Late on Tuesday I caught the tail end of an episode of HARDtalk featuring Jack Lang, an adviser to the Presidential campaign of Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party candidate. Okay, so I missed close to twenty minutes, perhaps I should zip it. But it got me thinking about the future of France, about the ongoing presidential elections and their impact on the world situation.
HARDtalk’s format is a simple one-on-one interview with figures from politics, and the man asking the questions is usually Stephen Sackur, who resembles the ebullient newsreader played by Chris Morris in The Day Today, a series which satirised news broadcasting. That Sackur apes the style of a spoof newsreader and yet takes himself seriously is bad enough, his own (right-wing) political biases seep into his interviews, making him far from the neutral inquisitor, holding people to account, but rather a stenographer to power.
Sackur is immensely dislikeable, though this is admittedly a bias on my part, as I have held him in low esteem since I learnt his professed reaction to the terror attacks in America on September 11, 2001 was disappointment – he was not in the US to report on the story. He is, to me, a substandard Jeremy Paxman. Though old Paxo’s shtick is getting a little tiresome (he asks people the same question over and over, then pretends to have tired before moving on) he can be genuinely charming, witty and even sentimental. Paxman can even do honesty. When asked by Tony Benn which nations comprised “the international community”, Paxman replied that the term implied the Europe and America, “and sometimes Russia”.
Getting back to this particular interview with Lang… In the course of a question on the EU constitution Sackur referred to Royal’s position as patronising. (She favours a second vote on a revived and revised constitution, despite the resounding ‘non’ in 2006. I agree that it’s patronising, but he didn’t leave it at that, he dropped in the word “socialist” straight after, an addition which can be read as an attack on the Socialist Party in France, or as an attack on all socialists. He must have realised the ambiguity as he said it.
Would he call the New Labour approach patronising? Blair is keen to introduce an EU constitution in the form of a treaty to prevent holding a referendum on the question that he has promised (as there’s no precedent for a vote on a treaty).
It would have been far more legitimate – and apolitical – if he had given a qualification to the statement. I suppose he would argue that what he said was in the context of grilling his guest; he was only adopting an opposing position to elicit a reply. But Sakur played the part of the right-wing candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, who despite being a member of the ruling UMP and actually is in a position of power in the government, tries to portray himself as an oppositional outsider.
Royal offers continuity, we are told, endlessly; it is Sarkozy who will shake up France, reform the country and bring it out of its malaise. These implicit assumptions have gone unquestioned. Indeed, in the reporting of the elections, I have yet to hear anyone refer to the 35 hour week as a progressive act that would be envied by workers in the UK. No, according to the correspondent from Sky News, it was the cause of unemployment! This was not an isolated incident: we are given to expect that the repeal of this one reform would result in the disappearance of structural unemployment from France.
Elsewhere in the broadcast media, the BBC journalist Jon Sopol got close to the truth when he referred to the need for labour market reform to solve the problem of unemployment in France. The question that goes unasked: who would benefit from a flexible labour market? A flexible workforce means flexible for the bosses, it is a thoroughly one-sided affair. Sopol mentioned the inability of the government to implement “reforms” as the opposition on the streets to measures limiting the rights of workers and students were an obstreperous fringe frustrating the will of the majority.
It is accepted, by the way, that the EU constitution, which was rejected by a majority of French voters, is unpopular because the EU is unpopular and so the matter cannot be presented to the electorate for consideration again. The “commentariat” mostly accept Blair’s treaty plan, by which I mean they don’t act as if avoiding putting the question of the EU’s future before the public constituted an outrageously elitist and patronising approach to politics.
Reform is the keyword is in talk of the French Presidential elections. The blurb for this edition of HARDtalk asked rhetorically if the Socialist candidate was capable of “reforming France”. Note this well: they did not ask if Royal and the Socialists were capable of “governing France”. France is not being governed in the eyes of the ruling class. The economic situation is hugely exaggerated: France is not the financial basket-case they make out.
Presenting France as being disordered and chaotic is intended to suggest that order should be imposed. This is the path we are led down. Hence, Sarkozy is the man on the white horse (literally, I’ve seen the photos!) who will ride to the rescue.
Yet what is not interrogated is why he has done so little rescuing thus far. He’s in a position of power in the ruling party. What’s the deal? Well, in order to screw the working class legitimately, the French ruling class requires that the figure leading the attack is legitimately elected.
In the UK, the bourgeoisie’s savoir was Margaret Thatcher, who as Prime Minister symbolised the attack on the organised working class. She was only elected by the majority of her constituents in Finchley and by a majority of the Conservative Party, though. A directly-elected President further legitimates the leader, but neither Royal nor Sarkozy will win by a huge majority.
My position on this is that the best thing that could happen is a slim win by Sarkozy. Think about it: if Royal wins, the labour bureaucracy will not mobilise against reforms which attack workers. She will be able to do backroom deals with union leaders like New Labour (with the Warwick agreement, for example).
Let’s be clear, Royal is seeking to imitate the success (ahem) of New Labour. Pundits have called it a battle between Thatcher in drag and Blair in a skirt. Both Royal and Sarkozy admire Blair, because his leadership has been able to see off any opposition from the labour movement. He has done the unpopular – the lead up Iraq war saw millions march to halt the conflict, protests dismissed by Blair.
Thatcher was eventually brought down as a result of mass resistance to the poll tax, a regressive measure, but an attack on the working class too many. Her replacement, John Major, bumbled from one scandal to another. Blair’s landslide election victory came as a great hope to many, the Tories had been in power for 18 years, and he and the New Labour cabal used this to great effect. Blair has almost lasted as long as his idol, the Iron Lady, but he has been brought down as a result of the Iraqi and Afghan resistance movements rather than an internal revolt.
Both Royal and Sarkozy have wisely played down their love of Blair; he’s not a popular man. Royal has more of a reason to back away from comparisons with Blair. In the upcoming runoff against Sarkozy she will need the votes of those people who gave their support to the various Marxist parties in the first round – a total of almost ten percent of the electorate.
Imagine how well the revolutionary left would have done if they could have built on the success of anti-liberal movement: a unity candidate would have polled more than the 57 varieties of socialism on offer.
Hopefully, the French Communist Party and the numerous groupuscules will take heed next time, and come together to back the Trotskyist postman who won 1.5 million votes, coming forth in the first round, and building on his previous success. Olivier Besancenot, the postal worker in question, has already encouraged his supporters to vote against the dreaded Sarko, as he encouraged them to vote against Le Pen in 2002. (Though he personally eschews the Trotskyist label, his party, the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, does not.)
This is why I think it would be in the interests of the proletariat for Sarko to win, but by the tiniest margin:
1. A slight win will leave Sarko without a clear mandate for his programme. He will not be able to proclaim he has approval to push through the reforms desired by the capitalist class the world over. At the same time, there will be pressure on him to deliver for the haute bourgeoisie and his own personal style is confrontational.
2. Sarko the Atlanticist will be in power at the same time as his American Idol – George W. Bush – faces opposition to the occupation of Iraq from the American masses, and, to a lesser extent, the Democrat-controlled legislature. Sarkozy supported the Iraq war, in effect, by apologising for the position adopted by President Chirac.
3. As he is not a man of the left, Sarkozy could not cut deals with the union bosses; conversely, the union bosses could not go to him for crumbs and try to present them to their members as if they were slices of cake. Attempts to secure French capitalism by means of eroding workers’ living standards would face strong resistance from organised workers.
4. Sarkozy is unpopular amongst French youth, for his association with the attempt to liberalise the labour laws for young workers, and particularly amongst the youth from immigrant communities who know the substance of Sarko from his reaction to the uprising in the banlieues in 2005. Sarkozy can’t play on his own status as the son of immigrants any more than he can play on having been young once: his position is clear.
Clearly, then, a crisis would emerge in France. And if the anti-liberal movement can become the anti-Sarko movement it will provide a bigger pool in which socialist ideas can swim. The self-organisation of the working class will be built and a generation of young people further radicalised in the struggle.
In the UK, the rolling back of the gains of the proletariat was successful. But Thatcher didn’t go without a fight. The Great Miners’ Strike nearly smelted the Iron Lady and the IRA almost blew her up. France is nothing like Britain in 1979; there will be no Falklands Factor for Sarkozy to keep him in power. The lessons learnt by workers’ in the UK will not be learnt the hard way by French workers.
I suspect that Sarkozy will win, but only just; my greatest fear is that Royal wins and her platform will disorient the advanced section of the working class.
Consider it like this: the alternative to a punch-up with Sarko is a love-in with Ségo. The bland Royal has already claimed that the election of her rival will lead to civil strife and she will, no doubt, try to put out the fire. Like the support Chirac got in his runoff against the fascist Le Pen in 2002, Royal is riding the anti-Sarko wave. Ségolène Royal is not the Hugo Chávez of France; it would take a monumental effort on the part of class conscious workers to heave a vacillating social democrat like Ségo to the left.