As polls closed after the first round of the French presidential election on 21 April exit polls were expected to confirm that the second round on 5 May would pit the incumbent prime minister, Lionel Jospin, against the outgoing president, Jacques Chirac.
Before the evening was out, however, Jospin had withdrawn from political life, Chirac had achieved the lowest ever score of a standing president and the shocking revelation that he was to face not a Socialist but the fascist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round brought thousands of protesters onto the streets, sparking a nationwide wave of anti-fascist demonstrations which show no sign of letting up.
There are three key elements to the vote. Firstly it represents a significant victory for Le Pen's Front National (FN) only three years after suffering a damaging split which saw the chairman, Bruno Mégret, forming a rival party. One of France's principal anti-racist associations, the Manifeste contre le Front National, were so confident that Le Pen and his party was finished that it dissolved itself in 1999. Today, when Mégret's 2.34 percent is added to Le Pen's score, the total vote for the extreme right stands at 19.2 percent, just behind Chirac's 19.88 percent. In nine of France's 22 regions Le Pen emerged as the leading candidate. The prestige of qualifying for the second round offers the far right an opportunity to rebuild which it should never have been granted. Although the likelihood that Le Pen will become president on 5 May is remote, there is a real chance that FN deputies will be elected to the National Assembly in the June parliamentary elections.
Secondly, however, although the FN vote has more than held up since the last election, this is not the product of a generalised swing to the right but of a profound crisis of mainstream politics. The combined vote for Chirac and Jospin, the candidates of France's two largest parties, was less than the number of abstentions, which amounted to a record 11 million and included 40 percent of young voters. Chirac looks set to be elected after polling a lower first round score than any of the candidates who went on to lose the second round in the last three elections. The mainstream right as a whole won 4 million fewer votes than in the last presidential election in 1995, compared to a drop of 1.5 million for the parties of the mainstream left. The biggest losers of all the partners in Jospin's governmental coalition, aside from Jospin himself, are the Communists (PCF) whose vote plummeted to a new low of 3.37 percent, the worst vote in the party's history. More people opted to spoil their ballot papers than voted for Robert Hue, the candidate of the PCF (once the largest single party in France).
Thirdly, the election is remarkable for the performance of the Trotskyist left, which scored over 10 percent of the poll. It also improved on its 1995 result by more votes (1.4 million) than the far right, whose total vote went up by 1 million. Arlette Laguiller's score, at 5.72 percent, represented a slight advance on her 1995 vote and confirmed her as the candidate most identified with the defence of working class interests. The extraordinary performance of Olivier Besancenot, a young postal worker standing for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), who came from nowhere to win over 1 million votes, including the votes of 13.9 percent of those under the age of 25, reflected his ability to articulate anger at the compromises of the left in government in a way which expressed some of the dynamism and confidence of anti-capitalist youth. In total 13.5 percent of manual workers voted for the far left against only 5.3 percent for the PCF.
Le Pen's success, then, takes place in a vastly different context from the situation which saw the party rise from obscurity to 15 percent of the poll between 1983 and 1995 against a backdrop of bitterness and demoralisation. Today's context is one of intense polarisation at the heart of which is a crisis of neoliberalism and social democracy. The left's failure to deal with social inequality means that Le Pen has been able to pick up electoral support from significant numbers of disaffected workers and the unemployed. Only 12 percent of manual workers are believed to have voted for Jospin, less than half the proportion voting for Le Pen. The Socialists, however, have only themselves to blame for their defeat after running a Blairite campaign which began with Jospin denying that his programme was socialist and ended with him unable to counter Chirac's obsessive focus on law and order, an issue which post 11 September has become the perfect vehicle for Le Pen's racism.
During the early part of the campaign attention focused on how little difference there was between Chirac and Jospin's programmes, a fact reinforced by their show of unity at the EU summit in Barcelona. 'We're not talking enough about workers. We must reassure our social base,' warned a leading Socialist, who also pointed out that the word 'worker' did not even appear in Jospin's programme. By this time, however, it was too late. The campaign was merely reflecting the Socialists' failure to deliver meaningful social reform over the previous five years. The Socialists were elected with the highest proportion of working class support in 1997 on the back of a wave of militancy and anti-racist activity which, among other things, threw off course the FN's attempts to present itself as a party which could defend workers' interests. But Jospin's government has squandered the chance to improve living conditions for ordinary people, hence the dramatic fall in support for Jospin among workers.
At the same time the election also shows that left opposition to the Socialists is now generalising beyond the mainstream parties. This means that the LCR and Lutte Ouvrière were able to win more support between them than the combined Green and Communist vote. It also means that the far left has a tremendous responsibility today. This is twofold. Voters are being offered a choice between a fascist candidate and a corrupt right wing president with an abject personal record of pandering to racism, whose party gave the FN its first electoral breakthrough by concluding a local alliance with it in 1983. In the immediate future, then, it is vital that Le Pen is stopped, but opposition cannot be confined to calls for a 'Republican Front' behind Chirac. The tremendous anti-fascist mobilisations which saw school students leave their classrooms on the day after the election to join 150,000 on the streets of over 30 towns will be central in defeating Le Pen. The lesson of the previous wave of anti-racist protests which targeted the FN in the mid-1990s is that such opposition must not let up until the organisation is smashed beyond repair.
But if the FN is to be marginalised a credible political alternative to the mainstream left must also be developed. The far left now has an unprecedented opportunity to help build such an alternative and unite those breaking with the Socialist and Communist parties with anti-capitalist, anti-racist youth against fascism, capitalism and war. In particular Lutte Ouvrière must take responsibility for its vote, something which it failed to do in 1995.
This means breaking with its policy of abstention on the question of fighting fascism and taking initiatives in the struggle against Le Pen. But it also means offering a political home to the many thousands of workers looking to the far left, one whose ambitions soar beyond the small-scale operations within which the revolutionary left has been confined for too long. Immediately after the election one newspaper quoted the reaction of someone who had abstained in the vote. His first thought had been to leave the country, but 'now I've told myself to become active politically, to stop being passive'. What kind of political activity such people are drawn to, and its chances of success, will depend to a large extent on the choices made by revolutionaries in the coming weeks.