By Joan Trevor
The French regional elections delivered a big snub to right-wing UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) prime minster Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
His coalition now control only two - Alsace and Corsica - of the 22 metropolitan regions.
The victors in the second round of voting on 28 March were coalitions led by the Socialist Party and including variously the Greens, the Communist Party and other smaller parties of this "plural left". They went from controlling eight regions previously to controlling 20.
The share of the vote was roughly 50% to the plural left, 38% to the government, and 12% to the fascist National Front.
The far-left, which had been present in the first round and won 4.6% of the vote, was not eligible to stand in the second round. They did not call for a vote for the plural left in the second round, which has led to them being criticised by some in their own ranks [see below].
This election was seen by many French voters, those who have taken part in recent months in the strikes and demonstrations against government attacks on pensions, education and benefits, as a referendum on Raffarin's rule. People who do not support the policy or record of the plural left - which after all, blazed a trail for Raffarin's neoliberal policies while they were themselves in government - nonetheless saw this election as a chance to punish the government.
The next chance to do this will be in June 2004 at the elections for the European assembly, and then not again until 2007 when first the president, and then the government is elected. That is a long time away, and in the meantime this government of the bosses is hell-bent on dismantling the French welfare state to get the economy "competitive".
Quite apart from those policies being the natural terrain of the UMP, the government is being pressured by a high unemployment rate - 9% - and the need to cut the budget deficit. For two years the French budget deficit has exceeded the Maastricht target of 3% of GDP. Last year the deficit was 4.1%.
Next in Raffarin's sights is the healthcare budget. He is also preparing nationalised industries for privatisation. Workers at Electricité de France/Gaz de France (EdF/GdF) are having their terms of employment worsened in preparation for privatisation. They will take to the streets to protest against this on 8 April.
On 1 May there will be a mobilisation around the attacks on unemployment benefit; and on 5 June demonstrations against the visit to France of US president Bush.
Did their pasting in the polls chasten Raffarin or right-wing president Jacques Chirac in any way? No, a snub is not a blow, alas.
Raffarin and his cabinet resigned when they learned of the results, but Chirac reappointed Raffarin the next day. "Jacques Chirac has just stuck two fingers up to the French people," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialist Party in parliament.
Chirac then reshuffled the cabinet, and sent these apparatchiks of the bourgeoisie back into the fray.
Raffarin won a vote of confidence in his new government in parliament. But then he would, because the parliament is full of his supporters.
The government announced a small retreat on one of the planned "reforms" - for which read cuts - of unemployment benefit, but it is basically still full-steam ahead for the Thatcherisation of French society. What can stop this runaway train?
No one can expect the newly elected regional governments of the Socialist Party and their allies to offer any opposition - it's simply not their style or their politics! Happily, opinion polls conducted around the elections suggest that the electors know this. But the trouncing of the government should give heart to the movement on the ground against government attacks: there should be more on the demonstrations, more in the strikes that continue intermittently.
Will the score for the far-left - less than the 10% in the presidential election, in 2002, though more than the 2.4% in the legislative (parliamentary) elections, also in 2002 - dishearten activists and those who were for the first time thinking about rejecting the whole framework of bourgeois politics. A statement from the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), with Lutte Ouvrière (LO) which formed an electoral alliance with Lutte Ouvrière for these regional elections show no signs of lost confidence:
"The right has just been wiped out. There is no quibbling with the anti-Raffarin referendum. We rejoice at the result. This evening, the Chirac-Raffarin government has no legitimacy. After this defeat of the right, we must fight back even harder than we did over pensions, and force the government to stop all its anti-social attacks, starting with the social security reforms.
"This evening, the electorate used the left to reject the policy of the government. This does not in any way signify confidence in the Socialist Party and its allies. To really defeat the policy of the right and to beat back the National Front, we need to break from the policy pursued for 20 years by successive governments. It is this goal that we will defend with Lutte Ouvrière at the European elections in June. To achieve the hopes manifested in these elections, we must build a force that can force back the government and the bosses. We need now a united mobilisation of the whole of the working class, of the activist and the political left."
Lutte Ouvrière's only comment on the result has been to say that it was content with its "steady" score!
The abstention rate was around 38% in the first round of the elections, and 35% in the second round.
A mon avis...
"The closer we came to 21 March, the clearer it became that tactical voting would come into play and that the same people who were in the streets in the spring were going to give their votes in part to the plural left. Including in the first round.
There is no mystery here and nothing contradictory: the vote in the regional elections is a continuation of the social movement of the spring. It has the same political content and the same demands. And the far-left was not able to participate in this process in order to give it a different outcome.
Worse, in refusing to consider the question of the second round, washing its hands of it, the LO-LCR list lost the confidence of part of its electorate during the second round. Because the question during the second round was, in reality, that of getting rid of this government and its regional representatives by uniting the whole working class.
What Hollande [leader of the Socialist Party] and Chirac fear is the radical application of democracy in a two-party system that is totally locked into alternation [i.e Tweedledum and Tweedledee in politics]."
* National unity government in France, during the First World War, that included socialists, and politicians of the far-right.
Claude Luchetta, Lettre de Liaisons, 2 April 2004
- Lettre de Liaisons is a bulletin produced by French far-left activists. Click here for details.