From the March 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
This month’s french elections could result, if the Left wins, in a new government containing Ministers from the so-called Communist Party (PC). This would not be new, even for France, since there were PC Ministers from 1945 to 1947, but, if it comes about, it will represent the re-integration of the PC in France into normal capitalist politics, taking turns in running capitalism, from which they were excluded at the outbreak of the Cold War thirty years ago.
Compared with Britain, the French political scene offers a great variety of parties but they can be gathered together, and gather themselves together, into two broad groupings, the “majority” and the “opposition”. The majority—the supporters of the present government under Raymond Barre who together had a majority of seats in the outgoing National Assembly—is made up of the RPR (Gaullists), the Republican Party (of the President, Giscard d’Estaing), the Centrists (Christian Democrats), the Radicals (Liberals) and other conservative groups. The opposition is made up of three parties who in 1972 signed a common government programme, the famous Programme Commun: the so-called “parti socialiste” (PS), led by Francois Mitterand, the PC led by Georges Marchais, and the Left Radicals.
This Programme Commun, on which these three parties fought the last general elections in 1973, and lost, is a document promising a long list of reforms ranging from raising the minimum wage to nationalising the banks and 9 big industrial groups. Things had been going smoothly for the Left—they made big gains in last year’s municipal elections—until, at the suggestion of the PC, they tried to update the 1972 programme. Talks on this broke down last September, with the PC accusing the PS of going back to its old policy of seeking to manage the crisis at the expense of the workers and the Left Radicals in effect accusing the PC of wanting to go too far towards State capitalism instead of merely trying to tame private capitalism as envisaged in the Programme Commun.
Actually, this sort of split is encouraged by the electoral system and has appeared also on the side of the majority. In France there are two rounds of elections. In the first round (March 12) anybody can stand but only those who obtain at least 12.5 per cent, of the number on the voters’ roll (or who finish first or second) can, if they want, go through to the second round (March 19). What in practice happens is that the broad political groupings—majority and opposition—agree to field only one candidate in the second round, the one who does best in the first. Thus the first round becomes a sort of primary election in which the parties in the same political grouping compete against each other.
This is essentially what the split between the PS and the PC is about. It is due to electoral opportunism on both sides: the PC hopes to pick up votes from the PS by promising bigger and better reforms while the PS is hoping to pick up votes from those dissatisfied with the present government but who don’t trust the PC.
This disagreement between the PS and the PC might in fact benefit the Left by ensuring them, through the extra votes picked up by the PS, the maximum number of votes in the first round and even an absolute majority of over 50 per cent. But the first round is not decisive; it is the second round which counts and the outcome of the second round depends on the “voting discipline” shown by the supporters of each political grouping, on the extent to which all those who voted for the competing parties in the grouping in the first round vote for the grouping’s single candidate in the second round. Thus the Left, even with over 50 per cent, in the first round, could lose if, for instance, some of those who had voted PS in the first round refused to vote for a second-round PC candidate or if supporters of the PC refused to vote for a second-round PS candidate.
The two-round system also allows the various Trotskyist groups to formalise their facing-both-ways tactic with regard to parties like Labour which we are familiar with in Britain: they can oppose the Programme Commun with their own candidates in the first round and vote for it in the second! The Maoists, on the other hand, because of their anti-Russia position, are urging abstention in the second round. Our sympathisers, as their election leaflet, which they will be distributing in France shows, are advising those who want Socialism to write “SOCIALISME MONDIAL" across their ballot papers in both rounds.
If the Left do win the press will make a big fuss and the American State Department will pretend to be worried. But, as far as the workers are concerned, there will be no basic difference, as is explained in our sympathisers’ leaflet. A Left government with PC participation will be no different from past Labour governments in Britain: a government with reformist illusions which will soon be shed when they are faced with the task of actually governing capitalism. And the President, Giscard, with the extensive powers granted him under the Constitution, will be there to ensure that they don’t make too much of a mess of it (as “leftwing” governments in all countries are wont to).
The “Communists” are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. You only need read their literature to realise that they would find a comfortable place in the Labour Party in Britain. They too don’t know what Socialism is and merely stand for capitalism modified by social reforms and State control. It can even be expected that, in the event of PC participation in the government, the trade union grouping they control, the CGT, would fall into line, like the Labour Party-dominated TUC in Britain, and agree to moderate its wage demands.