Upon the election of Nicolas Sarkozy there was a strong current in the media — both in France and internationally — claiming that “things had changed”. Sarkozy, it was said, was the man who would cut back the “gluttonous” French state, “modernising” the economy by curbing the power of the unions and replacing the France of the 35-hour-week with a new more “flexible” culture that valued “hard work”. French workers had to prepare for Sarkozy’s onslaught. As we have seen with November’s rail strikes, university occupations and rioting in the suburbs, resistance to Sarkozy is deep-rooted.
Some activists have used the catch-cry “Sarko-facho” (“Sarkozy-fascist”); portrayed him as nothing but a lickspittle of George Bush; or, as the Iranian media now have it, a Mossad agent. Yet most of the French President’s pronouncements seem to be in tune with the anti-working class, conservative and authoritarian political tradition of General de Gaulle.
We only have to think back to spring 2006 when the previous UMP [Gaullist] government attempted to introduce the CPE law to undermine young workers’ job stability, or 2005 when it backed the EU Constitution. The continuity in the history of the French right is examined in some detail in the latest issue of the Ni Patrie ni Frontières journal*, which devotes some 62 pages to assessing the character of so-called “Sarkozyism”.
Sarkozy has taken on great personal power, setting great store by his own image and casting himself as somewhat of a national saviour, in the mould of de Gaulle or a Napoleon. But NPNF argues that the frivolous labelling of Sarkozy as some sort of ‘fascist’ — who thereby ought to be excluded from ‘normal’ politics – is to ignore the real threat he poses in common with any bourgeois government:
Rather than concentrating on his economic and social programme, strongly opposed to the interests of the working class, much of the anti-Sarkozy propaganda makes out that he is more than just an enemy of the working class. A monster.
The assertion that Sarkozy represents an “Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal” current can also be misleading. True his anti-trade union and privatising agenda echoes Margaret Thatcher (hence the nickname “Monsieur Thatcher”, a characterisation which he does not seem particularly keen to dispel). Yet the claim that he is not a normal French bourgeois politician, but really just a lackey of George Bush, seems just to reflect the myth of a “republican collective” of “traditional” political debate, counterposed to “outsider” elements not native to French politics:
Most discussion of the alleged Atlanticism of the right has just one goal: reintroducing the age-old threats of the Foreign Party, or even Fifth Column (using chauvinist themes to silence opponents) and, as a result, embolden Gaullist myths. This idea is spouted by a united front running from the [liberal monthly] Monde diplomatique to the PCF [Communist Party] passing via the PS [Socialist Party] and a decent chunk of the UMP [Gaullists]. Ultimately these people want to exalt the “national fabric” of St. Louis, Joan of Arc and General de Gaulle. All of them gargle about the “French mindset”, “French exception”, “French tradition” and other red herrings.
The once million-strong Communist Party’s history is indicative here. After participating in the 1936-38 anti-fascist “Popular Front” government of socialists and bourgeois liberals, Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez called upon “patriotic” French far-right goons to join a “French front” against Nazism, and himself joined the French army.
After World War Two the Communists served in a national unity government with Charles de Gaulle for two years, yet after 1958’s military coup in Algiers, which provoked the downfall of the Fourth Republic and a new administration headed by de Gaulle, he was himself termed a “fascist”. Throughout these episodes the rhetoric of “anti-fascism” could be used to justify cross-class alliances, since it represented politics as a battle where “anti-fascist” and “republican” parties fought against “fascists” rather than as a struggle between classes.
Indeed, nowadays crying “fascist” in the face of Sarkozy’s attacks on the working class tends to imply support the opposition Socialist Party — a party with a limited base in the working class and no organic links to the labour movement — instead. Yet, as NPNF points out:
What Sarkozy said in his election campaign pushed the same buttons as Ségolène Royal, his rival in the presidential contest. Both played on the theme of “security”, both are opposed to open borders and free migration, both vaunted the merits of those who “work hard” and “get up early”, and both condemned May 1968, even if for marginally different reasons.
The PS and Royal herself have supported Sarkozy’s “modernisation” agenda, only making the vaguest criticisms. Royal opposed the rail workers’ strike, excusing pensions cuts in much the same way as her British counterpart in Number Ten might. The students’ union UNEF, dominated by the PS, was consulted in the elaboration of Sarkozy’s university privatisation plan, and since then has done nothing to organise opposition.
Royal like Sarkozy backs the riot cops in the suburbs, although no doubt she could suggest a more “touchy-feely” way of batting down the unemployed black youth. Such is the consensus among the capitalist class that Sarkozy was even able to persuade Bernard Kouchner, a leading figure in the PS, to serve as foreign minister in the UMP government, and French-Arab feminist Fadéla Amara (of Ni Putes Ni Soumises) to serve as a minister for the suburbs. The parallels between Sarkozy’s fishing for ministers outside the UMP and Gordon Brown’s courting of Digby Jones, Tory MPs and Paddy Ashdown for his “government of all the talents” are clear.
Sarkozy’s individual “reforms” are part of a general agenda of privatisation and casualisation of employment so that France can compete on the world stage, one inherited from his predecessors. There is no solace to be found in supporting liberals and right-wing “social democrats” here, since they share these essential perspectives. But neither does capitalism run by the bourgeois state represent an alternative to the kind of economy that Nicolas Sarkozy and the soft-Gaullist “Socialist Party” alike wish to achieve. NPNF cuts sharply against those who respond to Sarkozy by harking back to the days when the French state had greater penetration in economic life:
What exactly does the word “neo-liberal” mean in a society where most of the means of production rest in private hands and yet the state is the largest employer and has for a long time planned the economy? Have people forgotten that de Gaulle, after 1946, launched an “economic recovery plan” and that from 1958 he used Three-Year Plans?
“Neo-liberalism” is a vague notion even among its supporters, never mind its confused opponents. On the right, it is used to criticise the state’s “redistributive” actions (which in fact consist of taxing single and healthy workers and those who have a fixed job and then giving the money to the unemployed, the ill and people with kids) except when they are in favour of the bosses (you’ve never seen a boss complain about getting a subsidy or an anti-working class law).
On the left and far left it is a means of demanding state control (full or partial) of Capital, without at all calling for the overthrow of capitalism, getting rid of hierarchy, money, wage-slavery and the division of labour. In both cases, the word “neo-liberalism” stops us seeing the possibility of getting rid of wage-labour, as a mode of exploitation, or of the state.
And, much as the PS-PCF government in the early years of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency nationalised certain major industries and infrastructure in order to free up Capital, Sarkozy supports state intervention in the economy where needed:
In Sarkozy’s books and the programme of the UMP it is explicitly said that the state must play a greater role in technological innovation. Sarkozy emphasises that the American state finances innovation via military and space-programme research and via various federal interventions in the private sector, contrary to the official ‘neo-liberal’ ideology.
Hoping that the Socialist Party might take over the reins of government and implement this anti-working class offensive instead, or propagandising for the bourgeois state to run the economy without talking about workers’ management, is a feeble response to a government which wants to attack job stability, benefits and the right of workers to organise. It is a top down answer which makes no reference to workers’ independent political activity or their ability to control and run society.
Sarkozy’s attacks are very real and are contrived to emasculate the working class — but to respond with variants of liberal bourgeois republicanism or nostalgic French nationalism rather than positive agitation for working-class power means relegating socialist politics to the rank of abstract theory.