29 avril 2007



The vote for radical left candidates in April 22nd’s first round of the French presidential election fell significantly in percentage terms, as left-wing voters rallied massively behind the Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal – a “moderniser” often compared to Tony Blair – or even voted for François Bayrou, leader of the centrist UDF party. The Trotskyist parties’ combined vote of 5.4% plus the Communist Party’s 1.9% plus José Bové’s 1.3% add up to a little less than 9%. A significant score, certainly, representing nearly two and a half million voters, but well down on the results of 2002.

Bayrou’s surge (he tripled his score from 6% to 18%) was based on several factors. An advocate of free-market principles and a balanced budget, his liberal stance on social and ethical issues contrasts with Sarkozy’s neo-conservatism. He also positioned himself – despite a mediocre record as education minister in a right-wing government – as a born-again reformer with a mission to break the mould of established politics. Finally, many polls suggested that he, and not Royal, had the better chance of defeating Sarkozy if he qualified for the second round run-off. These arguments carried weight even with many previous or potential supporters of radical left or revolutionary candidates.

The wave of voter registration which took place in the wake of far right Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shock qualification for the second round of the 2002 presidential election, and the near record turnout of 85 per cent, did not benefit radical candidates. The one positive effect – which all socialists should welcome – is that Le Pen’s share of the vote fell spectacularly (down from 19 % to 10.4%). Despite the increased size of the electorate, he actually received one million fewer votes this time round.

Le Pen’s bitter reaction to his defeat (he had earlier attacked Sarkozy, his main competitor on the right, as the ‘son of a Hungarian immigrant’) should not lull us into a sense of false security. The influence of his ideas has not decreased. On the contrary, as Le Pen himself was in a hurry to point out, they have been absorbed into the mainstream of French politics in the person of Nicolas Sarkozy, the man most French people associate with organising charters to expel undocumented immigrants and advocating a policy of selective immigration based on the needs of the French economy. Another right-wing candidate, Philippe de Villiers, won 2.2% on an anti-European and anti-Muslim platform, meaning that despite Sarkozy’s hard-line on immigration and law and order, 4.6 million French voters (one person in eight) still supported far right and ultra-conservative candidates.

The Socialist candidate Royal obtained 25.9% of the vote. This was higher than any previous socialist challenger since the founding of the Fifth Republic (Mitterand obtained 33% in 1988, but was running for re-election). Though many left-wing voters hesitated right up to the last moment, when it came to putting the voting paper in the urn, they opted for a ‘no-risk’ policy of supporting Royal in order to avoid a repeat of the humiliation of 2002. Royal had also been careful to distinguish herself from the old guard of the Socialist Party (the so-called “elephants”). Many did so with no illusions in her revamped version of reformist socialism, with its hints of (literally) flag-waving nationalism, idealisation of the family and talk of using the army to discipline young offenders. But there can be no doubt that her ideas on personal responsibility, discipline and reconciling workers and employers have had a considerable echo. This election therefore marks a step backward in terms of class consciousness.

While anticapitalist ideas are more widespread in France than in most countries, we should not underestimate the influence of arguments about the necessity for companies to make profits or the impossibility of adopting policies which would reduce the competitiveness of French companies in the world market-place. Left-wing opponents of the European Constitutional Treaty had a significant success in the single-issue referendum in 2005, but it was more difficult this time to convince voters on a whole range of issues from the national debt to pensions reform. Royal herself has moved the Socialist party to the right, dragging with her several ex-leaders of the party’s left-wing. But she was careful to add a very measured dose of radicalism, enabling her to enthuse audiences of up to 20,000 in the later stages of the campaign. The mixture was good enough to carry Royal into the second round and reduce the radical left – with the partial exception of Besancenot – to ineffectiveness.

With the first round in the bag, Royal’s strategists could take radical left-wing support for granted, and angle for the ‘moderate’ vote. The decline in the ‘left of the left’ vote has reinforced the idea that, as Paris newspaper Libération (which older readers will remember was once on the far left) headlined, “there is nothing to the left of the Socialist Party”.

So what of the radicalism which contributed to the victory of the ‘No’ vote in the 2005 referendum? In the housing estates which were the scene of the late 2005 riots and in the older working-class suburbs, there was little sign of resistance to the dominant trend. In Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the most left-wing areas in the country, it was Royal who benefited from the ‘stop Sarkozy’ movement (she doubled the Socialist share of the vote from that of 2002). Meanwhile, most of the white, anti-‘immigrant’ vote, as well as a minority of conservative North African and Black voters, was captured by Sarkozy. José Bové made brave efforts to link up with activists in the deprived areas, and received a warm welcome from local residents, but failed to make an impact, while Laguiller’s support slumped.

For both the CP’s Marie-George Buffet and the Greens’ Dominique Voynet, the election was a disaster. Both parties were part of the left-wing coalition government under François Mitterand, and have difficulty in creating political space for themselves to the left of the Socialist Party. The Greens were first marginalised by an apolitical but charismatic TV personality and environmental campaigner, Nicolas Hulot, who was at one time credited with 15% of the vote in opinion polls. When Hulot decided not to run after the mainstream candidates signed a vague environmental charter, the field should have been wide open for the Greens. Their lacklustre campaign and failure to address the electorate’s concerns over employment, housing and wage levels condemned them to a marginal role (down from 5.2% to 1.6%). They also faced a challenge to their left from José Bové, the well-known global justice campaigner, who was in fact supported by a number of leading left members of the Green party.

The Communist Party has been in long-term decline for many years. With 1.9% of the vote compared with 3.4% in 2002, it has now apparently touched bottom. It is no doubt a matter of time before its last remaining bastions in local government fall also, in the majority of cases to the Socialist Party. It can also expect to lose the majority of its deputies in June’s parliamentary elections, unless the Socialist Party comes to its aid – with important consequences for its ability to exist as an independent political force.

No longer a tightly-controlled monolith, the CP has shown a readiness to adapt to changes in the form and nature of the social movements. Its members often still form the backbone of union branches, and many play an important role in social protests. However, “the Party” has no coherent strategy. Neither revolutionary nor ‘social liberal’, its leading group is forced to slalom between competing factions, some calling for a return to go-it-alone party-building, others advocating a long-term alliance with the Socialist Party, with yet others calling for more openness, a greater involvement in the global justice and social movements and cooperation with the less sectarian elements on the revolutionary left. One group even defied violent recriminations from party loyalists and campaigned for José Bové. For many of its numerous elected officials (regional and local councillors, mayors and members of parliament), however, the main priority is getting re-elected, involving compromises and deals with the Socialist Party in particular as well as a heavy involvement in the details of local government. The failure of Buffet to stem the party’s decline will no doubt accelerate these centrifugal tendencies.

The presidential election is not the easiest for radical left candidates. Nevertheless, successful campaigns have been waged by Trotskyist candidates in the past, with both Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière and Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire having a considerable impact in recent times – most notably in 2002 when one voter in ten supported a revolutionary socialist candidate. In 2007, the figure was one in twenty.

The LCR’s Olivier Besancenot emerged from the election with his reputation intact, and a strong base from which to build a ‘new anticapitalist force’ – the LCR’s avowed objective. The LCR is now the principal force to the left of the Socialist Party, and Besancenot a favourite of the media (he is a talented and popular public speaker and debater). We should not, however, allow this ‘success’ to obscure the general pattern. The LCR’s main, and not inconsiderable, achievement was to maintain its share of the vote, attracting new voters along the way as a result of the high turnout.

With 4.1% of the vote (slightly down, it should be said, on that of 2002), a mere handful of local councillors and an estimated membership in the region of 3,000, the LCR is a tiny force with an experienced leadership and a young, talented and media-friendly candidate. To improvise on an image invented by a French blogger, Besancenot is the king of the garden gnomes, compared with the juggernaut of the Socialist Party and even the Communist Party, with its thousands of local councillors and mayors and network of experienced trade union militants.

The danger in the present situation is that the leadership of the LCR will conclude from its (very relative) success that its policy of shunning the left-wing ‘unitary committees’ (collectifs unitaires) which sprang up during and following the 2005 referendum campaign was the right one. It is therefore correct for Alex Callinicos of the SWP (GB) to write in Socialist Worker (28th April 2007) that “A heavy responsibility rests on the LCR to overcome the political fragmentation to the left of the Socialist Party and to create a powerful and united radical left” – a remark probably intended as a diplomatically-worded criticism of the failure of the LCR leadership to assume such a responsibility in the recent past. Callinicos’ off-hand remark “But that is a task for the future” rather lets the LCR leadership off the hook, however.
Officially, the LCR, with the exception of an ultra-sectarian minority, has been committed to building a new anticapitalist force for some time, and Besancenot repeated the commitment in his first post-election statement – a rather cheeky proposal given his organisation’s catastrophic role in the collapse of discussions to find a common candidate of the radical left.

The Ligue, however, with its members divided several ways on the question, has always been vague about what form such a ‘new anticapitalist force’ could take. For some, the only possibility of unity is that between revolutionary organisations like the LCR and Lutte Ouvrière. For others, the way forward is simply to continue building the Ligue in order to impose its hegemony on the rest of the left (the leadership group around Alain Krivine is particularly obsessed with outdoing the Communist Party). For this to work, however, it would require breaking numerous habits such as failing to take recruitment seriously, making inordinate demands on members’ time and money, preferring endless internal debates (often leading nowhere) to holding open meetings, not selling or even reading the party’s weekly paper, dodging ‘sensitive’ issues etc.

If past practice is anything to go by, the prospects of the Ligue breaking with its well-established routine are not good. In the short term, Besancenot’s 4.1% score, personal popularity and high media profile will certainly encourage sectarian tendencies within the leadership and the majority of members. Although most Ligue militants would be surprised by the idea, the word ‘conservative’ springs into mind to describe typical party members’ reactions to suggestions that what is needed is a radical change in methods and a daring strategy to unify the radical left. Making a real political breakthrough, comrades, means taking risks.

Over the last eighteen months, the LCR majority has rejected all concrete initiatives to build the new anticapitalist force, on the grounds that more political ‘clarification’ is needed or that ‘conditions are not ready’. The ‘unitary’ minority fought strongly and publicly against this line, only to cave in in the last weeks before the election – with a handful of exceptions who either boycotted Besancenot’s campaign or actively worked for José Bové.

Of course, it is always possible to find reasons why revolutionaries should not collaborate with people who in various degrees have reformist illusions. (Ironically, the Ligue itself has contributed to blurring the issues by distancing itself from Marxist ideas on the State and the revolutionary party.)

Constantly warning members of the Collectifs unitaires against the dangers of ‘opportunism’ – often in an insensitive way – while pursuing an electoral agenda of its own did not in practice encourage political clarification. Rather, it led to justified accusations of duplicity and encouraged many rank-and-file activists to reject revolutionary politics as ‘sectarian’. If that is the attitude members of a revolutionary party take, it was said, then there must be something wrong with the very nature of a revolutionary party – or indeed with political parties in general. In this sense, the Ligue’s policy has, so far at least, been a hindrance rather than a help to building a radical left alternative. And that is putting it mildly.

The attitude of the LCR majority has been theorised by saying that there is a fundamental dividing line between ‘antiliberals’ and ‘anticapitalists’ which makes it impossible to work out a common political strategy other than in exceptional circumstances.

Here it is necessary to explain the terminology associated with political differences on the French left. ‘Antiliberal’ in France refers to opponents of the free market, i.e. economic liberalism, who do not consider that it is necessary or possible (or in some cases) desirable to totally transform the capitalist system. Although ‘antiliberals’ are often more interested in reforms than in a total transformation of capitalism, they are usually active in grassroots movements rather than being political reformists-from-above of the British Labour Party or French Socialist Party type. Many ‘antiliberals’ are members of, or influenced by, such groups as ATTAC or the Fondation Copernic, the radical think-tank. Although ‘reformist’ in a Marxist sense, they are generally suspicious of the Socialist Party, especially its ‘social liberal’ (i.e. pro-market) right wing. There are also, of course, ‘antiliberals’ in the Socialist Party, such as the left group around Jean-Luc Mélenchon which campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in the European referendum. The term ‘anticapitalist’ obviously refers to people who wish to abolish capitalism, without necessarily having a fully-rounded socialist point of view.

My point here is that the distinction between ‘antiliberals’ and ‘anticapitalists’, while real, is not helpful in terms of building an alternative to reformist (or ex-reformist) parties like the Socialist Party. Not only are the lines between the two groups not fixed, but many militant ‘antiliberals’ are in practice more radical and more activist than ‘anticapitalists’ with a more developed theoretical understanding of the system. Better ‘antiliberalism from below’, as it were, than ‘armchair anticapitalism’.

For the LCR, then, unity of the ‘antiliberal’ and ‘anticapitalist’ Left was desirable and indeed possible during the European referendum campaign, in the fight against Sarkozy and naturally in day-to-day struggles. Building a new political movement of the radical left, however, will have to wait until, presumably, the rest of the movement accepts the superiority of the LCR’s ideas - or at least until ‘antiliberals’ have been converted into authentic ‘anticapitalists’. The method is similar, even if the dividing line is different, to that of Lutte Ouvrière, for whom revolutionaries should not participate in ‘anticapitalist’ movements if the latter do not base themselves on consistently ‘revolutionary’ positions. It is a fundamentally negative and counter-productive strategy.

There are basic flaws in the LCR’s position, of course – in particular the failure to recognise that political consciousness is not static. Not to mention the awkward fact that the LCR’s electoral propaganda is (correctly) based on radical reformist demands, not on distinguishing ‘antiliberalism’ from ‘anticapitalism’. For most voters the difference between Besancenot and Royal or the CP’s Buffet is not that he wants to overthrow the capitalist system (something which most TV viewers are probably not aware of) but that he is a more consistent fighter for workers’ rights and is not afraid to tell uncomfortable truths about the Socialists’ record in government. There was and is no fundamental reason why anticapitalist campaigners, activists from the social movements or from ATTAC, trade unionists, revolutionaries, left Socialists, left Greens, dissident Communists, gay and feminist militants, anti-racists, immigrants’ and community groups and others cannot agree at least on a common electoral strategy. This is what the Bové campaign, hurriedly improvised and seriously flawed as it was, at least tried to demonstrate.

Saint-Denis, France
April 28th 2007

John Mullen, editor of Socialisme International, has also written an article on the French presidential election entitled The Presidential elections in France : Polarization and crisis . His article covers slightly different ground from the above. Read it here ...

Cet article de Sylvia Zappi dans Le Monde (29 avril 2007) est lucide sur certaines raisons de l'échec de la gauche radicale à créer une alternative crédible au Parti socialiste, mais trop pessimiste quant aux possibilités qui existaient et franchement bizarre quand elle donne raison à ... Arlette Laguiller.

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