French activist Vanina Giudicelli spoke to Dave Sewell about the recent presidential election in France, the turmoil in the mainstream parties and the prospects for anti-racists.
DS: How would you describe Emmanuel Macron and his government? What form does it take, who are the main players and what do they represent?
VG: The newly elected president Macron is without a doubt the weakest president of the Fifth Republic that started in 1958. There are several reasons for this, starting with the way he launched his campaign—all on his own, without a party behind him and thus without the cohesion of a movement in terms of ideology and class. Of course, it became clear very rapidly during his campaign that it was mostly the upper middle classes and the liberal bourgeoisie who rallied to what he was proposing. He was frequently described as “the banker”, the candidate of the banks and the rich. But he was also constantly mocked for his difficulty in drawing up a definitive programme.
Macron presented himself as “neither right nor left” throughout the whole campaign. The fundamental reason for this, I think, is that unlike the rest he foresaw the crisis of the traditional main parties that was revealed by the election results. So for him it was a way of making himself the candidate of novelty—young and dynamic, contrary to the conservatism of the traditional parties.
The other thing is the way he was elected. If we look at the first round of the presidential election, Macron got just over 8 million votes. But surveys at the time showed that half of the people who voted for him did so not to support his programme but to avoid having a candidate worse than him—in other words to keep out François Fillon, the candidate of the centre-right Les Républicains, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist Front National.
In the second round he was up against Le Pen, who represented what remains, in spite of everything, the most despised party in France. And despite that a historic 12 million people didn’t vote. That level of abstention hasn’t been seen since 1969. That was just after the revolt of May 1968, so the parallel is interesting. On top of that, and without precedent, more than 4 million went down to the polling booths and posted either a blank or a spoiled ballot. It’s telling that such large numbers, despite the danger of the Front National, decided that Macron not only didn’t have the solution but was actually going to make things worse for people and thus help the Front National in the long run. It was an omen of the enormous instability of his government, whatever government he would go on to establish.
What’s also significant is that Macron appointed a prime minister from the right, Les Républicains’ Édouard Philippe. For all his talk of “neither right nor left”, the politics that Macron was proposing ultimately went towards the right. And the first thing this right wing prime minister did was to visit the police prefecture in Paris to salute the forces of order. That was, broadly, a sign of what Macron and his prime minister are going to do with the coming months.
The first measure he’s going to take—by decree if necessary, avoiding a vote in parliament—is to accelerate the attacks on workers’ rights. That’s a real provocation, and it is seen as such in France, because there was an enormous movement last year against the El Khomri Labour Law, an attack on workers’ rights.1 There were huge mobilisations, and so there’s really something provocative about Macron saying he is not only going to continue what the last government was doing but he is going to intensify it.
Then there’s the scaremongering about law and order. Philippe has talked about giving more power and resources to the police, has vowed to be much firmer with migrants—both refugees and undocumented workers—and to push all of this further. Macron presented his government as one of renewal, made up of people from “civil society”. But when we look at everyone who’s been appointed, a lot of them are men and women of politics with long careers in political parties. So it’s not the fresh start that was promised, and its centre of gravity is on the right.
After the results of the presidential elections the majority of people polled said they didn’t even want Macron to have a majority in parliament. In the event, after the first round he finished on course to win an enormous one. But this was on the back of the highest level of abstention in the history of the Fifth Republic. It meant that around 15 percent of the electorate voted for Macron’s candidates—the lowest proportion of any president in the Fifth Republic.
The majority that Macron will command in the National Assembly, or lower chamber of parliament, looks set to include a number of candidates from the centre-left Socialist Party or from Les Républicains who have either been accepted to campaign under the colours of Macron’s movement La République En Marche,2 or who haven’t even been accepted but still say they are campaigning for a majority in support of the president. They are trying to get a seat in parliament by putting themselves behind Macron. So his majority, while large, will in no way be a stable one, because it’s made up of people with different horizons who share no common history and no common goals—and it is sorely lacking in public support.
Those candidates make Macron, as left winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon put it, “the man with three candidates in each constituency”. So in some ways it seems like he does have very broad support from the political establishment.
In many seats that is the case. But this has to be understood in terms of the crisis of the traditional parties who have dominated political life in France throughout the Fifth Republic—the Socialists on the one hand and on the other a centre-right whose current incarnation is Les Républicains. In the first round of the presidential election the Socialist Party got just 6 percent. Les Républicains were convinced it was their turn to win—but in fact they failed to make the second round.
That has created a huge crisis. Already throughout the campaign there were leading Socialist figures who, without quitting the Socialist Party, announced that they would support Macron. The same thing happened in Les Républicains. The more liberal right, which had failed in the primaries, began to look towards Macron and the centre. And a number of them either quit the party or affirmed their support for Macron.
I think it’s the crisis in these parties that means we find some constituencies where Macron has designated his candidate but the Socialist and Republican candidates also say they support him. They say it in the hope of winning, because they can see that their own parties are completely disavowed by the population.
The crisis of the Socialist Party seems to be of the same order of magnitude as the collapse of Pasok in Greece. How did it come about, and what is happening to what remains of the party?
This crisis has been a long time coming. In 2012 a great many people voted for Socialist president François Hollande. There was a real desire to kick out right wing president Nicolas Sarkozy. He had centred his presidency on authoritarianism and racism, and many people were mobilised to make sure they didn’t have to put up with another five years.
Hollande ran a campaign that really set him apart from how the right had governed. Not so much on economic issues, where it was a fairly neoliberal campaign, but on issues of society. Hollande announced, for example, that he would grant the vote to foreigners, the right for same-sex couples to marry, that on immigration he wouldn’t carry on as Sarkozy had but create a ministry of immigration and national identity.
So I think people hoped that Hollande was going to implement measures of the left on all kinds of fronts, for equality and for people’s rights. But that’s absolutely not what happened. Instead Hollande hit hard, right from the start, on all fronts.
What we saw for five years was not necessarily huge mobilisations but an increasing disaffection with the politics of Hollande and of Manuel Valls, who was his interior minister and later prime minister. You could see the decline from one poll to the next. And by last year, before the primaries, Hollande’s popularity was down to 4 percent. Just 4 percent of people thought he’d been a good president of the Republic—that’s the reason he didn’t stand for re-election in the primary.
So the crisis in the Socialist Party, we could feel it coming. What was fairly astonishing, though, was that it was a candidate far to the left of Hollande, Benoît Hamon, who won the primaries—and on a really left wing basis on both social and societal issues. Hamon promised a Universal Basic Income, which seemed to people like something that would improve their living conditions, and on questions like Islamophobia he was a break from what politicians had been saying. On immigration he said things that were absolutely correct about Hollande’s bad record on the welcoming of refugees and the treatment of undocumented migrants.
Hamon’s problem wasn’t really his campaign in the primaries, a campaign that brought him victory. It’s that immediately afterwards he sought to unite his party. The Socialist Party was already in crisis. During the primaries many leading figures criticised Hamon, and said that what he offered was not at all the politics of the Socialist Party—that it should instead be continuing what Hollande had done. Foremost among these was Valls. Normally all the candidates in a primary have to sign a charter saying they will respect its outcome. But instead several of the candidates at the primary opposed Hamon’s presidential campaign. Valls said that in these conditions he was going to campaign for Macron instead.
The 6 percent score that Hamon got in the presidential elections also reflects the fact that for months he reoriented towards the past policies of the Socialist Party instead of standing by his own, left wing positions.
Today the crisis is far from over. Since the presidential election there have been several groups inside the Socialist Party who have announced that they are launching their own “movements”. They don’t specify whether this means they are leaving the party or whether they will remain inside it, but there are many things in play in terms of recomposition inside the Socialist Party. It’s unclear what Hamon will be able to do to get his party out of this crisis and even less clear if he will succeed. He’s been largely inaudible during the parliamentary election campaign, but it seems that he is coming back towards the left. For example in the constituency where Valls is standing, he refuses to support Valls, instead supporting the Communist Party candidate.
Are these recompositions of the parliamentary left shaped by the movement against the Labour Law?
I’m convinced that they are. Already last year a sizeable group inside the Socialist Party, including a number of MPs, came together to oppose the government’s proposition. As a result Valls knew that despite the Socialist majority in the National Assembly he was probably not going to get a parliamentary majority in favour of the Labour Law. That’s why he invoked the notorious article 49.3 of the French Constitution to pass the law without a vote.
That moment put a certain pressure on a whole section of the Socialist MPs. Some had opposed the government’s policies for several years, but now the movement against them was massive in the streets. In terms of public opinion, 70 percent of the population supported the protests, the strikes and the occupations of public squares. This created a serious differentiation within the Socialist Party, or at least it reaffirmed it on the left, and that was written into the victory of Hamon at the primaries.
When Hamon proposed a Universal Basic Income he was taking up a demand that had appeared and resonated very strongly throughout the “Nuit Debout”—“Night on our feet”—movement of square occupations during the revolt against the Labour Law. So in the end he seemed to be much more in tune with the popular will than Valls did. I have no doubt that this movement accelerated the divergences inside the Socialist Party and made Hamon’s victory possible.
Hamon’s error was not to continue as he started. He finished far behind left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but when he won the primaries the polls put him ahead of Mélenchon. Mélenchon’s support was falling and Hamon was taking his votes. But Hamon then decided to adapt himself completely to the politics of the Socialist Party and that’s when his support began to collapse. He should have acted differently, and who can say what that would have given? But in the end the majority of people who had taken part in the movement against the Labour Law found that Mélenchon’s campaign was more in tune with them than Hamon’s was.
What about the 7 million people who voted for Mélenchon—where did they come from and where can they go next?
What I and many others think is that Mélenchon succeeded in overtaking the Socialists in this election because the movement had given people confidence to organise and challenge austerity and neoliberalism. He really knew how to position himself to benefit from that. There’s a complexity to his campaign though. Mélenchon himself affirmed that he was running a “left populist” campaign. Broadly, that means a campaign that refers less to social classes and more to the “people” against the “elites”. It sought to bring people together around a set of political values—a contestation of austerity, but also undeniably a certain patriotism.
At all his rallies French flags were given out and the national anthem was sung. And on questions linked to subjects that are fairly central in France Mélenchon took some very bad positions. These are the questions of racism, Islamophobia, migrants and the relationship with the police—who had very fiercely repressed protests. A whole sequence of episodes of police violence had seen the death of Adama Traoré last July, then the police rape of Théo Luhaka in February and the killing of Liu Shaoyao in Paris a few weeks later. Mélenchon took a bad position on all of these questions. He is also essentially “laïcard”—that is, fairly favourable to the Islamophobic measures that have been taken in the name of secularism.
In reality I don’t think people voted for Mélenchon because of the thread of patriotism, nationalism, republicanism and secularism running through his campaign, but despite it. People voted for him because his propositions on social measures were anchored in the forces of the left and the popular classes—they spoke to people who were in precarious situations, on low wages, struggling to pay the rent.
Those people haven’t disappeared, far from it. People have been fighting, politicising and radicalising for years. But Mélenchon hasn’t particularly given them any propositions for getting organised. He completely dissolved the political organisation behind his campaign, La France insoumise or France Unbowed. He so personalised this campaign around himself that it’s actually struggled in the parliamentary elections—its candidates aren’t really known or recognisable in their own right, and look set to get a much lower vote than Mélenchon did in the presidential elections.
Has the shaking up of the political left fed back into the workers’ movement?
It’s hard to say, because the links between the trade unions and the left parties are far less formalised in France than in countries such as Britain. Traditionally, right back to the beginning of the 20th century, there has been an idea that the trade union movement has nothing to do with politics, that there’s a complete separation between the fields of trade union struggle and political struggle. Historically, we know there are links, however, in terms of ideologies and goals. In particular the CFDT union federation is closer to the Socialists, the CGT to the Communists.
And while there isn’t a direct link, I’d say that what happened with the movement against the Labour Law has been written into what’s happened to the political parties, in terms of both confidence and disaffection. In terms of confidence, the CGT certainly appeared to people like a union whose leadership took initiatives, opposed the government, and was, for all its limits, seen as an organisation that was at their sides. And then the majority of people who were in that movement led or supported Mélenchon’s campaign. So there’s a return of that idea of a link between the CGT and the Communists. And in terms of disaffection, the CFDT damaged its standing by refusing to take part in the movement, and the failure of the Socialist Party in the presidential election was an echo of this.
What’s hard to know is how the unions will position themselves in the months ahead, with Macron’s project to demolish the code of workers’ rights. The reason it’s hard to know is that it wasn’t really the union leaderships that initiated the movement last year. It was far more the committees and reps at the base of the unions, the youth in the universities and a prominent activist called Caroline de Haas who launched a petition against the Labour Law that more than 1,200,000 people signed. So it’s really not the organised workers’ movement as such that started this. The CGT went along with it, but can’t really claim to have organised it. So it’s hard to know exactly how the unions will respond to Macron. But we can imagine that at least the CGT, insofar as it opposed the El Khomri law, will also propose resistance to future Macron laws or Macron decrees if he bypasses parliament.
What about the parliamentary right? The corruption scandal of François Fillon was obviously a trigger for Les Républicains’ failure in the election, but is there something deeper behind that?
What we saw in the right wing primaries was really two options inside Les Républicains. There was the candidacy of Alain Juppé, who represented the liberal right—still right wing, but without as much emphasis on the racist and authoritarian aspects of that. On the other hand was Fillon, who was far more a continuation of what Sarkozy had done. Fillon’s campaign really rallied the conservative and reactionary hard right.
Despite the corruption allegations against him, Fillon didn’t hesitate to lay into the justice system. He also attacked social security, public services and public sector workers, calling for 500,000 job cuts. He called for a much more intransigent policy on immigration, closing the borders. So this was really a campaign, already during the primaries, that was far more in tune with the programme of the Front National than with that of the traditional liberal right.
To a large degree Fillon was able to capture an audience made up of the people who marched in 2013 in the huge demonstrations against Hollande’s proposal to grant gay couples the right to marry. A large part of the conservative Catholic right voted for Fillon. And now it’s hard to be sure, but it’s quite possible that the crisis in Les Républicains will intensify because what Macron was able to do was get the softer elements of the right to turn towards him, leaving the very hard right to tighten its grip on Les Républicains. What’s very dangerous in that situation is that it paves the way for alliances with the Front National.
One thing that was very interesting about Fillon’s campaign was that his appeals to a Catholic French identity seemed to break from the secularism and republicanism that has been the language of reaction in France for some time. Is that a major contradiction for the French right today?
In a sense, although it’s complicated. Fillon really came onto the scene in response to Sarkozy’s attempt to change the party’s name, to rebrand the right in the name of the Republic. This was an attempt to show in ideological terms that it could represent the whole breadth of French society around the values of the Republic—a Republic that is in reality very nationalist, racist and authoritarian. Fillon, I think, sought to differentiate himself from that project, because he wanted to take the right wing offensive further.
His propositions for austerity shocked a lot of people. By axing half a million public service jobs, scrapping social security so that the state would only reimburse healthcare for the most serious illnesses and privatising the rest—he pushed further than anyone else. And while he avoided making reference to the Republic, he still made a point of, for example, saying there should be no apologising for French colonialism. He said that France had colonised other countries to spread civilisation and advance the progress of humanity as a whole, and that polemics to the contrary had to stop.
In other words he was a very, very reactionary candidate, and I think that’s why he didn’t buy into what in France is meant by “Republican values” with all the contradictions that phrase contains.
Now let’s talk about the Front National. They got millions more votes than ever before, yet because they didn’t live up to some of the hype there is talk of crisis and recriminations there too. In what state have the fascists come out of the presidential election?
The big picture is that they took a big step forward. The fact that the Front National took 7.5 million votes in the first round and then increased its score by 3 million in the second round is an enormous success for them—and extremely dangerous for us. The “crisis”, or rather the tensions, inside the Front National today are not based on any contestation of the Front National itself or of the real gains it has made. It’s an internal debate of strategy, about how to keep developing that party and its influence.
Several times during her campaign Le Pen explained that the Front National had already won the ideological battle. She illustrated this with several examples. For example, she did a rally in Marseille a few weeks after Mélenchon and essentially said, look, even at Mélenchon’s meeting the red flags and the Internationale have been replaced by the French flag and the national anthem, and people feel even there that the idea of France and its values is important. She said she had partly won the election already by influencing the whole of the political landscape to the point where even they were putting the emphasis on nationalism, patriotism and French identity.
We’re in a situation in France where for several years the laws that have been passed and the evolution of the state apparatus go into the territory of the Front National.
When the state of emergency was declared in 2015, the Front National was very happy. We’re still in that “emergency”, which Macron wants to extend yet again. When Hollande, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, closed the borders, the Front National was very happy. When he opened a debate about removing French nationality from people with dual nationality, the Front National was very happy. When parliament voted for a law granting police officers the assumption of “legitimate force” whenever they attacked or killed someone, the Front National was very happy. These had all been proposed by the Front National. In addition more than 50 percent of police officers vote for the Front National, giving it a real toehold in the heart of the state apparatus.
This is what the debates inside the Front National are about. When it has that level of influence, of support inside the state and of electoral success, it raises the question of beginning to act on its programme. So the debate inside the Front National today is essentially between those who believe that the time has come to try and take power and those who believe that they are cruelly lacking a mass movement—that is, that it’s not enough to have influence inside the state, but that really to put their political project into action they need a movement that can take it to the streets.
That’s how we can understand the tensions between, on the one hand, someone like party vice-president Florian Philippot, who calls for the immediate launch of a “movement of patriots”, and someone like Marion Maréchal-Le Pen who is much closer to party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and to the idea of building a mass movement. She pushed very hard, for example, for the Front National to take part in the demonstrations against gay marriage.
Marine Le Pen has always embodied a synthesis between these two positions. And she seems to be saying that the “movement of patriots” is absolutely not what the Front National needs to be throwing itself into right now. What its projects will be in the coming weeks is hard to say. But I do think that the way she acted between the two rounds of the presidential election was deliberate and correct, from her point of view. It’s certainly not just a matter of tactical errors and doing badly in the TV debate against Macron.
I think she took up a long tradition of her father Jean-Marie. When the Front National wins a large number of votes, the question becomes how to weld them together into something more solid. One significant move was when, between the two rounds, Le Pen stepped aside from the presidency of the party to say she was now the candidate of all the French people, and to stand in for her she appointed Jean-François Jalkh—someone already well-known for having commemorated the Nazis’ puppet French dictator Marshal Philippe Pétain and for having denied the use of poison gas in the Nazis’ gas chambers. The media picked this up, it caused a scandal, and in the end Le Pen moved him aside again. But for me this had been a deliberate and very political choice, to try and weld her electorate together around ideas that are really quite hardcore.
Who makes up that electorate? Aside from the new voters, there are now millions of people who have voted Front National two, three or ten times. Does that mean Le Pen is succeeding in solidifying her support?
This is a huge debate in France around who votes Front National and why. It’s a very important debate, but for many years it has unfortunately been a very academic one among experts and researchers, particularly around Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Researchers at Sciences Po have written a lot about the Front National, have carried out studies, and have put forward since the 1990s the idea that it’s workers who vote Front National. That idea is now widely accepted, that the Front National vote is an especially working class vote.
However, other studies have increasingly shown that things are not so simple. In reality, the majority of workers do not vote at all. Looking at it in terms of proportion, the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes vote for the Front National more than workers do. Over several elections a number of researchers have shown that these categories are at the heart of the Front National vote—the artisans, the shopkeepers, the small-time bosses and the middle classes.
For example, one interesting study showed that the people who vote for the Front National don’t all have the same behaviour or voting pattern, and there’s a class element to this. Working class Front National voters are far less likely to adhere to the party’s politics as a whole, and often have much narrower objectives in voting for it. In the 2002 presidential election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round, a good proportion of the workers who’d voted for him in the first round didn’t vote for him again in the second. In contrast, the bulk of his middle class voters stuck with him.
So the real vote of “adhesion” to the Front National is from the middle classes. But at the same time there should be no trivialising of the vote for the Front National. That’s where there is a whole other debate about the reasons people have for voting Front National.
What’s worrying is that the dominant interpretation on the left and among activists is that the economic crisis and things like precarity, unemployment and job losses are the main reasons people vote for the Front National. Now, for several years studies have shown that, for equivalent economic conditions and social statuses, the primary reason why people vote for the Front National is racism.
It’s not just that people have problems and that they’ve decided their problems are linked to there being too many immigrants, or to Muslims having no respect for French society. It’s that they have begun to understand society in terms of a division between who is and isn’t French, rather than the real division which is between classes.
That’s such a big debate because it has a very big impact on the strategy we put in place to try and change things. If people vote for the Front National because they are poor, it follows—and this is the conclusion many activists reach—that struggle to address that poverty is enough. But what we saw last year, during the revolt against the Work Law, is that even though 70 percent of people supported the movement, the Front National at no point sank in the polls. It was a very striking contrast, the way it continued to lead in the polls.
What this tells us is that it’s not enough to fight on social issues, because it’s not just for social issues that people vote for the Front National. It’s because they have stopped thinking in terms of social classes and started thinking in terms of who is and isn’t of the nation. That’s one of the reasons the anti-racist struggle is so important.
One thing that is very worrying is what we saw during the election campaign watching the Front National’s rallies. The Front National is managing to appear respectable—that is, to get more and more political currents to accept that it can be allowed to give out its leaflets, appear on TV, turn up at the local market, lead its campaigns and develop its organisation—but seeing the attitude of people at its rallies gave a clear sense of what its political project is. That is that they are creating a movement of people who are rabid and off the leash.
For example, at one rally where Le Pen was speaking, about 15 young people got inside to protest against her. They nearly got lynched by the audience. It was the Front National’s security service who had to get them out of there before they were beaten up. And we’re seeing that more and more.
We see how the Front National has developed links with radical groups such as the Groupe Union Défense, a far-right youth organisation, and the Identitaires movement that permit its members to be active. Through these groups people get together to take action against migrants, as we have seen in Calais, or against protesters. For example, in Saint-Nazaire two years ago environmental activists were protesting against the extension of the port, so the Front National—or rather, the people around the Front National—went and kicked their heads in. What this means is that the Front National is making progress in welding together a movement out of its electoral appearances. It’s not just getting people to vote, but also to act.
You say that despite the Front National gaining respectability, it remains the most hated party in France. What does that mean for building an anti-fascist movement to take it on?
That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves for some time, and of course these latest election results show its importance. There are difficulties, but certainly the potential is there.
For example, through the presidential election campaign there were more or less spontaneous demonstrations against Front National rallies in a number of cities. And we’ve already seen during the movement against the Labour Law that quite a lot of the people who came together in the Nuit Debout square occupations also wanted to take on the Front National and quite a few actions took place. And in between the two rounds of the presidential election the youth mobilised quite a bit.
The difficulty is of two orders. First, all the debates I’ve described on the left have consequences for our ability to mobilise against the Front National. If we consider the Front National not as a fascist party but a party of the reactionary right that is perhaps a bit worse than the others but not fundamentally different, then we end up accepting that it can carry out its activities and we don’t wage a specific struggle to block it. And that combines with the debate about how we analyse the fact that people vote for the Front National. What is the logic on which we must build the anti-fascist struggle? One that says that social struggles alone can push it back, or one that is anchored in the struggle against racism and Islamophobia and in solidarity with migrants? This confusion means the activists aren’t available to bring together and organise the potential that exists. It’s a real difficulty.
Take the example of the youth, because there was really an impressive mobilisation of young people and college students between the two rounds of the presidential election. That reflects a politicisation and a radicalisation that isn’t just about the Front National. Their slogan was “Ni patrie, ni patrón, ni Le Pen, ni Macron”—neither country nor boss, neither Le Pen nor Macron. So there were young people taking to the streets against the Front National, but also against what Macron represents in terms of neoliberalism and, indeed, capitalism—this is a youth that is being radicalised into anti-capitalism. It’s a youth that wants to take action.
This creates a complexity. In terms of specific actions against the Front National, it’s often possible to get people to react and turn out. But building something durable for the long term is much harder. In the organised left there isn’t the will to build an ongoing, specific movement against the Front National. And the people, the youth, who spontaneously hate the Front National aren’t about to create such a movement spontaneously.
One long-term problem on the French left has been an unwillingness or inability to recognise and confront Islamophobia. Is the radicalised youth that you describe changing that? There certainly seemed to be glimmers of hope around the Nuit Debout.
Absolutely, and this isn’t something new. For years we’ve seen that around the question of Islamophobia there are huge tensions along a generational divide. There is a section of the left that accepts Islamophobic laws in the name of secularism. But that’s contested inside the left wing organisations, and there’s a clear generational divide there. It’s the same within the feminist movement, which has gone into crisis over this question, again along generational lines, with the argument that feminism mustn’t be something normative that tells women how to behave but something that grants all women freedom of choice.
While we’d already seen this, it was quite flagrant in the Nuit Debout movement. For young people, the Islamophobic laws, ideas, discourse and attacks are genuinely shocking. We also saw it in the march on 19 March. There was an international day of action against racism on 18 March, but in France we held the march on the 19th because Mélenchon was holding a big rally on the 18th and we didn’t want to make people choose. But in fact there were a lot of people who’d taken part in Nuit Debout and didn’t really want to take part in the electoral campaign but did want to keep mobilising, and so they mobilised to build the demonstration.
It was the first time in years we had such a big anti-racist march in Paris, with 10,000 to 15,000 people. The slogans and demands that drove the demonstration were against racism, against “hogra”—an Arabic word for humiliation, referring to police violence and harassment—and in solidarity with migrants. But while the word Islamophobia wasn’t among them, it was clear to everyone marching that this was also about solidarity with Muslims who are under attack both from the law and the far-right. So yes, I think the new generation that’s mobilising now is far less uptight about secularism and actually much less open to the themes of Republican nationalism.
Behind the political crisis in France has been an economic one, and the ruling class must be counting on Macron to resolve it. What are the chances of that happening?
It’s hard to give a clear yes or no answer, but we can say that it will be very difficult for Macron. If we look at both the situation of the ruling class and at the level of resistance I think Macron will have a hard time meeting the demands of the ruling class.
France, like many countries, underwent an economic crisis in 2008. But many studies have shown without a doubt that it is one of the countries that has recovered least from the crisis. There were 500,000 jobs lost in industry in France between 2008 and 2013. The newspaper Le Monde ran a series of articles throughout the presidential election campaign, and it was all quite worrying. It’s clear that what Macron is out to do, demolishing workers’ rights, by decree if he can’t do it through parliament, corresponds closely to the needs of the French ruling class.
At the same time there is a long tradition of social struggles in France. And the majority of people who took part in the movement last year don’t feel like they were defeated. Of course, the Labour Law was passed. But all the links that were built up between trade union activists and between workers and students, the experience of the square occupations where every day and every night people could talk politics—both in terms of how we could deepen the movement and in terms of how we didn’t want any more of the capitalist system that was being offered to us—I don’t think any of that has disappeared. People gained a consciousness of the difficulty of winning anything in the face of a ruling class more determined than ever to push through austerity, but also a confidence in each other and in the future.
For example, between January and April of this year there were an estimated 2 million strike days. That is enormous for France. And I think that’s a result of the movement against the Labour Law giving confidence to large numbers of workers to fight concretely inside their workplaces. The media haven’t talked about this much, but my impression is that a lot of the population view this quite favourably. And there has been a month of general strikes in French Guiana—a Latin American country that is one of France’s last colonies—that ended up winning a promise of €3 billion to build roads, schools and hospitals. So there’s a level of social conflict in France that’s quite high at the moment.
For that reason I think it will be very difficult for the ruling class to do what it is seeking to do. And in fact its preferred candidate was initially not Macron but Fillon. That shows how determined they are to attack our public services, our social security and our rights as workers. It’s hard to predict what will happen in the months ahead. But I think everyone can see that Macron doesn’t have a very solid government and they are not at all demoralised from the movement last year.
So I think the biggest struggles are ahead of us, not behind us. The results of those battles will also depend on how our organisations respond, and whether we succeed in developing this movement.
So, finally, what does that mean for the revolutionary left—what can it do to win that battle?
Personally I tend to see two main fronts into which the left, and particularly the revolutionary left, needs to throw itself.
The first is that question of the attacks that Macron and his government have lined up for workers. His whole project is to bring into question everything from the limits on working time to the role of trade unions. So there’s clearly an urgency in the trade unions to bring together those worker-activists who want to fight. There have already been moves to do this since the movement of last year, among those trade unionists who had tried to get a continuous strike. I think revolutionaries have everything to gain from getting stuck into the unions and making that happen, bringing workers together and pushing them to organise.
The other—and the one which is really sorely lacking, where there are major debates even among revolutionaries—is the question of the struggle against racism and fascism. I think that’s the real weakness we have in France. We can’t afford to think in terms of building up the social movement in parallel with the growth of the Front National. That’s a race that we can only lose. The Front National is developing rapidly, racist ideas are spreading rapidly, and that has an impact on everything—including on our ability to build the class struggle.
We see that in Britain there is a coalition against racism and a movement against fascism, in Greece too. In Barcelona there were 160,000 people who marched for refugees a few months ago; even in Italy we’ve seen something similar. There is absolutely no reason this cannot happen in France—unless it’s that the left, including the revolutionary left, can’t find the energy to respond to racist attacks and the growth of a fascist party. So I think these are the fronts on which we really have to get to work.
Vanina Giudicelli is a member of the New Anticapitalist Party and a migrant solidarity activist in Paris. Dave Sewell is a journalist on Socialist Worker.
1 Named after then Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, the Labour Law was brought in by the Socialist Party government and became law on 8 August 2016.
2 The name is somewhere between “the Republic on the move” and “the Republic gets to work”.