France - A new president and a revamped political framework for waging war against the working class

Summer 2017

On May 7th, Emmanuel Macron won the run-off in the French presidential election with 66.10% of the vote, against 33.9% for the candidate of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen. This was an unusually large majority by recent European standards, especially for an outsider who did not have the support of the electoral machinery of one of the country's main parties. In fact, his victory made such an impression on Theresa May that she asked to be given as strong a mandate in her June snap election as Macron had ostensibly gained for his pro-EU stance. It seems she thought she could scare the British electorate into voting to "strengthen her hand" in the Brexit process. As we know, her attempt was a dismal failure.

Ironically, though, leaving aside the EU, Macron's agenda is far closer to May's than she would care to admit. Apart from a short spell at the top of the Rothschild bank, his main claim to fame dates back to his 2-year stint as Industry minister, under Socialist Party president Hollande, during which he initiated a vicious offensive against workers' rights, which was to produce the infamous "Loi Travail", sparking off months of street protests, in 2016.

By April that year, accusing Hollande of being "too soft" on the working class, Macron had already formed a new movement, called "Forward!" ("En Marche!").  Four months later he resigned from government and proceeded to turn his movement into a springboard for his own rise to power, in preparation for the 2017 presidential election.

Much like the far-right National Front - or like Britain's Ukip, for that matter - Macron sought to capitalise on the discredit of the traditional parties and on the electorate's general rejection of the political establishment. To this end, he promised to clean up the political system - by bringing in a whole new generation of politicians supposedly coming from what he called "civil society" - i.e. from outside politics. At the same time, he pledged to return the economy to prosperity - by "modernising" it and granting the bosses all the leeway they had been demanding in their drive to increase workers' exploitation. And, for good measure, he managed to present himself as the only possible bulwark against the rise of the far-right.

Macron soon became the darling of the media, thanks to the enthusiastic support of their capitalist owners. This allowed him to come to the fore of the political scene in the run-up to the presidential election, at a time when all the main parties were bogged down in endless factional rivalries or corruption scandals - or both, in the case of the right-wing parties.

This meteoric rise allowed Macron to top the poll on the first round of the presidential election, with 24% of the vote to Le Pen's 21.3% - and then to win the run off, with the support of most of the country's traditional parties.

In the subsequent general election, the coalition formed by Macron's movement (by then, rebranded as "Republic Forward!") and the much smaller centrist Modem (or "Democratic Movement") won 350 seats - a 2/3 majority in the 557-strong National Assembly - with Macron's movement winning an absolute majority on its own, with 312 seats. Macron's bid for power had, therefore, been successful.

The capitalists' state and "democratic" institutions

Behind Macron's sweeping victory, what has been taking place in France, however, is a thorough overhaul of the worn-out political system which, for many decades, had been the "democratic" fig leaf concealing the dictatorship of the French capitalist class.

Many features of the French political system are similar to those found in all imperialist countries. Their capitalist classes inherited considerable wealth, which had been accumulated by looting the natural and human resources of whole continents. This allowed them to afford the luxury of what they call "democracy" - a system of political institutions designed to give the exploited classes the illusion that they can influence the operation of the capitalist system without the need to change its very foundation - i.e. the organised theft, by the tiny minority of capitalists who own the bulk of the productive forces, of the surplus-value produced by the working class.

The trick is to ensure that the real political decisions are never actually made - and even less implemented - by the elected parliamentary institutions. The day-to-day operation of the state as well as its continuity in between governments, are entrusted to a layer of unelected senior state functionaries, who remain permanently in place, regardless of the composition of elected bodies. These mostly well-paid functionaries are carefully selected by the educational institutions of the capitalist class. The top layer of the military come out of a handful of prestigious state military academies. As to civilian functionaries, they are trained by a few institutions - such as British universities like Oxbridge and St Andrews, or, in the case of France, the ENA (National School of Administration) and the Ecole Polytechnique (Polytechnic School).

While their political personnel are not so well selected, the imperialist capitalist classes can afford to provide a large number of professional politicians with a substantial stake in keeping the political system going smoothly, in their own interests. In countries like France and Britain, tens of thousands of politicians make a living - some very comfortably, some less so - from positions in national, regional or devolved parliamentary and governmental institutions, in local government and in all kinds of supposedly "independent" bodies, living on the margins of the state machinery. The main political parties themselves have all sorts of means to provide their cadres with hundreds of permanent paid positions.

At the same time, there are various mechanisms which are designed to preserve the homogeneity of the whole system and a sense of common purpose amongst its various components. This, in particular, is the function of the revolving doors which allow a constant flow of individuals to travel back and forth between the boardrooms of big business, the top spheres of the civil service, ministerial cabinets and the ranks of the political personnel itself.

The stability of the "democratic" institutions is further guaranteed by a set of electoral and parliamentary checks and balances, which are designed to ensure that the same political personnel can always be recycled, either in government or in opposition, according to needs.

The British two-party system, with its first-past-the-post electoral system - which is designed to sideline all but the main parties - and its institutionalised "Her Majesty's Opposition", which is always ready to move into office if need be, probably provides the most elaborate example of such checks and balances. In any case, this system has ensured that, for nearly a century, the same two parties have been alternating in power, sometimes ruling together in periods of acute crisis. And, as the June general election showed, despite all predictions to the contrary after Corbyn's election as Labour leader, the two-party system remains firmly in place, with Ukip virtually wiped out.

Likewise, more or less every imperialist country has got its own form of bipolar political system. When one set of politicians gets discredited after a certain time in office, another set is ready to seamlessly take over. The fact that faces are changing at the top provides the illusion that political change has taken place, whereas, in fact, the new team in office just carries on managing the affairs of the capitalists to the best of their interests.

By and large, within the framework formed by the elected "democratic" institutions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the unelected permanent state institutions, politicians have usually been able to retain enough credibility to perpetuate the exploitation of the working class, even when this required drastically attacking its material conditions.

In this process, reformist parties which came out of the working class movement a very long time ago, have played a major role - parties such as the Labour party in Britain or the Socialist party in France. These parties have long been totally integrated into the institutions of the capitalist class, to the point where their material existence depends almost entirely on the jobs and perks they enjoy thanks to their participation in these institutions. These parties help to maintain the illusion that social change can somehow be achieved by just changing the composition of Parliament, thereby channelling the frustration of the working class towards the electoral arena.

Meanwhile, the trade union machineries play a role which complement that of the reformist parties. Like these parties, the trade union machineries have long been just as integrated into the institutions of the state at every level, but also into the managerial structures of the big companies. They strive to contain and channel the struggles of the working class within the safe (for the exploiters!) boundaries of the collective bargaining machinery they maintain with the bosses - even when, at it is the case today in Britain, this machinery is no more than a shadow of what it used to be in the past and, more often than not, is used by the bosses as an auxiliary of their HR departments.

All this has allowed parliamentary democracy to carry on operating smoothly, at least as long as there was no major crisis threatening the profits of the capitalist class.

The collapse of France's old political framework

However, the long series of economic crises which has crippled the world capitalist economy for half-a-century now, has increasingly eroded the ability of the existing institutional framework to fulfil the functions which the capitalist classes expect from it.

To go back to the case of France, the political framework which had been in operation until this year's elections, dates back to the advent of the Fifth Republic, in 1958. Since that time, coalitions formed by left and right wing parties, respectively, have been alternating in office, on the basis of an electoral system which is designed to favour the largest parties, but also to provide them with an incentive to form coalitions in order to increase their parliamentary representation and their chances to form a government.

It is this political framework, now over half-a-century old, which has collapsed following Macron's victory. It has finally been replaced by a revamped political framework which, rather than being as new as Macron makes it out, is really an offshoot of the old system and a by-product of its collapse.

In fact, not much remains of the two political pillars on which the old framework was based.

The old right wing is now represented by an alliance between the LR ("The Republicans") and the much smaller UDI ("Union of Independent Democrats"). Although it came out of the elections in a better shape than the Socialist Party, its parliamentary representation has now been reduced to 130 seats, down from 196. Even then, it is divided into many rival factions. The main dividing line within its ranks, however, is between those who would be willing to follow the example of the right-wing politicians who have already joined Macron and those whose ambition is, on the contrary, to form the official opposition to Macron's regime, on the basis of an extreme conservatism. This split within the parliamentary group of the LR-UDI is likely to result in the implosion of the traditional right.

On the left, the Socialist Party (SP) has completely collapsed. It got 29 seats and just 5.7% of the vote.

Back in 2012, after Hollande's election, the SP had managed to win an absolute majority in the National Assembly, but also in the Senate (an upper house which represents the members of all municipal, departmental, regional and national elected bodies, rather than being elected by universal suffrage) - something which was unprecedented. Subsequently the SP had taken over control of all the country's regional assemblies, except for one.

Today however, the SP is on its way out. Many of its MPs have already changed allegiance. Some had chosen to join Macron's "Forward!" movement even before the presidential election Others were more hypocritical: they showed just enough support for Macron to ensure that "Forward!" would not stand a candidate against them in the general election, so that they could retain their seats.

From the point of view of the capitalist class, the balance-sheet of this long electoral period (nearly 12 months!) is two-fold.

The series of political scandals which marred the presidential election campaign, only managed to discredit the very same candidates who had been previously selected in the primaries held by the main contending blocks. This exposed the incapacity of the main traditional parties to rebuild any real political credibility - thereby highlighting the wear and tear of the political framework they had been operating for so long.

At the same time, Macron's bid for power has provided the capitalist class with a possible alternative to the old framework. Macron managed to produce a new political movement which seems capable of replacing the now discredited traditional left and right-wing parties. He managed to put together a rejuvenated political personnel, rather than a new one - in the sense that most of its members have been involved, at least at some point, in state institutions of one sort or another and/or in the traditional political parties themselves. Not only has this revamped political personnel already been tested, to some extent, by the capitalist class, but it also displays all the kind of arrogance required to represent big business interests and to facilitate its offensive against the working class.

So, for the time being, the capitalists have every reason to be pleased with Macron. But for how long?

Macron patches up a very sick "democracy"

The capitalist media cannot stop hailing Macron's "success story" - to which they have greatly contributed. Hasn't this 39-year old, who was almost unknown 3 or 4 years ago, managed to force his way into the presidential palace after a campaign which lasted only a few months? And hasn't he managed to re-decorate the façade of a rather worn-out political establishment? What's more, he has cobbled up a parliamentary majority which should allow him to rule without any problem - at least, in terms of parliamentary arithmetic. Likewise, the same media commentators cannot stop congratulating Macron for having reduced MPs' average age, increased women's representation and "modernised the political system"!

The reality is somewhat different, however. While Macron was largely unknown up until quite recently, he was well known among the top spheres of the capitalist class. Before Macron stood in any political election, his abilities had been tested and gauged, first as a top official of the Rothschild bank, then as Hollande's deputy general secretary and finally as his Industry minister. Voters did not know Macron, but those who have the power to make and break careers, knew all about him. It was no coincidence that the capitalist media proved so willing to promote Macron's profile.

Behind the media's enthusiasm for Macron's meteoric career, there is, however, a hint of uncertainty. It is expressed, in particular, in the form of comments about seemingly secondary issues, such as the way the National Assembly is run by Macron or the fact that his majority lacks both experience and homogeneity. Besides, it is probably true to say, as some commentators do, that Macron's personality, his dull political style and his claim to be "neither on the left, nor on the right", are not necessarily the best tools for him to exercise political power in the longer term, even though they played a significant role in his rise to power.

More importantly, beyond the narrow sphere of the political institutions, there is the real world, which is in the grip of an on-going economic crisis. This means that the capitalists are bound to make the same demands on Macron as they did on every previous regime. They will expect him to take every possible step to help them to boost their profits by increasing their parasitism on public funds and on the working class, thereby pushing an even larger section of the population into poverty. They will expect Macron to deliver the goods for them without causing too much instability. And they will expect this without bothering in the least about the political cost that this will entail for his regime - just as they did with his predecessors.

And there lies the possible source of problems for the capitalist class. When an economic crisis strikes, the normal methods it uses to conceal its dictatorship, may not work any longer or, as least not as smoothly: the blows resulting from a crisis reveal in the crudest possible way the brutal antagonism between the interests of the exploiters and those of the exploited. And no amount of "democratic" paraphernalia can conceal the violence of this antagonism from the working class.

It is precisely the impact of the crisis which caused the demise of the old left-right political framework and broke the back of the Socialist Party during Hollande's term in office. And the odds are, that Macron's revamped political framework will wear out too, in the same way and for the very same reasons, only probably even faster. Indeed, the coming period will inevitably involve political instability - not due to the fact that Macron's majority lacks political experience or homogeneity, as political commentators keep worrying, but because of the crisis itself.

Spearheading the capitalists' class war

Macron's presidency has already been marred by two pieces of legislation, which had been announced before his election, and were meant to show the general direction of his policies.

However, the first bill, which was supposed to restore some sort of "morality" within the political establishment, has already turned into farce.

Initially, this bill was supposed to address the concerns caused of the public over the long series of political scandals involving mainly politicians from the traditional right and far-right. However, even before the general election had taken place, another batch of political scandals had broken out involving, this time, a member of Macron's first government, Francis Bayrou and his Modem Party, which was allied with Macron.

In fact Bayrou, had been appointed Justice minister, by Macron. But he was forced to resign just before he was meant to introduce the new bill in front of the National Assembly. As leader of Modem, Bayrou could not possibly remain in his post, when his own party was being investigated by the police on suspicion of having misused MEPs' expenses!

In other words, Macron's team is already tarnished by the same kind of corruption as the old political establishment it claims to replace. This isn't much of a start!

Macron's second piece of legislation is far more indicative of his future policies, in that it openly aims at giving him a free hand to launch a wholesale attack against workers' rights. For the time being, little is known about the exact content of this bill except what was intentionally leaked by Macon and his team. In substance, its purpose is to allow Macron to rule by decree, outside any parliamentary scrutiny, in order to make the drastic changes in employment legislation which the bosses' organisations have been demanding for a long time. In particular, these changes will reduce the limited protection French workers have against unfair dismissal and so-called "economic" redundancies, while legalising new forms of casualisation.

Regardless of the eventual content of this bill - which, of course, also depends on the response of the working class - it is primarily a gesture addressed by Macron to the capitalists.Its purpose is not only to show that he is determined, just like his predecessors, to meet the wishes of big business, but also that, unlike them, he is open and even boastful, about his intentions.

In 2012, Hollande had got himself elected by pretending that he would fight big finance - only to cuddle up to the banks after his election. By contrast, Macron's social appeal alwaystargeted the petty-bourgeoisie and small capitalists, but also big business, whose support he won in his bid for power. And, quite logically, Macron's parliamentary majority reflects the nature of this social base.

In any case, this bill is certainly a warning to the working class that a confrontation is on the agenda. And only the working class has the means to stop the impending Macron-led offensive of the bosses - against this offensive, the ballot box will be totally useless!

The point of view of Lutte Ouvrière

Given this situation, what are the perspectives for the working class and what are the tasks of revolutionaries in the coming period? The text below is the answer to these questions formulated by our French sister organisation, on 23 June 2017, in its monthly journal "Lutte de Classe" (#185).

Judging from their first reactions, the union leaders have no plans to take the necessary initiative to respond to the coming attack against workers' rights. (...) But then, of course, their future attitude will also depend on the reaction that these attacks may trigger in the ranks of the working class.

These reactions and the anger they reflect, will also determine the degree of difficulty Macron will or will not have- with his parliamentary opposition.

Three parties are competing to play the role of opposition: the far-right "National Front", what remains of the right-wing "The Republicans" and, on the left, Mélenchon's "Rebellious France" or "France Insoumise". In parliamentary terms, these three parties have little weight. And if today's widespread opinion that "Macron should be given some time" prevails (and even a section of the working class says so), Macron will have no real difficulty in dealing with these rival oppositions.(...)

But significant reactions to his policies could present Macron with a very different problem. All three oppositions, in particular the "National Front" and "Rebellious France", will try to capitalise on these reactions, by giving them a political expression.

Ultimately, therefore, it is the class struggle which will determine Macron's fate. It is impossible to know at this point, however, which form this struggle will take. The only certainty we have, is that the capitalist class will definitely wage its own class struggle against the working class.

Indeed, no-one can predict which social layer will be first to turn passive discontent into active mobilisation. The attitude of Macron's various oppositions will obviously depend on the nature of the social layer which is mobilised. This attitude - and, in the case of the "National Front" and "France Insoumise", their willingness to pose as champions of the discontented - will be dependent on where the mobilisation takes place: among the police, farmers, truck drivers, small businessmen, or, more importantly, if it is workers threatened by redundancies who are mobilised, even on a purely defensive basis.

It is quite possible that "France Insoumise" or the "National Front" could try to take advantage of a working class mobilisation in order to widen their own audience, by resorting to some form of demagogic posturing in support of these workers. But both, each in their own way, feel responsible enough towards the capitalist system to avoid the risk of a mobilisation spreading, to the point of becoming a real threat to the interests of the capitalist class. So their demagogy and support will remain within very narrow limits.

It is precisely in such a situation that it will be especially vital for workers to be aware of their class interests. First, it will be vital to ensure that workers are not dragged into fighting for social interests which have nothing to do with their own class interests, by the mobilisation of some other social layer. And second, should a section of the working class itself be mobilised, it will be vital for this mobilisation not to allow itself to be diverted into a dead end.

The odds are, that despite his parliamentary majority, Macron will face a reaction from the working class . This reaction may be more or less confused and more or less determined. But whatever the case, what will be decisive, is workers' consciousness of their class interests and their capacity to assert these interests.

In 1899, in an article entitled "Our immediate task", which remains as relevant today as it was at the time, Lenin wrote:

"We are all agreed that our task is that of the organisation of the proletarian class struggle. But what is this class struggle? When the workers of a single factory or of a single branch of industry engage in struggle against their employer or employers, is this class struggle? No, this is only a weak embryo of it. The struggle of the workers becomes a class struggle only when all the foremost representatives of the entire working class of the whole country are conscious of themselves as a single working class and launch a struggle that is directed, not against individual employers, but against the entire class of capitalists and against the government that supports that class. Only when the individual worker realises that he is a member of the entire working class, only when he recognises the fact that his petty day-to-day struggle against individual employers and individual government officials is a struggle against the entire bourgeoisie and the entire government, does his struggle become a class struggle."

This class consciousness referred to by Lenin is not suspended in mid-air. It must be encapsulated in a party which represents the political interests of the working class. This is why even the day-to-day defence of workers' interests immediately raises the need for such a party and the question of its construction.

Only a party which is not tied in any way to the interests of the capitalist class, nor to its institutions, can make the best of the potential of all workers' struggles. Indeed such a party has nothing to fear from the fact that the dynamics of the struggle might take the mobilised masses much further than their starting point. Such a party would be all the more determined to make the best of the potential of workers' struggles - whether small or large. Because its primary objective would have to be to overthrow the dictatorship of capital over society, to expropriate the capitalists, to end of this profit-driven, exploitative system and its replacement with an economic system based on the collective property of the means of production, organised in order to cater for the needs of all.