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France: Coming together `to build a party of struggle and mobilisation'

Interview with the LCR's Olivier Besancenot, conducted by the Swiss revolutionary socialist newspaper SolidaritéS

SolidaritéS: Is there in the history of the French or international workers' movement precedents for the construction of a new ``anti-capitalist party'', as initiated by the LCR congress?

Besancenot: We do not claim to be inventing anything. But it's true, this project is rather unique. First, it is unusual for a political organisation that has not been discredited -- and has even experienced some success -– to pose the problem of its disappearance! Of course, this is not about assessing the profit and losses of the history of the political current that the LCR represents. But instead, to write a new page, with others. With many others.

And neither is it about a merger between political movements, even if we are ready to discuss with all those who might be interested in this project. In fact, this project is based on an analysis of a new situation, in particular the extent of the crisis of the workers' movement.

And on the idea that it is both urgent and possible to take a giant step. This is urgent because of the violent attacks from the employers and the emptiness of the institutional left. This is possible because, despite the points scored by the MEDEF (Mouvement des Entreprises de France, an employers' organisation) and the right, the popular layers still show remarkable abilities of resistance and there is an expectation of something new.

The [proposed] new party aims to integrate currents from various traditions of the radical left. Does this integration have as its condition an explicit discussion on the legacy of these traditions, or can it only be done through practice and the convergence of concrete struggles?

The discussion on the various ideological and historical ``legacies'' can be interesting. It will also undoubtedly be long. But we cannot start with that! Especially since the objective is to bring together men and women who, rightly, do not have a long history of party political commitment and do not identify with any of these traditions particularly ...

One of the main reasons -- although not the only one -- for the failure of previous attempts to bring together the various anti-capitalist currents is that there was a ``top down'' approach and that inevitably came up against the past of various people, their old differences. This time, we will try to do it differently. And starting from common practices, all the resistance struggles that bring us together on a daily basis. And that, in outline, sketches the contours of a radical and revolutionary change in society.

What will be the attitude of the new party towards existing political institutions? Does it, for example, intend to take part in the management of local councils or regions, as part of alliances with other left-wing parties or independently?

Participating in institutions and management is not a matter of principle. The social liberals and their allies accuse us of now wishing to ``get our hands dirty'' with political responsibilities. That is not correct. We are not simple ``witnesses''; our goal is to participate in the implementation of measures and policies that we defend. But not to serve as a left cover for social liberal policies! And herein lies the basic problem, and what differentiates us from many ``anti-neoliberal'' currents, we have no plans to participate in a coalition (with the Socialist Party), which ``in power'' applies during the week ... the very policies which we demonstrate against at the weekend!

The Greens and particularly the Communist Party of France (PCF) tried, a few years ago, under the Jospin government. With the results that we know, they were ... politically discredited. Imposing -- as we advocate -- the redistribution of wealth in favour of the vast majority of the people who produce it by their labour will inevitably lead to confrontation with the small minority that currently scoops it up. This means a real relationship of forces in society ... not just in the institutions.

Will the new party be a revolutionary party, like the LCR, and if so what meaning does this word have in the current context?

Revolutionary and ``revolutionary like the LCR''? Probably not. Otherwise, we could merely continue with the LCR as before, but better obviously! We need of course, a common basis: the defence of radical proposals, opposition to the capitalist system, a strong commitment to mobilisations, political independence from the Socialist Party. This common platform will not answer *a priori* any questions, tactical or strategic. Some will remain open. But we believe that there are tens of thousands of men and women who are available to build a party of struggle and mobilisation.

A left that is not afraid to face down the attacks from the right and the renunciation of the left. A new political representative for the workers, young people and victims of oppression. A left that does not confine its ambitions to limiting the damage of capitalist globalisation, but which wants to do away with the system and radically change society. And, indeed, change society! On these tens of thousands of men and women who are ready, like us to ``revolutionise society'', we do not impose our past, whether the general history of Trotskyism or the specific history of the LCR. But put them together to build something new!

[Olivier Besancenot is a political bureau member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR -- Revolutionary Communist League), French section of the Fourth International. As the LCR's presidential candidate in 2002 and 2007, he achieve 1.2 million votes (4.5%) and 1.5 million votes (4.2%), respectively. This interview was conducted by Razmig Keucheyan during the 17th congress of the LCR, held in Plaine-Saint-Denis from January 24-27, 2008. A version of this interview also appears in International Viewpoint at http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1451.]

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US Nation on French LCR: Echoes of '68

The Nation, May 29, 2008
Letter From Lille: Echoes of '68
By Marc Perelman

When French students began demonstrating forty years ago this spring to
demand more autonomy in the universities and to protest the stifling
rule of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, many thought it would be just another
bout of youthful elitist exuberance. But after the stone-throwing and
sloganeering in the streets of Paris's Latin Quarter led to a general
workers' strike and the Fifth Republic nearly collapsed, May 1968 became
a seminal moment in modern French history--a movement of hope and
liberation infused with far-left and anarchic undercurrents in the eyes
of its supporters, a crisis that threatened to plunge stolid France into
chaos, in the somber view of its foes.

In the wake of les événements, when dreams of utopia still hovered in
the air, new left parties mushroomed, giving succor to the bubbling and
sometimes contradictory tensions animating May '68. One of them was the
Communist League, a small Trotskyist group formed in 1969 that openly
challenged the monopoly of the Socialist and Communist parties on the
left. It denounced the compromises of the Socialists with the market
economy and of the Communists with the crimes of Stalin and the Soviet
Union. The Communist League even ran one of the May '68 student leaders,
Alain Krivine, in the presidential elections the following year. He
garnered only about 1 percent of the vote, and the small party, beset by
ideological and personal divisions, never blossomed into a political
force, a reflection of the fact that May '68 was in the end more a
cultural revolution than a political one.

As France commemorates the fortieth anniversary with a flurry of
debates, books, movies and celebrations, the Old Left looks its age. The
Socialist Party is divided, the Communist Party is a shambles and the
supporters of both are searching for answers. Enter Olivier Besancenot,
the charismatic 34-year-old leader of the Revolutionary Communist
League, the successor of the Communist League, known by its French
acronym LCR.

Surfing on the mounting resentment toward the pro-market policies of
conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, the tepid opposition of the
establishment left and his own newfound popularity, Besancenot is
convinced that the time is ripe to upset the existing order.

So on a chilly January night, he ventured into France's northern region.
With its hulking steel mills and red-brick mining towns from a bygone
era, its rich cast of trade-union and political leaders, the north of
France has for decades been a bastion of the Old Left.

Besancenot had come to urge leftist militants to join the new
"anticapitalist" party the LCR decided to form at its last annual
gathering in a daring bid to rejuvenate itself and lure disillusioned
members of the Old Left and the younger, anti-racist and global justice
crowd.

This is no joke. To be sure, no Trotskyist will likely ever sit in the
Élysée Palace, and power will probably continue to alternate between a
conservative bloc and the Socialist Party for years to come. But two
decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, France has by far the most
vibrant revolutionary left in Western Europe. And Besancenot, a postman
who doubles as the LCR's chief spokesman, is probably its most able
representative, an everyday man turned charismatic national figure, a
young amateur politician standing out in a sea of party apparatchiks.

Striding onto the podium of a small concert hall wearing his trademark
bluejeans and black sweater, Olivier, as his supporters call him, lunged
into the "France from above" embodied by Sarkozy and greedy CEOs while
hammering the "social-liberal" left for its failure to stand its ground
and defend the "France from below."

"What is missing is a left as comfortable with itself as Sarkozy is
comfortable with being from the right," he told an enthusiastic young
crowd of several hundred.

In essence, with the new party Besancenot is trying to close the gap
between the tiny membership of the LCR and its improved electoral
showings (around 5 percent in the last two presidential polls) and, even
more so, his standing as one of the most popular French politicians on
the left. He was even recently invited on a popular Sunday afternoon
family entertainment program, a decision that elicited some grumbling
from old-timers about the "people-ization" of Besancenot. But he is
adamant that this is not about himself: "It will not be Besancenot's
party. There is something deep going on; people are willing to get back
to political action, here and abroad," he told me before the Lille
meeting in a small room plastered with Soviet-style fliers heralding the
new party and the LCR's main slogan, "Our lives are worth more than
their profits."

In Germany, Britain, Italy, Denmark, Spain and Portugal, far-left groups
have joined broader leftist coalitions, some of which have won
parliamentary seats. But in those countries they have tended to drift
toward the traditional left, whereas Besancenot's objective is to remain
firmly anchored to the far left. And while Die Linke (the Left Party) in
Germany or Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party) in
Italy are led by former Socialists and/or Communists and professional
politicians, France presents a drastically different picture. In
addition to the postman Besancenot, the far left's main leaders are
peasant activist José Bové and former bank employee Arlette Laguiller.

Laguiller broke the glass ceiling in 1995 when she obtained 5.7 percent
of the vote in the presidential election, more than doubling her score
from three previous attempts. In 2002 Besancenot ran for the first time
and approached that performance, contributing to a historic defeat for
the Socialist candidate. In last year's poll, with leftist voters
massively throwing their support behind Socialist candidate Ségolène
Royal to avoid such an outcome, the far left receded--except for
Besancenot. With 4.1 percent of the ballot, he emerged as its clear
leader, garnering twice as many votes as not only Laguiller but also the
Communist Party candidate.

The free fall of the French Communist Party, long a powerhouse that
attracted around 20 percent of the votes at each national election
between 1945 and 1979, is the most notable political development of the
past twenty years. Rather than join the Socialist Party, a sizable
number of its voters swung to the far right and helped propel the
National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen into the big league of national
politics. But in recent years, the "left of the left" has been able to
lure some of those disaffected Communists.

In addition to this changing of the guard on the left, there are some
distinctively French reasons behind the resilience of its revolutionary
left. One is a deeply rooted tradition of vigorous social movements.
It's no wonder France is known as the country of strikes and
demonstrations; since a barometer was set up by the CSA polling
institute in 1995 to measure public reaction to such movements, a large
majority of the French have offered support for most of them.

In addition, the French Socialist Party, despite its years in power
under former President François Mitterrand and former Prime Minister
Lionel Jospin, has not embraced the market economy as fully as have its
siblings in Germany and Britain. With good reason: according to a 2005
poll taken by the GlobeScan institute, only 36 percent of the French
agree with the claim that "the free enterprise system and free market
economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world,"
compared with 66 percent of the British and 65 percent of the Germans.

This, however, does not explain another French mystery: the durability
of the Trotskyists compared with their Communist or Maoists rivals. The
obvious answer is that Maoism and orthodox Communism were directly
linked to repressive regimes in Beijing and Moscow--and thus were the
collateral victims of their disgrace. By contrast, Trotskyism always
portrayed itself as a victim of Stalinism and, as such, retained the
aura of romanticism attached to an unfulfilled dream. Moreover, its
avant-garde dimension lured numerous sympathizers in the heady days
after the May '68 upheaval, several of whom went on to become public
figures: politicians such as Jospin and Pierre Moscovici and
intellectuals such as journalist Edwy Plenel. Although they have long
renounced their youthful engagement, their trajectory bestows on
Trotskyism the kind of cultural prestige so dear to the French.

Two of the three branches of French Trotskyism--Lutte Ouvrière (Workers'
Struggle) and the Workers' Party--still hew to the old ideology. The
LCR, however, has strived to embody a more modern incarnation since its
founding. Over the years, it has embraced feminism, environmentalism
and, lately, the global justice movement. And while this multiple
advocacy has somewhat blurred its image, it is proving to be an asset in
the eyes of the new generation. The LCR has doubled its membership since
2002, and most of its recruits are young. A November 2007 IFOP poll
shows that while Besancenot would obtain 7 percent in a presidential
election, the figure climbs to 12 percent among those born between 1977
and 1982.

Sylvain Pattieu, the 29-year-old head of the LCR's list for the recent
municipal elections in a working-class Paris neighborhood, is a case in
point. A history professor, he got acquainted with the LCR through the
anti-racist organization Ras-le-Front. Since becoming a member in 1997,
he has continued to be involved in trade union and global justice
activities. "I couldn't go to the Communist Party because of [its
associations with] the USSR, and I found Lutte Ouvrière too rigid. The
LCR was both radical and open-minded," he told me.

In addition to becoming younger, the LCR has become closer to the
average population sociologically. After years of recruiting mostly
among teachers and civil servants, its membership among the working
class has recently surged, shedding its intellectual image. Those trends
are especially telling at a time when the membership of the Socialist
Party is becoming more bourgeois and the Communist Party's is aging.

Henri Weber, a former LCR militant who is now a Socialist official, does
not buy the face-lift argument. He claims that his old organization
still functions with the same mind-set and ideology as in the 1960s and
'70s. To be sure, the LCR recently ousted a faction that advocated an
alliance with the traditional left, and its website still claims that
only a frontal assault can undo the capitalist system, warning that "the
clash is inevitable; we must prepare for it." The site intones that
"between two legitimacies, two powers...antagonistic social interests,
coexistence cannot last. Force will decide."

Besancenot, the son of a physics teacher and a school psychologist who
joined the LCR's youth wing in the late 1980s, uses a distinctively
different vocabulary. In his writings and in speeches, he steers clear
of loaded expressions such as class warfare, armed revolution or
dictatorship of the proletariat. "I don't define myself as Trotskyist;
I'd rather use 'contemporary revolutionary,'" he offered when I asked
him to define himself. "I don't have a ready-made recipe to bring about
a better society. Revolution is not a dogma laid out in a Little Red Book."

This pragmatism explains why no name has been chosen for the new party
and why it will not be affiliated with the Fourth International, a
cornerstone of Trotskyist identity. The name and platform are to be
decided at a constitutional assembly slated for late this year, which
will mark the culmination of a nationwide series of meetings at the
local and regional level.

"We are ready to turn a page from our history," Besancenot told the
Lille audience. "We don't want to be an elitist, avant-garde movement
wasting its time with philosophical discussions lasting until three in
the morning."

Alain Krivine, an LCR founder and one of those endless debaters, swears
he will not miss the all-nighters arguing about Stalin's crimes and
Trotsky's greatness. "Communism doesn't mean anything to the new
generation. You can't just go on talking about this," he told me in his
office at the headquarters of the LCR, located in the working-class
Paris suburb of Montreuil. "We have tried many times before to create a
party but we failed. This time, we feel the situation has never been as
favorable, with vibrant social movements and strong electoral results."

Not to mention the election of Sarkozy, an avowed neoliberal who enjoyed
record popularity in the wake of his election last spring but who has
seen his poll numbers plunge in recent months. Most analysts point to
the contrast between the ostentatious display of his private life, first
and foremost his public affair with and marriage to model-cum-singer
Carla Bruni, and the struggles of the average French, as the main
reason. Besancenot, however, is convinced something deeper--and more
promising to the left--is afoot.

"I don't give a hoot about Carla Bruni," he told the audience in Lille.
"The truth is Sarkozy's policies are exasperating a growing number of
people. And here is some news: he doesn't even have the means to
implement them because the public coffers are empty, so even the France
from above is beginning to smell the coffee."

Besancenot's denunciations of the excesses of capitalism; his advocacy
of higher salaries, free education and cheap housing; and his support
for Palestine and Chechnya are popular beyond the far left. But when it
comes to defending the rights of undocumented immigrants, he is at odds
with the feelings of large segments of the working class, who have been
receptive to Le Pen's "France for the French" mantra. A more calculating
politician would probably have avoided this issue, but Besancenot told
the mostly white crowd in Lille that "a leftist doesn't hesitate" when
it comes to defending the disenfranchised.

Krivine acknowledges that seeking out recruits by, as he puts it,
"telling people, 'We're the ones who defend Negroes and fags. Got a
problem with that?'" is probably not what political gurus would
recommend. But he argues that not doing this would betray a central
tenet of the movement. Besides, he noted, the integrity embodied by the
LCR and Besancenot was a prized asset in an era of low public trust in
politicians.

In addition to those ideological dilemmas, political scientist Vincent
Tiberj argues that the party will face three major obstacles: the
fractious nature of the far left (Lutte Ouvrière has already announced
that it will not join, claiming that the new formation appears ready to
jettison Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism); the volatile nature of its
electorate; and its lack of a truly national base, since the LCR has
generally been present only in several large cities and suburbs, barely
registering in rural areas and small towns. (The LCR did score its best
performance ever during a round of municipal elections in March, with
109 of its 200 lists getting more than 5 percent of the vote and and
twenty-nine lists garnering more than 10 percent. Most notably, it
performed well not only in working-class suburbs and industrial areas
but also in several midsize towns.)

"They don't have a culture of consensus, they have a culture of
difference," Tiberj told me. "And let's not forget that a sizable number
of their voters cast their ballots to vent and not because they believe
it will bring about the revolution."

Success will indeed mean convincing voters that the party actually wants
to govern and not just protest. But it may ultimately depend on
Besancenot. To be sure, all LCR senior officials, first and foremost
Besancenot, sing the praises of collective leadership. But they know
better. As the veteran Krivine admitted, "We may not agree with the
personalization of politics, but we use it." And there lies the rub.
Besancenot told me he would not run again for president and seems
genuinely eager to recede into the shadows.

After concluding his one-hour speech in Lille with a passionate call for
"a socialism for the twenty-first century," Besancenot did not bask in
the cheers of the audience as any politician would. He joined the local
LCR leaders on the podium to sing the "Internationale," his face looking
down, his right fist softly clenched in the air and his left hand tucked
in his jeans pocket. He then deftly avoided the swarm of well-wishers
and disappeared through a back door into the foggy northern night.

About Marc Perelman
Marc Perelman has been the diplomatic correspondent for the Forward for
the past seven years, where he has covered Middle East affairs,
terrorism and the United Nations and has reported extensively from South
America, Europe and Africa. He has also written for the International
Herald Tribune, Le Monde, Fortune, National Journal, Salon, Mother Jones
and Foreign Policy.

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