At the same time, she has  been playing very hard some right wing policies (military-style camps for young ‘delinquents’…), and has been praising the French flag to the heavens (“every family should have one”). More importantly there are almost no promises to reverse key right wing laws brought in over the last few years. No-one thinks Royal will be renationalizing public industries. No-one thinks she won’t continue to attack pensions “because they cost too much”. Noone thinks she will withdraw French troops from Afghanistan and elsewhere. And she is clearly declaring that “economic competitiveness” is her central principle.
 Royal gave her speeches to packed houses (and in sports stadiums) of up to 20 000 at a time in the highly charged atmosphere of this campaign. Even so, the most notable fact about Royal’s campaign may have been its emptiness. After 5 000 neighbourhood meetings “to discover what the people want”, in the name of “participatory democracy”, she claimed to have found that the French people have “a deep desire for a future” (good sign, I suppose), and she has therefore decided to promise “Justice and order so that France can get back on her feet”.
 The “participatory democracy” circus, along with a recruitment campaign to the Socialist Party (new cut-price joining costs 20 euros by internet) aim at diluting the weight of the PS activist base, on average more Left wing than its leaders.

 The Green candidate Dominique Voynet, from the least-Left wing section of the party, close in fact to the Socialist Party, did not do well, and went down from 5.2% in 2002 to 1.6% this time. It seemed that now every candidate claimed to be interested in the environment, and tactical voters preferred Royal, while radical Left Greens preferred Bové, the space left for Voynet had been squeezed down considerably.

The radical Left – the dangers of purism and sectarianism

The story of the radical Left – all those to the Left of the Socialist Party - in France since 2005 is a little complex but needs to be understood. The ultraliberal European constitution was defeated at a referendum in 2005 due to the efforts of the radical Left, who ran an extraordinary united campaign where dissident Greens, dissident Socialists, and Trotskyists and Communists, along with a massive non-party Left, worked closely and enthusiastically together.

 After this victory, and this new deepening of joint mass work, the hundreds of United Radical Left committees around the country did not disband. Instead they wrote a programme (known as the 125 proposals) and transformed themselves into committees for a United Radical Left candidacy for the presidential elections and for the following parliamentary elections set for June 2007. The idea was a collective candidacy, both moving away from the dangerous personalizing of these elections, and allowing for a strong voice for radical change.
 The 125 proposals are pretty radical stuff : indexing wages on prices, banning stock options, banning redundancies in companies that are making a profit; a move towards the 32 hour week, papers for all illegal immigrants, a reversal of recent attacks on education, higher taxes for the rich, to cite just a few examples.

 However, the functioning of the committees was not without its problems. The Communist party generally worked in inside them, but most of it hoped and planned that the CP general secretary, Marie-George Buffet, would be chosen as the candidate of unity.
The LCR majority faction refused to work seriously with the committees, emphasized (sometimes imaginary) divisions, and frequently remained  “as an observer” at the meetings nationally and locally in order to lecture everyone on pure anticapitalist politics. The LCR minority (almost a third of the organization) worked enthusiastically in the United Radical Left committees, trying to minimize the damage done by the sectarian majority.

 As the election came closer, both the Communist Party and the LCR decided to run standalone candidates, basically for sectarian reasons, after a good old fashioned Stalinist attempt by the Communist Party to hijack the decision making process in the federation of United Radical Left committees. This decision led to a severe crisis in each of these parties (more on that in a moment).

 At this point, the United Radical Left committees, reduced to the non-party Left and a fair number of dissident Communists, dissident LCR, and dissident Greens, were thrown into crisis. The PCF and the LCR leaders were convinced that what was left was a rump that would be unable to run a candidate, and in particular be unable to organize the visiting of many thousands of mayors to be able to collect the five hundred signatures of mayors necessary to have the right to run.
They were completely wrong. At the eleventh hour the majority of the United Radical Left committees decided to ask José Bové (leader of a small-farmers’ Union and well-known campaigner for ecology and for other issues such as Palestine) to stand as the candidate of unity.

Twenty spokespeople were named for the collective campaign, including leading dissident Greens, Communists and LCR, as well as union and other campaigning leaders. The idea was not to run a campaign claiming to have a different programme to those of the other radical Left candidates, but on the contrary, to say that separate candidacies were stupid and that only with unity could a real difference be made. That then is the background. Let’s look at what happened on polling day. The whole problematic of anticapitalists and elections is that elections do count, but of course social struggle counts more. This is why, for each candidate we have to look both at how the electorate, and in particular the working class, reacted to their programme, but also, and crucially, what effect their programme and strategy had on activist circles and on people who are ready to get stuck into struggle. If we don’t look at both, we can fall into electoralism. And it is particularly important in France to look at both, because first round voting has a tradition of including a large number of “protest voters” whose attachment to the long term aims of the candidate they are voting for is in fact pretty weak.

Radical Left campaigns and results

So let’s take a look at the significant  (3) Left candidates one by one. Much to the Left of Royal there was
Buffet (Communist Party), Laguiller (Lutte Ouvrière), Besancenot (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire), Bové (For a United Radical Left  [4])

Marie-George Buffet, the Communist Party candidate saw the CP vote collapse (from 3.37% in 2002 to 1.93% today). In part this was just the continuation of a practically continuous decline   over the last thirty years. The PCF this time lost votes both to its right, where people who felt Buffet had distanced herself too much from the Socialist Party and governmental options preferred to vote for Royal, and also to its Left, where people who had been disgusted with the party’s manipulations around the United Radical Left candidacy abandoned the Communist Party. The balancing act between an institutional approach and an approach based on struggle was too difficult. In addition, the PCF still runs many town councils, and in the crisis the difference they make there is smaller and smaller and can give rise to much disillusion. The press are all talking about “the death of the Communist party”, no doubt a little prematurely, since it still has over 60 000 members and over 10 000 elected representatives (town councillors, mayors etc).

This historically low score has deepened the internal crisis in the PCF. Quite a number of long-term activists have left  to join forces with the United Radical Left committees. “Communists for Unity” a new current including a number of national leaders is slowly becoming an autonomous organization, with its own meetings, conferences etc. appealing to « all those who identify with Communist culture, who have helped build the United Radical Left or who would like to get involved ».

Arlette Laguiller, representing the Trotskyist organization “Workers Struggle” (Lutte Ouvrière) also made a poor showing. From 5.7% in 2002, her vote fell to 1.4%.The tactical voting tide is obviously one reason. A certain switching of votes to Olivier Besancenot is another. Besancenot’s younger image and much better communicated programme assisted this, as no doubt did the tendency of the LCR despite their name to avoid using the word “revolution”.

In addition, Lutte Ouvrière have been on a very sectarian line these last ten years. They were fairly active in the mass movement against the First Employment Contract in 2006, but have been totally absent from - and sometimes even opposed to – some of the biggest and most popular mobilizations of recent years, since “non-workplace issues” hardly interest them. So they didn’t join the committees to fight for a No vote on the European referendum, they didn’t help organize the mass demos against Le Pen in 2002, and they all-but-denounced the huge European Social Forums in 2003 and 2004. Finally the initial slogan of LO’s campaign this time round, plastered on huge expensive billboards was (under a photograph of Arlette Laguiller) “Who else can sincerely say they are on the workers’ side”. During an election campaign featuring three Trotskyists, a Communist and another radical anticapitalist, this slogan did seem to be pushing it.

Of all the organizations of the Radical Left, the LCR would seem, on the surface to have the most to celebrate this week.
Olivier Besancenot’s  strategy and campaign resulted ( as always in the LCR) from a compromise between different factions inside the organization, which explains an occasional lack of coherence. In general one can say that the electoral result was good, but that the effect of the strategy and the campaign on activist circles, union militants and the non-party Left was little short of catastrophic.

First the positive side. Besancenot got 4.08% of the vote. The deep involvement of the LCR in recent mass movements must have helped, and the score was particularly high in some working class areas and among young people. The campaign emphasized independence from the Socialist Party, and economic issues such as taxing the rich, and an immediate, substantial rise in the minimum wage. Olivier Besancenot was certainly the most talented speaker and interviewee among the radical Left candidates, and this counted too in a  campaign dominated by the mass media.

As a result of all this, he was able to resist to some extent the tide of tactical voting for the Socialist party or for Bayrou.
For the mass of the electorate, of course, the LCR’s major mistake in scuppering the possibility of a United Radical Left Candidacy a few months earlier meant little, if they even knew about this episode. But in activist circles and among the very large non-party Left, the LCR has gained itself an image as a sectarian organisation which ignored a real dynamic of unity which could have allowed the Radical Left to get a much higher score and laid the first foundations for a mass Radical Left alternative.

The reasonably good score of the LCR candidate has reinforced the most sectarian currents in the LCR (some to the point of caricature). The LCR has therefore, incredibly, refused to hold joint “anti-Sarkozy” meetings, concerts and other events along with other forces between the two rounds of the elections. In addition, the LCR leadership looks set on avoiding as far as possible having United Radical Left candidacies in the June parliamentary elections.

Some of the LCR declarations need interpretation. In his post-first-round declaration, Olivier Besancenot  called for anticapitalist unity. But this was clearly meant and understood in activist circles as “unity behind our organization”, an abstract and ineffective appeal. One of the ways of camouflaging this fact was to make a call for unity to “the PCF, Lutte Ouvrière and others”. Seeing that Lutte Ouvrière is completely opposed to a new anticapitalist force, the appeal is essentially falsely naïve pretence.

This situation is exacerbating the tension in the LCR between the 5 – 10 % or so of its members (including your humble servant) who actively supported the Bové campaign, the majority, who ran the Besancenot campaign, and a significant minority who did nothing, though sympathizing with the Bové campaign, for fear of becoming painfully isolated inside the LCR . Quite a number of members including one historic  leading member, Michel Husson, have left the organization in disgust at its sectarian course.

A final word on the Besancenot campaign. It had a rather bizarre attitude to the question of calling for a Left vote in the second round. The line was to refuse absolutely to deal with this question until after the first round (a source of some frustration to many ordinary workers for whom a Left vote is a matter of principle rather than tactics). On the evening of the first round, the LCR called “to beat Sarkozy in the streets and in the ballot boxes”, in my view a genuinely bizarre slogan, half-heartedly calling for a vote for Royal.

José Bové and the committees for a United Radical Left

The campaign of José Bové was a surprise. Bové hesitated before accepting a widespread desire within the United Radical Left committees that he take up the banner for them. The campaign began with no party structure and a very heterogeneous base including some Communists, some Greens, some LCR, a lot of non-party Left (sometimes ex-Communists) and a few anti-party people. To everyone’s amazement, it managed to mobilize eight hundred activists to go round towns and villages visiting thousands of mayors to obtain, with great difficulty and at the last moment, 500 endorsements from mayors just before the deadline. The rest of the radical left were nonplussed. For Lutte Ouvrière he was just another reformist, the LCR preferred not to mention his campaign because it was so clearly independent of the Socialist Party that the LCR’s objections to unity were shown up as idiotic.

The Bové campaign was based on the 125 proposals, the twenty spokespeople and was very much a collective campaign. The tone was generally “we all need to rise up” rather than “This is what we could do for you”. The meetings were a great success. Up to one hundred thousand people participated, with very many young people and very noticeably multi-ethnic crowds. Citizens’ organizations from the poorer suburbs were very much present. Some Muslim organizations joined the coalition – Bové being the only one of the candidates with a clear understanding of islamophobia and the only one who had openly and actively opposed the racist ban on Muslim headscarves in schools a couple of years back. Committees across the country organized imaginative street parties and concerts, while “Radical Left wine” was sold in the South, and in my town “Radical Left organic chickens”! Bové also made clear from the beginning that the main enemy was the right wing and that voting Left in the second round was a matter of principle.

The problem was that the United Radical Left idea is still very young in the minds of the mass of the people, and there was little time to profoundly change this. Bové’s vote (483 000 votes, 1.32%) was disappointing, but the campaign dynamic was really interesting and has built a precious based for the fight for a wider Radical Left Unity alternative.

LCR attempts to claim that the Bové campaign was different from their own had limited success, since on measure after measure, the two candidates were saying the same thing. The more sectarian members of the LCR were reduced to deliberately misunderstanding some of Bové’s jokes…

Bové’s was the only campaign which brought together activists from different organizations or none to work together. Its lack of party structure and tendency to spontaneity led to a certain amateurism and some mistakes. And the manipulations of the PCF leadership and the sectarian errors of the LCR leadership have strengthened the hand of anti-party current within the United Radical Left committees.
These committees, which are now organizing “United against Sarkozy” events and pushing for United Radical Left candidacies in the parliamentary elections are heterogeneous but very promising structures. Along with the “Communists for Unity” (Communistes unitaires) they no doubt represent the most interesting new developments in Left political organization in France for many years.

Obviously there is no guarantee  that they will be able to grow significantly and to oblige sections of established organizations to join forces with them to produce a credible political alternative.


If  the reader has the impression that the French radical Left is one almighty mess in the midst of a very promising situation, then he or she has probably correctly understood my article. Nevertheless, many questions remain open.

- If Sarkozy is elected, will the consequent demoralization of Left and union militants be so deep that any progress building an alternative will be slowed down massively?
- If Royal is elected, with the help of some sort of alliance with the centre, will the Socialist Party see a split to its Left?
- Will the LCR continue moving into sectarianism, or will their dominant position electorally push them, in this crisis situation to make some genuine initiative towards anticapitalist unity
- How quickly will the collapse of the Communist party progress, opening up a space to its Left?
- Will the “Communists for Unity” get stuck as a talking shop and too much of a mixed bag to build anything serious enough for action?
- Will the Bové committees continue their dynamic and replace the amateurism and spontaneism with a more serious approach ?
- Will anybody have a go at recruiting the next generation?

Certainly practically the whole of the radical Left is very weak on looking outwards, engaging with large numbers of people, and trying to bring in the new generation of activists. It is as though old activists who have survived the hard times when there were few struggles, have got stuck in a rut of long meetings and waiting sceptically for anyone new to force their way in the door.

I know it’s easy for a member of a tiny group to give good or bad grades to the whole of the rest of the Left who are hundreds of times bigger, but still… one example :
After the marvellous mass movement against the First Employment Contract in 2006, a movement which blockaded over sixty universities and hundreds of high schools, all the organizations seemed to go back to business-as-usual. Lots of dusty internal meetings and long explanatory texts. No doubt indispensable. But there were practically no meetings on campuses to address the political issues raised by the movement, very few attempts to set up active Student Left organizations, concerts, rallies, exhibitions, bookstalls… The radical left is in need of a lot of new vitality if it is to measure up to the situation of class polarization which France is deeply immersed in. The election campaign period has been marked by several important strikes and the struggle of undocumented immigrants, and it is very clear that on the ground, there is no class truce on the horizon.

John Mullen
Editor of Socialisme International

Personal website
Comments welcome john.mullen @

(1)  Nevertheless the article contains a number of in my view necessary simplifications for pedagogical reasons.
  (2) I have omitted two small candidates I have nothing to say about.
  (3) I have omitted one Trotskyist candidate, Gérard Schivardi. Look him up on wikipedia if you think he has any significance. I don’t.
 (4) This was not his official label.

Note : this article will be somewhat updated after the second round run-off.

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