French right on the rise

October 16, 1991

By Angela Matheson

PARIS — At the hub of the underground railway, the Metro, a student chamber orchestra from the nearby ecole earns money for course fees by playing Stravinksy. Close by a middle-aged man sits with a tin, requesting coins from passers-by. A dignified sign explains he has no work.

Soon, two armed men in military clothing appear and jostle the man to his feet. They are the Metro police, who patrol an increasingly violent and crime-ridden underground. Their job is to evict the thousands of jobless, destitute and mentally ill who shelter underground and eke out a living by begging or selling nuts, trays of fruit or cheap jewelry.

Unlike the orchestra, which has been issued a permit to busk by the transit authority, the man has no licence to beg and is moved on.

Scenes like these are becoming common in Western Europe. Economic decline within the capitalist countries, combined with the collapse of socialism in the east, has sparked a retreat from the welfare state.

Gone is any expectation that the state should provide for the victims of economic failure. What is emerging is the early industrial idea of blaming the victim, dividing the human fallout into the deserving and undeserving poor. A Metro policeman explained, "We let the orchestra play, as they are students and need money. But beggars just ask for money."

Outside, on Boulevarde St Michele, hundreds of tourists relax at pavement cafes, surveying Notre Dame across the Seine. In bizarre contrast, a small demonstration of up to 300 people marches under green and red banners, protesting against the lack of housing for the poor. Their handout explains that homeless immigrants are to be evicted this month from a tent city on the outskirts of Paris. More than 100 families have been living in tents since July.

Homelessness is increasing in France. According to government statistics, Paris has 60,000 inadequately housed people who are either destitute or on incomes too low to enable them to pay rent. Many are Algerian immigrants. Yet 120,000 lodgings stand empty in Paris, many owned by local government and councils unwilling to drop rents to affordable levels.

The march is stopped at Pont Neuf, where 50 armed police equipped with riot gear and five large vans have formed a barricade. The spokesperson for the demonstration, a member of the socialist group Red Green, makes a short speech calling for social justice.

"We wish to make Paris a city where people live rather than an international shop window", he says. Soon after, the demoralised crowd disperses.

The right is on the rise. Fuelled by the collapse of Stalinism in the east and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, conservatives are mounting attacks on the left with increasing vigour. rancois Leotard announced the end of Marxism in France at a recent press conference.

"It has been in France that the corpse of Marxism is the bulkiest, the most dug up. It is now that we leave it buried", he said.

And in a recent address, the leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, Jaques Le Pen, called for the "demarxisation" of France, telling members that the "collapse of communism is not enough and the desocialisation of the world has just begun".

The right is confident. In a recent interview with Le Monde, former conservative president Giscard d'Estaing said, "It is to us that sense returns and for us to restore justice".

The left is in disarray. The Socialist Party has publicly broken off contact with the Communist Party leadership after the socialist first secretary, Pierre Mauroy, warned that the collapse of communism could result in the entire left being swept away in the ruins.

And in a three-day debate which ended on September 6, reformers within the Communist Party calling for the resignation of general secretary Georges Marchais found themselves supported by MPs, party economists and trade unionists operating outside the reform movement.

Mauroy said he would bypass the Communist leadership and work with dissident MPs. "The CP will not change and we believe it will collapse", he said. Eight of the 26 Communists in the national assembly have called for Marchais to resign.

But in the September 7 issue of the CP's newspaper, L'Humanite, the editorial warned that the witch-hunt of the CP by right-wing forces would soon extend to all left groups. It argued:

"Following the logic of the right, it will be necessary for them to take in as their victims also the Socialist Party and, more broadly, all those who identify with progressive values or who simply affirm their attachment to democracy ..."

Signs of a more active suppression of the left are emerging. A furore was caused recently when the right-wing council of the provincial town LaGarene-Colombes renamed a square named after a local Communist member of the resistance who was shot by the Nazis. Other place names commemorating resistance heroes who were not Communists are not being renamed.

Despite the obvious decline of the French economy, the right has seized upon the fall of socialism in eastern Europe as an argument justifying capitalism as the only option. And there are more sinister signs that the left will face hard times in the near future. In his recent address, Le Pen outlined a policy to legislate against left groups:

"It is necessary that we make a legal case against socialism as an ideology which has produced crimes, not because of Stalinism, but by the very nature of its revolutionary method", he said.

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