Many commentators interpreted the mainstream right's victory in the French parliamentary elections in June as a return to normality after the shock of Le Pen's showing in the presidential election last April.
The big majority for president Chirac's UMP (Union pour la majorité présidentielle) coalition and the fact that the defeated Socialists achieved more or less the same vote as in the last general election of 1997 appeared to herald the recovery of the mainstream, apparently confirmed by the falling away of support for both the National Front (FN) and the revolutionary left since April.
The right returned to power because it was able to seize the initiative following calls from the entire political establishment to back Chirac against Le Pen for president. Chirac moved immediately to herd the various factions of the mainstream right into a coalition designed to win him a parliamentary majority and so avoid another period of cohabitation between a right wing president and a left wing government. Both the right and the Socialists insisted on the need for tactical voting to avoid a repeat of the presidential election, so marginalising the smaller parties.
Although the Socialist vote held up, frustration with the record of the left in government, the cause of Jospin's presidential failure, has fatally weakened his 'plural left'. The Communist Party lost half its 1997 electorate, winning just 1.2 million votes, while each of the leading partners in the coalition--Robert Hue for the Communists, Jean-Pierre Chevènement for the Pôle Républicain and the Green Dominique Voynet--lost their seats. Martine Aubry, the minister responsible for introducing the 35-hour week, widely tipped as the Socialists' next presidential candidate, was another casualty. Her defeat in Lille, the result of bitterness at the way she allowed employers to twist the 35-hour week to their own advantage, opens the way for a Blairite successor to Jospin.
In both rounds of the parliamentary election the single most popular option was abstention, chosen by almost 40 percent of those eligible to vote in the second round. The UMP's victory was achieved with the first round support of less than a quarter of registered voters. No existing government has been able to retain power in any of the six general elections held in France since 1978 .
This crisis of representation characterises French politics today and promises to haunt Chirac and his new administration. In this context the Front National's score of 11.34 percent gives no cause for complacency. Although down on Le Pen's presidential showing, the demands of standing over 500 candidates in the parliamentary elections require a higher level of organisation than the presidential campaign. The total vote for the extreme right, down nearly 3 percent on its 1997 score at around 12.5 percent, indicates the damage done by the FN split in 1999. It also highlights its failure to capitalise, at least in the short term, on Le Pen's presidential success.
This is largely due to the powerful anti-fascist backlash which greeted the news of Le Pen's presidential score. Millions demonstrated against the FN during a fortnight of relentless activity between the two rounds of that election. But given such militancy, why did the revolutionary left, which topped 10 percent of the presidential poll, not perform better in the parliamentary elections? Although Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) improved slightly on their 1997 vote, they won less than 3 percent of the poll. This failure to hold on to more than a fraction of their presidential electorate, numbering almost 3 million, highlights political weaknesses which allowed the initiative to slip away between April and June.
Part of this can be ascribed to the bandwagon which was built up by the chorus of voices (including the LCR's) calling for a vote for Chirac against Le Pen. But the pressure to vote tactically in June would have been countered more effectively had LO responded to the LCR's call for unity of anti-capitalist forces, beginning with a united campaign of the far left in the parliamentary campaign. Lutte Ouvrière's sectarian refusal to cooperate deprived the far left's electorate of a clear alternative to the mainstream left in June. In many constituencies people were faced with a choice between candidates from both groups. In most of these the desire for unity led people to identify with the LCR rather than LO. Lutte Ouvrière, its vote down by over a quarter on its 1997 score, has set itself against unity on the left. In doing so it has broken the dynamic which had built up around its presidential candidate Arlette Laguiller over the past seven years. This has provoked an internal crisis in the organisation with some members leaving to join the LCR.
The coming months will see an offensive against ordinary people by a newly confident right. Symbolic of this confidence is the return of Alain Juppé to centre stage as the key figure in the construction of Chirac's UMP. Juppé's term as prime minister in the mid-1990s was wrecked by a massive public sector revolt against his programme of social security cuts. His return, like the recent resurgence of Le Pen, is symptomatic of the present period.
Since the mid-1990s, despite the revival of industrial militancy, the emergence of a vibrant anti-capitalist movement and electoral success for the revolutionary left, the failure to establish a political current around which these forces can unite has offered the left's enemies the chance to regroup. These enemies have returned weaker than before, bruised by previous confrontations. But as mainstream political parties creak in the face of polarisation and volatility, the stakes are rising. New struggles against the present government are sure to emerge, offering opportunities for the left to regain the initiative. Failure to do so will in turn provide further scope for the far right to grow.