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France Caught Between Right and Left

PARIS, May 1 2012 (IPS) - French workers turned out in droves on May 1, International Workers’ Day, to back their political candidates ahead of the second round of the French presidential elections next Sunday. But France’s “working class” has largely turned to the Far Right, after a long tradition of voting Left.

“We have imposed our themes on the elections,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National (FN) party which came third in the first round of elections held Apr. 22, with a record 17.9 percent of the vote.

“We’ve become the centre of gravity in French politics,” she told thousands of supporters who descended on the imposing Place de l’Opera to hear her speak on May Day.

The presidential race is now between the incumbent, President Nicolas Sarkozy, and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande who won the first round, but Le Pen used her address to bash both candidates.

Sarkozy has been trying desperately to woo FN voters in an attempt to boost his chances. But Le Pen said that a “president that has not only done harm to the French people but has also caused shame” should not benefit from the FN’s gains. She said she would not accord either man her “confidence or mandate”.

She announced instead that she would cast a blank ballot on Sunday. Her supporters, meanwhile, will vote according to their “conscience and sensibility”, she said.


Many FN sympathisers, however, also intend to “voter blanc”, as casting blank ballots is termed in France. Carole, a 23-year-old secretary for a research bureau, told IPS that she would follow Le Pen’s example.

“Only the FN can bring real change to France and give people back the desire to love France,” she said. “There is no difference between Sarkozy and Hollande, they’re both the same liars.”

Following the presidential elections, France will hold parliamentary elections in June, and that is when the FN could become a real force, with the ability to block or help pass legislation. Le Pen is counting on her supporters to make that happen.

“I hope that next month in June, we’ll have a great score and that the Front National will become a government party one day,” Carole said.

Another participant in the May Day rally, child-minder Colette, in her fifties, told IPS that she would also “vote blank”.

“They are too many people on welfare in France, both French and foreign,” she said. “There’s no difference whatsoever between Sarkozy and Hollande, and I hope the French people will finally open their eyes to that fact. Hollande and Sarkozy have the same globalist and Europe-ist policies.”

On May Day, Sarkozy used his speeches to supporters and the press to reiterate his turn to the right. Echoing Le Pen’s anti-immigrant language over the course of the campaign, the President told French media that there were too many immigrants in France and that the “system of integration is not working”.

“Sarkozy has been putting the issue of immigration at the heart of his campaign, to get votes from the far- right,” says Nonna Mayer, political science professor at Sciences Po university, which produces many of France’s top civil servants.

She told IPS that the working class felt disenfranchised under the current administration and was determined to express their anger. The issues that Le Pen has highlighted in French politics have also struck a chord with many young people, who face a 25 percent unemployment rate.

“Those who see themselves as working class are two-and-a-half times more likely to vote for Le Pen than non-workers,” said Mayer.

She said that 70 percent of workers “think there are too many immigrants in France” as opposed to 30 percent among “upper-level” professionals. With unemployment in the country at 10 percent, unskilled workers have been hit the hardest by the global financial crisis, with joblessness at 28 percent in their category.

“The working class is definitely among globalisation’s losers,” Mayer says, adding that about 8.2 million French people are considered poor – earning less than 900 euros a month.

“Among many workers in precarious situations, there is a jealousy of the people below who are seen as living off the state, and there is also a fear of falling to their level,” she said. “Voting against the others is often more true than voting for someone.”

In recent surveys among French citizens, 78 percent feel that France is an “unfair society”, and the working class feels most “revolted by this situation”, Mayer says.

She points out, however, that despite Le Pen’s targeting of immigrants, the Front National leader does not have a majority of the French vote. In the first round of the elections, Hollande won 28.6 percent while Sarkozy gained 27.18 percent.

Some FN supporters say that they might vote for Sarkozy in the second round, simply because they cannot stomach the thought of a Left victory. Pierre, a pensioner, told IPS that “anything is better than the Left.” He said he voted for the FN in the first round because he was “disgusted with France’s abandonment to Europe.”

“We have become the lump of sugar in the European coffee,” he said. “It has a taken a thousand years for the French people to build their identity. We do not want this to disappear.”

Millions of other French citizens, though, plan to join the “barrage” against Sarkozy called for by groups such as the anti-racist organisation SOS Racisme and by some trade unionists.

“How can one vote for a man who has not ceased to justify inequalities, who links himself in an ostentatious manner with the richest people while constantly reducing their taxes, who arranges for his friends to have key posts, who scorns the trade unions, who has increased the French deficit by more than a third, and who, cherry on the cake, posts his private life and thoughts as a model,” asked retired pastor Serge Soulie in a public letter to those who planned to vote for the president.

 
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