France in 2009
New hope and new organizations on the radical Left

All across the world, capitalismís name is mud these days and thatís very encouraging for any Left activist. In France, Sarkozy is busy demolishing important social gains and playing at emperor, but he is also provoking fightbacks. The radical Left is transforming itself : there are several reasons to be cheerful, but it is seeming very difficult to build the powerful but clearly defined alliances which could push Sarkozy back politically.

Regular mass strike waves and student movements over recent years have sharpened the demand for a real radical Left party, and the economic crisis and Sarkozyís « billions for the bankers » policy have raised the temperature even more. The combination of Sarkozyís attacks (swingeing cuts in Education, less tax for the rich, the privatisation of the Post Office, and more troops for Afghanistan, to name but four) and the at best lukewarm opposition of the Socialist party have increased the political space for the radical Left. In February 2009, two new Left parties will have their founding conference here, while a third looser entity « The Federation » will also be setting up shop.

These organizations aim to propose winning strategies and analyses to the  movements, and there are many. Public sector trade unions have called for a mass day of strike action on the 29th January, while the movement for Gaza is enormous. The school student movement in December already forced the Education minister into a humiliating climbdown : he had to abandon for the time being his flagship reform of high schools. Meanwhile, strikes by illegal immigrants have resulted in many getting papers, and train drivers, airline staff and teachers have also been involved in industrial action. And a strike in public television channels protests against Sarkozyís plan to give himself the right to personally appoint their new boss. Sarkozy himself commented in December that the French like to decapitate their kings, and he is reduced to repeating in interviews that « anticapitalism is not the solution » !

Indeed, the first new party of 2009 will be the « New Anticapitalist Party » (NPA) set into motion by Olivier Besancenot and the trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. The LCR and its ideas have a popularity that goes far beyond its three or four thousand activists. In 2007, 62% of the population « had a good opinion » of Besancenot, and he has recently been voted « best opposition voice » in polls because of his outspoken support for strikes and immigrant movements.

The New anticapitalist party is an attempt at a broader party than the LCR, one which will be based on opposition to capitalism, but not insisting on members being attached to any specific model of social revolution. In its first few months it is likely to surpass ten thousand members. Preliminary events showed a promising dynamic Ė several big towns got more than a thousand people to their meetings, and nationwide there are four hundred constituent committees.

The LCR will dissolve into this new formation, the rest of the NPA members largely coming from trade unionist circles, from the student movements, or from the many activists of the non-party Left. No other major national political current other than the LCR has decided to join, partly because of sectarianism on both sides. Debate rages inside the NPA about what alliances are acceptable. On one side are those who are worried that the NPA will lose out by working with people who havenít really broken with the neoliberal wing of the Socialist Party ; on the other are those who fear that the new party could be missing a chance to unite with wider forces with the double aim of winning more partial class victories in 2009, and of demonstrating in practice the quality and desirability of the NPA.
Other NPA debates include whether to redefine socialism as « eco-socialism » and whether to concentrate on working in the major trade union federations or support much smaller but more radical unions. On more theoretical issues, there are Red-Green, syndicalist and libertarian ideas aplenty along with marxism.

The other new party is the Parti de Gauche, launched by Jean Luc Mélenchon and supporters who have left the Socialist party, in their view hopelessly headed for full scale Blairism. Openly based on the German Die Linke model (though far smaller), it is supported by a growing group of intellectuals and local and regional elected figures. Cheerfully opposed to ideas of social revolution, Mélenchon believes there is space for a campaigning radical reformist party to the Left of the Socialists and Communists. His party-in-embryo is printing campaign material against Sunday working and in defence of public services, while organizing a series of discussion meetings with each of the forces of  the radical Left.

A number of grassroots activists hesitate between the two parties. Could these parties have been wings of a united radical Left party, in the way that Die Linke in Germany has revolutionaries and reformists and many undecided inside it ? Personally, I think that would have been a marvellous thing. The possibility was dashed when the radical Left did not manage a united candidacy in the 2007 presidential elections. The jury is still out on who was most to blame. In the future though, the two parties just might be able to work together, and the economic crisis makes it urgent that they learn to do so.

It is interesting to see that despite Mélenchonís leaving the Socialist Party, the level of class struggle in France ensured that the Blairite wing of the Socialist Party, symbolized by Ségolène Royal, (who was keen to ally with moderate Conservatives) was defeated at the recent conference by a centre-Left alliance around Martine Aubry, who promotes a slightly more human face of capitalism which at least involves a higher minimum wage and rent control.

Finally, a third new organization, La Fédération is trying something more modest. Convinced that a new united party has little chance of flowering, (or that the party form is no longer appropriate for the 21st century), a series of red and green groups have set up La Fédération to coordinate common struggle, while people can remain in the parties they come from or donít. The Fédération includes the few hundred Communists for Unity who are on their way out of the Communist Party, and the Antineoliberal unity collectives who go back to the united and successful campaign against the European treaty in 2005.

Despite widespread anger against Sarkozy, and the popularity of strike movements, French Trade Union leaderships are massively « new realist », calling for days of action on separate days, unable to believe that a real challenge to Sarkozy is possible. The influence of a combative radical Left is necessary, but unity is hard to build. The new anticapitalist party seems to me a real step forward, but purism remains a danger. Of the three new initiatives, the New Anticapitalist party is far and away the one that attracts the most students and school students ; many universities have their committee. The Fédération is fiery but often excessively grey-haired.

On a negative note, there seems to be no real progress on that terrible blind spot of the French Left Ė opposing islamophobia is in practice taboo, paranoid secularism is common. In a 2007 poll, 44% of the French population (and 49% of radical Left voters) felt islam was « negative for French identity », while recent extremist arson attacks against mosques provoke practically no comment from the radical Left.

The struggle continues to build a powerful radical Left, capable of winning over a very numerous new generation of activists thrown up by recent mass movements, while avoiding unprincipled alliances with the pale pink Left which puts managing capitalism before struggling for change.

John Mullen is an NPA activist in Agen. Google « John Mullen à Agen » for his blog.

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