A new anticapitalist party in France : excitement, hope and obstacles

At the beginning of February, I will be one of the conference delegates who represent over 9 000 activists who are founding the "New Anticapitalist Party" in France. This article is an attempt to explain to a non-French readership why this new party is important.

THE BEGINNING OF 2009 will see the official launch of the New Anticapitalist Party in France, called for by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and its spokesman Olivier Besancenot. After the Scottish Socialist Party, Die Linke in Germany and Respect in Britain, it is another attempt, in a context of relative political radicalization, to build a large Left party mainly based not on managing capitalism  but on supporting fightbacks. But the new party in France, the NPA, does not really resemble these other initiatives.

First of all class struggle is at quite a high level in France. Since 1995 regular mass strikes and movements have seen millions on the streets. They were sometimes victorious (like in 2000 when the Education Minister had to resign, in 2005 when the European treaty was rejected by a referendum, or in 2006 against the Youth Employment Contract) and sometimes not ( like in 2003 over the raising of the retirement age). But even when not victorious, movements were strong enough to frighten the governments, who have not been able to go nearly as far in attacking working conditions and salaries as has been possible in other European countries. Sometimes concessions have been won (like the thirty five hour week). The victory of Sarkozy at the presidential elections in 2007 would turn the tide, the bosses hoped. Sarkozy aimed to be France’s Thatcher.

And certainly Sarkozy has rushed through many serious attacks. Job cuts in the public services reached 23 000 in 2008, and 30 000 more are planned for 2009. Taxes for the rich have been reduced; more troops have been sent to Afghanistan; undocumented immigrants have been clamped down on; the police are getting harsher. But the fightbacks continue too. In December 2008, the Education minister, after a series of loud arrogant declarations about never backing down was forced by a school student movement to abandon his flagship High School “reforms”. Local strikes by undocumented “illegal” immigrant workers in restaurants have recently won them papers. Railway workers, postal workers and teachers have had massive days of action, and television workers have been on strike against Sarkozy’s attacks on media independence.

What is more, the generalized strike call for the 29th January 2009 will probably result in the biggest movement yet. These fightbacks have widespread sympathy among the population, in particular since Sarkozy’s response to the financial crisis was to give billions of euros to the bankers.

But political organizations have recruited  only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of new activists created by the movements, and the NPA hopes to go some way to changing this. The deep crisis of the large but greying Communist Party, whose leadership has recently decided to get closer to the Parti Socialiste (again) is unable to tap this potential.

NPA popularity is very encouraging. In the media, the pale pink politics of the mainstream parties leave Besancenot’s speeches  streets ahead whenever anything happens. Whether on strikes, privatization or Gaza, millions of people see Besancenot as the voice of radicalism. He has several times been voted “best opposition leader” to Sarkozy in polls. In the election year of 2007,  62% of the population “had a good opinion” of Besancenot.

The new party has 400 committees across the country preparing the launch. Committees exist in towns and in a large number of universities, workplaces  and High Schools. The University I work in, which hasn’t seen a political meeting in years now has an NPA committee! In the town of Montpellier, a day long regional  meeting got 2000 people to it, a Paris meeting also got 2000, in Marseille there were 1500, and elsewhere numbers were excellent. National commissions on workplace politics, on ecology, on working class neighborhoods and so on have produced wide-ranging debates and proposals. Almost all the committees are active in the Gaza protests, in defending public services, and in the different strikes, especially against redundancies. Many have organized debates on the financial crisis, on Marxist ideas, or on international issues.

The trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire is the only sizeable national group involved in the NPA, and it will be dissolving itself to merge with the new party. Whose fault it was that other national Left networks refused to jointly launch a new organization is still hotly debated.

Apart from the LCR, the party is made up of a couple of small revolutionary groups, thousands of individual trade unionists, single issue campaigners or newcomers to activism, and a number of local radical Left groups who are aware of the need for a more ambitious and dynamic political party, even if they may have reservations or criticisms. The NPA will certainly be much bigger and younger than the LCR was, and a real attempt is being made to work in a new way, to make sure there is space for all sorts, not just for overworked activists who go to six meetings a week.

The formation of the new party has followed a rather unusual method. Programmatic documents and the statutes have been discussed at committee meetings across the country, amended, re-amended and will be voted on at  the founding conference. It can be  rather chaotic at times, but the advantage is that there has been a wide debate on the programme of the new party. Personally I think the debate is more important than the result, because the precise text voted at conference may not have that much effect on the party’s activity. This is particularly the case since the LCR already had a strong federalist streak (each town deciding many things for itself) and this may well be amplified in the NPA. As one revolutionary once said “It’s better to have a big stick than a picture of a machine gun” – the precise detail of the programme is irrelevant if party members are not convinced they should move on it.

The Conference is likely to affirm the need for revolutionary change, but not to affirm any particular link to trotskyist or other analyses. The general tone is “a new kind of socialism for a new century”. This leaves many debates still to be had, of course, since it is easier to get people to agree to try “something new” than to get them to agree on what specific analysis or strategy should be used. There are significant Left libertarian and radical Green currents, but also guevarist and syndicalist ideas.

The main debates which continue in the committees and in the national coordination now are about socialism and ecology (Should we ditch the term “socialism” and talk of “eco-socialism” instead? Are we opposed to economic growth?), about activity in the unions (Should we work within the big established union confederations or build up the smaller but more radical ones), and about the name of the party. There is no consensus about the name. A minority want the word “revolutionary” in the name while others (like me) consider that if the party is to be open only to revolutionaries, there was no point shutting down the LCR in the first place.

Debate continues also about the role of young people. The LCR has a tradition of separate organization for the young (the relatively unsuccessful JCR). In the NPA, it will no doubt be a little less separate, but there is nevertheless talk of separate committees, a separate national leadership, separate campaigns and a separate newspaper. One of the aims is to be sure younger activists feel at home, but I think there is too much separation, and a real danger of ghettoisation.

There are two other important questions I want to mention. One is unfortunately causing not much debate at all, and that is the question of fighting islamophobia. This has always been a massive blind spot of the French radical Left, particularly striking when no significant force actively opposed the 2004 law banning Muslim girls wearing headscarves from going to state schools.  No real progress seems to have been made since. Only one amendment proposed for the NPA conference mentions islamophobia, and it may well not pass. On the French Left, opposing islamophobia is in practice taboo and paranoid secularism is common. In a 2007 poll, 44% of the French population (but astonishingly 49% of far Left sympathizers!) felt islam was « negative for French identity », while recent extremist arson attacks against mosques provoke practically no comment from the radical Left. Nevertheless, the involvement of a number of NPA committees in serious work in poor immigrant neigbourhoods will keep bringing this question into focus, and a slow rethink is possible.

The other debate, run at high temperature, is about the type of alliances which are possible or desirable for the new party : alliances in particular struggles, alliances in general political campaigns (like the highly successful united campaign against the European treaty in 2005), and alliances at election times. This question is complicated by two factors. One is the French election system. Almost all elections take place over two rounds, so smaller parties can to some extent justify standing separately in the first round on their own specific politics, and then (sometimes) calling for a Left vote in the second round. However, money from the government, paid out for each vote won in an election once you have got over 5% (usually), is a major source of funds for Left parties, and this can push towards alliances. These two technical points have to be added in to the political disagreements about what alliances are useful.

A significant minority of the NPA believes that the party should be as wide as possible to be sure to include as many class fighters as possible, and if the NPA turns out to be quite narrow, then it should active seek out wider alliances. A somewhat bigger minority is more worried that broadening the party or being too willing to build alliances would compromise radical policies by getting too close to figures who have not really broken with  the Socialist Party’s  approach of putting capitalism first and people second (or third if times are hard).

It is particularly hard for people outside the party to follow this debate, because it is often carried out in coded terms : no-one is going to declare “I am a purist and opposed to unity.” Even the most sectarian are likely to say how much they would like united action but that it is sadly impossible etc.

My own view is that the main danger is that the  NPA is not going  to build wide enough alliances. Two recent events on the Left illustrate this. One is that a Left wing reformist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with a band of influential supporters, has left the Socialist Party to set up a new party claiming to follow the model of the German Die Linke ( but a lot smaller). Melenchon defends public services, opposed the European treaty, demands a rise in the minimum wage. This could have been the chance for  NPA activists to say “Here are some things we have in common – let’s build a mass united campaign on the theme ‘The workers shouldn’t pay for the crisis’”. A vocal public demand for united action might not have worked, but it would have clarified in the minds of many hesitating people that the party which wants united action is the NPA. What happened was more the opposite – leading members of the NPA fell over themselves rushing to emphasize all the (very real) differences between Mélenchon’s politics and anticapitalist politics.

Similar things have been happening concerning the preparation of the European elections. Whether or not to run united radical Left slates in each region will be jointly decided by the regional NPAs and the national leadership, but some of the leading lights of the (soon to be ex-) LCR have been sounding very purist. One widely circulated article suggested it was only possible to run joint slates with groups who were campaigning against all immigration control and for the banning of all redundancies.  Other leading figures have made declarations which boils down to “The NPA is the only radical Left wing organization in existence now.”

But this statement is simply not true. Though the NPA is the strongest and the most attractive to young people, there is a wide radical and non-party Left which could be included in a political front to stop the workers paying for the crisis. The Parti de gauche may draw interesting people in, and there is another initiative, La Fédération, which is bringing together a series of Green and Red groups in an attempt at joint work. This last includes the organization (several hundred members) “Communists for Unity” who are on the way out of the Communist party, as well as some of the “antineoliberal collectives” who were very dynamic a year or two back.  The idea of the Fédération is that it is not possible at present for a new broad party to flourish, but that a looser organization which permits dual membership could unite people in the way that the united campaign in 2005 against the European treaty did.

Nothing has been decided by the NPA on election slates yet. Other voices in the NPA (some from the LCR minority, some newcomers) are insisting that we should take the opportunity for a wide radical Left alliance in the euro elections in order to elect a few Euro MPs who can carry a radical voice onto the Europarliamentary stage. The NPA committee from Clermont Ferrand is proposing a motion to conference on this basis.

To sum up the general situation of the new party, the NPA will certainly be an exciting further move towards more openness and more young people, especially if the new newspaper which is planned is much popular in form and in style, and is sold actively. However, the NPA should be only a first step towards wider alliances, which should not demand of potential allies that they prove first that they are really really anticapitalist. There is a need for a clearer concentration on the way people’s ideas change in struggle. If the anticapitalists don’t draw into action and debate genuine class fighters who are not yet convinced revolution is possible, other forces will, and the radical Left alternative will be weaker for it.

What is needed are some clear partial victories on particular struggles which could both raise the confidence of workers and attract thousands more to the party which will have been central to supporting those struggles. If Sarkozy can be sharply pushed back, this could be an inspiration for the Left across Europe.

John Mullen

This article was published in the Scottish magazine Frontline in January 2009

John Mullen says :
I am an NPA activist in the South West of France. I’m not writing on behalf of any NPA structure, I’m just a random Bolshevik. You can find my blog at http://johnmullenagen.blogspot.com/
A list of local NPA blogs and websites is available if you read French at

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