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French revolutionary left on the front line

By Francois Duval

Francois Duval is a leader of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.

CONTENTS

The first round of the presidential election, last April, is the starting point to understand the French situation and the perspectives of the left. Lionel Jospin, the former prime minister and candidate for the social democratic Socialist Party (SP) was beaten not only by Jacques Chirac, the main candidate of the right-wing parties, but also by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the neo-fascist candidate. Therefore Jospin was eliminated from the second round. This earthquake was the result of several factors, including a very high level of abstentions, especially by workers and young people, a rather high vote for Le Pen, and more than ten per cent of citizens voting for candidates of the revolutionary left. This situation illustrates the increasing gap between workers and other popular sectors of society and the reformist left after five years of a social-democrat-led government. The ps's allies, mainly the Communist Party and the Greens, also suffered from the balance sheet of the former "plural left" government. The Greens reached a little more than five per cent, while the CP decreased to three per cent, less than two of the candidates of the far left, Arlette Laguiller (spokesperson for Lutte Ouvrière, LO) and Oliver Besançenot, candidate of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire [Revolutionary Communist League (LCR)].

One explanation can be found by recalling that a few weeks before the election, polls noticed that seventy-five per cent of people saw no difference between right-wing and left-wing parties. Actually, under the rule of the social-democrat-led government, there were more privatisations than during the two preceding right-wing governments. When thousands of workers were laid off by profitable companies, Jospin just declared, "The state cannot do much about it", which meant, "We will do nothing". Worse than that: during the European summit in Barcelona, Chirac and Jospin both agreed to delay the age of retirement, to privatise the national electricity company and to follow policies based on austerity and decreased public spending in order to maintain the euro's value. Even the law passed by the social democrats to reduce the working week to 35 hours was not approved by workers, because it resulted in stagnating wages and increased flexibility of working hours.

All these factors illustrate the evolution of the Socialist Party. The SP is less and less a reformist party, in the traditional sense, deeply linked to popular layers and trade union bureaucracies. Like many social democratic parties in Europe, it is more and more linked to higher officials and bosses. In the past, many social democratic mps were former trade unionists and teachers. Now, the SP's leadership is mainly composed of people educated in the same management and business schools as their right-wing competitors, and they share the same neo-liberal ideology. This long-term trend has been amplified both by the capitalist building of the European Community and by the specific rules of the French constitution, which give huge powers to the president of the Fifth Republic and therefore have changed political parties into presidential racing stables.

But the SP is not the only party to move right and to pay the price. No doubt about it: the corroborated decline of the Communist Party is the other great lesson of the election, although its decline did not begin with that particular election. Even in general elections, its results are more or less equal to those of the far left. Its control over the CGT, one of the main trade union confederations, is no longer what it used to be. The Communist leaders and members now have to answer a cruel question: what is the purpose of the existence of the CP? On one hand, its historical function is no longer obvious after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it has accepted supporting and applying all the SP's policies. Within this party, there are mainly two different answers that can be formulated: a nostalgic return to the golden years of Stalinism, or deeper allegiance to the SP. But neither will allow the CP to stop its decline. This creates a new situation for debates between CP members and revolutionary activists, on the balance sheet of Stalinism, on the balance sheet of the former government, and on the perspective of building a new party able to break with neo-liberalism and capitalism.

A 100 per cent left candidate

The revolutionary left faces new opportunities and new responsibilities. Because the LCR was aware of that, a proposal was made a year ago: to have only one candidate for the presidential election, able to speak on behalf of the whole far left. At that time, the LO had better results in elections than the LCR and its spokesperson, Arlette Laguiller, was very popular. So, regardless of its particular interests and of real political disagreements, particularly about involvement in the anti-globalisation movement, the LCR proposed to support Laguiller, on the basis of a political agreement between the LO and the LCR. It was also proposed, on the same basis, to share constituencies in the general elections in order to avoid any competition between revolutionary organisations. In 1999, such an alliance for elections to the European Parliament led to success: five per cent of the votes and five mps elected. However, the LO gave in to sectarianism and refused.

In June 2001, a national conference of the LCR decided to stand in the presidential election with its own candidate, Oliver Besançenot, a 27-year-old postal worker and trade union activist who is much involved in the anti-globalisation movement. It was an audacious challenge: while Laguiller was very popular despite the sectarianism of the LO, Besançenot was totally unknown. Worse than that: in order to stand in the presidential election, you must collect the support of 500 mayors or mps. Because the LCR has no mayors and only two members of the European Parliament within its ranks, it was a hard job. In villages and small towns, many mayors refuse to give their support to any candidate, pretending that they don't want to be compromised with politics. Other refused because they reserved their support for reformist candidates. The only way to succeed was to travel all across the country, to meet mayors and try to convince them, arguing that the LCR was not asking for political support and agreement with all of its political proposals, but only for a democratic gesture that would allow a small but significant political current of the left to participate in political debate on a national scale. During several months, hundreds of LCR members spent all their weekends on the road. Eventually 15,000 mayors were met, and 540 support forms were collected.

For two months, Besançenot stopped working in the post office and spoke at 80 rallies; the audience grew as the days passed. It was interesting to notice the increasing number of workers and young people coming to listen to his speeches. The campaign focused first on emergency proposals to address social questions such as lay-offs and unemployment, sharing of wealth, increased wages and tax reform. But very rapidly, many other topics were addressed: the rights of women, corporate globalisation and war, ecology, legalisation of cannabis, support to illegal immigrants, repression against young people and so on. So, among many specific issues, the campaign was summarised by a slogan: "Our lives are worth more than their profits". That slogan became famous after a chemical plant exploded in Toulouse, a town in the south of France, killing thirty people, injuring several hundred and damaging thousands of houses.

The political profile of the campaign was defined in three slogans: smash the far right, beat the right, and punish the "plural left". Because of the way people feel about the balance sheet of the former government, the LCR decided to leave its supporters free to vote as they wished in the second round of the election: either for the reformist candidate or to abstain. As Besançenot said at every rally and on TV, "We will do nothing to prevent Jospin from being elected. But it is up to him to convince people that it is useful to vote for him." Of course, before the results, nobody imagined that Jospin would finish third! After the results became known, there was a social democratic campaign arguing that the far left was partially responsible for the defeat of Jospin. And in June, in the general elections, LCR candidates were far from reaching the same percentage of voters as Besançenot had two months previously. But several months later, in October, a poll published in the newspapers found that a majority of people who voted for Besançenot had no regret about that.

Against fascism

On the evening of April 21, as soon as the result was announced, Oliver Besançenot and the LCR called for street demonstrations against Le Pen, the neo-fascist candidate, who had won the right to oppose President Chirac in the second round. As night fell, thousands of people demonstrated in Paris and other major cities. During the following two weeks, almost every day there were demonstrations of mainly young people, especially those who had not been allowed to vote because they were under eighteen. LCR activists play a prominent role during that period. On May Day, there were more than one million demonstrators against fascism and the far right, all over the country.

Among left activists, both reformists and revolutionaries, debates raged. Many questions emerged: Who was responsible for the situation? How can we explain the gap between the people and the left-wing parties that are supposed to represent them? How to build a new left? Should people vote for Chirac in order to stop Le Pen?

Chirac is not only a right-wing politician. He was also accused of a large number of offences, such as using public money to pay for luxurious private holidays and his party's electoral campaigns. But according to the French Constitution, the president cannot be charged or even interrogated as a witness as long as he is president. So, in demonstrations, many young people shouted: "Vote for the crook, not for the fascist!" At the same time, for very good reasons, many trade union activists were very reluctant to vote for Chirac.

The LO called for abstention or casting a blank ballot, and was very much criticised for it during demonstrations. The LCR decided to express its position with slogans such a "No vote for Le Pen", "Smash Le Pen, in the streets and in the polls" and, during the last days before the election, "Vote against Le Pen", a sentence that many people understood as an implicit call for a vote for Chirac.

On the evening of the second round, as soon as Chirac was elected, the LCR organised a night demonstration with different associations fighting for the rights of unemployed people, illegal immigrants and class-struggle minded trade unions to affirm: "We have got rid of Le Pen, we will get rid of Chirac". In the general elections, LCR candidates got more votes than the LO, on a national scale, although the LO stood in a greater number of constituencies.

Building a new party?

The collapse of the CP and the increasing gap between the SP and the working class put the question of building a new party again on the agenda. This has been a recurrent debate within the LCR for years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a large majority of members agreed that revolutionaries were facing a new political period that required a new program and a new party to fight for it. Such a party must be able to regroup former members of reformist parties, especially former CP members, who no longer trust the old failed parties. More importantly, such a party must be able to convince thousands of trade unions, associations, feminist and ecological associations to get involved. And, naturally, such a party must open its ranks to all the young people usually found in the big rallies against corporate globalisation. The kind of party the LCR wants to build is a party of the genuine left, a 100 per cent left, as true to the defence of workers and oppressed people as the right-wing parties are true to the defence of profit and shareholders. Will it be a revolutionary party or a broad anti-capitalist party with a revolutionary Marxist platform within it? Nobody really knows until it is tested in real life. But among many other things, it implies a clear balance sheet of social democratic and Stalinist traditions and a break with the "plural left" experience.

But the need for a new party does not mean that it can just be declared in any circumstances. To disguise the LCR in a new party would be of little interest. At present, many individuals are available to discuss about a new left party. But no other political current or organisation shares the LCR's project of a new party. For example, the LO is very much opposed to it. No current inside the Communist Party or the Green Party is ready to consider seriously breaking with the neo-liberal SP leadership. And most of the trade unions and struggling association activists are afraid of being engaged with the LCR, especially if the LCR is the only party involved. New major political events are necessary to go further.

The LCR's success in the presidential election allows it to raise the question in more favourable terms than before, but this is still insufficient to answer the question. However, these difficulties must not be an excuse for a wait-and-see policy. In November and December, the LCR will organise dozens of local forums all over the country to debate with individuals, groups of activists and local political groups that are ready to discuss the failure of the reformist left and the perspective of a new party. It will not be the beginning of a process of party building, but it should be a significant step in that direction.

At the same time many people, mainly workers and young people, are now willing to join the LCR. Most probably, membership will increase sixty or even seventy per cent. Of course, this influx is a great opportunity. It is also a big challenge! New members are different from those who joined in the preceding decades. They have a different way of understanding politics and also have different expectations.

Meeting these new demands and involving new members in action and a political offensive against the right-wing government implies big changes for the LCR. A new emphasis has to be placed on education, both on the revolutionary program and on the specific LCR views about mass action. Changes in the way the LCR works are also mandatory to merge successfully younger and older generations. The schedule for the next months includes major events such as conferences, workshops and demonstrations against war and the capitalist European Community in Florence (in November during the meeting of the European Social Forum) and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January. In February a national conference will discuss actions in workplaces and industry. The LCR is also committed to ensuring the success of a significant demonstration during the G8 summit in a small town in the French Alps, in June. At the end of June, the national congress of the LCR will have to debate the new political situation and revolutionary perspectives in France. A very wearing period to come, but a very enthusiastic one!

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