Fighting austerity and racism to defeat the far-right in France

Ci-dessus, la retranscription (en anglais) de mon intervention introductive au débat “Ukip : The resistible rise of the right” lors du Dangerous Times festival organisé le 31 mai et 1er juin dernier à Londres par l’organisation de la gauche radicale britannique Counterfire.

Vous pouvez également lire ici (en anglais) le compte rendu des débats du week-end « Dangerous Times festival : a celebration of resistance », et consulter ici le live blog des tweets, photos et vidéos des différents débats.

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Fighting austerity and racism to defeat the far-right in France

Danièle Obono, panel “Ukip : The resistible rise of the right”, Dangerous Times Festival, London, June 1st, 2014.

Next Thursday, June 5th, will be the 1st year anniversary of the death of Clément Méric, an 18 years old antifascist activist who was killed by a far-right skinhead during a street scuffle. Ten of thousands of people went onto the streets all over the country to pay tribute to Clément and to protest the far-right. Yet, only a year later, not only has the far right not dealt with any serious political backlash, but its main political organisation, the “Front National” (National Front), has kept polarizing the right and the entire political landscape, enjoying an obliging media treatment, and after garnering some good results at last March local elections ended up winning the European elections two weeks ago, with 25 % of the votes. Though the main right wing party, the UMP, came second with roughly 20 % of the votes, it is the Front National benefitted the most from the mobilization of the right wing electorate, while the left wing electorate abstained massively: from the Socialist Party to the NPA, the left as a whole obtained its lowest voting percentage since 1936. Dangerous times, indeed.

How have we come to this point and how do we move from here?

There are many dynamics at play in the current political and social situation. The most prominent one has to do with the austerity policies which have worsened the economic and social crisis. It has fuelled people’s anger against most mainstream parties that advocated more austerity and against the EU.

Only two years after electing François Hollande and a Socialist Party majority in power, people on the left have been further demoralized and demobilized by the continuing attacks on workers rights, pensions, Social Security, immigrants, etc. On the other hand, despite experiencing a defeat in 2012 the right has been somehow ideologically re-mobilized. This is one of the many nefarious legacies of the Sarkozy years. Sarkozy and his “new right” won the 2007 elections because they were able to unite the right and far-right electorate by advocating strong leadership, active political voluntarism and “unabashed” reactionary and populist rhetoric. They put all that into action through aggressive neoliberal, anti-workers and anti-immigrant policies and racist nationalist rhetoric. In 2012, they advocated even harder lines on those issues, and although they were defeated, the 2nd round of the presidential election was a close race. So when the right wing UMP party went into a bitter leadership crisis after their defeat in the elections, and as the Socialist Party government was actually implementing a right wing economic policy, right wing politics focus on “moral” issues. The right wing rage and frustration was channelled into a reactionary mass social movement against the only progressive measure that the Socialist Party government was willing to implement: same sex marriage. It took most of the left by surprise: it had been over 30 years since the last time right wing social movements had taken to the streets and we kind of had forgotten that they could, not only do so, but even learn from us, using some of our organizing methods and some of our slogans in doing so. There were a few mass counter demonstrations organised by LGBT organisations and supported by the left and the Parliament ultimately adopted the same sex marriage bill. But it was a watered down version of the bill, notably without the provision allowing the Medically Assisted Procreation for women, and Hollande kept making verbal concessions to the right wing social movement, like when he said that Mayors could refuse to marry same sex couple using some dubious “conscious” clause. On the whole, the left was on the defensive, as demonstrated later when the right went again on the offensive, this time to denounce what they called “the gender theory” that was supposedly being taught in schools to harmful effects on children.

There is also a more structural element that gave more impetus to the right and the far right and less so to the left: systemic racism. Over the past 30 years, anti-immigrant racism, which used to be mostly confined to the far right, has swept to the entire political spectrum in what is now called the “Lepenisation des esprits” (the Lepenization of the general public opinion). Every mainstream political party has accepted the idea that immigration, no matter what is actually referred to (whether when it is legal or illegal for instance) is a problem. Islamophobia has become the most respectable and overt form of racism. And not only has the left been unable to fight back, but it went on to be part of the problem. As soon as he got into power, Hollande repudiated the decades-long Socialist Party commitment to grant voting rights to foreign residents. He appointed Manuel Valls, one of the most right wing Socialist Party leader, and a blatant racist, Home Secretary. Valls immediately followed in the path of the Sarkozy’s anti-Roma people and anti-immigrants policies, and he opposed the call to put an end to police brutality, racially based profiling and harassment. He was rewarded a couple of months ago by being appointed Prime Minister. Hollande has also been hitting at yet another possible legislation against women wearing the Hijab, not only in the public sphere and the public sector, but now also in the private sector. Unfortunately, the radical left hasn’t fared that much better on that issue. The antiracism movement is at an all time low. Apart from supporting specific struggles here and there, the support for the immigrants’ movement is mostly rhetorical. There was no real and concrete support either for the movement against police brutality and racial profiling. The left is still very much divided on Islamophobia, still very reluctant to check its own racial prejudices and privileges, and refusing to engage in any constructive dialogue on multiculturalism and its political significance. Though opposed in theory, racism, within the whole society and within the left itself, is just not analysed and treated as the serious structural problem it is. That is why it has spread so much and so deeply, from state policies to daily violence against people, within every social category, including the working and popular classes, without being opposed by any concrete alternative rhetoric and political propositions from the left.

That is one of the main tasks ahead of us now. To successfully fight against the right and the far right, we need to address two of the main structural dynamics that it feds on: neoliberal austerity and systemic racism. There needs to be, and there will be, serious talks: after the successful anti-austerity demonstration called by left organisations on April 12th, a meeting of all said organisations has been convened on June 21st to discuss the next steps. Significant action needs to be taken to move forward, unite the anti-austerity left, from political parties (the Left Front, the left of the Socialist Party, the Green Party, the NPA…), to trade unions and social movement organizations, and build a strong social political front that will oppose neoliberal policies and austerity measures, and offer a left alternative political agenda. But as urgently, importantly and seriously it also needs take on the task to re-build a strong antiracist movement, actively and massively support the campaigns organised by oppressed people of color, and seek to build political alliances with those movements, in order to unite the multicultural French working and popular classes.

One of the characteristics of the antifascist group that Clément Méric belonged to, the “Action antifasciste Paris-Banlieue”, is that it is one of the few left groups which is very vocal and consistent in denouncing and opposing Islamophobia as well as anti-immigrant policies, police brutality and racism, and homophobia. They understand that a strong antifascist movement Next week, when we’ll take the streets to mark the anniversary of Clément’s death, this is one of the things the left needs to remember in order to truly honour Clément’s memory.

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