Saturday, June 17, 2017

Record abstention in French elections as Macron secures majority

Lisbeth Latham

  The first round France’s National Assembly elections have been marked by record abstention of 51.29% of the electorate.

The abstentionism primarily impacted on the far-right and left parties. Meanwhile, recently elected President Emmanuel Macron’s The Republic on the March (LREM) and its allies look to secure a strong parliamentary majority in the second round of elections on June 18.

This would strengthen LREM and allies capacity to carry out Macron’s agenda of regressive assaults on students, workers, the unemployed and retirees. LREM’s victory in the first round creates a significant challenge for the French left to build resistance to Macron.

LREM’s allies include the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem), along with dissident members of the right-wing The Republicans (LR) and the Socialist Party (PS). Combined, these forces received 32.32% of the vote. They are expected to ultimately win between 390-440 out of the 577 seats in the National Assembly.
The second highest result was achieved by the LR and allied right-wing parties, which received 21.57% of the vote. These traditional right-wing parties are expected to win between 70 and 90 seats in the second round.
The far-right Front National placed third with 13.20%, with the FN are expected to increase the number of seats it holds beyond its current two. There is an outside chance it could win enough seats to form a formal parliamentary group (15 seats).
Left results
On the left, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed (FI) received 11.02% of the vote, and 65 of its candidates have qualified for the second round.
The vote for the traditional social democratic party, the PS, and its allies fell dramatically from 2012, although it was up from its record low in the presidential elections. They won 9.51% of the vote and are expected to win 20-30 seats. This is down dramatically from the 331 seats they hold in the outgoing parliament, with a large number of former government ministers already eliminated in the second round.
The French Communist Party (PCF), for its part, had been heavily dependent on the Left Front electoral alliance with Melenchon’s Left Party to win its seven seats in 2012. With no alliance between the PCF and FI, it suffered a sharp decline in its electoral fortunes — receiving just 2.72% of the vote. Just 12 PCF candidates qualified for the second round.
LREM’s likely strong majority, along with Macron’s victory in the presidential election, is being presented as a rejection as the mainstream parties of the centre-left and the right, as well as an endorsement of Macron’s “modernising” agenda.
Macron is already flagging a new round of attacks on workers and their unions. These include expanding the areas that a company level agreement can undercut a sectoral agreement — along with his campaign pledge to cut France’s public sector by 140,000 jobs.
No mandate
However, while appearing a strong result, the reality is LREM domination of the vote is primarily a consequence of the decline in the mobilisation of voters of the left and far right.
Candidates backed by Macron received 1.3 million fewer votes than Macron did in the first round of the presidential election. Moreover, LREM vote constitutes a small section of the French electorate.
The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) pointed out in a statement: “With over 51% abstention, the results of the first round of parliamentary election is that of a sick and increasingly undemocratic Republic. 
“That the Republic on the March should have an absolute majority in the Assembly with the support of 16% of registered voters ... this result shows that this government has no legitimacy to rule by decree, much less to destroy our social gains, the Labour Code, or social Security”.
It is unclear what drove the sharp decline electoral support for the FI and the PCF from the first round of the presidential election. Some of the decline potentially reflects a letdown from Macron’s victory, along with difficulty in transforming Melenchon’s individual electoral appeal to the FI.
Another factor may well have been the failure of the FI and PCF to build a united left electoral campaign for the legislative elections. This division was a consequence of long running tensions between Melenchon and the Left Party on the one hand and the PCF on the other.
These tensions led the majority the PCF’s national conference in November to reject a proposal that the PCF support Melenchon’s presidential campaign. The PCF subsequently endorsed Melenchon only after a narrow membership vote in favour.
Struggle for united left 
There was widespread support for a united legislative campaign, but there was no agreement over the basis for such an alliance.
The PCF sought an alliance based on non-aggression and the ability the parties to present their own programs under their own banner. The FI, on the other hand, made the basis of unity having all candidates accepting its program, under its banner and with all public funding based on votes going to the FI.
The impact of this division was felt in a range of ways. It led to a number of the PCF candidates standing solely as FI candidates. It also led to a level of alienation of the bases of the different groups over the blame game for divisions.
The only PCF candidates who did not compete against an FI candidate in their constituency were those PCF members of parliament who endorsed Melenchon’s campaign. These were among some of the better performing PCF candidates (some receiving more than 30% of the vote in their constituencies).
However, this may also have been a consequence of them standing in seats where the PCF has continued to maintain strong links with the working class.
It is unclear exactly how much of an impact the standing of multiple left candidates in individual constituencies had on the left vote. But it is clear that the divided situation resulted in less left candidates qualifying for the second round of the elections. This weakens the ability of the left to blunt the size of the LREM’s parliamentary majority.
The FI and PCF leaderships have both made clear the pressing need for the left to unite to support the remaining left candidates. There are 80 left candidates who made it through to the second round (including PS candidates who have consistently opposed anti-worker changes to the Labour Code). There are 42 seen as being in a strong position to win a seat.
However, this number could rise if the left is able to mobilise a greater section of its base in the second round. PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent was reported in l'Humanite on June 13 as saying: “The mobilisation of leftist voters is necessary because it is thanks to the huge abstention that the Republic on the Move could get an absolute majority.”
The street
As important as the June 18 second round vote will be in establishing a parliamentary opposition to Macron, the reality will be that the main struggle against attacks on social gains in France will occur in the street.
The Front Social, established in April and including more than 100 unions and other activist groups, has called national mobilisations against Macron for June 19. Unions in Paris have also called protests for June 27, the day that newly elected MPs will take their seats, as part of their campaign against the attacks on France’s labour laws.
These mobilisations will be important steps in the building of a movement against Macron.
[This article originally appeared in Green Left Weekly #1141]


Sunday, June 11, 2017

France: France Insoumise, the PCF and the challenge of building a left fight-back against Macron

Lisbeth Latham
The strong performance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the French presidential election (19.58%), the highest vote by candidate to the left of social democracy since 1969, gave rise to hope for the potential for the French left to rebuild its presence in the French parliament and establish itself as a barrier to Macron establishing a parliamentary majority. A factor that could contribute to fully realising this opportunity would be the extent to which a united-left electoral campaign could be built– particularly between the parties which made up the Front de Gauche (Left Front - FG).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon addresses a France Insoumise rally
However, rather than unity the dynamics of division that have been in play for more than two years have largely deepened and could potentially result in the left returning fewer members to parliament than in 2012.

Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was primarily driven by France Insoumise (Indomitable France – FI), the mass organisation which Mélenchon launched on February 10, 2016 with the support of Parti de Gauche (Left Party – PG), the party he launched following his resignation from the PS in 2009. When FI was launched, Mélenchon also announced the dissolution of the Front de Gauche – the electoral front which had been launched between the PG, the Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party – PCF) and a number of smaller left parties. FI has primarily organised via the web, with supporters being organised into committees of between 5-12 people, By May 1, FI had more than 450, 000 supporters, in March, when the organisation had over 260, 000 supporters, there were 2, 800 committees across.

Pierre Laurent
In addition to the support from FI, Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was supported by the PCF and Ensemble (a regroupment of smaller left groups within the FG). However, while the launch of FI and Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was supported by some of PCF’s leadership, particularly Pierre Laurent, PCF National Secretary, and Marie-George Buffet, current MP and former PCF National Secretary, many PCF members were hostile to both the creation of FI and to Melenchon’s presidential campaign. Fifty-five percent of the PCF’s National Conference on November 5, rejected a proposal to support Melenchon’s presidential bid. Three weeks later, 54% of the party’s 50, 000 paid membership voted to support Mélenchon’s candidacy. This support was vital, as in order to be formally nominated for president, he required the endorsement from 500 elected officials – which the PCF’s formal support gave him. There was also significant resistance within Ensemble where 30% of members voting against supporting Mélenchon’s candidature.

Mélenchon’s success in the presidential elections while being a culmination of a growth of in hope around his campaign – also raised the hope that if the vote could be translated through to the legislative elections there would be a possibility that the left of the PS could not only significantly boost its presence in parliament, but have a big enough contingent to be able to block Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche! (the Republic on the Move – LREM) holding a majority in the parliament. This need was reinforced after Macron announced his government with former right-wing Les Repulicains MP Édouard Philippe as his prime minister. Macron announced plans for a new round of attacks on workers to follow on from last year’s El Khomri labour laws which significantly undermined worker and union rights.

Despite this hope and need for a united left electoral response, it has not materialised. While in the wake of the Macron’s victory in the second round both the PCF and Ensemble! issued statements calling for a united left electoral ticket. FI insisted the basis for unity was for candidates run under FI’s banner, be based on acceptance of FI’s program, and that all public funding generated based on votes for FI candidates would go to FI. Positions which the PCF was unwilling to accept, based on their desire run under a common banner but also allow individual parties to be profiled and the PCF’s unwillingness to campaign for the withdrawal from nuclear power generation. On May 9, Manuel Bompard an FI spokesperson announced that negotiations had broken down, he blamed the PCF’s Laurent for this. As a consequence, the FI would be running its own candidates in every constituency including constituencies where the PCF, Ensemble!, or Europe Ecology les Vertes (Europe Ecology - The Greens) have sitting MPs (unless the sitting MP had endorsed Mélenchon’s presidential campaign).

The failure to form a united ticket reflects long-running tensions within the FG which culminated in the 2015 regional elections where the FG was heavily divided and received tiny votes. From the outset there were tensions within the Front about both the character of the front, was it an alliance between organisations or should individual activists be able to join and have a say, and around democracy, with the PCF, particularly in areas where it was the largest organisation, imposing its candidates, there had also been tensions as to who could say they were front candidate – which was a problem in municipal and regional elections where tickets are run and at times member organisations were represented on different tickets – with the sharpest question being could a ticket involving official PS candidates be labelled a FG ticket? With the PCF (which was more likely to be in such an alliance pushing for the ability for it to wave the FG flag in these circumstances).

These tensions culminated in a meeting of the European United Left/ Nordic Green Left (EUG/NGL) in 2014 where PG sort to block Pierre Laurent’s election to the presidency of the EUL/NGL over the question of the PCF’s running joint tickets with the PS, although Laurent was subsequently elected. In the 2015 regional elections (which were marked by a sharp increase in support for the Front National) the FG ran only a seven of tickets involving all of the FG– with the rest being a variety of separate tickets with the PCF and thePG running on different tickets. The joint tickets performed badly, with the only ticket in Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées receiving sufficient votes to contest the second round – all the remaining tickets averaging 2.49%. In the wake of this failure, the Front essentially stopped operating as a joint organisation and Mélenchon announcing the PG would be leaving the Front.

The rupture between the PCF and FI has created considerable concern that it will dramatically undermine the ability to of the left to maximise its parliamentary representation and build an effective block to work with social movements to oppose Macron’s regressive agenda for France. On May 10, Ensemble! issued a statement saying that it was not the time to settle scores or for mutual accusations, but instead to build a framework for bringing together the forces which had supported Mélenchon’s candidacy, based on a proposal of a common charter for candidates for the legislative elections that Ensemble! had made to the PCF and FI – Ensemble! had also called for regional and departmental meetings of the organisations to try and overcome the “national bottleneck”. While these proposals if adopted might create clarity for the basis of joint candidates, it doesn’t overcome the sticking point of who would be the candidate in each constituency – particularly when the PCF is faced with a fight for its electoral survival, and there is a view that Mélenchon’s approach to the PCF is partly motivated by desire to further marginalise the PCF.

It is unclear what the impact of the electoral division will have on the elections. The shared polling for the FI/PCF has been in decline since early May from a high of 18% to a low of 14.5% with projected returned candidates down from a projected high of 25-30 to a low of 12-22 (the FG components currently hold 10 seats). The splitting of the vote is likely to result in less candidates making it through to the second round (unlike the presidential elections where only the top two candidates go through to the second round, in the legislative elections if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote then all candidates receiving more than 12% of the vote qualify for the second round) other than lowering confidence of the left electorate, having two or more left candidates (both the Nouveau Parti Anticapitlisate and Lutte Ouvrier will also be standing candidates) in a constituency may not undermine the capacity for the left to win seats. The bigger threats are the potential rebound in the PS vote from the historic low of 6.38% which Hamon received in April – while the left division could contribute to this – the PS performs is likely to be better at the local level particularly from the PS’s left who opposed the regressive record of the Hollande and the governments of Aryault and Valls. An additional factor is that Hamon’s vote also collapsed as Mélenchon’s campaign built momentum and it looked more likely he could overtake Francois Fillon and possibly Le Pen – this dynamic is much less likely to occur in the legislative elections, at least at the national level. By far the biggest threat to the return of left candidates, however, will be the threat of abstentionism as people see a victory for Macron’s LREM and the forces to its right as inevitable.

The reality is that no matter the result for the parties of the left – they will not be able to block Macron’s agenda by their actions in parliament alone – even if LREM does not achieve an electoral majority outright, it will be in a position to try and stick together sufficient support from the PS and Les Repulicains to pass legislation. The only force which will be able to stop that process will be the resistance in the streets. To this end, there has been a positive boost to the resistance with the formation of the Social Front. Initiated by union activists who had been involved in the campaign against the El Khomri laws and who had been frustrated by the decision by union leaderships to end mobilisations against those laws on September 15, 2016. The FS called for mobilisations against both Le Pen and Macron on April 22, May 1, and May 8 – it has now expanded its support to from 70 militant organisations. The FS has also called for a national meeting on June 10, along with local organising meetings after that date, and a mass mobilisation for June 19. The significance of the emergence of the FS is that in the last decade resistance to government attacks, particularly on workers, has primarily occurred via the intersydicale which brings together the leaderships of France’s union confederations – however if some of these confederations refuse to participate such as the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) and the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers) in the campaign against the El Khomri laws in 2016, then there is a very limited framework for engaging rank-and-file members of these confederations who want to fight government attacks. The formation of the FS may provide a framework to reach out to broader layers of workers and build resistance despite the direction of the more conservative confederation leaderships.

While there are serious challenges for progressive forces in France – made more difficult by the organisational divisions within the left, both the legislative elections and the formation of the FS pose a positive opportunity to build resistance to the attacks which Macron is preparing on French society. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 


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