Continuing his analysis of the social explosion continuing in France, John Mullen looks at the far right and how it has reacted to the movement against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms.
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The inspiring revolt in France is moving into its fourth month. The twelfth national day of action against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to make everyone work two years longer before retirement took place on April 13, with demonstrations in hundreds of towns. Many high schools, universities, motorways and railway lines were blockaded.
The towns of Caen, Rennes and Brest were thoroughly blockaded and more than 200 demonstrations were held across the country on April 14. The anger against the attack — which, in a context of austerity and inflation, was the last straw for millions — remains powerful.
Fifty rappers held a concert in the Paris suburbs to raise money for strike funds. Airport strikers report that delayed passengers very often express their support for their strike.
Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne can hardly leave their offices without demonstrators harassing them (this is one of the reasons Macron swanned off to China this week). Even in the Netherlands, Macron’s arrogant speech was disrupted by demonstrators. The newly elected General Secretary of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), Sophie Binet, declared on April 13 that Macron “will not be able to govern until he has withdrawn this reform”.
Although the strategy of repeated days of action is tiring many people, and national union leaderships are still refusing to organise an indefinite general strike, the movement shows no signs of going away. Many of the ongoing strikes have stopped, but others (such as in the postal services of some towns) have just started up.
Macron’s aim, to stage a decisive defeat for trade union organisation, has been an abject failure. His is very much a bruised presidency, and his government has had to retreat on half a dozen other questions in recent weeks, for fear of pouring oil on the flames. Money was found for student grant increases, and a plan for compulsory national service was shelved, as was a racist immigration law. His relations in parliament with the traditional conservatives of Les Républicains are in tatters, as these MPs react despite themselves to the huge pressure from their constituents. Meanwhile, the strength of the movement on pensions is giving workers confidence in many sectors and strikes over wages are becoming more common.
The least combative union leaders, backed by Communist Party (PCF) leader Fabien Roussel, are now calling for a referendum on the pensions law. The constitution allows a referendum to be forced on the government, if a couple of hundred of Members of Parliament and 4.8 million citizens (10% of the electorate) sign a demand.
The PCF has been putting up posters for weeks prioritising this option. But such a campaign would take many months, and the dynamic of the present uprising would be lost. Nevertheless, the idea has gained a large following among demonstrators this week, as the movement slows a little. The initial request for a referendum was refused by the Constitutional Council on April 14, but a reworded request may be allowed next week.
The Constitutional Council (made up of old, rich ex-politicians and top civil servants), could have blocked the pensions law on the grounds of procedural irregularities at its meeting on Friday, allowing Macron a way out. However, it instead gave the law the green light. Macron will, no doubt, sign the measure into law this weekend, but the mobilisations will continue.
It is common to hear in France today that Marine Le Pen and the far right will be the main beneficiaries of the current crisis. Is this true and why would that be so?
The right-wing media, which support Macron’s neoliberal project, repeat this idea. Macron has always wanted us to believe that he is the best defence against the far right, whereas the very opposite is the case. In 2017, when Macron was first elected, Le Pen got 10.5 million votes. After five years of Macron’s austerity and racist policies, she got 2.5 million more.
The far right still has a fascist core
Le Pen’s far right organisation, National Rally (RN) — previously the National Front — has 88 MPs and controls two town councils among the 279 larger towns in France.
RN has been very successful ridding itself of the image of a fascist organisation, changing its name, expelling some Nazis, and putting forward sophisticated well-dressed spokespeople — many of them women. This process has been much aided by the cooperation of the mass media, and by endless complacent interviews on TV talk shows. Macron has helped even more, by putting the RN’s favourite subjects at the centre of political life with a series of racist laws and campaigns.
But the RN still has a fascist core in its membership and in its policies. At the centre of its politics is instituting laws that discriminate against non-French nationals, whether in distributing welfare benefits and social housing, or in hiring workers. It aims to attack Islam, ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public, and ban the production of halal meat.
The RN’s attempts to build fake “national unity” between “truly French” workers and bosses aims to repress class struggle and allow even more authoritarian rule, and make workers pay for the crisis — in a horrific combination that Europe has seen before.
The RN has, however, been unsuccessful in building local party organisation to match its massive electoral appeal. For several years, it has not been able to organise large street demonstrations. So this month, when the left and the unions put two or three million people on the streets, the fascists seemed momentarily invisible and irrelevant.
Class struggle is bad for fascists. Over the past few months, the talk has been all about how to defend the retirement age at 62, and how taxing the rich could pay for our pensions. The lines have been drawn between workers and the small privileged elite who defend Macron. Nine out of ten working people — from almost all blue-collar workers to many senior managers — oppose Macron’s reform. No one can pretend that Macron’s attack is the fault of immigrants or Muslims. The far-right agenda seems irrelevant.
A taste of our power
In addition, the experience of the mass revolt contradicts all the values of the far right. Millions in the streets, with tens of thousands of home-made placards, and lots of creative graffiti and activist songs, show a spirit of popular self-organisation, not of unity behind a supposed national saviour. The favourite demo song “Here we are!” gives a taste of this: “Here we are, here we are! Even if Macron doesn’t like it, here we are! For the honour of the workers and to build a better world — even if Macron doesn’t like it, here we are!”
The experience of the most active — mass workplace meetings every couple of days, blockading motorways, seeing the rubbish bins pile up in the streets and watching society gradually realise how important your work is — gives workers a taste of our power and contributes to a strengthening of class consciousness.
When energy workers cut off the power from right wing MP’s office buildings, and put hospitals on free electricity, millions of workers see a glimpse of a possible future. This joyous unity in action is the opposite of the fear and isolation that fuels the far right. The huge demonstrations in smaller towns — sometimes a third to a half of the population, in towns such as Albi and Rodez, and the biggest for many decades in Vannes or Saint Malo — are particularly impressive. And a new generation of 13 to 18 year olds involved in blockading their schools and demonstrating, sometimes collecting money for strike funds, is learning class struggle. We will see them again in the years to come.
Although Le Pen and her cronies denounce Macron’s pensions law as “unnecessary and unfair” they cannot support the mass trade union revolt, they are against trade unionism. They say that people are right to demonstrate, but RN activists dare not appear publicly on the demonstrations for fear of being thrown out (union leaders having specifically said they are not welcome). At the same time — with one eye on her large following among small employers — Le Pen denounces “the war between rich and poor” and claims that to pay for pensions France needs to exclude non-French nationals from welfare benefits.
Another key factor is that half the police force vote for the fascists, so Le Pen cannot possibly denounce police violence, as the movement is doing more and more, faced with vicious repression against both adults and children.
Children arrested for blockading their high school in Sevran near Paris were kept for 30 hours in cells, not allowed toilets, and subjected to racist insults. Other demonstrators have been severely injured by tear gas grenades fired deliberately — and illegally — at their heads. A recording obtained last week by national newspaper Le Monde featured a policeman threatening to break a young man’s legs: “We’ve broken plenty of arms and heads already,” he boasts.
The RN leadership’s discourse on the pensions movement has been almost inaudible, except for a pathetic attempt to suggest there would be more money for pensions if France “was not spending money on immigration”, or that the large proportion of old people in the population might be compensated for if the government officially encouraged French women to have more children.
Could the far right profit electorally?
In this context, the RN is playing another card: working hard at being “respectable” and putting forward the idea that they represent a realistic governmental option — which has never been tried.
RN’s young, sharply dressed president, Jordan Bardella, is loudly denouncing some of the excellent parliamentary obstruction carried out by France Insoumise (FI) MPs, claiming that the FI is a threat to democracy. Some of Macron’s ministers are pushing in the same direction. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin recently declared that Le Pen was much more respectful of the French Republic than was the FI.
As experiences elsewhere in Europe have shown, although big capital and money markets prefer traditional conservatism to the far right, they are far more scared of the radical left than of extreme right-wing parties. This is why Macron and others are concentrating their fire on the FI and its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Endless smears have been bandied about over recent years, accusing Mélenchon of being close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, of being antisemitic, of not caring about violence against women, and so on. This will continue and the whole of the left must respond.
With the help of the right-wing media and Macron’s policies, the far right is succeeding in building a respectable image, and is doing well in the polls. A recent study put the FI and the RN at 26% each, if parliamentary elections were held now. If Macronism collapses electorally, which seems likely, a couple of million Macron voters could well move to the RN. Le Pen hopes in parallel to attract a few well-known MPs from the traditional right into her organisation.
In a poll this week, conservative magazine Le Point found that 55% of French people felt that Le Pen “had a real chance” of becoming president at the next elections in 2027. She remains popular among working-class people. More than 15% of trade union members voted for her last year, and 60% of people consider she is “close to the preoccupations of ordinary people”, despite her only real response to unemployment being to exclude non-French nationals from certain jobs.
In reality, RN members of parliament, or of the European Parliament have voted against workers many times. For example, they voted against gender equality at work, against raising the minimum wage and student grants, against sanctioning multinationals for human rights violations, against finding more money for hospitals and against freezing rents. The list is a very long one.
At their 50th annual conference last November, RN leaders insisted on the need to set up many local initiatives in order to put down roots in different towns.
Although there is sadly no national mass anti-fascist campaign, local opposition can be mobilised. RN is hoping to organise a national meeting and banquet in the port town of Le Havre on May 1, International Workers Day. Preparations are underway for a counter-demonstration. We need this to be the beginning of broad and radical anti-fascist action.
[John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist living in the Paris region and a supporter of the France Insoumise.]