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France: Olivier Besancenot -- `For a left that stops making excuses'

Hand in hand with the struggles of French workers and students has been the massive growth in popularity of postal worker and Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) spokesperson Olivier Besancenot (pictured).

Recent opinion polls listed “The Red Postie”, as even the capitalist media call him, as the second most credible opposition politician to the right-wing government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Besancenot was voted second after the Socialist Party (PS) mayor of Paris and ahead of the parliamentary leaders of the official PS “opposition”.

Below is an excerpt of Besancenot’s speech to an August open air rally of 3500 members and supporters of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NAP), initiated by the LCR, on the challenges for the project.

* * *

It’s in these times of economic crisis that we will have to show just how useful we really are.

We must, in the year ahead, continue to show that we are the most effective opponents of the Sarkozy government and the policies of the French Confederation of Business Enterprises.

We have been trying to show, step by step, that there is a credible alternative: an alternative in the form of a new party worthy of the name — a left that doesn’t apologise for being left, for being anti-capitalist, for wanting to transform society.

In short, a left that is as faithful to the interests of its own sectors — the exploited and oppressed — as the right is faithful to the interests of their side, the exploiters and privileged.

I know that we are asked to do as activists things that would be a big job for a multinational corporation, when we currently only have the resources of a small business! So what, it’s just what we’ll have to do.

And that means in their workplaces and working class suburbs, people will be able to depend on us. It means that those who fight against racism, fascism, sexism and homophobia know that they can count on us.

Immigrants and undocumented workers must know that they can count on a left that from now on will support them all the way to victory: permanent residency for all undocumented immigrants, closure of the detention centres, full citizenship rights and the freedom to move and live where they like.

The PS tries to tell the majority of people that the only way to escape Sarkozy is to wait … for a hypothetical and uncertain escape thanks to the next presidential election in 2012.

To depend on the uncertain prospect of the umpteenth change of government, in which the only thing that can really be guaranteed is that absolutely nothing in our daily lives will change at all.

Well, we’re part of the left that says, “We’re not going to wait until 2012 to resist, to fight and to try to stop the policies of the Sarkozy government”.

Because it’s a social crisis, for millions of people.

To those that ask, “With your New Anti-capitalist Party, what do you want to achieve?”, I suggest you respond to them in the manner a minister in the government of Bolivian President Evo Morales responded when I met him in Paris with two other comrades.

He said to us, “Deep down, what we want is not to live better, because to live better always means at the expense of others. What we want is to not simply survive, because that’s already a given.

“What we want, is to simply live well.”

We want the same thing! To live well! And living well means the right to existence takes a priority over profits. Living well means having time for yourself — for those close to you — those around you, for creating, for having access to knowledge, for travel.

Living well also means living in harmony with our environment, putting an end to all their crocodile tears and taking the steps that are necessary.

Because if we really want to be ecological, then we must start with the evidence of what has been proven not to work: the existing model of economic development in which capitalism, each time touches any part of the ecological fabric, treats it solely as a piece of merchandise and destroys it.

We arrive systematically each time at the same conclusion: we simply have to have a new model of economic and social development. We call it “Socialism of the 21st century”.

There are those that call it “eco-socialism”, “libertarian self-management” or “communism with a human face”.

Who cares what we call it! It’s a process of a deep-going transformation that we want to take on. But I’ve said enough already… Stop talking about it and let’s do it, together!

France: New Anticapitalist Party gains momentum

By Sam Wainwright

October 18, 2008 -- In August, more than 1300 people attended the Revolutionary Communist League’s (LCR) annual ``Summer University''.

However, despite being the biggest such gathering for the LCR — born out of the May-June 1968 revolutionary upsurge — it will be the last. LCR activists are preparing to dissolve their organisation and throw themselves into building the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA).

Beginning with a massive public sector strike wave in 1995, France has experienced an uninterrupted cycle of struggles by workers, students and a diverse range of social movements.

While still mainly defensive, these ongoing struggles have created new layers of activists and regenerated the radical left. Over this period, the LCR has more than tripled its membership to more than 3500.

But while the LCR has prospered, other sectors of France’s large and diverse left have either withered, got stuck in sectarian dead-ends or become left in-name-only.

The “official” left is the Socialist Party (PS). While essentially cut from the same cloth as the “labour” parties in the English speaking world, it scooped up a lot of young militants in the aftermath of 1968, giving it a radical edge.

Furthermore, it managed to be a relatively late convert to the more extreme versions of the neoliberal drive towards privatisation, cut backs on social spending and wage restraints that have infected most labour/social democratic type parties.

However, now it’s well and truly joined that club and earned the mixture of public disgust and cynicism that goes with it.

Most dramatic has been the decline of the French Communist Party (PCF). Sixty years ago it was the country’s largest political party and won over 25% of the vote, still polling double figures at the beginning of the 1980s.

In the 2007 presidential poll, it won only 1.93%, while LCR candidate Olivier Besancenot won more than 4%, or nearly 1.5 million votes.

Just as significant is the multitude of organic links it used to have with the working class, not just through unions, but a host of other organisational forms that have now disappeared.

The PCF’s decline was dramatically accelerated by its decision in the 1980s to participate in neoliberal governments dominated by the PS. This was poison to the party’s working class supporters, but the PCF leaders became addicted to the trappings of cabinet posts and couldn’t kick the habit.

The PS quickly drew the French Greens into the same trap, destroying their image as any kind of radical protest party.

The decline of the PCF and the challenge for the NPA

The significance of the LCR (and now NPA) in supplanting the PCF as the most credible anti-capitalist voice in French politics can’t be underestimated. After the Second World War the PCF absolutely dominated working-class politics, particularly among blue-collar workers, in a way that was never equalled by the communist parties in the industrialised English-speaking countries.

The party emerged from the war covered in glory for its role in resisting the Nazi occupation. Meanwhile the “respectable” mainstream parties, including the founders of the PS, had to start from scratch. After all, most of their leaders turned collaborator in 1940.

While the PCF might have been the backbone of the resistance, its politics were deeply flawed. First, it has not (even to this day) recognised the terrible crimes committed by the Stalin regime in the name of communism. Second, it has never had a democratic internal life. Third, it was never really committed, rhetoric aside, to going beyond the borders of capitalist “democracy”. In fact, at some of the most critical junctures in French post-war history it has stepped in to save French capitalism.

At the end of the war it agreed to participate in a pro-capitalist government dominated by General de Gaulle when he couldn’t rule without them, only to be kicked out two years later when he no longer needed their support. The PCF’s independence was further compromised by its unquestioning subordination to the diplomatic and tactical manoeuvrings of the USSR. Seeing an opportunity to drive a wedge against the US in de Gaulle’s refusal to join NATO, the PCF was pressed by the Soviets not to threaten de Gaulle.

During the events of May-June 1968 the PCF pulled out all the stops to prevent the student protest movement and wildcat strike wave it triggered, from growing into a movement that might bring down de Gaulle, let alone make a revolution. For this to happen, the many thousands of enterprise-based strike committees would have had to link up to form regional and nationwide committees or assemblies that could form a credible political counter-power to de Gaulle and the capitalist state. The PCF used all its weight and influence to make sure no such thing would happen.

But French workers didn’t support the PCF for all these negative things. The party had a contradictory character. It led all manner of struggles by working people in defence of their rights and working conditions. Furthermore, it didn’t just dominate the trade union movement; it created and sustained a whole network of organisations and activities that touched just about every sphere of life. In its orbit were children’s, youth, community, cultural, women’s and sporting organisations to name a few. It created a whole cultural and community apparatus to rival the capitalist institutions; and these were ones where the place and contribution of workers in society were celebrated.

The PS by contrast never had the same sort of organic link with working class communities and has always been much more just an electoral machine.

While the LCR and now the NPA might have replaced the PCF in the media and public imagination as the most significant force to the left of the PS, it is still far from being able to match the sort of daily organisation and contact that the PCF had with French workers in its heyday.

Many of the speakers at the LCR’s Summer University emphasised the challenge still ahead for the NPA to show “it could make a difference” and prove that it can be “useful” to workers and their communities.

The LCR, by itself, is still a long way from filling the vacuum left by the collapse of the PCF. It’s in this context that, in September 2007, it made the call for the formation of the NPA.

A whole series of preparatory town meetings have been held and committees formed. In the process nearly 10,000 people have now joined this party in-formation.

Many are disenchanted PCF stalwarts. Some are militants that left the dogmatic Workers Struggle (LO) group after it turned its back on the LCR despite some very successful joint election campaigns.

However, the greatest number are people with no history in the socialist movement who identify with a party that is uncompromising in its support for all of society’s oppressed.

The LCR threw open the doors and turned over the Summer University platforms to all these participants in the NPA. It is expected that the LCR will formally dissolve at a congress in December, paving the way for a founding congress of the NPA in January 2009.

The proceedings made the front page of the major newspapers. Besancenot, as NPA spokesperson, was followed by a media scrum as he wandered around the venue while his comrades looked on with the calm but serious amusement of people who realise what an enormous challenge they have ahead of them.

At every plenary, workshop and in most discussions around the bar, activists discussed how they were on the threshold of creating a party that would not only condemn the crimes of the capitalist system, but one that will be required to demonstrate that it can, even in small steps initially, make a difference to peoples lives.

[Sam Wainwright is the convenor of the Fremantle Socialist Alliance branch in Western Australia. He attended the 2008 LCR Summer University and was active with the LCR while living in France in 1996-1997. Shorter versions of these articles first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #771, October 22, 2008.]

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