The 2002 French general elections were held in four stages: two rounds of voting for president, on April 21 and May 5, and two rounds of voting for parliamentary seats a month later.
At the time of the election campaign, France had a divided government, with a right-wing Gaullist president, Jacques Chirac, elected in 1995, and a Socialist Party majority in parliament, led by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, elected in 1997. While Chirac was widely hated in the working class, and his re-election bid was viewed as precarious, Jospin and the PS represented no alternative. The ultra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen, candidate of the neo-fascist National Front, could posture as the only major candidate opposed to the ruling consensus. One third of voters stayed home, and both the PS and the Communist Party lost support to the candidates of the “far-left” parties, who won 11 percent, almost 3 million votes.
In the first round of the election, Chirac placed first with less than 20 percent of the vote—a measure of his deep unpopularity—but Jospin unexpectedly failed to finish second and enter the runoff, losing out to Le Pen. This meant that in the second round scheduled for May 5, voters were faced with the choice between Chirac and Le Pen, right-wing candidates who together received the support of less than a quarter of those eligible to vote. Hundreds of thousands of workers and youth took to the streets to show their hatred of the fascists and their concern that Le Pen might come to power.
The International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) issued a statement calling for a working-class boycott of the second-round vote, to “deny legitimacy to the electoral fraud and provide a means for translating mass discontent into effective political action.” It rejected the claims by the trade unions, the Socialist Party (PS) and the Communist Party (PCF) that a vote for Chirac was necessary to prevent the neo-fascist Le Pen from coming to power. These forces were themselves responsible for the rise in Le Pen’s vote, which came largely in formerly industrialized working class areas that had once been strongholds of the PS and PCF.
The statement argued that there were real dangers posed by the National Front, but these could not be averted through a vote for Chirac. On the contrary, the election results showed a crisis of confidence in the whole structure of bourgeois politics, including both the Gaullist right and the social-democratic “left.” The working class needed to present a clear political alternative.
As the political crisis in France became the focal point of European and international attention, the role of the three “left” parties which had once claimed to be Trotskyist became critical. These were Lutte Ouvrière (LO), Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), and Parti des Travailleurs (PT). The ICFI issued an open letter calling on them to join a working-class campaign for a boycott, while warning those who voted for these organizations that they showed no intention of doing so.
In the course of the two weeks between the first and second rounds of the election, the WSWS carried dozens of on-the-spot reports and commentaries on the French crisis, including interviews with Arlette Laguiller, the presidential candidate of Lutte Ouvrière, Olivier Besancenot, the presidential candidate of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, and Robert Hue, general secretary of the French Communist Party.
Our correspondents held discussions with factory workers and rank-and-file members of the LCR and the Young Communists Movement. There were exchanges of letters and daily polemics over the course of action facing the working class in France.
The pseudo-left parties rejected or ignored the boycott proposed by the ICFI and either openly supported Chirac or essentially abstained, not challenging the pro-Chirac campaign of the PS, PCF and trade unions. That helped the right-wing candidate to win the runoff by a huge margin, over 80 percent, and then his Gaullist parties won the parliamentary elections in June. As the WSWS and ICFI had warned, the ensuing Chirac government intensified its reactionary austerity policies against the working masses and racist attacks on immigrants.