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Historic Choices for the Radical Left in France

John Mullen

As the presidential election campaign begins, the main radical Left parties have preferred sectarian purity or bureaucratic inertia to the taking of mass initiatives; but it’s not all over till the fat lady sings, and minorities from different parties, along with non-aligned activists may be able to revitalize the structure of the Left

The approach of the presidential elections in May 2007 has thrown the radical Left in France into crisis. The hidebound attitudes of much of the traditional militant Left leadership may leave only Blairism and Bushism as clear options for the electorate.

Mass resistance and victories
France has been, in Europe, the country of mass struggle for several years. Million-strong demos recur every three or four years, and even hardbitten old activists find it hard not to be inspired by movements like the biggest youth movement since 1968, which, almost a year ago, smashed the right wing government’s plan to institutionalize easy sacking for employees under 26.

After a huge movement was defeated in 2003 on the question of retirement pensions (all workers now have to work forty years to get a “full” pension as against 37.5 years fifteen years ago, and we get less money), the tide began to turn our way. In May 2005, against the frantic campaigning of all the national press and the leadership of Left and Right mainstream parties, (including the Greens, but not the Communists), the French people voted "No" on a high turnout to the ultra-free-market European constitution. Left activists were overjoyed, but well aware that winning in the ballot boxes is not as valuable as winning on issues which immediately affect the working lives of millions.

Nevertheless, the referendum campaign had made emerge a new way of doing politics on the Left. Hundreds of united committees of dissident Greens, Communists, the revolutionary left and non-party activists sprung up across the country. Often, joint teams of flyposters put up posters from all the component groups. Working together was not new to us, but we were going much further. After the referendum victory, most of the united committees were maintained. Gradually the idea developed that they should be used to develop a joint radical left candidacy for the presidential elections. The idea was not to win these elections, but to make the political debate centre around real left wing proposals (papers for all illegal immigrants, a big rise in the minimum wage, reclaiming of public subsidies previously given to companies if they start laying off workers …). The move to the Right of the Socialist Party over the last twenty years meant that the political space was sizeable.

The movement against the notorious “First Employment Contract” in Spring 2006 pushed the government into a humiliating surrender, after an extremely tough struggle with hundreds of universities and high schools blockaded by striking students. This victory encouraged other movements – to defend illegal immigrants against expulsions,1 and to demand housing for the homeless are two examples. The movement to defened illegal immigrants mushroomed beyond the dreams of its initiators. A few months back I moved house to liv ein what I imagined was a rather sleepy provincial town of forty thousand people. The following week I found the two high schools were on strike to demand residency papers for two teenagers in their schools who were threatened with expulsion (they won).

So the atmosphere remains radical. Between movements, however, all can seem quiet, partly because no political party on the radical Left has been able to become the political voice of these movements. Suspicion of parties among the new generation and a rather dusty approach to writing in Left journals are partly responsible, as also is the confusion in the movements about exactly what kind of « other world is possible », since marxist theories have not much hold on people these days.

Radical left unity for the elections?
This whole situation lent urgency to the idea of a United radical Left candidacy, which would include people form parties, form unions, from civil society, and non-aligned people, in an electoral front. Significant voting scores could be aimed at (remember that the revolutionary Left alone totalled over ten per cent in the first round of the last presidential elections in 2002).

The number of united candidacy committees rocketed and (to the surprise of many) they succeeded in fixing a programme, a list of 125 main demands, and a method for choosing the candidate.

This momentum was further strengthened by the memories of the catastrophe that was the previous presidential election of 2002. Widespread working class abstention added to the multiplication of Left candidates led to the two candidates going through to the second round run-off being the old man of the Gaullist Right, Jacques Chirac, (with 19.9% of the vote) and the fascist National Front Candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen (with 16.8%). After two weeks of daily mass demonstrations against the fascists, Chirac won with 82% of the vote, including the votes of almost all the Left.

It seemed then essential to avoid a repetition of this catastrophe in which the only debate was between the Right and the far-Right. So the radical Left – both activists and supporters – looked for ways forward, with the exception of the Trotskyist organization Lutte Ouvrière (5.7% of the vote in 2002), committed from the beginning to a "pure" revolutionary candidacy, now launched under the slogan "Who else can sincerely say they are on the side of the workers". The radical Left wanted fewer candidates this time to avoid the risk of an all right-wing run-off, but also was determined that another Left than the Socialist Party’s version had to be present in the campaign.

Members of the second major Trotskyist grouping, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) (4.25% en 2002), found itself in Autumn 2006 in the united candidacy committees with members of the Communist Party (3.4% in 2002), of the Greens (5.25%) and many non-aligned activists. The CP no doubt made up the strongest single party in the network, and disposed, through its many local and county councillors, of a lot of useful infrastructure (offices, photocopies etc) and a daily newspaper.

A sharp debate broke out in the LCR about the potential and the usefulness of a united electoral front of the radical Left. The majority preferred to present a “pure” LCR candidate, Olivier Besancenot, a young postman and a fiery orator. The arguments given for this position were various. From after the referendum victory an influential current in the LCR argued that, in the absence of a massive social movement, bringing in concrete victories and not just victories at the ballot box, there was no real basis for an electoral front of the radical Left, much less the new organization a minority dreamed of.

The LCR breaks ranks
After the revolt against the First Employment Contract, of course, this objection no longer held water. The objection became that the united candidacy would not have a coherent programme. The voting in the united committees in September 2006 of a programmatic document “Ambition and Strategy” in the late Autumn put paid to that objection too.

The final objection put forward by the majority current in the LCR and the one which led to the launch in January of the stand-alone LCR candidacy was that there was too much political difference between the different elements of a potential coalition. In particular, they complained, Communist Party leaders would not promise not to participate in a government or parliamentary majority led by the Socialist Party.

In this way (in my view) the comrades fell into sectarianism, by concentrating on differences which are for the moment secondary (the shibboleth of promises which could not have been relied on if given). Instead, the LCR could have focussed on the process of mobilizing tens of thousands of activists and millions of voters in a mass campaign based on limited but very radical objectives. Inside such a campaign there was every place for an independent revolutionary voice in an open and fraternal debate. Radical Left unity could have been tried out on a mass scale, and if subsequently some of the leaders betrayed the principles of the campaign – far from unlikely – the central rôle of revolutionaries would have meant that the had the ear of millions to explain the errors and to debate the way forward.

The Communist Party divided
Meanwhile back in November, the committees were continuing with their selection process to choose the candidate whose name would represent the collective campaign. The Communist Party leadership insisted that its General Secretary, Marie Georges Buffet, was best placed to be the candidate of the United committees. Since around a third of United committee activists were Communist Party members, this proposal dominated the next stage in the debate.

But the committees were not convinced. Firstly, most felt that a candidate from the leadership of a political party would not be seen as truly a candidate of radical Left unity. Secondly, it had been decided that the candidate would be chosen by consensus (not by majority voting), and should only represent the fronting of a collective campaign.

There was a confused indicative vote (each collective choosing its voting method and some refusing to vote. Buffet supporters claimed she got a slight majority. There was no consensus. After some attempts by the CP leadership at bulldozer tactics, and a search by others for another Communist not as clearly identified with the party leadership, the crisis came to a head. An inner-party referendum in December led to the launching of Marie George Buffet as a stand-alone Communist Party candidate.

Fighting for unity around José Bové
With the two main forces now outside the movement, it seemed for a few days like the party was over, and many were demoralized. But many others refused to accept a division which could put the movement back a number of years. A petition on the web got over 20,000 signatures in a week to support a unity candidacy – that of José Bové. The ideas of Bové’s candidacy was “a last chance for unity”. He is publicly appealing to the other candidates to join a united campaign (they have until March 16th, the deadline for candidacies to be officially registered.

Bové’s campaign was confirmed by a delegate conference representing 350 committees in mid-January. The effect has been quite stunning. A group of Communist Party leaders, including well-known members of parliament, have signed a declaration asking their candidate to join the collective campaign. Several, including historic leaders resigned from the national committee and are organizing for Bové. A leading Green MP has been disciplined by her party for supporting the Bové campaign. The minority in the LCR – no doubt about a third of the organization – are fighting for a re-evaluation of the LCR leadership’s strategy, and many are already active in Bové’s campaign against the instructions of their leadership.

The leadership of the LCR is particularly under pressure, since they claim that the danger of a government alliance with the Socialist Party makes unity impossible – yet Bové has clearly declared that the present right wing leadership of the PS makes any alliance impossible. The LCR leadership is appearing as sectarian.

The next phase is extremely difficult to predict in any detail. The LCR leadership is under pressure, but are tempted to stick by their guns and hope their popular candidate wins out. The PCF leadership is also under tremendous pressure, and a never-before-seen split is not impossible.

A lot depends on how much dynamism the supporters of Bové (not having a party infrastructure behind them) can provide, and the difficulty of getting younger people involved is very real – some unity committees are decidely grey-haired and intellectual. On the markets and in workplaces, signatures for Bové are easy to collect – the thirty five thousand mark has already been passed.

Whatever the result for the presidential candidacy, it is clear that there are a number of new elements in the political situation. The desire for thousands of activists to have a permanent united front against neo-liberalism has an important future. The premisses of a new political force have been set up. There is still an outside chance that the sectarianism of the PCF and the LCR will not prevent a giant leap forward being made this year. If they do, we will have lost a couple of years in an absolutely necessary process

1. See www.educationsansfrontieres.org, one of the movement’s websites, if you read some French.

John Mullen is the editor of the review Socialisme International.

On the web
The LCR www.lcr-rouge.org
The United campaign behind Bové www.unisavecbove.org
The quarterly review Socialisme International www.revue-socialisme.org