Friday, May 12, 2017

France: Le Pen loses, but struggle against Macron brings new challenges

Lisbeth Latham

Emmanuel Macron won the second round of the French presidential elections on May 7, receiving 58.21% of the vote compared to the 30.01% share for far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen.

Despite the apparently decisive victory, the vote signals continued political uncertainty in France fuelled by widespread disillusionment with France’s democracy. It raises questions as to whether Macron’s supporters, organised in a new centrist movement called En Marche!, will be able to form a working government out of legislative elections scheduled for mid-June.
Despite Macron winning the first round, there were doubts over whether sufficient numbers of voters who had supported other candidates would shift their vote to Macron in the second round. The desire to deal the FN a defeat was strong, but many were put off by the hard neoliberal platform of Macron, the personification of an establishment technocrat.
AbstentionMacron’s total vote ultimately more than doubled his first round vote, but in the context of the lowest turnout in a presidential vote since the 1969 presidential elections, which occurred in the aftermath of repression of the mass mobilisations of May-June 1968.
More than 25% of voters abstained from the contest between the far-right and centrist candidate. There were also 11.47% blank ballots cast.
The abstention and blank ballots reflect the extent to which voters were alienated not just from the racist pro-capitalist politics of Le Pen, but also Macron’s promise to continue and deepen the neoliberal attacks on French society carried out by successive governments.
Some of Macron’s policies include budget cuts totalling €60 billion; lowering corporate tax from 33.3% to 25%; creating a 5000-strong EU border force; adding 10,000 extra police; and expanding jails to house a further 15,000 prisoners.
National FrontLe Pen was always seen as unlikely to win the second round — the only real chance for her to win was huge abstentionism. Her objective in the second round was always to further build the position of the FN for the legislative elections as well as the 2022 presidential elections.
Le Pen’s final vote of 10.5 million (a 38.62% increase over the first round) was significant. But it was widely greeted with relief that the vote was not as high as some feared, with polls up until May 3 suggesting that the FN vote could be more than 41%.
Le Pen's weaker performance was partly a consequence of the release of further allegations from the European parliament in which she is implicated in a fake jobs scandal. Le Pen’s performance in the second round debate was also widely panned.
The rise of the FN and Le Pen poses a serious threat, but their forward march is not inevitable. They face significant challenges.
One of these is that, despite Le Pen’s efforts to detoxify the FN’s image, its overt racism continues to alienate significant sections of the French working class — particularly Muslim and migrant communities. This reality was reflected in Le Pen’s cynical move immediately after the first round on April 23 to stand down as FN president so she could be “the candidate for all of France”.
However, her efforts were undermined by her replacement Jean-Francois Jalkh, a long-term party member who had joined as a 17-year-old in 1974. He had to resign just days later for previous statements minimising the Holocaust.
The FN also faces significant internal division over the way forward. Le Pen wants to continue moving the party into the mainstream of French right-wing politics and challenge the centre-right Republicans as the main party of the right.
The most unreconstructed reactionary wing of the party continues to resist this push. It is seeking to use Le Pen’s poorer than expected showing to attack this project.
Marine's father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who Marine had expelled from the party in 2015, publicly attacked his daughter on the eve of the second round. He said she was unfit to be president.
Left debatesHow to respond to such a second-round contest was a source of debate within the French left. A particular focus was the extent to which the danger posed by Le Pen made it incumbent on the left to support Macron’s candidacy.
Of particular interest in this regard was the stance taken by Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise (France Unbowed, FI). Melenchon’s campaign posed a radical, left-wing pole in the first round of campaigning, mobilising tens of thousands and securing just under 20% of the vote.
The FI called for not one single vote for Le Pen. However, it put the other options to a membership vote: calling for a vote for Macron; abstaining or casting a blank ballot. More than 36% of FI members backed the organisation calling for blank ballots to be cast.
The French Communist Party (PCF), which campaigned for Melenchon in the first round, called for a vote for Macron, as did and the French Confederation of Democratic Workers (CFDT), France's second-largest union confederation.
PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent called for “beating Marine Le Pen on May 8 and to build legislative victories to defeat both Emmanuel Macron and the extreme right”.
The General Confederation of Labour (CGT), France’s largest union confederation, called for a “vote to block the extreme right”, but refused to publicly call for a vote for Macron.
The CGT said Le Pen posed “a danger to democracy, social cohesion and the world of work”, but that “the governments, which since 2002 have followed one another without ever meeting the legitimate aspirations for greater social justice, failing to create opportunities for a better future, bear a heavy responsibility [for the growth of the FN].”
The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) went further, arguing against a call for a vote for Macron. It said: “Macron is not a bulwark against the FN; to impose a lasting retreat [on the FN] there is no alternative but to take the streets against the far right and against all those who, like Macron, impose or try to impose anti-social measures.”
New challengesWith Macron’s victory, the focus for the left will shift to a struggle on the streets against Macron’s looming assault and on efforts to build a legislative opposition. The CGT called for mobilisations against Macron for May 8, which drew thousands of protestors.
In its call for mobilisations, the CGT said the FN vote was too high and “reflected the level of social despair unleashed by liberal policies a consequence of the refusal of successive governments to fight for social justice.
“Fighting the FN requires a break with liberal policies. It is the perspective of the CGT to work, through social mobilisations, to impose alternative choices, act for social justice and win a world of peace.”
The legislative elections could pose an opportunity for those to the left of the now severely weakened Socialist Party (PS) to achieve a greater parliamentary voice than the 10 MPs that the Left Front (an alliance including the PCF and Melenchon’s Left Party) achieved in the 2012 elections.
The traditional party of French social democracy, the PS candidate won just over 6% in the first round of the presidential elections, leaving a large space on the left.
The position of the left heading to the poll is relatively weak - the combined vote for the left in the presidential elections, including the PS, was just under 10 million. However, parties to the left of the PS won about 7.7 million.
If this was maintained in the legislative elections, it would likely result in a significant expansion in the number of seats won.
However, the bulk of Melenchon’s increased vote in the presidential contest came from PS voters shifting to Melenchon as support for the PS’s Benoit Hamon collapsed. This is unlikely to be replicated.
An added complication is that, at present, there is no agreement between the parties that supported Melenchon’s presidential candidacy on a united campaign in the legislative elections. There is a chance that the FI and the PCF will run candidates against each other, including in constituencies currently held by the PCF.
If this occurred, it could risk a reduction in the number of seats held by the left. In the face of this danger, Ensemble (a far-left regroupment within the Left Front) has called for building a united force of the “defiant left” that breaks with neoliberalism to contest the legislative elections.
“The next legislative elections will be decisive in mobilising the hope raised by Jean-Luc Melenchon’s success in the first round of the French Presidential election,” it said in a statement.
“We need to elect genuine left representatives who will fight Macron’s policies and build an alternative. We have everything to play for.
“Macron must be prevented from obtaining a majority of deputies, drawn from the traditional parties of the right and the French Socialist Party, which will continue and worsen the policies of Francois Hollande’s last five years in power.
“For this reason, it is essential that the progressive forces who supported Jean-Luc Melenchon’s candidacy stand in constituencies across the country and build on the success of the first round. It is necessary to unite left and environmental activists in choosing candidates and break from the social liberals.
“This will give sufficient force to opposing the policies of Macron and challenge both the extreme right and other conservative forces.”
[This article originally appeared in Green Left Weekly #1137You can read a series of translated statements from the French left on the presidential elections at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal ] 


Friday, May 5, 2017

Neoliberalism and the struggle for social solidarity

Lisbeth Latham Today’s crisis of the established political parties and the rise of far-right political projects are linked to the long-running capitalist crisis in which neoliberalism is immiserating the working class and small producers.

Neoliberalism has become dominant, not just within the centre-right but also the former parties of social democracy. This dominance, and the desire to break out of it, has led some to argue that the populist right-wing represent a break from neoliberal doctrine. This is far from the truth.

US President Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage represent an effort by capital to shift popular anger at the impact of neoliberalism on to the most marginalised sections of the community, in particular migrants and refugees. In the colonial settler states, this anger is also directed at indigenous people.
These right-wing populist forces generally support neoliberal policies because they support capital at the expense of the already marginalised and oppressed.

The problem

The problem of neoliberalism has recently become a talking point after ACTU secretary Sally McManus said at theNational Press Club on March 29 that “neoliberalism had run its course”.
This was followed by former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating who said he had supported neoliberalism because it had delivered wages growth, but that it had now “reached a dead end”.
Guardian Australia columnist Van Badham suggested that Labor, having previously helped promote neoliberalism, could now play a progressive role in leading the centre-left away from it.
While McManus’s comments are welcome, her criticisms of neoliberalism were primarily focused on the negative impact of privatisation. Although privatisation is a damaging component of neoliberal policy, it is only a part of it.
Keating’s support for neoliberalism exaggerated the supposed wage gains for workers in Australia and ignored its impact across the world, particularly in countries such as Indonesia and Chile. There, its application involved the murder of tens of thousands of people and, in the case of Indonesia, hundreds of thousands of people.
In Australia, neoliberalism has delivered casualisation and underemployment. The average earnings for all employees rose just 2.4% in real terms during the life of the Hawke-Keating governments.
It is important to understand what neoliberalism is because simply labelling things we don not like about capitalist society as “neoliberal” reinforces some of the mechanisms that neoliberal ideologues use to strengthen the domination of their ideas.

What is neoliberalism?

Defining neoliberalism in terms of a single aspect, such as “austerity” is inaccurate. Neoliberal advocates have no problem with government spending if it helps sustain capitalist profits or class power: indeed neoliberalism has been described, to borrow from Charles Abrams, “socialism for the rich and austerity for the poor”.
Marxist geographer David Harvey argues that neoliberalism is a political project aimed at the restoration of capitalist class power.
There are many examples of how neoliberalism does this. It reduces barriers to capital investment by making and removing barriers to capital investment and shattering trade barriers. It increases barriers to the free movement of people, specifically workers and marginalised, which results in fewer rights for migrant workers.
It pries open more aspects of social life for capital investment via formal or informal privatisation (such as public/private partnerships). It opens up government services to capitalist competition, often supplemented through voucher systems which enables the state to provide subsidies to capital but which also lays the ground for the total deregulation of these services.
It allows the commodification of a wider range of things (or services); a good example of this is the so-called “sharing economy”.
Weakening the strength and power of organised labour — through the deregulation of the labour market — is central to the neoliberal project. Also essential is the outsourcing of public services to private companies, opening the outsourced service to profit making and undermining collective bargaining.
Shifting the cost of the reproduction of labour further onto the working class, including through increasing taxes on workers and cuts to taxes on capital is also critical.
An example of this is superannuation, which was originally funded via smaller wage increases during the Bob Hawke Labor government in the 1980s, and has allowed for the age pension to be narrowed. It has led to Australia having one of the highest rates of poverty among retirees in the OECD.
Reducing spending on social services, either by total elimination of services or means testing services, is another key aspect of the neoliberalism.

Why did neoliberalism become so dominant?

Neoliberalism emerged as a current in the late 1930s, in response to the growth of social democratic and communist parties and to capitalist governments’ increasing acceptance of Keynsian economic policies.
In 1947, a small group of right-wing intellectuals formed the Mont Pelerin Society. This group began establishing similar think tanks at a domestic level to build what Philip Mirowski has described as a neoliberal thought collective, seeking to build networks of intellectuals, politicians and capitalists who promoted neoliberal doctrine and sought to undermine alternative approaches.
This network was able to take advantage of the social, economic and political crises that emerged. Indonesian and Chilean economists, trained in the University of Chicago’s School of Economics, were able to position themselves in Suharto’s New Order Regime and the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship to drive the neoliberal policy experiments in both countries.
These experiments were described as “economic miracles” internationally — miracles that ignored the repression deployed to implement the policies and also the problems caused by neoliberalism.
The economic crisis that swept the advanced capitalist countries in the 1970s allowed these conservative theorists to push neoliberal doctrines as the only solution to the problems facing advanced capitalist economies. Importantly, and this reflects the power of neoliberalism, there has been considerable success in transforming neoliberal assertions into common sense truths.
Examples of this include the notion that privately-run companies are more efficient and effective in providing services.
This defies not only our actual experience of privatised public services costing more but also basic logic. How can a for-profit company provide a service cheaper than a public service which does not have to make a profit, unless the quality of the service drops and workers are paid less?
Another major ruse is that “the market” is more efficient and should not be interfered with. This ignores the reality that neoliberals regularly promote interference in the market, such as interfering in the ability of workers to organise and the gagging of scientists from using their research to promote policies that run counter to the neoliberal agenda.
Part of this success comes from framing neoliberal policies as the only option. As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, there is no alternative. It is done by creating national and international laws that enable governments and companies to deflect public opposition to their agenda by threatening legal action as in many multilateral and bilateral trade deals.
Neoliberal ideologues are adept at undermining social and political movements opposing neoliberalism. It is not unusual to see articles that, on the one hand, deny the impact of racism or sexism and then accuse communities of colour of racism and women of sexism. This is not simply a misunderstanding of the movement: it is a deliberate strategy of division and destabilisation.
Neoliberal ideologues also do their best to destroy social solidarity: they reject the notion that people have common interests and should stand together. Thatcher’s infamous remark — “There is no such thing as society” — helped justify enormous cuts to social services.
The real threat in this idea, however, is not that the conservatives are inhumane and indifferent to the murderous impact of their policies, but that the working class begins to believe that social solidarity is a thing of the past. We see this with the way means testing for social services undermines support for those services among those who are excluded from those services.
This assault on our ability to unite in struggle for our collective interests is the most devastating and despicable aspect of neoliberalism.
It is essential therefore to support those organising against every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects. Only by adopting this approach can we begin to counter the assault on social solidarity, which has the most devastating impact on our class.

[This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly #1136]


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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