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France: One year after Sarkozy’s defeat: an anticapitalist view

"Le Front de Gauche, c'est le front du peuple"

John Mullen is an activist in the Gauche Anticapitaliste, part of the Front de Gauche (Left Front). In this article he looks at the first year of Socialist Party President, François Hollande.

One year ago, in May 2012, we were celebrating the defeat of an arrogant right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy. François Hollande, newly elected, immediately took a thirty per cent wage cut for himself, promised to tax the rich, give the vote to non-French residents at local elections and take French troops out of Afghanistan.

How is it then that one year later, Hollande’s popularity has plunged faster than anyone thought it would? According to recent polls, only 24% of French people trust him to change things for the better, a lower score than Sarkozy ever had. The liberal weekly Le Nouvel Observateur carried the headline this month: “Is Hollande done for?” Such is the atmosphere of political crisis that Nicolas Sarkozy, who has kept out of politics for a year, is thinking of a comeback.

The main reason for all this is Hollande’s seeming incapacity to do anything effective while unemployment figures are standing at least eleven per cent (the highest for 14 years), tens of thousands are being made redundant and living standards are dropping. Also, the recent discovery that Hollande’s budget minister was himself hiding millions in a Swiss bank account and lying about it in parliament caused a huge uproar in a country where distrust of politicians  was already at a very high level.

Hollande in the European Union has supported the institution of stricter rules on budget deficits which are the excuse for ever-harsher austerity measures in several countries. In France, he is clearly opposed to any real resistance to ruling class priorities. His government refused a bill which would have given an amnesty to a number of trade union activists charged with offences linked to strikes, and last week he declared to 300 businessmen he invited to his home that the “first duty” of the government was “to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit”. While rafts of redundancy plans destroy many thousands of jobs (in oil, tyres, steel, cars and elsewhere), Hollande insists there is nothing a government can do about this, since the market is King. He has ruled out nationalization of industries to save jobs, and the new law he passed, making it easier for bosses to sack people and harder for workers to oppose their sackings at an industrial tribunal, was actually initially drafted by the MEDEF, the bosses’ federation!

Social budget cuts and deregulation continue apace. Reducing the cost of social services to the ruling class is at the centre of attacks on workers worldwide : One of Sarkozy’s major victories was to push through a law which meant people had to work longer for their pension, despite millions going on strike over the issue. Now, Hollande is already saying more sacrifices “are necessary” and 76% of French people do not trust the present government “to guarantee the future of retirement pensions” (which for the moment are considerably higher than in countries like the UK after Thatcher and Blair). We are expecting a major government attack on pensions soon.

 Reforms

This doesn’t mean that Hollande’s government has not made any reforms in favour of our class, just that his general policy is in support of the dictatorship of market priorities. One very important reform was the recent legalization of gay marriage. This change came mostly, initially, from the Socialist party itself. Once the Right began organizing enormous demonstrations against marriage equality, gay organizations mobilized in favour of the law, and almost all the radical Left moved into action to build the demonstrations.

In other areas, modest reforms have been carried through. A little more taxing of  the rich and better health insurance for the poorest, for example. The government has hired thousands more teachers, is opening far more nursery school places and has moved to stop richer parents choosing more privileged public high schools outside their local area. They have had more social housing built, limited some rent rises and improved retirement pensions for those who started work very young. A ministry for women’s rights has been set up, and women no longer have to pay part of the cost of an abortion. To please another constituency, they have reduced taxes for small businesses and given consumer organizations more power.

On questions of racism, the record is extremely poor. While a law was passed to make it much easier for foreign students in French universities to work in France, other even more important promises have been abandoned. Hollande had said he would make police officers give a receipt whenever they checked someone’s ID papers in the streets, so as to improve the present situation where Black and Arab people are often checked several times a week in Paris and you never see White people being checked. The interior minister, Manuel Valls, abandoned the idea because he says he trusts the police. As for the right to vote for immigrants, this promise, first made by the Socialist Party in 1981, has been abandoned. Meanwhile Valls is carrying out a policy of demolishing Roma encampments, and the numbers of unauthorized immigrants being given papers are no higher than under Sarkozy.

Worse still, the government seems keen to use Islamophobia to gain support. A recent court case where a tribunal found in favour of a woman sacked from a private crèche because she wore a Muslim headscarf was the excuse for the president to insist that he would examine the “need” for a law to stop women wearing headscarves from working with young children ! Interior Minister, Manuel Valls has declared that “The veil, which stops women from being what they are, will always be for me, and should be for the French Republic, something to combat.” In this atmosphere, criminal damage to mosques and to Muslim cemeteries is becoming commonplace.

Resistance on the industrial front

Faced with the social-liberal government, the Trade Union leadership is divided. Several unions have signed away workers’ rights in order to support a ‘left’ government, while others have been organizing resistance, if sometimes rather lukewarmly. There have been several radical strikes over the last year: airline staff, railway workers and television company workers, for example. An important car factory North of Paris has seen a strike lasting several months against its closure, and other fights against redundancies have been highly visible. Local teachers’ strikes against understaffing and arrogant management are not uncommon. And a national mass one-day strike and demonstration against austerity was well-followed, if not at the level of five years back. What is sorely needed are some clear victories for workers in order to inspire further resistance.

Naturally enough the fascist National Front is hoping to gain from the crisis and the disaffection with established parties. It has managed to modernize its image with its new leader, Marine Le Pen, got over six million votes in the presidentials and intends to use the local elections in 2014 to rebuild its weak activist organization, which has not yet completely recovered from the battering it took fifteen years ago from anti-fascist movements, a defeat which led to a damaging split in the FN. The traditional Right is now deeply divided over whether to begin alliances with the fascists.

Left Front

Anti-fascist campaigning is therefore crucial in this period, but only the rise of a Left alternative can brake the rise in fascist influence. And indeed, the situation has led to a sharp rise in political activity by those who don’t think that capitalism can be overthrown any time soon, but who think radical changes can and should be made through a combination of trade union and street struggles and electoral politics (that is to say, there has been a revival of what Marxists usually call Left reformism).

This is what is behind the rise of the Left Front (Front de Gauche), a political bloc including two big parties – the Communist party and the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), and six or seven smaller organizations of a few hundred each, mostly anticapitalist groups and including three organizations which split one by one from the New Anticapitalist Party over recent years.

Its main spokesperson, Left Party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has thrilled millions of workers who want to fight with his impressive capacity to sum up the anger they feel.  “Immigrants aren’t the enemy, bankers are!” he declared, and has several times wiped the smug smiles off the faces of conservative journalist interviewers with devastating critiques of the political establishment. “We need to sweep away those in power” he said. Socialist Party reps accused him of dangerous rhetoric which could only help the far right, but were left red-faced when Mélenchon brought out a 1930s Socialist Party poster which carried… exactly the same slogan!

The Front de Gauche is popularizing, with impressive creativity, proposals for left reforms in the interests of workers, for example a ban on redundancies in firms which are making profits. Mélenchon says that social-democracy across Europe has abandoned the workers’ interests and calls for the establishment of a maximum salary, retirement at sixty and a big rise in the minimum wage. Around the country a series of dynamic public meetings and teach-ins keep the political alternative in the public eye. A major conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, is asking in its readers’ poll this week ” Is Jean-Luc Mélenchon a political danger for François Hollande ?”.

Naturally, Mélenchon’s ideas include all the contradictions of wanting radical change through the state and without social revolution. In particular, he defends the supposed ‘positive rôle’ of the French army abroad and France’s position as a nuclear power, and believes in the possibility of a revolution “through the ballot box”. In the long-term, in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, no doubt he will not go all the way. But for the moment, the role he plays is very positive, galvanizing and encouraging both workers’ struggles and the struggle for a Left alternative on many questions of great importance for workers.

The Front de Gauche is an umbrella alliance in which each organization keeps to its own principles. The Communist Party is by far the biggest component. A contradictory organization, sections of it concentrate on running town councils and on electoralism, while others are very much involved in trade union and other resistance actions. The Parti de Gauche (which split from the Socialist Party in 2009) has become more of a dynamic activist organization over the last year. It now has 12 000 members and can be seen recruiting students on university campuses, something the activist Left has not been strong on of late. The smaller organizations which are part of the Front de Gauche, each with two to five hundred activists, have been working closely together to form an ‘anticapitalist pole’, an ‘eco-socialist current’ within the Front de Gauche. A joint bulletin produced by six of the organizations, including mine, is making this joint work visible.

Taking the Bastille

The Front de Gauche called a mass demonstration for the 5th of May, one year after Hollande’s election, to demand real left policies, and constitutional change. The demonstration was led by contingents of trade unionists from recent and ongoing strikes and found a tremendous echo. Hundreds of coaches came from around the country. A carnival atmosphere reigned in the Place de la Bastille, with thousands of placards and posters carrying such slogans as “It’s time for the people to take power”, “We will not give up”, “Finance markets are the problem, not the solution” and “Wages are the solution, not the problem”. Many people carried brooms to represent the need for a clean sweep of politics and policies. (Photos at http://www.mediapart.fr/portfolios/bastille-nation-un-dimanche-5-mai ). This collective expression of anger was a great success, and must be only the beginning. Recent dynamic protests against nuclear power and against the building of a new airport confirm that the desire to fight back is widespread.

If the Front de Gauche represents right now the centre of gravity of resistance politics in France, the revolutionary New Anticapitalist Party maintains significant activist forces. It is considerably smaller than it was a few years ago, principally because much of its leadership insisted that Left reformism could not exist or revive and therefore the NPA had nothing to say to activists close to the Front de Gauche except that the Front de Gauche would never fight against Socialist Party policies, an opinion which has proved to be hopelessly out of touch with reality. In a positive move, the NPA participated in the demonstration on the 5th of May, despite some sectarian articles in its paper. The other main revolutionary organization in France, Lutte Ouvrière, denounced the demonstration as “fomenting illusions” in the possibility of reform from above.

Islamophobia

As readers are probably aware, Islamophobia, rooted in a very old French Left tradition of hostility to religious believers, remains rife across all the Left in France, including the Front de Gauche and the New Anticapitalist party. In the Parti de Gauche there are several leaders who would like to see Muslim headscarves banned in workplaces where children are present, for example. The minority of Left activists who want to fight Islamophobia is however bigger than it was ten years ago when headscarves were banned from high schools. At Sunday’s demonstration a ‘collective of Front de Gauche activists against Islamophobia’ gave out leaflets calling for a rally against further islamophobic legislation.

The coming months will see if the widespread anger Hollande faces can be transformed into effective action against government policies and against redundancies.

France: Sarkozy’s defeat is our victory, but there are bigger battles to come.

John Mullen reports from Paris on the defeat of Sarkozy in the French Presidential elections.

Defaced Sarkozy poster by http://www.flickr.com/photos/novopress/
Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/novopress/

Hundreds of thousands were on the streets of Paris on the night of Sunday 6th May to celebrate the fall of the monster, and they had every reason to be happy about Sarkozy’s defeat. Champion of tax cuts for the rich and public service cuts for the rest of us, his election campaign moved further right every day in the desperate hope of attracting the votes which went to the fascists in the first round. On the first of May he bussed in supporters from all over France to be filmed in front of the Eiffel tower while he demanded of trade unions “Put down your red flag, and serve France instead.”

So Sarkozy’s sacking is excellent news. If he had been re-elected, his plans for cuts and other attacks would have been accelerated many times over. He has already raised the retirement age and savaged our schools. It would have been open season on Trade union rights and workers’ conditions in general, and privatizations of pared-down public services would have been the order of the day.

In addition, some of the policies proposed by Hollande, first Socialist president for seventeen years, are very welcome – the right to vote for immigrants at local elections, immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, gay marriage, more nursery school places and a women’s rights ministry, to cite some examples. He is also proposing other modest reforms which are in the interests of workers – higher taxes for the rich (up to 75% for the filthy rich) and more social help for parents of school-age children. His programme pledges him not to continue privatization of electricity or the railways, to create 60 000 jobs in education, to limit rent rises, to defend public sector health services and to renegotiate European-wide agreements which impose ever harsher austerity policies. This week millions of immigrants are feeling that the police will be less encouraged to give free rein to their racism, and millions of workers are feeling that their pensions are less under threat. Hollande’s first decrees will reduce his own salary by thirty per cent and restore the right to retire at sixty to part of the workforce.

Reformist parties are contradictory animals: at the same time, Hollande has been wanting to reassure the more right-wing element of his electorate by insisting that there will be no more residence papers for illegal immigrants asking for them than there were under Sarkozy. And the Socialist Party, just like the right wing, has been involved in islamophobic scaremongering of late.

Low Expectations

Expectations on Left governments are massively lower than thirty years ago. No-one thinks that the lives of the 4.3 million unemployed in France, or the standard of living of the 3.3 million minimum wage workers will radically improve because of the new president. Hollande will keep in place the neoliberal reforms of universities and public utilities and will no doubt add more of his own. This is why the Socialist Party campaign didn’t raise much popular enthusiasm, and the main thrust of Left sentiment was “at least we’ll get rid of Sarkozy”.

Exactly how much the new president will do in the workers’ interest will depend on the mobilizations of the working class and its unions. Hollande insists he can improve social justice at the same time as reducing the national debt, but, if and when the financial markets get even greedier, his priority will always be to satisfy them first. At that point, workers’ struggle is what will count, even to make Hollande keep the promises he has made.

It is quite wrong to consider that reformist governments today cannot deliver reforms. They do tend to deliver ever smaller reforms in the workers’ interests and to donate ever more presents from public funds to the bosses. But they still reflect class mobilization and can be forced to hand over the goods. Ten years ago in France, a Socialist Party government introduced the thirty-five hour week, and brought in healthcare coverage for the poorest in society for the first time. Reforms are possible. This is why The Economist magazine, outspoken voice of neoliberal supporters of market dictatorship, is worried. “Mr. Hollande evinces a deep anti-business attitude”, they write, “nothing [in his past] suggests that Mr. Hollande is brave enough to rip up his manifesto and change France.” The Economist does not trust Hollande to decisively fight for the bosses. But they go on to outline what they think the future of France could be made of: “The response of the markets could be brutal.” “Do not conclude”, they squeal, “that Mr Hollande will impose tough reforms and demanding sacrifices on an unwilling public without having his own arm twisted” by the bond markets. In a vain attempt to “reassure the markets” it has been Left governments in Spain and in Greece who have introduced vicious austerity programmes. If push comes to shove, Hollande will be prepared to do the same. This is why the key element today is the building of working class confidence, organization and consciousness.

Polarization to the Left and to the Right

The deepening social crisis has led to a political polarization which is the essential feature of French politics today and which determines what anticapitalist activists need to be doing. Four million people voted for the Left Front, headed up by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Their dynamic campaign (several meetings of over a hundred thousand) put radical class demands back in the forefront of politics, and made a priority of denouncing the fascist Front National. Mélenchon called for the imposition of a ceiling on boss’s salaries, the return of retirement at sixty for all and a large increase in the minimum wage. “Let’s put finance back in its place” was one of the slogans, and many thousands of trade unionists and former left activists of all sorts joined in a tremendously exciting campaign.

During the two weeks between the first and second round, Mélenchon and his activists pulled out all the stops to make sure that Sarkozy suffered the heaviest defeat possible. Mélenchon in his meetings called for a new June 1936 (when two million strikers won important victories, including paid holidays for all), and laughed at the idea of joining a Socialist Party government as a minister. “If the Socialist party is saying of its programme ‘take it or leave it’, we’ll leave it!” he declared. The Front de Gauche, set up as an electoral coalition between the Communist Party, the Left Party and some smaller revolutionary or Red/Green groups seems to be becoming a new activist force in its own right. This is an excellent thing, in particular if antifascist campaigning is brought to the fore in a way it hasn’t been for the last ten years.

Not that the Left Front doesn’t have faults. Mélenchon’s calls for “a citizens’ revolution” and “a revolution through the ballot box” suffer of course from the difficulty that the world doesn’t work like that. But it is in the struggle that this can be clarified. It would be wonderful if there were millions of revolutionaries in France today, but there aren’t. What is new now is that there are millions of people who believe radical reform is possible to advance workers’ living conditions and standard of living, and who are prepared to fight for it.

The Left Front is also not good on islamophobia. Mélenchon loudly denounced the NPA a few years back, when one of the NPA electoral candidates was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Things may be getting better – he denounced the victimisation of Muslims several times during the campaign, and another leader of the Left Front condemned the instrumentalisation of feminist ideas by islamophobes. Still, a major re-think on anti-Muslim racism is required.

There is everything to fight for in the Left Front. One of its biggest member parties, the Communist Party, has frequently been much more interested in running local and regional councils, often passing on government austerity measures, than in class struggle. And Mélenchon’s left nationalist nonsense is a problem. There is no guarantee that the class struggle current will maintain the upper hand, and there may even be pressures for the Left Front to join a Socialist Party government after the legislatives. But the rise of this dynamic movement is the best opportunity for decades to offer the radical fighting Left alternative which is so sorely needed.

Revamped fascists

The other side of the polarization is the far right. The revamped fascist National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, got 6.4 million votes in the first round, the highest score in their history. On the ground, it has not yet been able to rebuild an activist organization as strong as the one it had in the late 1990s before antifascist activity put it under so much pressure that it split in two. But it is now recruiting again and there is no time to waste: a national, very broadly based, active antifascist organization is urgently needed. In the last thirty years the biggest antiracist and antifascist organizations in France have tended to fall into one or other mistake – either very broad but purely moralistic antiracist organizations which don’t try to stop the fascists organizing, or smallish networks based on purely physical opposition to the fascists or on “red antifascism,” which you can only join in if you have read half of Trotsky’s writings.

Anticapitalists gotta relate!

The main task for revolutionaries in France today is how to relate to the activists of the Left Front. One option is to ignore them because some of their ideas are confused or involve illusions in the possibilities of constitutional action. This is a disastrous mistake. What is needed is to get stuck in alongside them, not just in individual campaigns and strikes but also in a political and electoral bloc which, independent from the Socialist Party, fights to build class combativity and consciousness. Mélenchon has said he would welcome a broadening of the Left Front to include revolutionary organizations who want to join the alliance while maintaining their autonomy.

The strongest openly revolutionary organization in France, the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), which is always in there doing the legwork on rank and file campaigns and strikes, had a dreadful presidential campaign, concentrating on the fact that the candidate was “not a professional politician” but a manual worker, and having nothing specific to say to the millions attracted by the Left Front. When Mélenchon had over a hundred thousand at a meeting, there were no NPA leafletters or paper-sellers to be seen! But in a crisis as deep as today’s, workers under attack don’t care whether the candidate is straight from the factory or not! The NPA came over as sectarian, and out-of-touch, and its score dropped from 4% in the previous presidentials to 1.15% this time round. Once the first round results came through, the party made a call to vote against Sarkozy in the second round, and then seemed to close down for holidays. Meanwhile the Left Front was holding mass meetings calling for the heaviest possible defeat of Sarkozy, and for the building of the resistance, reminding Hollande of some of his positive promises, and of the Left Front’s demands which have to be fought for, against Hollande if necessary. The NPA paper simply commented that the success of the Left Front “can be seen as something positive, but we must bear in mind the limits of Mélenchon’s programme.

As a result of all this, the NPA’s crisis has deepened and a sizeable minority current within it, the Gauche Anticapitaliste, will no doubt leave the NPA and join the Left Front, while maintaining political independence. This newish grouping will be heterogeneous, but promising, I think.

There will be legislative elections in June which the Socialist Party is most likely to win. The new Socialist government will come under attack at once from the financial markets, and will be immediately put to the test. The Left Front will be put to the test too: we will see if it can take a major role in organizing resistance to Socialist party austerity policies. These are exciting times: revolutionaries must be in the thick of the reconstruction, fighting, organizing and explaining, and not heckling from the sidelines.

John Mullen is a member of the NPA in the Paris area.
His blog is here: http://johnmullenagen.blogspot.fr/

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The French presidential elections, anticapitalism and class struggle in France

Affiches du Front de Gauche
Supporters of Sarkozy may be hoping that the recent horrific killings in the South West of France will indirectly help his flagging election campaign, by concentrating political debate on terrorism and law and order. But what is the general situation in France a month before the elections ? What does the race mean in terms of ordinary workers’ interests, and what should anticapitalist activists be pushing for ? John Mullen reports from France.

Sarkozy – the end of the Bling-bling president ?

The presidential race is on in France as all the candidates have now declared. On April 22nd the first round of voting will choose two candidates for the run-off two weeks later. Nicolas Sarkozy, ruling president and the right wing’s young and sharp man of action as was, looks to be under severe pressure. He has been able to update the style  of French Conservative leaders, previously more characterized by slow-speaking patrician tones. Even if he shocked many with his childish outbursts (“Sod off, you shit”, he famously answered a heckler on a factory visit), he managed for a while to unite Conservative opinion behind him. He has also carried off several significant victories for the employers’ class. He pushed through a major pension ‘reform’ (despite millions of people on one-day strikes) meaning that we all have to work longer, for less. He has taxed the rich far less than before, cut jobs in public services, encouraged police racism and clamped down on refugees and other immigrants. He has also been able to ‘reform ‘ universities, putting in place the first steps towards autonomous institutions, with funding and teaching priorities tailored much more closely to the ‘needs’ of big business.

Left activists, quite correctly, concentrate on the latest attacks by the government and employers on the living standards and public services of ordinary people. But if you take a step back, it is clear that working class resilience has meant that the ruling class in France has not been able to take neoliberal attacks anywhere near as far as in many other countries in Europe. Just to take a couple of examples, poverty among senior citizens is running at twice the level in the UK as it is in France, French railways are still nationalized and fees to spend a year at university, over £7000 in the UK, are around £200 in France. In quite a number of areas, France is where Britain was at before the worst of the neoliberal attacks hit. An average full-time employee works three hours a week less in France than in the UK. Schools in poorer areas still get smaller class sizes and a little more funding.

After four years of record unpopularity, and with a million more unemployed than when he was elected, Sarkozy will have a hard time winning this time round. At present he is desperately pulling a  new idea out of the hat every two days. He has clearly decided to play the racist card, and in particular to point to Muslims as a danger to French culture. He can do this a hundred times more easily than he would be able to if the Left or even the radical Left took fighting islamophobia seriously. So Guéant, his interior minister has declared that “Not all civilisations are of equal worth”, and has claimed that if foreign immigrants got the right to vote at local elections they would “make halal meat compulsory in school canteens”. He went on to blame immigrants for a disproportionate amount of crime. Sarkozy backed him up, saying that “the question of halal meat is the primary preoccupation of French people today”, as well as proposing to make it harder for non-French residents to receive welfare aid.

Hollande the “socialist Mr. nice-guy ”

Favourite to become next president, then, is Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, sometimes criticized by the image-obsessed media as lacklustre. He represents a compromise between different wings of the Socialist party. After Dominique Strauss Kahn’s withdrawal from the Socialist primaries, Hollande defeated Martine Aubry, a more Left-wing rival, to become the Socialist Party champion. He is trying to balance the demands of big business with the combativity of workers, and trying to keep on board the Left wing of his own party (which does still have one).

Hollande proposes higher taxes for the rich (up to 75% for the mega-rich) and for big firms, more help for small businesses, and says he will create 60 000 jobs in education. He says he will increase redundancy pay for workers sacked by firms who are making a profit, and stop excessive use of unpaid trainees, as well as introduce a less draconian policy on illegal immigrants (the previous Left government in 1997 gave papers to 70 000 illegal immigrants, about half those who asked). He also promises to gradually reduce the proportion of nuclear-generated electricity.

But he insists that international finance can have confidence in his presidency, and we can be sure that when it comes to the crunch, bank profits will count more for him than people’s living standards. He even boasted, “The left was in government for 15 years in which we liberalised the economy and opened up the markets to finance and privatisations. There is no reason to fear.”  “You could say Obama and I have the same advisers,” he added, hardly a guarantee of radicalism! And after all it is Socialist party governments imposing the fierce and cruel austerity in Greece. And Hollande has no plans to go back on a number of key changes brought in by Sarkozy –the full integration of France into NATO’s high command, and the continuing reduction of the number of civil servants, for example. His promise to give the right to vote at local elections to non-European immigrants provokes a certain scepticism, seeing that it was first a Socialist Party promise… in 1981!

Mélenchon : an impressive dynamic on the Left of the Left

Further to the Left there are three candidates who will interest anti-capitalists. Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the Left Front, Nathalie Artaud, candidate for the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ struggle) and Philippe Poutou, candidate of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), taking up the mantle previously worn by the media success Olivier Besancenot.

Lutte Ouvrière’s candidate is of the least interest. It is an economistic and abstract organization. It’s certainly useful to have an LO militant in your workplace to help take on the bosses, but on fights against racism, nuclear power or for gay rights, you won’t see them around (“the factories are what counts ”).

The runaway success of the campaign is the Left reformist approach  of Jean Luc Mélenchon. Over 8 000 people in some mass meetings, over 10% in some opinion polls. On 18 March, under the slogans “ Take power ” and “ Take the Bastille” he got well over 70 000 to a rally in Paris, with striking workers leading the march, and an impressive concentration on the idea that the elections are just the beginning, and that what is needed is mass radical action.

An ex-minister, Mélenchon split from the Socialist Party in 2008 to form the Left party, which calls for “ A Citizens’ revolution ” or “ Revolution through the ballot box ”. The Left party claims 8 000 members (though only a minority are activists). Mélenchon allied his party with the French Communist party and a couple of small far left groups to form a “ Left Front ”. The Communist Party no longer has the mass support it had, and it has very few young activists, but it still counts 13 MPs and several thousand local councillors around the country, as well as considerable influence in trade unions.  The dynamic of the Left Front has brought back into activity a fair number of ex-Communists.

Left Front demands include better pensions, a rise in the minimum wage, freezing rent levels, and  a legally enforced maximum income for French residents. Their programme calls for strict limits on the use of temporary work contracts, building social housing, opening hospitals rather than closing them, high taxes for the rich, as well as the setting up of a Ministry of Women’s Rights, a welcome to immigrants, and a thorough reform of the parliament and presidency. In foreign policy, the Left Front demands a renegotiation of European economic treaties in order to defend public services, withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan and withdrawal of France from NATO. There are good reasons why the Front provokes widespread enthusiasm. Positive also is the idea that class struggle is important and a mass fightback need to be organized.

But Mélenchon’s mix includes ideas which are far from revolutionary. Just recently, he expressed his satisfaction that the Indian Army had chosen to buy dozens of fighter aircraft from France. He claims that the French Republic is not imperialist, but something to be proud of and his militant secularism makes fighting islamophobia very difficult. At his rallies both the Internationale and the Marseillaise are sung, and there is little clarity about how exactly his radical demands could be imposed.

The New Anticapitalist Party at a crossroads

The most important candidate on the revolutionary Left is Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party (the NPA, of which I am a member). The NPA is generally made up of activists who understand the importance of opposing French imperialism, and who know that effective anti-capitalism will mean at some point a frontal assault on the forces of profit – a revolution, in short. For maintaining local groups of activists who do the legwork when a united campaign is needed against racism or against nuclear energy, for employment or for decent housing, the NPA is still the strongest force. But it has lost no doubt a third of its members over the last two years, and is very much a divided party. At the last conference no strategy got an overall majority, and horse-trading alliances dominate the leadership. The NPA election campaign, around  Philippe Poutou has been very weak, for a number of reasons. Firstly an excessive amount of concentration on the fact that “our candidate is a factory worker, not a professional politician”.

Secondly a tendency (inherited from the LCR) to write long lists of radical demands, whether or not they connect with what workers think is winnable (“Redundancies must be made illegal. ” “Nationalize all the banks and centralize them under the control of workers and citizens”, etc.) This can make mobilization difficult: as one old Marxist used to say about groups who had detailed and ultra-radical programmes : “  It’s better to have a big stick than a drawing of a machine gun. ”

Thirdly and much more serious is the sectarianism of a good section of the NPA (in the sense that they put at the centre of the analysis our party, rather than the working class). So the reaction to Mélenchon’s success by the majority leadership has been to only write and talk about his political weaknesses and faults. Regularly, the NPA paper has the tone “we are the only real Left”, and some comrades even believe that reformism can no longer exist today. Mélenchon is presented as someone who will inevitably betray and rejoin the Social-liberals he left.  The risk is that the NPA will have nothing to say to the tens of thousands of people at Mélenchon’s rallies. Indeed, on March 18,  at the biggest left electoral rally for several decades, NPA leafletters were absent with the exception of one or two individual initiatives ! Instead of starting with the points of agreement and debating strategy, ritual denunciation is the order of the day.

It would have been better, in my view, if the NPA had tried to get an electoral alliance with the Left front, based on a minimum programme, without keeping quiet about our revolutionary ideas. This might not have been accepted (there are sectarians in other parties too), but in the process revolutionary ideas and strategies could have been debated with tens of thousands of activists. Instead, for the moment, the NPA is condemned to repeating noble truths to small meetings of trusted comrades. This is a dreadful missed opportunity, because on everyday struggles, the NPA is generally not sectarian and is the most active force around the country in building united campaigns.

In the short term, the key problem for revolutionaries is how to relate to the workers attracted to Mélenchon, how to debate demands, joint struggles and illusions, and how to win new revolutionary activists. This debate has divided the NPA deeply. On one extreme there is the “Mélenchon ate my hamster ” brigade who cannot imagine anything positive about Mélenchon’s success and flood email lists with pathetic anecdotes showing him in a bad light. On the other extreme, a significant faction of comrades is talking of breaking away from the NPA soon, to set up a less sectarian grouping.

One of the most worrying elements of the millions-strong strikes of 2010 was that no radical Left party recruited large numbers of activists from them. Indeed the NPA did not emphasize the importance of recruitment at all. It may be that The Left Party and the Left Front are now able to build a dynamic radical Left force of activists, and revolutionaries will have to be on the ball concerning how to relate to it.

Racism

The other elephant in the room is islamophobia. Even before the terrible killings of mid-March, this presidential election campaign was shaping up to be the most racist in living memory. The fascist Front National party is running at over 15% in the polls, after Marine Le Pen, the media-savvy daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, took over the reins, running an anti-Muslim and anti-European Community campaign. She has a more acceptable image than her father, and many people have been convinced that the Front National has changed and is no longer “ really ” fascist. She is hoping to profit from the killings in Toulouse, and has already declared that the killer “felt more muslim than French”, and called for a referendum on capital punishment.

Muslims are the favourite targets for racists, because the Right can be sure that the Left will not unite in action to defend them, since it is itself severely infected with islamophobia, born from colonialist hangovers and manic and selective secularism. Indeed, a few months back a bill aimed at limiting the right of Muslim women who wear headscarves to work as childminders, even in their own homes, was pushed through the Senate by the Socialist Party! It may not actually become law, since the Socialists are divided, but the bill shows how widespread islamophobia is.

Further Left, there has been some progress on getting some  parties to oppose islamophobia, or at least it is no longer the case that no left wing organization will lift a finger on the issue. A recent public meeting to defend the right of Muslim mothers wearing a hijab to be allowed to accompany school trips on the same basis as other parents got active support from the New Anti-capitalist Party and from the Green party, as well as from assorted intellectuals. The Left Party and Lutte Ouvrière, are much harder nuts to crack. The Left party runs on a sort of Left Republican ideology, which is extremely suspicious of believers, Muslim or otherwise. In a context where Muslims are being designated as scapegoats, this plays into the hands of the racists. A local Left Party activist said to me recently that it was alright to support a campaign for equal treatment for muslim mothers at our local schools, provided that the local committee in question also campaigned on women’s rights in various Muslim countries !

The future

The general situation for French workers is characterized by a real combativity – regular massive strike movements over the last decade. Sometimes the movements have won victories, like the 2006 movement which scrapped a “First Employment Contract ” a few weeks after the law had been passed. Sometimes they have failed, like the millions-strong strike against Sarkozy’s new pension law in 2010. Other conflicts like the university lecturers strike of 2008 ended as semi-victories, with the government having to shelve half its neoliberal plans for this workforce. The most recent defeat of the workers’ movement, on pensions, has led millions to think that for the moment the ballot box is a better bet than striking. It will be an excellent start if Sarkozy can be thrown out, but rebuilding an anti-capitalist Left which takes seriously all struggles against oppression will require clarity about alliances, and about the strength of reformism.

John Mullen is a member of the New Anticapitalist Party in the Paris area

For those who read French :

Campaign site of Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party http://poutou2012.org/

Home site of the New Anticapitalist Party http://www.npa2009.org/

Campaign site of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front  http://www.placeaupeuple2012.fr/

My anticapitalist blog http://johnmullenagen.blogspot.fr/

 

This article was first published by Socialist Alternative (Australia).