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The Broken Reed: The French Left’s Historic Defeat

Andrew Coates

"Je plie, et ne romps pas" – Le Chêne et le Roseau ("I bend and don’t break" – The Oak and the Reed, La Fontaine Fables)

SOCIALIST Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s strategy is now shattered. The fable has been proved wrong. Five years of turning his reed to the winds of neo-liberalism and globalisation have ended in disastrous failure. His (very real) achievements forgotten, kicked out in the first round of the Presidential elections by the fascist Le Pen (16.86% to Jospin’s meagre 16.18%), Chirac re-elected and the Parti Socialiste (PS) reduced to 141 seats in the National Assembly (from 248) – the record is bleak.

Only the view from Place Colonel Fabian could be worse: the once-near hegemonic Communist Party (PCF), with 21 deputies, was only just able to conserve its parliamentary group; its bases in the industrial north are in ruins and its last bastions in the Paris suburbs under imminent threat. Party secretary Robert Hue’s own failure to get elected was emblematic.

Nor can the far left claim to have fulfilled the promise of its results in the Presidential election. A vote of 5.72% for Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière (LO), and a surprising 4.25% for Oliver Benacenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), translated into British-level votes for the legislatives: a grand total of 2.83% for the far left (including the minor Lambertist sect).

The plant of French socialism appears to be crushed.

There has been great interest among all sections of the world’s left in these events. What are the explanations? The most obvious is to start from the standpoint of psephology. Here we should be wary of hasty judgements. The high rate of abstention in the first round of the Presidential election (28.40%) is not unprecedented. It reached a massive 31.14% in the second round in 1969 (from 22.41% in the first). Nor was Chirac’s performance particularly brilliant. He got 20.47% on his first round in the 1995 election. This time he had 19.88%.

Fundamental changes are, nevertheless, taking place. There is no doubt that the substantial backing for Le Pen has altered many political charts: his support, at around 30% of the unemployed and a similar figure for the manual working class, makes Le Front National (FN) "the first working class party of France". Another change, less noticed, is the switch of union members from the Socialists and Communists to the Trotskyist left. Figures prepared by Professor Steve Jefferys, of North London University, show 20% of CGT members (Communist trade union federation) voting for the far left (as opposed to 18% for the PCF and 24% for the Socialists), 19 % of the FO (business union) doing the same (18% Socialist, 3% PCF), with even 7% of the right wing modernising union, the CFDT, following them (26%, naturally, Socialist and 1% PCF). This does not take into account the SUD, independent unions closely aligned with the LCR. It seems to indicate a well-known truism: the organised working class can shift left while the unorganised are prey to demagogues.

Three, equally asinine, reactions have dominated the anglophone press.

Firstly, there are those, such as Peter Mandelson, who wish the French Socialist Party to adopt the model of New Labour. They have launched attacks on Jospin’s old-style social democracy. Criticism of the Gauche Plurielle has focused on the fact that, unlike Tony Blair, Jospin has achieved some progressive reforms (such as the 35 hour week) amid his concessions to neo-liberalism. No survey shows these measures to be unpopular. The slow reform of the French administration – regularising forms of co-habitation, introduction of the right of innocence, universal medical care – has shown that in such areas social democrats can still achieve change.

Third Way critics would perhaps be better interested in the above figures that reveal voting patterns among trade union members. They show that the core constituency of the left are attracted to radical socialist critics of the PS’s record rather than to the far right. You don’t have to be an opinion poll trainspotter to realise that an LCR-voting CGT SNCF-driver is not going to turn aspirational yuppie in a hurry.

Secondly, the British far left has displayed its usual incomprehension of French politics. Declarations in favour of a boycott in the second round of the Presidentials completely missed the point. The LCR responded, after some wobbling, to the overwhelming popular mood: vote against Le Pen. To go against the current of mass anti-fascist mobilisation was the act of the same sectarians who dismissed the pro-Dreyfus campaign as "bourgeois". This act was duly committed by our present-day Guesdeists, in the shape of Arlette’s LO. This eternal candidate has announced many times before that she would be "going fishing" ("je vais à la pêche") instead of voting in the second round. Certain left commentators have passed over the fact that Laguiller’s vote underwent a whopping increase from 5.3% in 1995 to ... 5.72% this year. I wonder why ...

In any case, hopes of the far left that it will supplant the PCF are wholly misplaced. Like it or lump it, the French Communists are the only left group to strike roots in the proletariat. They have deep faults. But talk of a new formation, linking them with the LCR, and red/green Alternatives, in a "refoundation"-style body, remains just that: talk (Le Monde, 28 June). The LCR is widely respected in the labour movement and intellectual circles, but its members number only a few thousand (compared with the PCF’s official figures of over 150,000). Even if they joined together the combined membership would not amount to a new mass party. The ideological fusion would in any case be extremely difficult. As for the other scenarios, anyone with real knowledge of the less healthy bodies on the French left – LO and the Lambertists – realises that the day is not about to dawn when PCF members will join up with their activists. Or, indeed, when these groups will succeed in merging amongst themselves.

Thirdly, there is the reaction of utter despair. Any form of socialism, some have concluded, is doomed. It would, naturally, be better if radical forces such as the LCR and the left of the PCF had emerged stronger. It would have been a lot better if Chirac had fallen under a bus. Reality has to be faced, however. The French Socialists are now utterly hegemonic. The Verts (Greens) stand at 3 seats – they had hopes of displacing the Communists. Now, with their leader Dominique Yoynet unable to win a seat, they are a micro-party, on a par with the Radical Socialists and "diverse left" (6 seats). As for Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Pôle Republican (let’s not forget that Che was the founder of the modern Parti Socialiste), it disappeared off the political radar. By contrast, the Socialist Left (Gauche Socialiste) have every change of gaining strength in the internal party battle now underway. They call for a social Europe and the defence of the public sector. The strategy of the reed may be replaced by the oak. I note that plenty of these trees are standing sturdy.