France: Huge march blasts austerity, demands democratic renewal

Issue 

The largest left protest ever against the policies of a French Socialist Party (PS) government took place in Paris on May 5. To the stirring sounds of the protest anthem “On Lache Rien” (“We Don’t Give In”), up to 180,000 workers, pensioners, unemployed and students marched from the Bastille to Place de la Nation.

They were demanding an end to economic austerity and for a democratic Sixth Republic that would overturn the present Fifth Republic dominated by corrupt and entrenched financial and political elites. The symbol of the march was the kitchen broom, utensil for the “clean sweep of this insufferable political atmosphere” called for by Left Front leader and last year's presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

On the day, tens of thousands marched with broom or brush in hand.

Melenchon first initiated the idea of the protest after the explosion of the “Cahuzac affair” in early April. This blew up when now-disgraced budget minister Jerome Cahuzac finally came clean and confessed that his denials that he had maintained a tax-dodging Swiss bank account were lies.

After some give-and-take among the Left Front’s nine affiliate groups, May 5 was called as a “Citizen’s March for the Sixth Republic—against finance and austerity”.

Participants in the May 5 were protesting against the systemic corruption revealed by the Cahuzac scandal. But their anger was most of all directed at the total failure of President Francois Hollande and the government of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to counteract the austerity imposed by a European Commission operating under the German hegemony of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) government of Angela Merkel.

In the words of a popular chant on the day: “We didn’t vote for that!”

A year ago, PS candidate Hollande won the French presidency on a platform promising growth, jobs and action against “finance”. Yet that particular Hollande went missing in inaction almost immediately as the French economy headed towards recession and official unemployment rose from 10% to 11%.

A year later youth unemployment has hit 26.9%, with 900,000 young people in France neither working nor studying.

Comments by marchers (as reported by Mediapart, Liberation and Le Monde) reflected bitter disappointment with Hollande’s record:

“Holland has gone on his knees before MEDEF [the main employer organisation]. It’s a catastrophe, a blatant heap of bullshit. I was expecting nothing, but this, it’s worse than nothing.” (Xavier Mathieu, worker leader at Continental factory at Clairoix, site of three-year struggle against “restructuring”.)

“I would never have expected to see Rom people with their caravans being chased off the streets in the middle of winter, nor unionists from factories in struggle being driven back with rubber bullets by the riot squad while protesting outside the headquarters of the financial institutions that close down their workplace ... Damn this Fifth Republic, which stops ordinary citizens from being heard and breeds a caste of crooks who stash away millions while we battle to put aside twenty quid.” (Jeanne, self-employed taxi driver)

“I didn’t choose the PS and do paste-ups for it…to see it vote as quickly as possible for the national deal on labour market reform [between two minority union confederations and MEDEF].” (SP member):

Taking back the street

There was another important motive for May 5: the need to counterattack against the mobilisations of the right and far-right (now in ever more open alliance) against the government’s “marriage for all” law that legalise same-sex marriage.

This reactionary offensive is linked to the continuing and alarming rise in support for the xenophobic National Front (FN). A Future Thinking France poll taken in early May showed that if a presidential election were held to-day it would result is a run-off between former president Nicolas Sarkozy and FN leader Marine Le Pen.

If Francois Fillon were the conservative candidate instead of Sarkozy, the run-off would be between Le Pen and either Fillon or Melenchon.

In effect, the unprecedented collapse in support for Hollande (down to 23% support in the latest poll, with only 9% among workers) is unleashing a huge struggle for the hearts and minds of millions of disillusioned and angry people.

“We came up to Paris so the French could see workers, wage-earners who cop it in the neck from finance, not homophobes,” said a General Confederation of Labour (CGT) delegate from Fos-sur-Mer (near Marseille).

A Le Monde reporter interviewing protesters driving to Paris in a bus from the Loire valley got a similar response from a community service worker: “Me, I fear the worst, an explosion of violence in the country. People say: 'It’s time to smash up everything.’ You can feel the anger growing everywhere.”

“We mustn’t let people think that the only alternative to the PS is to link up with the right, i.e., the extreme right. The situation has gotten so bad than many voters who have been waiting a year for change are now wanting to turn towards Marine Le Pen. Those people are going to be hard to convince. That’s why we’ve got to be there in droves today.”

Presences

A notable feature of the march was the presence of workers from the big workplaces resisting restructuring: contingents from the steel industry of the Lorraine, Renault, Unilever and Air France featured near the head of the march.

Notable, too, were the many disappointed young people who had voted for Hollande with hope and enthusiasm a year before. Not all were Melenchon supporters, whose unrelenting verbal attacks on the PS grate with many.

But, in the opinion of PS supporters Clementine and Noemie it was “important” to take part in the large march of citizens; they would have liked to see more PS members and office-holders come out openly about their real sentiments about the course of the PS government, “because there are socialists here in the street, that’s for sure”.

Also present, alongside the mass of Left Front supporters and its affiliate groups was a broader span of political forces, including some leading members of the Greens (EELV), along with its 2012 presidential candidate Eva Joly, as well as other ecological organisations.

The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), which supported the march as a protest against the Hollande government’s austerity policies while opposing the Left Front call for a Sixth Republic, was also out in force.

Warfare

The turn-out was a victory for the Left Front, especially against all the forces trying to portray any mobilisation against the Ayrault administration as a gift for the right. This was not only the predictable line of government ministers but also of some within the Greens, which has two positions in the Ayrault cabinet.

Melenchon in particular has been the target of increasing PS fire. A “theoretician of chaos” according to interior minister Manuel Valls, the Left Front leader was also the target of attacks by PS secretary Harlem Desir and government spokeperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem on the day before the march.

For Vallaud-Belkacem, the clean sweep proposed by the Left Front candidate “by itself sums up the political impotence of which Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the bearer”. Contrasting the government’s “pragmatic reforms which aim to changes the lives of the French” to Melenchon’s “outbursts”, she concluded that “through his big catchphrases he unfortunately does nothing but stir up a breeze”.

For Desir, Melencon’s “exasperation” would lead to frustration without outlet, undermining the need for “the whole left” to act together for jobs and social justice.

In a sign of bunker mentality the government and the PS leadership has taken to describing Melenchon and the Left Front as “far left”. The point of this tactic is to exacerbate tensions within the Left Front, working especially on the nerves of the French Communist Party (PCF).

The PCF, the main force in the alliance, has only recently abandoned its traditional perception of the PS as its preferred potential ally and many of its municipal organisations still govern in coalition with the PS.

Yet abusing the Left Front as “radical left” is unlikely to work for the simple fact that the Ayrault government remains bent on its neoliberal course, implementation of which is the price of a recent relaxation by the European Commission of France’s national public deficit reduction target.

On the day after the march Ayrault went so far as to deny that austerity even existed in France (despite implementing the biggest national budget cuts since World War 2) and also took the opportunity to announce plans for the partial privatisation of state industries.

On the same day Valls calculatedly stated that the citizen convergence had only attracted 30,000—a crude attempt to provoke Mélenchon into an outburst that could be used against him within SP ranks and the left more broadly.

What next?

Will May 5 mark a change of tendency in French politics? For the Left Front the answer depends on whether the dynamic of the day can be developed and deepened. It certainly marked an important first step in expanding support beyond the frontiers reached by Mélenchon’s presidential election campaign, but much remains to be done.

On May 6, the Left Front announced its program of follow-up activities to the Paris march. These include a May 16 demonstration outside parliament in support of two Left Front legislative initiatives (a “social amnesty” for all union and social activists facing criminal prosecution and a ban on sackings by firms paying share dividends); expansion of citizens’ marches across regional France on June 1-2; a June 9 women’s march against austerity in Paris, and a June 16 conference to discuss the content of a Sixth Republic.

The positive dynamic unleashed on May 5, acknowledged by all forces on the left — even those like Workers' Struggle (LO) who denounce Melenchon as “trying to rerun the same scenario” as Hollande (“with thundering speeches and promises he knows can’t be realised”) — throws out a big challenge to all forces.

That day, the parts of Melenchon’s speech that were most applauded were those dealing with the need for a democratic Sixth Republic enshrining participation, responsibility of representatives and the right of recall. If that vision can take more concrete form and the social forces to implement be increasingly brought together the slander that the alternative to the “left” PS can only be the FN will be increasingly exposed.

[Dick Nichols is the Green Left Weekly European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]