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French left returns to power after 17 years

THE VICTORY of Francois Hollande has raised huge expectations among workers across France and Europe of an end to austerity, posing the possibility of major struggles ahead. On a high turnout of 81 per cent, right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy was booted from office, leaving the Elysée Palace to be occupied by a Socialist President for the first time in nearly two decades. As in 1981, youthful supporters of the left flocked to the place Bastille. There Hollande made them a pledge:

“Carry this message far! Remember for the rest of your life this great gathering at the Bastille because it must give a taste to other peoples, to the whole of Europe, of the change that is coming. In all the capitals, beyond government leaders and state leaders, there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us and want to put an end to austerity.”

However, it’s clear that with a programme promising government investment in public services and tax rises on the rich, Hollande has bucked the European trend since 2008, which has seen once-dominant social democratic parties triangulate with neoliberal austerity, only to be rejected at the polls by their disillusioned supporters.

Hollande’s victory – despite the ambiguous  and limited character of  many of its promises – reflects a growing popular opposition to the effects of years of austerity regimes. Even more clearly is this the case with the rise of ex-PS Minister Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Front de Gauche (Left Front) in the first round, with his anti-rich rhetoric.

Yet radicalisation goes right as well as left. The mainstream media have made the far-right National Front – who doubled their vote – the story of the elections. Young voters were split between the far left and far right parties, with the majority abstaining.

The markets are one of the most important elements in the whole election. With their threats to sink a Hollande government partially assuaged by Hollande’s trip to the City of London in April, it’s clear that they are flexing their muscles ahead of any attempts to water down EU-wide austerity.

Currently France spends more paying off its debt than it does on healthcare. These debts were mostly acquired by borrowing money to bail out the national banks. Now this money has to be paid back, with interest, to the same bankers who crashed the economy.

This is the root of austerity, which is driving countries like Greece, Spain and Britain into deeper and deeper crises.

Hollande has promised to undo many of Sarkozy’s most unpopular austerity cuts including reversing the 60,000 job losses in education, as well as protecting the national health service. In this he has placed himself ahead of most  European social democrats and the British Labour Party. Many will now be contrasting his victory with the position of Labour in UK who have consistently refused to commit to reversing any of the cuts to our pensions, education and the NHS.

Ultimately both Hollande and Sarkozy campaigned on a platform of reducing the government debt – Sarkozy by 2016 and Hollande by 2017. The difference is who will pay these debts and how. Hollande has won on the basis of investing in public services, and using the growth in jobs combined with higher taxes on the rich to restore government finances

Sarkozy was determined to replicate the strategy of the Tories in Britain – privatise the welfare state to enrich a handful of billionaires and release the state from the financial ‘burden’ of social care. This is codified in the Fiscal Treaty, concocted by ‘Merkozy’ and  which Hollande has pledged to re-negotiate.

However, the election revealed where the real power in society lies. During campaigning markets threatened to unleash havoc on France by ditching its bonds and forcing Hollande to stick to the EU-wide austerity programme. There can be little doubt that were he to stick to his promise – Merkel has talked about a ‘growth pact’ but has said that renegotiating the Fiscal Treaty is out of the question – then the markets would unleash all their fury.

Then Hollande’s mettle would be tested. But more importantly so would that of the French labour movement and youth. For the only defence – the only alternative to capitulation – would be defiance; .i.e.  a real attack on the rich, the bankers, the bond and stock markets.

And this is where a powerful united front of trade unionists, supporters of Mélenchon and the far left, the youth, the immigrant communities would have to take direct action to demand and enforce real anticapitalist measures.

Hollande victory represents a vote against austerity but key now is to continue to mobilise pressure at the base to hold PS to account.

The election of a PS president for the first time since 1988 is a critical moment.

As the EU plunges back into crisis, Hollande will find himself caught between two great forces: on the one hand the European and international investors and speculators who rely on a strong Franco-German alliance,  ensuring that austerity is waged pitilessly in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy.

On the other, there is the French working class,  just recovering from  by the defeats of the 2010 pension struggle. Throughout the winter, workers have been fighting against factory closures, like Arcelor Mittal in Florange, PSA-Aulnay, Fralib (Marseille), etc. Indeed, several large companies have delayed announcements of job cuts or closures until after the elections and there could be a large wave of attacks in the coming weeks. Several hundred of thousands of activists marched in the CGT initiated days of action and on May Day. The high score (11 per cent) for Mélenchon and his vibrant campaign also shows this determination and readiness to fight.

The vote for the French “far left” hasn’t increased in 10 years. The difference is that the vote has gone to the left-reformism of Melenchon’s Left Front, with negligible votes for the once-dynamic NPA and perennial Lutte Ouvrière.

The problem is that the revolutionary left stubbornly refuses to utilise united front tactics  with the PS except on the narrowest basis of ‘vote PS to kick out Sarkozy’ A  critique of the reformist politics of the PS and its long history of betrayals is insufficient. Millions of workers are expecting an end to austerity from Hollande.

We need to work with them to force Hollande to stick to his pledges, indeed go much further. If or rather when he stops short then there is a real possibility of winning masses of them to a real revolutionary alternative.

Mobilising to kick out Sarkozy is only the beginning of the struggle. Now the trade unions must be made to place the same pressure on Hollande – we have to make him yield to the stronger of two forces – us.

The German, Spanish and British governments are resolutely opposed to any renegotiation of the EU austerity  treaty which binds millions of people into seeing their jobs and services axed to fuel self-destructive austerity budgets.

Their political opposition will be matched by the opposition of the international financiers who will furiously defend their privileges, using their unaccountable power to threaten Hollande should he try to stick to his plan for growth.

If Hollande sticks to his anti-austerity pledge at the Bastille, if cuts are reversed and jobs created then it will be because French workers and youth mobilise. And down the road, and maybe not so far either,  it will only produce another wave of capitalist crisis and sabotage.

That is why the continued resistance has to take more organised expression in the form of coordinations,, councils of action. We need an all out offensive as in 1936, to enforce measures in the interests of the workers, ones are also as the Communist Manifesto says, “despotic inroads” on the power and wealth of the capitalist class. But to fight for such a strategy we also need a growing revolutionary alternative; a party armed with an action programme for working class power.

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