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The Referendum is Key – News from the Struggle in France

John Mullen (LCR Montreuil)

IN FRANCE, in the run-up to the referendum (May 29) on the new European constitutional treaty, there are many reasons for the Left to be cheerful. Twenty or so opinion polls in a row show that the "No" vote will win out. After President Chirac spoke at length on the television in favour of a "Yes" vote, the polls showed that the "No" had gained two percentage points!

It is early days, it’s true. The Conservative government and the relatively loyal opposition in the form of the leadership of the Socialist Party, will be bringing out the big guns over the next few weeks in the hope of saving the treaty. One Socialist party leader has already started the dirty tricks campaign by declaring that "We don’t hear Jean Marie Le Pen much in this campaign because others are doing his work for him". The reality is that the "No" campaign has been dominated by left-wing arguments about defending public services against the obligatory market forces witchcraft embodied in the proposed constitution.

The stakes are high. When British people express doubts about the construction of the European Union, this is considered as normal, but France has been at the centre of he "European dynamic" which aims at building a bloc strong enough to rival the USA and Japan (at the expense of working conditions and pay). If France votes "No", all bets are off – it would be a major defeat for the free market politicians who want to roll back the welfare states of Europe.

The French and European mainstream rulers are so arrogant that they have not really thought out a plan B to put into effect if the French vote "No".

Why were they so wrong? It was Chirac’s idea to have a referendum on the issue, as he was really convinced they couldn’t lose. When last autumn an internal vote in the Socialist Party gave a 58% majority for a "Yes" vote, it seemed Chirac was laughing all the way to the European bank.

Well, anger against the government in France is running very high. Massive strike waves over pension rights, over neoliberal education "reforms" and over defending the (excellent) health service have all gone down to defeat (despite minor concessions). The government parties suffered serious defeats in regional elections last year and are widely considered as illegitimate. The French ruling class, lagging behind countries like Britain in its attacks on workers, are extremely determined, and the union leaderships here have not been prepared to push the struggle far enough to win, but have preferred endless "Days of Action".

The campaign for a "No" vote seems to have cristallized the anger against the government in an arena where the union leaderships don’t have an obvious power to put the brakes on. The CGT national committee voted against its General secretary and called for a "No" vote. On the radical left, the LCR and the (revitalized for the occasion) Communist Party are running a popular and omnipresent campaign. The dynamic of this campaign made the Left of the Socialist party who are for a "No" vote decide to actively campaign against the constitution despite threats of disciplinary measures from the Socialist party leadership. And ATTAC, a large Global Justice movement which had been losing steam over the last couple of years has shown it still has real mobilizing power and has brought out hundreds of thousands of excellent posters and leaflets.

The campaign is wider and more popular than for many a year. In underground trains or buses, the leaflets and stickers are stuck to the windows, markets and bus stations are being leafletted and this is a full month before the referendum. Meetings are packed out with hundreds or thousands attending. Over 800 "No" vote committees are known to have been formed across the country. Naturally, the "Yes" vote campaigners are on the streets too but in far far smaller numbers.

And the government is panicking. Chirac himself denounced some of the worst neoliberal ideas in the treaty. At first, the government had hoped to win the campaign simply by ridiculing the "No" voters as backward-looking idiots. This has backfired, and in the last few weeks the "Yes" vote campaign leaders are full of speeches about how intelligent (but misguided) "No" voters are.

In the middle of the campaign came the school students’ movement against the governments reforms of education. More radical than such movements for several decades, it saw dozens of high schools occupied or blockaded by school students, and organized solidarity by teachers, and demonstrations baton charged and teargassed by the police in several towns.

This has all added to the atmosphere that we have a defeated government in power. But the key will be if we can win a "No" vote in the referendum on the 29th May, and the left have to pull out all the stops for this one.

A victory for the "No" vote could re-organize in a dynamic fashion the whole of the radical left. Some parts of the Left of the Socialist Party – much more left and more dynamic than any wing of the British Labour Party since the early nineteen eighties – have been saying they don’t care if they are expelled. The Communist Party leadership, having seen their party revitalized by the "No" campaign, would have tremendous difficulties going back to their traditional strategy of governmental alliances with the right-moving Socialist party leadership. And the "No" campaign committees, which are bringing together revolutionaries, trade unionists, greens, members of ATTAC and other elements of the non-party left, could be a real basis for a new movement on the radical Left in France.

Crystal ball gazing is a dangerous sport. But the situation in France – a high level of class struggle, new populations moving into action on many different issues, and a real vacuum in so far as left organizations are concerned – is extremely promising. In other countries of Europe such organizations as the Scottish Socialist Party, the Portuguese Left Bloc or Rifondazione Comunista have in recent years managed in different ways to renew left activism. Something parallel could happen in France. The reason it has not done so so far has been because of the sectarianism of a part of the radical left (Lutte ouvričre, anarchists) and the timidity of others (ATTAC, the LCR). The "No" campaign could change this situation and lead to a much more promising force.