From the June 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
The last time Mitterrand won, in 1981, there was dancing in the streets. Not as much, it is true, as in Bastia when their team won the cup but there was still some popular expression of hope that things were going to get better. This time there were some celebrations but only by party workers without any spontaneous popular participation as all illusions on this score had been shattered by the failure of the left-wing government that ruled France from 1981 to 1986, with, until 1984, the participation of Ministers from the French Communist Party (PCF).
This Government had tried to reduce unemployment and end the economic crisis by a policy of what it called "increasing popular consumption" which involved giving people more to spend by increasing social benefits. The gains people got from this, however, proved to be very temporary as within a year a balance of payments crisis developed and the franc had to be devalued. As a matter of fact the franc had to be devalued three times, and each time the Government had to back-track, slashing benefits and freezing wages. In the meantime unemployment continued to rise uncontrollably. As a result, in the 1986 general election, the left-wing Government was kicked out and replaced by a conservative one under Jacques Chirac, the leader of the Gaullist RPR party.
There then began a peculiar political experiment known as "cohabitation": a left-wing president working with a conservative prime minister. Actually, this arrangement wasn't as peculiar as all that since Mitterrand and Chirac were both equally solidly committed to maintaining capitalism and so there was no reason at all why they should not collaborate to run the political affairs of French capitalism. If the result of the election is anything to go by, French electors even prefer this arrangement, especially as they suspect that to give Chirac and the RPR a monopoly of power would lead to a resurrection of the Gaullist practice of filling the top posts in the civil service, courts and nationalised industries with party hacks.
To tell the truth, it was the first round of the elections at the end of April that was the more interesting. Not the campaign itself in which the three leading candidates Mitterrand, Chirac and another former prime minister, Barre, employed political techniques pioneered by Hitler and Mussolini to project themselves: mass rallies with music, rhythmic clapping and spotlights. It is hard to believe that the candidates who were the subject of this treatment were not slightly deranged in so obviously enjoying it: after all, they are only human beings like the rest of us, not the demi-gods they were treated as being.
What was interesting was rather the distribution of the votes between the other candidates: Le Pen (National Front) 14.38 per cent, Lajoinie (PCF) 6.7 per cent, Waechter (ecologist) 3.77 per cent, Juquin (dissident Communist) 2.09 per cent, Laguillier (Trotskyist) 1.99 per cent and Boussel (another variety of Trotskyism) 0.38 per cent.
The press, rightly, concentrated on the spectacular rise of Le Pen who obtained well over four million votes. At the last presidential election the far-right was so fragmented — like their equivalent in Britain today — that Le Pen was not even able to obtain the 500 signatures from local councillors to be a candidate, while at the one before that, in 1974. he had obtained less than one per cent of the vote. What, apart from the strong anti-immigrant (anti-North African) prejudice that exists amongst sections of the French population, prepared the way for this breakthrough was the system of proportional representation that was first used in the elections to the European Parliament in 1984 and then for the general election in 1986.
This allowed the National Front to send 10 representatives to Strasburg — as many as the PCF — and to obtain representation in the National Assembly for the first time. (De Gaulle had abolished PR for parliamentary elections when he came to power in 1958 but Mitterrand and his left-wing government of 1981-86 reintroduced it.) This gave Le Pen credibility and he became a national political figure appearing regularly on television; not even his various anti-semitic faux pas have harmed him.
The other significant feature was the decline of the PCF vote to 6.7 per cent. Even if the votes for Juquin, a former Politbureau member who stood against what he regarded as the current sectarian line of the PCF, are added, this still gives a figure of under nine per cent, the worst result the PCF has ever had. It will probably now never recover from this and can be expected to be kicked out of many of the town halls it still controls when next year's municipal elections come round and to never again provide any government ministers.
Le Pen described the results of the first round as a major shift in the French political landscape. To a certain extent he was right: the National Front seems to have succeeded in replacing the PCF as the recipient of the anti-Establishment protest vote. Indeed, it has been suggested that some voters switched directly from the PCF to the National Front. This wouldn't be too difficult, since the PCF has a by no means clean record on immigration. It is in favour of immigration control and on occasions has not hesitated to exploit anti-immigration prejudices, including during the run-up to the last presidential elections when, amongst other things, a local council it controlled on the outskirts of Paris sent a bulldozer to demolish a hostel for immigrants it wanted transferred elsewhere.
Not so long ago too, to publicise its way out of the economic crisis the PCF ran a poster campaign saying "Let's Produce French", to which the National Front stuck its own specially printed addition, "Yes, but with French workers". So, in peddling nationalist prejudices the PCF in a very real sense paved the way for the rise of the National Front. It must never be forgotten that racism is only nationalism's ugly sister and that socialists must oppose both equally.