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Class Antagonism Takes the Spotlight at French Presidential Debate

Philippe Poutou, presidential candidate for the New Anticapitalist Party and factory worker, brought the class struggle to center stage during the French presidential debate.

Marisela Trevin

April 10, 2017
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It was as if an unspoken, mutually protective code of silence had been established among the candidates leading the polls in this year’s French presidential debates. Despite their scandal-ridden campaigns, against the backdrop of the collapse of the traditional French party system, neither Fillon, of the right-wing party The Republicans, nor Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, had been asked to answer to the multiple accusations against them regarding the misappropriation of public funds.

Unlike the first debate, in which only five of the eleven presidential candidates had participated, the second debate on April 4 featured all of the candidates, including the New Anti-Capitalist Party’s Philippe Poutou, who made it a point to pierce the French political establishment’s bubble before millions of viewers, while expressing the need for a radical change in French politics and society.

Fillon smiled rigidly, then affected outrage and threatened to sue as Poutou exposed his hypocrisy. “Fillon says he’s worried about the debt, but he thinks less about the matter when he’s dipping into the public treasury,” he quipped. “These guys tell us that we need austerity and then they misappropriate public funds.”

Marine Le Pen was rendered speechless when Poutou addressed her own scandals, which had been widely covered by the media, like those of Fillon, but for which she had not been held accountable in the debates until then. “Then we have Le Pen. (…) She takes money from the public treasury as well. Not here, but in Europe. She’s anti-European, so she doesn’t mind taking money from Europe. And what’s worse, the National Front, which claims to be against the system, doesn’t mind seeking protection from the system’s laws. So she’s refused to appear before the court when she was summoned by the police.” When Le Pen replied “So in this case, you’re in favor of the police,” Poutou retorted “When we get summoned by the police, we don’t have workers’ immunity.” The audience burst into applause.

The contrast could not be starker. On one hand, the political establishment’s rigid, highly groomed candidates, stuck to their tired playbooks. On the other, a factory worker dressed in a white T-shirt, presented himself as the only one on the debate stage, besides Nathalie Arthaud (of the party Workers’ Struggle) who had a normal job.“We are referred to as small candidates that don’t represent anyone…” said Poutou, “but I think we can speak on behalf of millions of people who are suffering from this crisis, who are sick of this capitalist steamroller that destroys everything in its path. So we want to express that outrage from below against the super rich (…) against corrupt politicians, some of which surely recognize each other in this room.”

Poutou also addressed the topic of racism, immigration and colonialism, saying “[The people] are sick of this racism and xenophobia with which [the political establishment] attempts to direct their discontent against immigrants, against those who are trying to survive in dramatic situations.” With regard to French Guyana, which has seen a surge of mass protests in the past few weeks against poverty and for the provision public services, he said “French Guyana constitutes the remains of the French colonial empire. And we support that social struggle. We support the Guyanese population in their indignation and we also believe in the people’s right to self-determination against French colonialism.” In his closing speech, Poutou refused to “address the French citizens,” saying “When you say “French citizens,” you’re not including foreigners, residents from abroad. So we address the entire population and particularly the exploited, those who are paying a high price for the crisis, those who feel indignation against this system.”

Poutou’s attacks against his political rivals soon went viral on social media and he was portrayed by many in France and abroad, even in mainstream media, as somewhat of a folk hero. “In the streets, it’s very striking,” said the NPA candidate. “People are saying ‘bravo,’ ‘thank you so much.’ We realize it’s touched a lot of people. It’s what people are thinking, but these things are almost never said to politician’s faces.”

The debate took place in a context of economic crisis and profound political turmoil within the establishment’s ruling parties. The traditional right wing, represented by François Fillon of The Republicans, has seen their candidate fall consistently in the polls after being the initial frontrunner, as a result of recent scandals. He is accused of using public money to pay his wife for a fake job as a parliamentary assistant. He is now in a distant third place in the polls, lagging behind the National Front and En March!, a party founded just last year by former Socialist Party leader Emmanuel Macron. At this rate, it is unlikely that Fillon will make it to the runoff on April 23.

To the far right of the political spectrum, Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front has steadily gained support among the French electorate in recent years, as part of the surge of extreme right parties throughout Europe in general. In spite of the accusations against her, involving misappropriation of funds through fake jobs at the European Parliament and fake campaign-expense billing reimbursed by the State, Le Pen is currently leading the polls and will probably face off against Emmanuel Macron (candidate for En March!) in the runoff. However, all the polls predict that she will ultimately lose against Macron by a wide margin.

En March!’s Macron, a graduate of the French elite college École Nationale d’Administration and former investment banker at Rothschild & Co., is new to the political scene. He recently gained national recognition when he became Minister for the Economy under Hollande three years ago. His candidacy and sudden popularity should be understood in the context of the disintegration of the traditional French party system, in which the Socialist Party and the Gaullist right have alternated in power since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. After having been a member of the Socialist Party from 2006 to 2009, he declared himself independent and founded En March! in 2016, which he claims is neither a right-wing nor left-wing political party. He is now intent on building a centrist political force capable of absorbing the right wing of the Socialist Party and the left wing of Fillon’s The Republicans. Since he declared his candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections, he has gained political support from across the political spectrum and has become the clear favorite among the French ruling class. As a source for Le Monde put it a couple of years ago, Macron is the man that the French elite had always dreamed of: a left-winger with a pro-business policy.

To the left of the traditional political establishment, the Socialist Party, which has been in power since 2012, is currently in disarray amidst widespread discontent with President Hollande’s policies. Against all projections, the early favorite in the party’s primaries last January, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, lost to Benoît Hamon, a former minister in Hollande’s administration turned rebel legislator, who represents the left wing of the party. Since then, several leading Socialist ministers have thrown their weight behind political rival Emmanuel Macron of En Marche!, including Valls, who claimed that he could not support the party’s official candidate because Macron is the only candidate that can defeat Le Pen in the presidential elections. Hollande himself has declined to say who he will be backing in April, but is believed to support Macron. The primaries were a virtual referendum on Hollande’s administration, and the results were not good for the ruling faction.

In the past few years, unemployment in France has increased dramatically and now affects 6.5 million workers. Precarious work is also on the rise and thousands of workers and young people have taken to the streets in the past few months against a deeply unpopular Labor Reform law, which was ultimately enacted last year. Thousands have taken the street to protest police brutality and racism, as well as to demand better working conditions and protest layoffs. This has resulted in widespread disaffection with Hollande’s party and has led some to turn to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing movement, La France Insoumise, as a political alternative.

Mélenchon, currently in 4th place in the polls behind Fillon, is a former Socialist party stalwart who broke with the party in 2008 after 35 years. He founded La France Insoumise to represent the disenchanted masses and push for reforms in France’s political system and economy. In a context of mass discontent among the working class, it has been heartening for many to see a candidate address the fundamental issues faced by workers in France, such as unemployment, precarious work conditions and inequality. He has called for a “citizen’s revolution” and for the drafting of a new constitution. His analysis of class antagonism in the capitalist system can even be interpreted as radical. “The capitalist system functions on the basis of (…) your unpaid labor. If you work for 10 hours (…) you don’t get the value that you produced in 10 hours. You get 2 or 3 hours worth of your work and the rest goes to someone else. To pay for input, facilities, raw materials, dividends and investment.”

However, he goes on to say “The problem that arises is exclusively the problem of distribution [of wealth]. How do we share it?” Mélenchon proposes a universal tax on financial profit. He denounces the “immoral” wealth of certain renowned figures of the financial world. “The problem is bankers, the problem is Mulliez,” he declares, in reference to the powerful Mulliez family’s financial group. “That’s the problem: It has a name, an address.”

By addressing the issue in terms of morality and by only targeting certain players, Mélenchon spares the capitalist system as a whole, and his proposals are thus limited to reforms that are to be brought about primarily through the electoral system and that fail to address capitalism’s systemic ills. Despite his accurate analysis of class antagonism in capitalist society, he fundamentally views business leaders as “partners” with whom to negotiate better conditions within the system. However, the French ruling classes have shown, particularly in the ongoing crisis, that they will not surrender an inch of ground if not faced by the resolute struggle of the working class on its own terms, with strikes and mobilizations, the only strategy capable of wresting real gains from the capitalist class.

In contrast to Mélenchon’s proposal of establishing a 5% cap on precarious employment contracts in private companies, the New Anticapitalist Party’s (NPA) program demands the complete elimination of unemployment and precarious work by reducing and distributing work hours, starting with a 32-hour work week. It also proposes the implementation of emergency measures, like the prohibition of layoffs and a minimum wage increase to 1700 Euros.

The reaction to Poutou’s statements in the last presidential debate has shown that the people of France have had enough of the traditional political establishment that does not speak to their needs and has responded to their legitimate demands with increased repression. Poutou’s candidacy could be a real foothold in the struggle to find meaningful, radical solutions to the working classes’ problems and end all forms of oppression.

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