France: Local elections a blow to Macron’s austerity agenda

Issue 
Protesting the police killing of Adama Traoré in Marseille in 2019. Photo: Hervé Germain/Wikimedia commons

The second round of the French local elections, held at the end of June, was bad news for President Emanuel Macron, whose candidates did very poorly.

In response, launching his second, post-COVID-lockdown, half term, Macron replaced high-profile Prime Minister Edouard Philippe with an unknown right-winger, Jean Castex, whose previous experience consisted mostly of being mayor of a town with 6000 inhabitants.

Meanwhile, mobilisations for Black lives and working-class anger at austerity and job losses have marked the month since the COVID-19 lockdown in France was lifted.

What are the prospects for the year to come?

Context

For the past 25 years in France, since the great strikes of 1995, which shut down the Paris metro for a month, there has been regular mass resistance to the rise of neoliberalism and austerity.

Sometimes we won and sometimes we lost. Often, the result was neither a victory nor a defeat, as the government shelved important parts of their plans, without announcing “you have frightened us!”

The general result can be seen in a couple of symbolic statistics. For example, 1.6 million university students in France currently pay between €200-300 a year in enrolment fees. The think tanks dream of raising tuition fees such as in Britain or the United States, but the politicians do not dare suggest it.

Pensioner poverty in France is four times lower than in Britain. According to a British House of Commons briefing paper from 2019, French full-time employees work, on average, three hours a week less than workers in Britain.

Workers’ struggle has been able to slow down neoliberal barbarism.

The resistance movements are also a sign of a high level of class consciousness. During the fight back against former Socialist Party (SP) President Francois Hollande’s 2016 labour laws, for example, most of the strikers were not personally affected: many of the vicious new laws would only apply to future recruits. Workers who already had a permanent contract, or who were a little older, could have said to themselves: “Thank God it doesn’t affect me.”

On the political side, this high level of class struggle has wrecked the political parties the ruling class has relied on for decades.

Right-wing former President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through half the neoliberal attacks he wanted to, and was defeated in the 2012 elections by Hollande, who promised “my real opponent is the world of finance”.

People hoped Hollande would be different, but he forced through the detested anti-worker laws, scrapping long-held protections for millions.

In the elections that followed in 2017, the SP was crushed. Hollande did not dare to stand again; the candidate who did stand, Benoit Hamon, left the SP after the election to form a new grouping.

In the first round of parliamentary elections, the outgoing SP government got only 7.4% of the vote (1.7 million), less than the 2.5 million votes obtained by the radical left movement La France Insoumise, and less than the 3 million votes that went to the far-right National Front. The SP lost 250 of their 280 MPs.

Macron gathered together disappointed politicians of the right and hopeful careerists from the SP and, with his new grouping, “La République en Marche”, got a clear majority in the parliament.

Macron’s plan was full spectrum Thatcherism, with a smoother discourse. He wanted to radically weaken trade unions, cut benefits, take real power away from local government and privatise public services -- whatever the opposition. And he was prepared to ramp up police violence to the worst levels in Western Europe, if that would help.

Resistance was huge. The Yellow Vest (Gilet Jaunes) movement inspired areas of the country and parts of the population not used to mobilising. Then, a new attack on pensions led to seven days of enormous strikes and millions on the streets, with strikes in transport, education, manufacturing, hospitals and elsewhere. The strikes were very popular – twice as many people supported them as opposed them, and the figures were even better in the working class.

Macron retreated on one important element: instead of the vicious new pension rules applying to everyone born after 1963, they would only apply to people born after 1975. The government hoped this would dampen down the movement: it didn’t. The strikes in January 2020 were huge. When the coronavirus crisis arrived, Macron shelved the reform. This has to count as a victory for our side.

Virus

The coronavirus has killed 30,000 people in France. As the lockdown is lifted, Macron has announced that “we have to be ready to reinvent ourselves” and is promising to change. What we have mostly seen, however, is huge amounts of money to prop up companies, and much less help for ordinary workers.

Millions of people have been plunged into poverty because temporary jobs have disappeared. Now, there are likely to be mass redundancies. Aeronautical company Airbus is already threatening 15,000 redundancies, including 5000 of its 49,000 employees in France.

Air France has announced 7500 job losses (16% of its workforce), despite receiving €7 billion in government-backed loans, which most commentators think will never be fully repaid. In other sectors, most companies have not yet announced their redundancy plans, but Nokia, Technicolor and the pharmaceutical company Sanofi have already said they will be sacking hundreds of workers.

The government has been staving off bankruptcies and limiting extreme poverty by borrowing billions of euros. But in a few years, it will have to be paid back. This means more suffering for workers. Macron has already announced he is not planning to raise taxes on the rich, even after having abolished an important wealth tax only a couple of years ago. His solution is that we need to “work more” and “produce more”.

However, Macron has to be careful. He is unpopular and people are angry. The government has just announced €6 billion for low-paid nurses and hospital staff - about €100 a month each. Far from enough, and no talk of increasing staffing levels in hospitals, but a sign that Macron is under pressure.

Local elections

In last week’s municipal elections, there were record abstention rates. Fear of the virus was one factor, but mostly, these abstentions reflected disaffection with the main parties.

This is why the Greens did so well, aided by the “localist” focus of much of their program, which plays better in municipal elections than in national ones.

Several big cities were taken by Green candidates. After 25 years with a right-wing mayor, Marseille was won by an alliance headed by an ecologist. After 73 years of right-wing rule, Bordeaux also has an ecologist as mayor.

The far-right National Rally (RN) (previously the National Front) did not do well. Before these elections RN had 1468 councillors in 463 towns. They now have 840 councillors in 258 towns. However, they won control of Perpignan in the South and were reelected in several towns.

The fascists’ electoral losses are due to the period of acute class struggle, in which the RN cannot afford to take sides. Although the RN made vague statements sympathetic to the Yellow Vests, it could not denounce police violence because of its huge base among the police. The RN could neither support nor really oppose the pension movement, because the movement was popular but small employers are crucial to RN’s support networks.

The RN has, however, had a lot of success in persuading people that it is no longer fascist, and is now seen as a potential partner by significant sections of the right.

In Perpignan, when it was clear that the fascist candidate was going to win, three members of the local slate of Macron’s party declared support for the RN. We will see more alliances between the RN and the traditional right, and flagship racist policies will be the result.

There was some good news for the left. In Bordeaux, a joint list, led by car factory worker Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party and long standing trade union activist Evelyne Cervantes-Descubes from France Insoumise won 11.8% in the first round. The list went on to win 9.4% in the second round and now have three city councillors: Poutou, Cervantes-Descubes and Antoine Boudinet, a Yellow Vest activist who had his hand blown off by police last year.

Black Lives

The local elections were a blow to Macron, and he is also worried about the Black Lives Matter movement. Important demonstrations against police violence and to demand papers for undocumented migrants have hit the front pages this month.

In the past 10-15 years, a new set of antiracist networks have been set up, mostly led by young Black adults from the working-class parts of towns. They have led demonstrations of tens of thousands, such as the one in Paris on June 13, or last December’s first ever mass Paris demonstration against Islamophobia.

The Adama committee is one such group, set up to demand justice for Adama Traoré, a Black man murdered by the police in 2016. These groups will work with the radical left, but mutual mistrust is common.

Adama committee leaders are anticapitalist, anticolonial and outward-looking. They organised joint actions last year with the Yellow Vests, signed a joint declaration with the CGT union federation about the legitimacy of revolt in the poor suburbs, and organised a debate this month with France Insoumise MP, François Ruffin.

These new antiracist networks are very different to the rather dusty, extremely moderate, semi-establishment antiracist organisations of the past. They are slowly pushing the radical left into improving its antiracist activity, which has been traditionally weak.

There is a long way to go in France – Paris is covered with colonial statues, and there have been only small attempts to protest these, and Islamophobia is a traditional blind spot of the French left (despite slow progress in recent years).

Macron declared last week that no statues will be taken down, but this is hubris. There have already been changes to the names of schools named after Jean-Baptiste Colbert, author of the notorious 17th-century Black Code, used to regulate slavery in France.

The president also used his speech to squeal about the dangers of communitarianism and Black separatism. Meanwhile, government spokespeople frequently repeat that police racism does not exist, and last month a mural in a Paris suburb with the words “police violence” on it led to an official regional police demand to have these words removed.

Between Macron’s worries about the antiracist revolt and his party’s defeat at the municipal elections, he is looking for something which will boost his poll ratings.

Aside from switching Prime Minister, Macron is also trumpeting allegedly new proposals on the environment, but there is a lot of smoke and mirrors involved. He is proposing a referendum on rewriting the constitution to include environmental concerns the beginning of clauses about French values.

The list of over a hundred proposals which he approved from a “citizens’ forum” do not mention nuclear power, and are mostly a matter of “we will recommend that companies be obliged to produce an annual audit on this and that”.

What will happen to the vicious neoliberal reforms Macron shelved a couple of months back, including the pension reform and the attack on unemployment benefits?

It is not yet clear if Macron dares to bring identical proposals back into play immediately, but a new neoliberal attack on universities is being pushed into parliament in the autumn. The bill aims to further cut the number of permanent staff and split universities into two categories – well-funded “centres of excellence” and second-rate universities for the less privileged classes.

Castex has just announced his intention to restart negotiations on pension reform, which Macron has said will be “transformed” but “not abandoned”.

Having pushed out his high-profile PM, Macron is indicating he intends to run the show alone. Pushing on with his Thatcherite combat in the storms of acute economic crisis and mass working-class anger is going to be a bumpy ride. Let’s hope we can make him fall off his rollercoaster.

[Abridged from John Mullen’s Anticapitalist blog.]

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