France: Presidential elections in a climate of crisis, Part 2
The Far Left
In this period of reactionary offensive, the working class and progressive movements have not been completely sidelined. Less than one year ago, tens of thousands of workers took to the streets against the El Khomri law and for several months this movement, not the racist lies of FN and their echo by establishment politicians, dominated political life.
Precarious workers and youth tried to create a new political space with Nuit Debout, an attempt that failed mainly due to its lack of ideological coherence and the weakness of petty bourgeois and anarchist ideas. More recently, the youth in the banlieues demonstrated once more against the police racism and violence to which they are regularly subjected.
What conclusions have the far left drawn and how do they approach the elections? The two major far left organisations in France, both with roots in Trotskyism, are fielding candidates in the first round of the presidential election. These candidates will have considerable access to the media and equal participation in the debates between candidates, which makes the election a far better tribune for presenting “fringe” politics than is the case in most European countries.
Lutte Ouvriere – plus ça change
LO, is the great unchanging fixture of the far left when it comes to presidential elections. For six presidential elections, from 1974 to 2007, they fielded the same candidate; the bank worker and trade unionist, Arlette Laguiller. The high points of Arlette’s campaigns came in 1995 and 2002 when her vote, in the first round, topped 5 per cent. In the 2012 presidential election, she was replaced by the remarkably similar sounding, though younger, Nathalie Arthaud, a lycée teacher and trade unionist. Her score fell to 0.56 per cent, passed by the 1.15 per cent of Philippe Poutou of LO’s rival, the NPA.
LO prides itself on its unchanging politics and on the claim that elections are not what matters. Selected as Arlette’s replacement for the 2012 presidential elections, Nathalie Arthaud was asked in an interview “How do we find the strength for political struggle when there is no prospect of coming to power?” Her reply was illuminating.
“There’s no despair among us. For LO, election times are not the essential ones. What is fundamental is that the people take to the streets, as in 1995, 1968, or 1936. I think that a moment like this can appear suddenly. But if we have to wait a long time for it, it would not affect me more than that. I am only a link in the chain. That is how you think in a scientific milieu: we work as a team, and what one team has failed to realise, another will succeed in doing. For LO, we are passing things on, that is how we live. Of course I would like the "big night" to be tomorrow, but in the meantime, I carry on the fight. Marx saw the crushing of the Commune, not the workers' revolution, and I may not see anything at all. But today’s battles are not small, and the essential thing is to always raise the flag high.”
This political method has a good French name; attentisme, inadequately translated into English as “playing a waiting game”. It is based on what Trotsky called passive propagandism; making propaganda against capitalism, the bourgeoisie, the reformist parties and for the working class, “struggle” and socialism; whilst waiting for the “big night” to come on a huge wave of spontaneous workers' struggles.
Meanwhile, LO resolutely makes propaganda on these themes in its famous workplace bulletins and at election time. It regards anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and the demands and struggles of women and other oppressed groups as peripheral to a fundamentally economistic view of the class struggle.
Thus, in her election pledges, Arthaud sums up LO’s attitude in the bald statement: “A vote for Nathalie Arthaud is a vote to affirm that all working people have the same interests, whatever their nationality or skin colour.”
LO scarcely recognises the specific oppression meted out on a daily basis by the police, by the employers, by the state functionaries to youth whose families have backgrounds in France’s former African colonies. It ignores the fact that the state, the far right and liberal secularists, too, discriminate against and persecute and stigmatise these people as Muslims. It criticises the youth uprisings as riots that only damage the inhabitants of the ghetto-like banlieus themselves and lecture them on the need for class unity. Thus, in the presidential manifesto all they say is:
“With unemployment rates of up to 40 percent in some of these neighbourhoods, young people are idle, condemned to odd jobs, coping with problems, and even drug trafficking, and ending as racism when this comes from immigration. In recent years, explosions of violence between the police and young people have erupted in these neighbourhoods. With, as the first victim of this violence, the population of these districts themselves.”
Worse, LO ignores the racism of sections of the “indigenous” working class. Above all, it does not see the racially oppressed as an agency of their own liberation, a cause to which they must strive to win native French workers and thus create unity at a higher political level.
Even when the workers and youth take to the streets, a not infrequent event in France, LO never poses the question how they could develop into a threat to the existence of the government. The CGT, the most militant of the larger federations, never calls into question the dogma that only elections change governments. LO regards the outcome, and indeed the union leaders' actions, simply as an objective inevitability, due to an insufficiently favourable balance of class forces, rather than a result of a false strategy and leadership.
LO of course does criticise the union leaders, but usually after the event. LO sees no need to develop an independent class strategy to challenge the existing leaders of struggles while they are still going on. This applies both trade union leaders, especially the CGT as well as reformist political leaders. Thus, in a balance sheet of the movement against the El Khomri law, they restrict themselves to explaining the union leaders' actions as stemming from mistrust of their members, rather than from their political objectives and their nature as a bureaucracy.
“These officials were chronically distrustful of mass meetings and, more generally, of any form of framework in which the mobilised workers might have been able to express themselves. And the fact is that the union apparatuses were able to retain full control from beginning to end, because the movement itself did not have the power which would have been needed to impose its own dynamic on these apparatuses.” (Lutte de Classe July-August 2016)
The Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA) - failing to make a breakthrough
Despite the disarray among the mainstream parties, the deepening divisions within society and the explosions of anger against the El Khomri law and police repression, the NPA has once again proved unable to increase either its numbers or its impact. In part, this is because it has been paralysed by a series of internal struggles resulting in splits towards the Front de Gauche, the shaky alliance between the PCF and Melénchon’s PG. More serious still is the NPA’s inability to challenge the reformist parties and trade union leaders.
The historic majority in the NPA, and its initiators in 2009, came from the Ligue communiste révolutionaire, LCR. It includes both May ‘68 veterans like Alain Krivine and Olivier Besancenot, the youngest presidential candidate ever in 2002 and 2007. The NPA leadership openly admits that, “we are still lacking depth, our political project is still too weak”, and certainly the current campaign around the NPA candidate, Philippe Poutou, a car worker, will not be a game changer.
Nonetheless, the NPA campaign has several strong points that mean that revolutionary workers ought to vote and campaign for Poutou. It is the only party clearly standing against the rampant racism and islamophobia, against the state of emergency, against police violence in the banlieus and for an internationalist solution and the freedom of movement. Poutou’s campaign rallies will attract numbers of those who participated in last summer's struggles and who will be necessary to mount a fight back against the new president, whoever it is. Poutou proclaims the need for such mass resistance on the streets and in the workplaces and places of education.
However, a vote for Potou has to be a critical one. The NPA fails to draw any clear balance-sheet of the recent movements and why they did not win. Therefore, its platform can only propose new movements of the same kind, which would in effect repeat the same errors. Unlike LO, they do take seriously the issues of racism, sexism, and the defence of immigrants against the police. However, the programme lacks any serious analysis of the threat the FN poses and how to respond to it. Clearly, in the event of an FN victory, the vanguard must react and fight-back but not a single line is devoted to this. Above all, just like LO, they are silent when it comes to fighting for the strategy and tactics needed to transform such mass movements into a struggle for power.
Like the minority who left to join the PG, the NPA majority leadership share the view of the Fourth International since the 1990s that the “epoch of October is over” and Leninism is outmoded. In its place, they pose the need for a new alliance with all kinds of different reformist and green forces as the basis for a broad, anticapitalist, anti-racist, ecosocialist, feminist, environmentalist party and see mass strikes and social movements on the streets plus elections as the furthest horizon.
Thus, Philippe Poutou’s election programme talks of “our democracy” as against “theirs” and calls for “a May ‘68 that goes right to the end (jusqu'au bout), a general strike, a mobilisation of the whole labour movement, along with the youth and all the oppressed” and it continues, “at the strongest point of the movement against the Labour Law, when the refineries, SNCF (railway) and others were on strike, this possibility of a blockade of the economy, of a tous-ensemble, was floating in the air and the political and economic elites were beginning to panic…”.(Poutou programme, page 40)
This is, of course, perfectly true but, unfortunately, it stops short of revolutionary politics. Why did it remain just a floating possibility? Who prevented this potential from being realised? The answer is, the existing trade union and reformist party leaders, and they have done this time and again, right back to May ‘68. The programme makes no mention of the need for a revolutionary party fighting to stop this, nor of the role of NPA in the recent movement, or even after it!
It does not does not dare to talk about what “going all the way” actually means, that is, the inevitable clash with the forces of the state, working class political power, revolution. Though the programme talks of coordinations and workers' committees, workers' control of production, even of workers' defence guards who will drive the police from the communities they terrorise, it does not bring these together in a call for a workers' government based on these organs of struggle. It is not that, as self-proclaimed Trotskyists, Poutou and the NPA leaders do not know about these things. It is rather that they do not think they are possible, or necessary, at this time, or in the present period.
Within the NPA, however, there is a significant, indeed growing, left wing, albeit not a single force, but a collection of various groups, including the NPA youth, Etincelle, the former LO faction, the Courrant Communiste Revolutionaire, CCR, the French section of the Trotskyist Fraction – Fourth International, and the Tendance Claire. The CCR is linked via the FT to the successful Argentine group, the PTS.
None of these lefts get to the heart of the majority’s weaknesses – in particular the need to challenge the leaders of the trade unions and the reformist parties by organising rank and file workers to make demands which would take the struggle forward or, if rejected, expose the leaders. Like the NPA majority, like the LO, they restrict themselves to socialist propaganda and tailing the spontaneous mass struggles which the French workers' and youth movements are so rich in.
Thus, while workers should vote for Poutou as a vote for class struggle, antiracism and international solidarity, it is clear that the NPA as it stands is not going to be the party that can lead to a decisive victory. Indeed, in contrast to the high hopes with which it was founded in 2009, it is proving incapable of rallying a sizeable vanguard of working class fighters and youth. To do this a radical programmatic and organisational re-orientation is needed. On the centenary of the October Revolution, whose era is far from over, this means a return to the unfalsified theory and practice of its leaders, Lenin and Trotsky.