Is this the end of Sarkozy?

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As the French presidential elections near, Sylvestre Jaffard charts the declining fortunes of Nicolas Sarkozy and looks at the dangers from the right, with the fascist Marine Le Pen buoyed by the polls, and the opportunities for the left to challenge neoliberalism and austerity

On 22 April voters throughout France and the overseas territories still under its control will go to the polls for the first round of the presidential elections. This comes after ten years of Nicolas Sarkozy being in power, the last five as president. The French Tories have managed to score some important victories for the ruling class over that decade. Two successive pension reforms have raised the retirement age while cutting pensions. Social Security (equivalent to the NHS) has been cut so that the sick now have to pay much more out of their own pockets. Huge tax cuts have been given to the rich while wages have stagnated and unemployment has risen.

Mass strikes

However, the bosses did not get everything their own way, and mass resistance has been an important feature of the past ten years. Mass strikes against pension reforms may have been defeated, but the youth rebellion in 2006 against a new precarious work contract was victorious. After Sarkozy's election as president in 2007 a number of local struggles managed to delay or avert job losses. National days of action peaked towards the huge pension revolt in the autumn of 2010, when several million workers struck, marched and blocked railway stations and oil refineries.

This general climate and the disaffection with Sarkozy mean the Socialist Party (equivalent to the Labour Party) is now the favourite to take over after the elections.

Ever since he came to prominence, Sarkozy has attracted the hatred and contempt of a majority of workers and youth. It is an interesting paradox that this pension cutter had a majority only among the over-60s when he was elected in 2007. But Sarkozy's election slogan "Work more to earn more" did resonate with some working class voters. Overtime was to be made easier and taxed less, and this was supposed to lead to overall growth and more employment.

Five years later it is clear that those who work more have gained nothing, while many others have simply lost their jobs. One iconic example is the Continental tyre factory in Clairoix, north of Paris. In 2007, two minority unions accepted a deal pushing up the working week from 35 to 40 hours in return for a promise to keep the factory going until 2012. But just two years later it was announced the plant was to be closed, with the loss of 1,200 jobs in the plant itself and 2,000 more among subcontractors.

The Continental workers felt utterly betrayed, and started a heroic struggle first against closure and then for substantial severance pay. Their spokesperson, trade union activist Xavier Mathieu, became nationally known when a delegation of Continental workers ransacked a local government building and he refused to condemn the action on the evening news. In response to a journalist who asked, "Do you regret the violence?" he replied, "I hope you're joking! What is there to regret? A few broken windows, a few computers, and next to that thousands of broken lives..." Other workers have led similar struggles, striking and often occupying their workplaces, and attracting widespread sympathy - at stationery maker M-Real, the Fralib tea factory in Marseille, metal workers at Fonderie du Poitou and others.

Images of Sarkozy promising workers at a steel plant in 2008 that the state would invest in the plant rather than see it close have become a symbol of his untrustworthiness. A year later the plant did close, and workers responded with grim humour by laying down a plaque that reads "Hereunder lie the promises of N. Sarkozy."

The start of the election campaign has only strengthened the resolve of workers fighting for their jobs. Recently undergarment makers at Lejaby have managed to force Sarkozy to temporarily save some of their jobs through one of his billionaire friends, but they are far from dropping their guard or giving up the fight for those workers who did lose their jobs.

Cuts or more cuts?

While the question of jobs is high on every candidate's agenda, the solutions they offer in response to the crisis are not necessarily progressive. The two frontrunners, Sarkozy and the Socialist Party's candidate, François Hollande, offer a very traditional remedy: more competitiveness and more flexibility. Hollande puts more emphasis on training and education, and has made a few noises about regulating finance, but his reassurances to City bankers have cooled the enthusiasm of many. He even boasted, "The left was in government for 15 years in which we liberalised the economy and opened up the markets to finance and privatisations. There is no big fear."

Still, there is a contradiction at work in the support for the Socialist Party which goes beyond voting for "anybody but Sarkozy". Hollande has made clear he wouldn't completely reverse Sarkozy's pension reform, but he would still undo some aspects (Socialist Party activists participated enthusiastically in the 2010 pension fight). Hollande has never condemned the policies of fellow members of the Socialist International, Papandreou in Greece or Zapatero in Spain, but he has gained support in France by advocating recruiting teachers and not cutting the overall size of the state sector, while Sarkozy has been reducing the number of teachers and state jobs. This means that a victory for Hollande over Sarkozy can give sections of workers the confidence that most of society does want a left wing alternative, and that struggles can attract mass sympathy and participation.

However, there can be no doubt that Hollande's overall orientation is one of austerity. His obsession seems to be to ensure that he does not "make promises he can't keep", meaning any reform which would substantially displease the bosses he is anxious to have on his side. This risks lowering expectations so much that many voters with left wing aspirations will end up staying at home - this is in many ways Sarkozy's best chance for a comeback.

Fascism lurking

While the fascists have enjoyed a high degree of support over the best part of the past three decades, Jean-Marie Le Pen's performance in 2007 was disappointing to them (he got 10.44 percent). Now Marine Le Pen has taken over her ageing father's role. Over the past year television and mainstream magazines have been busy building her up as the "third face" of the elections. The Front National has been a pioneer in "streamlining fascism", with a success that the BNP among others have been keen to emulate.

On the surface, Marine Le Pen is reaching new heights of success. Opinion polls put her at around 18 percent, a very high point at this stage of the campaign, although slightly down from last year. She has ditched most of the visible anti-Semitism of her father and concentrated on more fashionable Muslim-bashing. This has been combined with a few expressions of concern for (French) workers in order to defend her xenophobic policies. Le Pen has managed to fool a sizeable portion of the media, and even part of the left, that the Front National is now a party like any other, with a programme which should be countered with arguments in rational debate.

It is unclear at this stage whether this will hold throughout the campaign, as reminders of the real nature of the Front National keep shining through the thin veneer. The Front National has in any case not as yet resolved the contradiction it has faced since the late 1990s: while it has a huge electoral weight it has very few active militants on the ground. Of course good election results, and mainstream tolerance of their ideas as acceptable, will make it easier for them to rebuild a strong organisation. This makes it all the more important to organise mass protests everywhere it shows up - this has happened in a number of places locally, but we're still a long way from what's needed.

Turning left

At this stage one thing seems clear. Some kind of left wing response to the crisis will get a hearing during the electoral campaign. Unfortunately, right now it is the more reformist Front de Gauche (an alliance between a left wing split from the Socialist party and the Communist party) rather than the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) (or the abstract version of Trotskyism put forward by Lutte Ouvrière) which attracts the most attention. In certain ways this is not a problem: their candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is eloquent at countering the neoliberal interpretation of the crisis and he is quick to defend Greek workers' right to resist the diktats of the EU and the IMF, etc. Still, his campaign is strictly limited to the electoral field, and the tens of thousands of activists, trade unionists and young people who attend his rallies are given one single perspective for changing society: casting a vote for Mélenchon.

The NPA

It didn't have to be that way, and it is clear a good deal of the responsibility lies with the NPA's lack of audacity over the past three years. The potential for building a broad, dynamic party rooted in struggles and helping to coordinate and organise activists over a range of issues has been set back. The NPA has too often been content to juxtapose correct, but abstract, statements about capitalism with a practical focus on participating in elections.

As a result, a range of issues such as work in trade unions, housing, anti-racism, opposition to war or police violence has not been debated and organised throughout the organisation. This means that many of the best activists who were initially attracted to the NPA have not found much use in staying in the organisation.

The NPA's candidate is Philippe Poutou, a car factory worker and trade union activist who led a victorious fight against job cuts. This allows us to make a link with every similar struggle, and to be heard by a wide audience defending the need for workers' self-organisation, workers' control of companies and services and the need for international solidarity - especially with the struggling peoples of Greece, Egypt or Syria.

Whatever the result of the elections, the crisis, the international context and the experience of recent struggles means the next government will not have an easy ride. It also means a strong fighting left can and must be built.