People from all sides of politics came out on the streets of Paris in great numbers on May 1.
Ahead of the second round of the French presidential poll on May 6, it was a highly politicised May Day. In the first round on April 22, the Socialist Party's Francois Hollande beat the right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
The far right National Front's candidate Marine Le Pen scored a record vote of about 18%. The Left Front's Jean-Luc Melenchon took about 11% of the vote.
As well as the traditional union-organised workers’ demonstration (which both Hollande and Melenchon attended), Sarkozy staged a mobilisation of the “real workers” of France and Le Pen held her own meeting to continue her populist, xenophobic campaign.
The numbers at each event were contested. Organisers of the Sarkozy march claimed 200,000 attendees (which is unlikely), and organisers of the left’s mobilisation claimed 250,000 (although the police claimed a staggeringly small 48,000 in attendance).
Across France, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) claimed 750,000 attendees at its rallies.
Regardless of the exact figures, it was clear the mobilisation of workers was up on previous years. The figures released by the minister for the interior indicate a nation-wide rise from 77,000 in 2011 to 316,000 in 2012.
The union-organised march in Paris was in high-spirits as it marched halfway across the city to the Bastille.
Large contingents from all major unions were interspersed with contingents supporting freedom in Syria, anti-racist groups, a Latin American solidarity section, and the entire spectrum of the French left-of-centre groups, from the Socialist Party to the revolutionary left.
The most visible political party across the entire march was the Left Front (along with its electoral ally the French Communist Party).
In contrast to this multicoloured (albeit heavily red-inflected) parade for equality and resistance, Sarkozy’s rally at Trocadero was a see of blue, white and red.
Sarkozy used the opportunity to attack the unions and the left. He told unions to “lay down your red flags” and accused them of failing the working people in France.
In response, Melenchon attacked Sarkozy. “The first of May is red for forever,” he said, and called upon working people to reject the false leaders posturing as the defenders of the working class, such as Sarkozy and Le Pen.
The National Front drew thousands to a rally at the monument to Joan of Arc, who has become something of a far-right icon.
At the rally, Le Pen said she did not trust either party contesting the second round and would “vote blank” in the poll in protest.
After winning the largest ever vote for the National Front in the first round, Le Pen has set her sights on the National Front becoming a party capable of winning elections, and is maintaining a clear critique.
This comes as a blow for Sarkozy, who has been moving further to the right to win over National Front voters ― at the risk of losing the remaining “centrist” voters.
A further blow came on May 3, when the centre candidate in the first round Francois Bayrou (who received about 9% of the vote) announced his support for Hollande.
This shows how amenable the politics of the Socialist Party are to an orthodox neoliberal such as Bayrou. But it also bodes badly for Sarkozy’s grip on power, and for the reign of the “Merkozy” consensus in Europe.
Sarkozy also lost the May 2 presidential debate, described as the “nastiest in 30 years”. Sarkozy’s antagonistic style failed to outdo Hollande’s ability to speak clearly on crucial issues for the French electorate.
Sarkozy displayed his racist politics clearly, stating he didn’t mind giving the vote to northern European or North American immigrants, but was opposed to giving such liberties to immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.
"Community tensions come from whom and they come from where?" he asked rhetorically.
Sarkozy's fear campaign has worked to reign in Hollande's lead in the polls ahead of the second round vote. Ahead of the vote, the gap narrowed in the polls from 10% down to a relatively narrow 5-6%, with question marks remaining over where centrist and far right votes will go.
Whatever the ultimate result, this election has revealed a polarisation to the left and right in France, mirroring similar developments elsewhere in Europe in response to the economic crisis.
This led Melenchon to recently declare that “the centre does not exist”.
For the left, the question is how to continue its momentum after the elections.
There is agreement among much of the left in France that, while the Socialist Party remains committed in practice to neoliberalism, a win for Hollande over Sarkozy would would send a message that people want a change from the austerity of the sort supported by governments in France and the rest of Europe. It would also mark a rejection of the xenophobic right.
But, rhetoric and mild reform proposals aside, a Hollande presidency would not challenge the savage measures being demanded by capital to make working people pay for its crisis.
For this reason, with the Left Front winning the highest vote for any force to the left of the Socialist party since 1981, many eyes are on what it will do next.
First, is Melenchon capable of sticking to his word and maintaining a critical distance from the Socialist Party?
And second, while Melenchon is calling for continued resistance and struggle after the elections, will the Left Front ― essentially an electoral alliance ― be able to do so outside an electoral framework?
It is clear that space is opening up for the “other left”, beyond the major neoliberal parties, to challenge the politics of austerity in Europe.