From the June 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Despite what the media said, France has not elected a “Socialist President”.
What did happen on 6 May was that a member of the so-called “Parti socialiste” (PS), which is not a socialist party but a party of capitalist reform similar to the Labour Party in Britain, won the presidential election there.
François Hollande finished top in the first round of the election in April, but as he polled less than 50 percent a second round took place in which he beat the outgoing President, Nicholas Sarkozy. In the first round 6.4 million (18 percent) voted for Marine Le Pen of the National Front and a further 4 million (11 percent) for Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front. This means that some 30 percent voted for isolationist nationalism. It seems that the history of the 1930s may be beginning to repeat itself.
Mélenchon, a one-time PS minister (and a former Trotskyist – of course), left the PS in 2008 to form the Left Party. He has been seen as more “socialist” than Hollande but the Guardian came up with some more accurate descriptions. Seamus Milne (3 April) described him as a “radical left populist” (comparing him to George Galloway) while for Philippe Marlière (19 April) he was a “radical reformist”. He certainly employed a more anti-capitalist rhetoric but, while he is opposed to “neo-liberal”, corporate capitalism, what he stood for was an isolationist, state-capitalist France.
Record of failure
The PS was formed in 1971 as a result of the merger of the old, reformist SFIO (which, believe it or not, was the French for “French Section of the Workers’ International”) and various other groupings, under the leadership of François Mitterrand, who was to be elected President of France ten years later.
In its founding declaration, the PS proclaimed its equivalent to Labour Party’s former Clause IV:
“Socialism fixes its object as the common good not private profit. Progressive socialisation of the means of investment, production and exchange constitute the indispensable basis for this”.
It went on:
“The socialist transformation cannot be the natural product of reforms correcting the effects of capitalism. It is not a question of re-arranging a system, but of substituting another one for it.”
This was just rhetoric. When Mitterrand was elected President of France in 1981 he made it quite clear that he had not been elected to bring about a change of system, but only to bring about a change in the existing system. It was the same distinction that had been made by the pre-war SFIO Prime Minister of the Popular Front, Léon Blum, between “the conquest of power” (for socialism) and “the exercise of power” (within capitalism).
Like François Hollande, Mitterrand promised “growth”. His government immediately drew up a plan to reduce unemployment by growing the economy 3 percent a year through increasing both popular consumption and government investment. The government did increase the minimum wage and benefits and it did employ more people as well as nationalising the banks, but the economy didn’t grow by 3 percent.
Instead, the workings of capitalism forced the government to devalue the franc three times within two years, the first as early as October 1981 (Mitterrand had only been elected in May of that year). A second followed in June of the following year. The third, in March 1983, was accompanied by a programme of austerity which clawed back the increase in wages and benefits introduced in May and June 1981. (For those who can read French, there’s description of what happened and why here: http://www.worldsocialism.org/canada/frechec.htm )
In short, the Mitterrand government’s attempt to grow the economy by increasing government and popular spending failed miserably. It failed because governments can’t control the way the capitalist economy works. It’s rather the other way round: the workings of the capitalist economy oblige all governments, whatever their original intention and whatever they might prefer to do, to give priority to profits and the conditions for profit-making. In a slump such as today, this means imposing austerity, as President Hollande will find out, despite the fact that the people of France have just voted against it – yet another demonstration of how the workings of capitalism frustrate what people want.
Bid to reform capitalism
Like Mitterrand before him, Hollande only wants to “exercise power” within the context of capitalism and its rule of “no profit, no growth”. On a visit to London in February he blamed financial deregulation for the crisis and said this needed to be reversed. Ed Miliband, who was with him, chipped in:
“We need to reform the way finance works and to reform the way that capitalism works. He is absolutely right” (Times, 1 March).
It’s clear, then, that Hollande wants to try to reform “the way that capitalism works”. He has set himself an impossible task. We can predict here and now that he won’t succeed in making capitalism work in the general interest, and that, like the last so-called “Socialist” President of France thirty years ago, he will fall flat on his face. He will then have to pick himself up and accept the economic realities of capitalism and keep austerity to facilitate profit-making. TINAUC. There is no alternative under capitalism.