Andrew Coates

France: rout of the left

Andrew Coates
France: rout of the left

FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON and Prime Minister Édouard Phillippe have lost no time in announcing that they will begin office with a new reform of the labour laws. “Ultra-liberal” legislation, that will give employers wide powers to sack, and give priority to local agreements over national collective bargaining, is in the pipeline. The Phillippe government also intends to make the state of emergency permanent. This anti-terrorist crackdown, run by the Interior Minister and state Préfets, not the courts, has been used in 2016 against opponents of the previous labour reform, the El Khomri law.

With 66% of the vote in the second round of May’s presidential election against the far-right Marine Le Pen, Macron has the wind in his sails. His movement, En Marche!, will dominate the French parliament. Described as a ‘populist of the centre’, Macron wishes to “free the spirit of enterprise”. Socially liberal - he backs gay marriage - the economics of the new government span pro-business policies, loosening regulation, and lowering employers' social security contributions.

Macron’s strong pro-EU position contrasted with nationalist attacks against Brussels from the National Front. Ending the wagecutting status of ‘posted workers’ from other parts of the European Union is, nevertheless, an indication that the new president is intent on some welcome reforms.

The candidate of the outgoing majority, the Socialist Party (PS), Benoît Hamon received 6% of the vote in the first round of the presidential contest. For the parliamentary poll his party risks winning fewer seats than their historic low, 57 in 1993. On top of the legacy of an unpopular President, François Hollande, they suffer from deep divisions.

Right wing Socialists, such as ex-Prime Minister Emmanuel Valls, backed Macron’s campaign against Hamon. Ministers in the Phillippe government include recent transfers from the PS, such as Richard Ferrand, the centre of the first business and politics scandal of the new administration.

The former Socialist Minister El Khomri, charged with changing the labour code, the target of mass protests and strikes in 2016, is standing under the label of Macron’s “presidential majority”. Far from opposing this trend the party has dropped some of Hamon’s radical propositions, such as opposition to nuclear power, and hopes to play a “constructive” role towards the incoming En Marche! government.

The parties to the left of the Socialists are in disarray. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of La France Insoumise (LFI), came fourth in the initial presidential vote.

He got 19.5%, just behind the right wing Les Républicains’ François Fillon at 20% He had strong support among young people. 24% of workers backed him, against the 39% who cast their ballots for Marine Le Pen. LFI has hundreds of thousands of supporters who can join online. They can only take part in very limited decisionmaking, on terms set by the team around Mélenchon.

It should be obvious that LFI, resolutely opposed to the Hollande presidency, would be extremely hostile to the Socialists. But for the legislative elections the national movement has refused national agreements with all other left organisations, from the Communists to the ecologists. Asked to submit to the LFI’s choices and offer their finances to them, they refused. While a tiny number of local accords have been reached the general atmosphere is hostile. The Green Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who supported Mélenchon throughout the presidential election, accused Mélenchon of a “scorched earth” policy towards the rest of the left. While they may be able to ruin the chances of their competitors on the left, it is unlikely that they will be able to win substantial parliamentary representation.

Some on the international left are attracted to the “rebellious France” of LFI. The movement’s populist politics have had a broad echo. They wed green ideas, the promotion of workers’ rights, political reform in a new republic, with anti-austerity Keynesian economics. Mélenchon’s speaking abilities are outstanding but the policy details, emphasising French ‘national independence’ and its military power, are harder for socialists to accept.

The French left is undergoing profound changes. Those who believe that being in power is more important than any socialist project have thrown the existence of the PS into doubt. A viable alternative to their support for Macron’s ‘progressive alliance’ has yet to be built. Mélenchon’s enthusiastic supporters may consider that they can ‘take the power’, but LFI is not under the democratic control of its membership and is contested by the rest of the French left and is unlikely even to get near to state power. Debates by our comrades on the French left indicate that more viable radical socialist projects have yet to emerge into the wider political world.