France: a warning from Europe

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The European elections saw a huge victory for the fascist Front National (FN) in France. The FN came out on top with 25 percent of the votes. This is the first time in its history it has secured first place in a nationwide poll. This is a terrible setback and an urgent call to action.

The reasons for the FN's victory have much to do with the actions of the Parti Socialiste (PS) which has been in office since 2012. Those who voted for President Francois Hollande had hoped for a different course to that steered by his hard Tory predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Instead we have seen a continuation of the same anti working class and racist policies. Pension rights have been cut again, unemployment has risen from 2.92 to 3.34 million people under Hollande's government, while the home secretary, and now prime minister, Manuel Valls, has pushed a hard line on policing and fed anti-Roma and Islamophobic racism. PS voters stayed home on a massive scale on 25 May.

The legitimacy given to the FN by both the mainstream Tory UMP and the PS has been compounded by the favourable media coverage. In February the widely watched BFM news channel gave 43 percent of its political airtime to the FN.

It has been a hard few years for the left. In 2010 millions of workers struck and marched against Sarkozy's attack on pensions. The movement ended in bitter defeat, but anger found an outlet at the polls with the victory of Hollande.

With disappointment came disarray, especially as the major trade unions kept an equivocal stance towards the PS government. This opened up space for the right.

Opposition to the legalisation of lesbian and gay marriage - one of Hollande's few progressive measures - brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets, with the far-right giving the lead and the most conservative sections of the Catholic church providing the infrastructure.

Even though a majority of the French population are in favour of equal rights and were horrified at the resurgence of homophobia, the left provided no serious fightback on the issue, focusing instead on purely economic questions.

No room for despair
While recognising the scale of the defeat, it is also important to have a clear view of its limits and of our ability to beat back the fascists.

There is still a gap between the FN's electoral weight and its organisational strength. It has been lacking in stable cadres since a deep crisis split the party in 1999. While it has built up its network in pockets of the country, it is absent or weak in most of it.

One sign of this was the failure to find candidates in many towns and cities for this year's local elections. The fact that abstention was at a record high is also important.

One illustration of both these factors is the working class city of Argenteuil in the Paris suburbs, where much of the population is black or of North African ascent. There the FN came top, with 23 percent.

This sounds horrible, yet this represents only 3,882 votes out of a population of over 100,000 people, and three times fewer votes than given to the PS candidate for mayor in March.

Back then the FN could not find 55 supporters willing to be candidates in the local elections. This shows the FN's electorate is still overwhelmingly passive, and the party structures are weak.

Another sign of this is that for their annual national rally 5,000 supporters came to hear party leader Marine Le Pen. This is to be compared to 100,000 trade unionists marching on the same day throughout France.

It is also the case that even though there is no nationwide mass anti-fascist organisation, the FN has found itself confronted with a string of local protests.

Hundreds marched in Grenoble, Sotteville-les-Rouen, Blois and many other towns and cities against the FN. In most cases the protests were called by collectives of activists from the Nouveau Party Anticapitaliste (NPA), the Front de Gauche, and anti-racist organisations.

The elections have started to provoke a stronger response. On 29 May over 10,000 mainly young people marched against the FN - the call came from a wide spectrum of organisations, including the youth wing of the Parti Socialiste.

On 7 June a demonstration to mark the anniversary of the murder of anti-fascist activist Clement Meric by a Nazi thug will be another occasion to bring together the many who want to express their disgust.

On 28-29 June a conference of the National Coordination against the Far Right (CONEX) will take place. These are as yet limited but essential steps towards a mass anti-fascist movement. We can fight back against them, and we must.