October has been a month of sharp shifts in French politics.
On October 4, an Ifop poll in the French weekly Nouvel Observateur showed the xenophobic and racist National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen leading voting intentions for next year's European elections with the support of 24% of those interviewed ― up 3% in six months.
On October 13, in the second round of the by-election for the canton of Brignoles (in the Mediterranean department of Var), the FN easily defeated the mainstream conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), by 53.9% to 46.1%.
Until 2011, Brignoles had had a French Communist Party mayor. But splits among left forces led to the elimination of all but right-wing candidates in the first round.
On October 19, a BVA poll revealed that 65% of those interviewed thought that Roma (gypsy) school girl Leonarda Dibrani ― taken off a school excursion bus by police on October 9 and deported with her family to Albania ― should not be allowed to return to France.
That poll result became public even as thousands of school students and their supporters flooded central Paris for three days to protest Dibrani’s expulsion.
On October 20, when Socialist Party (PS) president Francois Hollande (down to 23% in the latest polls) appeared on national television to offer Dibrani right of return to France without her family, he simply made matters worse for himself. “With her mother and sisters”, insisted PS secretary Harlem Desir.
This difference between government and party didn’t matter for long. From Albania, the 15-year-old Dibrani told Hollande where he could put his offer.
As Hollande’s authority nosedives even with PS faithful, that of interior minister Manuel Valls, the “hard man” stuck with the thankless job of expelling “illegals”, keeps rising. An October 24 Figaro poll had Valls as preferred president after the next election (2017), at 33% to Hollande’s 9%.
The rise of the FN at the expense of the UMP and PS is deepening division within all main political trends.
UMP leaders and candidates are now trying to beat Le Pen at her own game of race hatred and nationalism. Ministers within the ruling PS government are at loggerheads over the treatment of Dibrani.
Most importantly, within the opposition Left Front a sharp debate has opened up over how to orient to the rightward-moving PS.
Between October 17-19, Paris region members of the Communist Party, the main force along with the Left Party in the nine-party Left Front, voted to maintain their party’s ruling alliance with the PS in the Paris council for the March 2014 municipal elections.
This decision, taken by 57% to 43%, represented a break with the strategic line of the Left Front. This has been to support the inclusion of other left forces on its tickets only if they take a clear stand against the austerity policies of the PS government.
The Communist Party will take part in Left Front tickets in most other major cities, but the party’s Paris decision, supported by national secretary Pierre Laurent, is causing angst among Left Front supporters. It has opened the most serious crisis in the Left Front's four-year history.
The reaction from the Left Party has been one of outrage. Left Party national secretary and Paris councillor Alexis Corbiere asked: “Now that the young people have risen up against the inhuman consequences of the policies of Manuel Valls, how is it possible to be on a common ticket with his friends in Paris?”
National Front support
How are all these dramatic developments related? The underlying issues are how to reverse support for the FN and how to orient to the PS when rapid popular disillusionment with the Hollande government is feeding the growth in FN support.
Le Pen’s outfit is seen by growing numbers of angry people as the one party untainted by connections with the political establishment and with a clear message.
For sociologist Eric Fassin, writing in the October 24 Le Monde, the FN is gaining a hearing because of the growing desperation of people ground down by austerity and because the alternative left message is not yet audible enough.
The FN’s “discourse” concerns a mythical French “paradise lost” that flourished before the arrival of globalisation, the European Union and the euro. This paradise existed when the country had its franc, there was discipline in the classroom, respect in the family and order in the suburbs, and the necks of serious criminals met the guillotine.
Destroyed by one-parent families, homosexuality and homosexual marriage, lax immigration laws and oppressive political correctness, it can be restored by a sane and healthy “people” led by the FN rising up against the “politicians” and their parties.
Over the years, the reaction of the parties of government has been to sneer and pretend outrage at this message, while combing through the issues on which to make the concessions to hopefully steal away some of the FN’s support base.
Predictably, the area where FN policy has most passed into the mainstream is that of migrant and refugee rights. French policy here is among the most restrictive and discriminatory in Europe.
The political effect of this combination of empty moralising and concrete concessions to FN racist policy has been to add to the political authority of the FN as the party putting its finger on French society’s “real problems”.
Now, UMP candidates openly compete with the FN in racist vileness while the media feel no shame in pillorying entire communities, such as the Roma.
Events during October have sped-up a race to the bottom between the UMP and PS over migrant and refugee rights. On October 24, UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope proposed that the right to French citizenship of children born to migrants be repealed ― a 25-year-old demand of the FN ― and that free medical service for “illegals” be confined to emergency situations.
One day later, Valls announced that he would produce a “reform” of the system of political asylum by mid-November.
As for Dibrani, the saturation message from the commercial media was that she had it coming. What could you expect from someone whose father was a classic “gypsy Bad Dad” ― happy to live on social security payments, showing no sign of looking for work or interest in jobs offered him, not sure whether his kids are at school, and with three different versions of why he couldn’t produce an identity card?
Such is the atmosphere in which the Left Front has struggled to get its anti-capitalist message through to people drawn to FN simplicities. It helps explain why its strategy debate, centred on where and how to look for the broader alliances that will give it hegemony over the PS, has become so sharp.
In his latest blog comment, Left Party leader and last year's Left Front presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon summarises his view of the situation facing the group after the Communist Party's decision in Paris: “At the level of Paris the situation is simpler than it appeared ― the Left Front continues with [lead candidate] Danielle Simonnet.
“There will be a pluralist ticket for the municipal elections, hundreds of activists and sympathisers will get involved among whom no doubt there will be a considerable number of communists.
“But at the national level, the situation is much more complicated. The loss of visibility is terrible for us. It helps the extreme rights present itself as the only alternative to the system.”
Melanchon insisted: “We are not in a logic of wheeling and dealing, but of political and ideological conquest. For us the local and the national are the same reality.”
In an interview in the October 14 Le Parisien, Laurent put view of the Communist Party majority: “It’s not a question of allying with the people who are carrying out the government’s choices, but of creating on the ground a coalition of men and women of the left who don’t identify with this austerity policy.
“These voters, who could come from the ranks of the socialists or ecologists, have the feeling of being trapped. It’s not the time to shut ourselves off in our own domain, but to extend them a hand.”
In September, Laurent said of the Communist Party approach: “I am ready to take part in the broadest coalitions of the left if that is in the interest of the people.”
As for the future of the Left Front, Laurent said: “I fight with all my strength against the idea that a difference of assessment over the municipal elections opens a crisis in the Left Front.
“We need the Left Front for today and for the future.”
Melenchon is not so sanguine, describing the Communist Party's decision in Paris as “strategically incompatible” with the Left Front’s approach.
The Left Party leader appears to be signaling a struggle against what he called “a small minority, yes prestigious and well-placed, that has abandoned us” even while “the unitary dynamic of the Left Front remains overwhelmingly in most of the rest of the country”.
The possibility of these differences consuming the Left Front is setting off alarm bells across the its broad support base. The coming weeks will show what impact such concerns have on a critical debate for the French and European left.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear on the website of Links―International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]