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25 April: Marshall Pétain puts in a cameo appearance

The rapprochement of the traditional right with its extreme is progressing fast, with the “de-demonisation” of the Front Nationale, accompanied by a raid on past techniques of the far right, going back at least as far as Marshall Pétain. See Marlière across La Manche

Philippe Marlière
25 April 2012

Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting for his political life and he will use every trick in the book to stay at the Elysée Palace. He faces the challenge of wooing a very large majority of Marine Le Pen’s voters (17.9%). Expect more hard-right rhetoric, posturing... and more anti-left attacks. The president will try to win this second round by dividing and polarising the French, which is an unusual and high-risk strategy at this stage of the race.

The rapprochement of the traditional right with its extreme form is progressing fast. Yesterday in Longjumeau, Sarkozy declared that the Front National is “compatible with the republic”. This was an unheard-of and extraordinary statement; one that Jacques Chirac would never have made. A process of “de-demonisation” of the FN is clearly on. What next? A UMP-FN coalition government if he is re-elected on 6 May?

Yesterday, Nicolas Sarkozy also announced that his party would organise a mass demonstration on 1 May – Labour Day – in Paris. The president said that this would be an event to celebrate “real work”; those who “get up early, work hard to earn less than those who do not work”. Was he referring to rentiers? No, he was taking a dig at unionised public workers, nurses, teachers or civil servants; people who demonstrate on Labour Day, not to celebrate work, but “to defend their status”. As ever a “man of the people”, Sarkozy wants to champion the hard-working, low-earning people, who do not complain, who do not demonstrate and who do not live on benefits. In short, he wants to appeal to “real workers”, those who happen to vote for the right, notably the FN.

It is ironic that a president who has generalised low-cost and flexible work (for those who can get any work at all) and who has postponed retirement age for all – should be pontificating about the virtues of “real work”, and antagonising trade-unions and public sector workers. Sarkozy does not like the latter because they have the impudence to defend their (deteriorating) working conditions.

French trade unions and the left have obviously denounced this decision as a major provocation. The two major unions (CGT and CFDT) as well as several parties on the left (PS, Left Front and NPA) have called for the unity of workers and the biggest demonstration in years. Sarkozy’s plan may backfire – as it may help unite the left.

What is Labour Day? It is not a day to celebrate “work”, but the symbol of workers’ struggles and unity of action since 1884. Back then, American workers chose that day to campaign for the eight-hour working day. Since 1889, the Second Socialist International have established 1 May as the day when unions – supported by socialist parties – put forth their demands and also mount a show of unity. Sarkozy’s demonstration on 1 May is undoubtedly designed to polarise the French working population.

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As a tactic, Nicolas Sarkozy’s objective to split the French labour movement and make categories of workers gang up against other categories of workers, belongs to the far right. In 1988, after the first round of the presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen made a similar move on Labour Day. He called for the celebration of “work and Joan of Arc”; an historical figure who incarnates national resistance against foreigners. In truth, Sarkozy’s celebration of “work” has Petainist overtones. Marshall Pétain and his collaborationist regime praised the values of “Work, Family and Homeland” in occupied France. Pétain was the first right-wing politician who tried to hijack Labour Day by making it a bank holiday on... 24 April (Saint Philippe’s day!). In 1941, Pétain declared: “1 May has been so far a symbol of division and hatred. From now on, it will be a symbol of union and friendship, because it will celebrate work and workers. Work is the most noble and dignified means at our disposal to master our destiny”. This year, thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy, Marshall Pétain will put in a cameo appearance on Labour Day.

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