BY NAT LONDON
PARIS - "A President for a Divided France" read the cover of the mass circulation weekly magazine Le Point in the days leading up to the second round of France's presidential elections. During his election campaign, Jacques Chirac, France's newly elected president, presented this "social fracture" as the country's number one problem. Chirac, candidate of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic, beat Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin 52 percent to 48 percent May 7 in the second round.
Some 60,000 people, including many young people, filled Paris's Place de la Concorde to welcome his victory. Polls showed Chirac with a clear majority among young people, attracted to his promise of "real change."
The social polarization in France, and the skepticism with which many workers viewed the election, was evident as strike actions continued unabated throughout the campaign, including during the two weeks between the first and second rounds of voting. Riot police attacked several of these strikes. At the Elf oil refinery in Donge, where 250 workers had walked out, cops occupied the plant allowing gas tank trucks to be loaded.
The leaderships of the three main union confederations have all stated that strikes will continue as workers press for higher wages.
Without waiting for the results of the second round of voting, unions announced new strike actions. Workers in Paris's large department stores will walk out and hold a demonstration May 11. Air Inter workers will launch their seventh strike in two months on the same day. Social workers will strike May 12, and social security workers May 23. Railroad workers have announced a national demonstration in Paris for May 31, the day after projected one-day strikes by gas, electric, postal, and telecommunication workers.
Fascist presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, who received 15 percent of the vote during the first round, tried to mobilize his supporters at a May 1 demonstration in honor of Joan of Arc. Around 15,000 attended, about the same number as were on hand for the traditional workers' May Day demonstration.
During the course of the right-wing action, skinhead supporters of Le Pen pushed Brahim Bouarram, a 29-year-old immigrant worker from Morocco, into the Seine River, where he drowned. The attackers then rejoined the Le Pen action and melted into the crowd.
This was the second racist killing by Le Pen supporters during the election campaign. On February 21, Ibrahim Ali, a young person from the Comoro Islands off the coast of Africa, was shot and killed in Marseilles by members of the National Front who were putting up Le Pen posters. That racist murder was quickly followed by an angry protest demonstration with many young people and immigrants participating.
Le Pen justified this first murder saying that the National Front members had been attacked, although all witnesses denied this. "At least this unfortunate incident," he said, "has brought to everyone's attention the presence in Marseilles of 50,000 Comorians. What are they doing here?"
By the time of the second killing five weeks later, Le Pen was forced to be more careful. On May 3, protests were held throughout France condemning Bouarram's murder. Called on 24 hours notice by a number of unions and political organizations, the Paris demonstration drew 20,000 people. Even Chirac's party sent an official delegation. Dominique, a 26-year-old production worker at Citroen, said he regretted not being able to attend the May 3 protest. But in the first round, he had hesitated between voting for Le Pen or for Arlette Laguiller, candidate of the Trotskyist organization Lutte Ouvriere (Workers' Struggle).
When a racist joke was made about Arabs "not knowing how to swim," many workers at Peugeot's large auto plant at Poissy near Paris were incensed. Philippe, a young production worker, said the killings "resembled racist crimes in World War II." A sharp exchange took place and the author of the racist joke was isolated.
Under pressure, Le Pen retreated on his initial efforts to justify the second racist murder. "The people who did this are criminals and should be arrested by the police," he finally said.
Nat London is a member of the General Confederation of
Workers (CGT) at Renault. Jean-Louis Salfati, a CGT member at
Citroen, also contributed to this article.
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