In the second round of French presidential elections, incumbent Jacques Chirac received 82 percent of the vote, defeating the ultrarightist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac, a conservative Gaullist, was supported by the leaders of the Socialist and French Communist parties, along with various "left of the left groups," who organized a "vote Chirac to stop fascism" movement that has, at least temporarily, succeeded in derailing the protests by workers and young people against government policies.
The first round vote for both wings of traditional French electoral politics, which have cooperated for five years in what is known as a "cohabitation" government, collapsed as a result of continued government attacks on retirement, medical care, education and employment. For years the Plural Left government has tried to force through massive budget cuts in education, medical care, and retirement only to be met by determined worker resistance. In January 2001, a government "reform" of the retirement system was withdrawn after 300,000 workers took to the streets.
With the resignation of Socialist Party prime minister Lionel Jospin, Chirac named a new prime minister who has formed a government pledged to "reestablish law and order and the authority of the republic" and to "reform"--that is, to slash--the retirement system.
"In the long term," says Moïses Martinez, "the vote for Chirac will turn against workers." Martinez, who immigrated to France from his native Spain, has worked for 34 years at the French auto manufacturer Renault. He thought that "the demonstrations against Le Pen were great," while at the same time insisting that "Chirac is just no good. Some workers have been discouraged. They just do not fully see the consequences of their vote."
Without any clear leadership from a proletarian party, workers have had to debate out the question amongst themselves, as is the case among workers in the naval repair yards of the SNCM on the docks in Marseille, the area of France with the strongest support for Le Pen.
Range of views
Gerard Arcangoli, a 36-year-old locksmith, wouldn’t say for whom he had voted but he echoed many of Le Pen’s campaign arguments saying that "we need to start putting French people first and clean up this country. There’s too much crime, too much disorder.... The power sharing between the left and right wasn’t a good thing. I want the right to have all the power and see if they can’t get things done."
Arcangoli’s co-worker Bernard Leonardi, a 45-year-old welder, member of the CGT union and of the Socialist Party, explained his pro-Chirac vote: "I voted to save democracy, not for Chirac." Lumping together those who voted for Le Pen with those who voted for several centrist groups that call themselves Trotskyist, he added "if all those idiots hadn’t voted for extremist parties all this would never have happened."
Patrick Grenier, a 42-year-old electrician, is also a member of the CGT. "Of course I’m against Le Pen, but I cast a blank ballot. There’s no way anyone can convince me to turn my back on all I’ve ever fought for, all I’ve ever believed in, and vote for Chirac."
At the other end of France, workers at the Peugeot auto assembly plant at Poissy outside of Paris were having similar discussions. Ayhan Isikyildiz, a 30-year-old worker of Turkish origin active in the CGT, has worked at Peugeot for 10 years. He said it is "good to demonstrate but we shouldn’t demonstrate only against Le Pen but also question Chirac. We also have problems. Look what they did with the law for the 35-hour workweek, and all the temporary workers. I would have preferred that everyone demonstrate against the bosses because that’s what Chirac represents. We have to convince the high school students who demonstrated against Le Pen."
B. Dabo, who comes from Mali, is a temporary worker at the same auto plant. He organized a group of 30 immigrant workers from Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania to form an animated contingent in the May Day demonstration. While most contingents in the demonstration concentrated on calling for a vote for Chirac to stop Le Pen, Dabo’s contingent called for an end to racial discrimination in travel and in sports. He criticized those who "voted for Chirac, not because of his program but to block Le Pen. Chirac will now adopt some of the ideas advanced by Le Pen."
Thierry Broutin, an auto worker at the Citroën assembly plant in Aulnay, called up one Militant corespondent and asked to be interviewed. "They stole our May Day," he said, referring to the organizers of the French nationalist actions. "I knew it when I saw all those French flags. Before we had flags from workers of all countries but rarely any sign of French nationalism."
New government moves
Chirac has wasted no time in putting his newly acquired authority into action. He has named Jean-Pierre Raffarin as prime minister. Raffarin says that the massive vote for Chirac gives his government the legitimacy to "restore the authority of the republic."
The new government has adopted as its first priority to set up a Ministry of the Interior, Internal Security and Local Freedoms, described as a super "law and order" ministry. The new ministry will be headed up by Nicolas Sarkozy, making him the number two man in the new government. Sarkozy was previously associated with the government of Alain Juppé.
In 1995, the Juppé government had provoked massive strikes led by railroad workers when it tried to freeze the wages of public employees, raise the retirement age, gut the public medical care system, and privatize the railroads. The attacks on workers’ rights were, for the most part, defeated. The press has called the newly formed government "Juppé’s revenge."
The conservative daily, Le Figaro, says that Juppé is the "phantom vice president" claiming that, although he is not a member of the government, he is really the one pulling the strings.
‘Law and order’ campaign
Sarkozy’s new ministry is to centralize the relations between the national police and the gendarmery--a militarized police under the control of the army. The ministry is to centralize the intelligence-gathering networks of the two services in a "war against terrorism and the mafia" and a crackdown on "petty crime" which, in the framework of the recent elections, means second-generation immigrant youth in the suburban working-class housing projects.
A large part of the "law and order" drive is directed at young people and is aimed at driving a wedge between unemployed second-generation immigrant youth and industrial workers with regular contract jobs who are facing layoffs and cutbacks. The new government hopes to alter the 1945 statute on juvenile delinquency by lowering the penal age from 13 to 10 years of age. Prison centers for young people will be set up. For the first time, preventive detention of minors over 16 will be allowed.
The new government says that after "law and order," its second priority will be the "reform" of the retirement system. Neither workers nor the bosses have forgotten the last time they crossed swords over this issue. The determined 1995 strike wave led by the railroad workers accompanied by massive demonstrations of millions throughout the country still sends shudders of fear up the backbone of the French boss class.
Meanwhile, the Socialist and Communist Parties are gearing up for the legislative elections to be held in June. They hope to win a majority, forcing the formation of yet another period of "cohabitation."
Marc Kinzel, who works at SNCM shipyards in Marseille, and Derek Jeffers, who works at the Peugeot plant in Poissy, contributed to this article. Both are members of the CGT.
What lessons should working people draw from the elections in France?
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