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International Socialism, April 1977


Notes of the Month

France: Municipal Dress Rehearsal


From International Socialism (1st series), No.97, April 1977, pp.??.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


MUNICIPAL elections are not normally a subject of great excitement for revolutionary socialists. In a hypercentralised society like France, they are, in themselves, of even less interest. But March’s municipal elections in France were a rather different matter, for they were perceived on all sides as a dress rehearsal of next year’s legislative elections. The good result for the left in the municipals (51 per cent of the popular vote in the first round, 52.5 in the second round) means that sometime next year a left government, based on the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, may take office.

It is thirty years this Spring since the combined impact of Marshall Aid and a Trotskyist-led strike at Renault drove the French CP out of government; since then the left has been continuously out of power (unless you count social-democratic participation in some very reactionary coalitions in the fifties). No French person under middle-age can remember the reformists being put to the test; so the illusions in the potential of a left government are quite powerful.

The CP and SP are both busy preparing for power. The Socialist Party has succeeded remarkably in breaking with the past. In name it is not the same party as the corrupt old SFIO, which masterminded the Suez adventure and tortured freedom-fighters in Algeria; many of its leading personnel – including Mitterand himself – were never in the SFIO. Voters are flocking to the SP; its one great weakness is that its industrial base is still far inferior to the CFs (because its members were playing parliamentary games at a time when the CP was caught in the Cold War ghetto, and had no alternative but to build in the factories).

Of course the SP cannot actually build on the ground, but it is seeking a short-cut through alliance with the leaders of the CFDT (France’s second biggest union federation). The CFDT leaders, who in the aftermath of 1968, and even during the army struggles of 1975, cultivated a certain genteel leftism, are now rapidly acquiring the Jack Jones image. A campaign has been launched against the ‘cuckoos’ (infiltrators) of the revolutionary left in the union.

But if the SP is making the running in terms of votes, the CP is recruiting more rapidly. At the same time the Party – which for many years was one of the most Stalinist in Europe – is undergoing a rapid conversion to ‘Eurocommunism’ (as social democracy seems to be called nowadays). France must be the only country in the world where Kruschev’s secret speech of 1956 is still front-page news, as the CP’s leaders offer contorted explanations of why they loved Joe so long and so truly, though so mistakenly. As usual, the dead take most of the blame. But grotesque as it may seem to ageing cynics, most of the Party’s recruits were probably in napkins when Kruschev made his speech, and the line is selling well.

Also getting in on the act is the United Socialist Party (PSU), whpse historic role has been to round up left critics of the reformist parties, and make sure they vote the right way. Despite the assiduous wooing of the revolutionary left over the last couple of years, the PSU’s January Congress decided to go along with the Left Union – making, of course, all the reservations of conscience and principle necessary to keep its vote up.

The result of all this feverish electoralism is that nobody has much time left for the class struggle, even if they didn’t find it a positive embarrassment. Although a number of significant struggles are going on, there is no attempt to coordinate them. Indeed, when the unions called a number of one day strikes for public sector workers at the end of January, they were carefully spaced out so as to destroy any semblance of unity. And though unemployment levels are as high as in Britain, nobody anywhere is effectively campaigning on the issue. In fact, the Barre austerity measures introduced last autumn, though far from popular, seem to have had some impact on the economy.

This is not simply a question of reformist leaders holding back the masses. The ‘wait-and-see’ attitude is a very real component of class consciousness at the present time. Certainly the French ruling class is not viewing the future with optimism. The public split between Giscard and his former Prime Minister Chirac indicates the depth of crisis that France’s traditional right faces after twenty years of power. The Giscard-Chirac split is not a question of personalities – nor is it, as the CP rather absurdly professes to believe – a coolly contrived conspiracy to create the illusion of a disagreement where there is none. It represents a strategic divergence within the ruling bloc. Giscard still aims to govern from the centre, and nourishes the hope of coopting the Socialists at some stage. Chirac is offering a much more openly right-wing programme, hoping to mobilise votes, but also laying the foundations for a right-wing backlash if the left comes to power.

The importance of the municipals has convinced the revolutionary left of the importance of offering an alternative. Early in the year an electoral agreement was concluded between two Trotskyist groupings – Lutte Ouvrière and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire – together with a new organisation, the Organisation Communiste des Travailleurs (born of a fusion between Revolution! and the GOP, a left split from the PSU). The alliance ran candidates in at least 26 major towns. In Paris it presented lists consisting overwhelmingly of industrial and white-collar workers, 35% of them women, of an average age of 30.

In an election where the real fight is the right versus the reformists, the revolutionaries would not expect a high vote – but their performance was the best so far for the revolutionary left in France, varying from 2.88% in Paris to nearly 10% in one or two towns. More serious is the fact that the revolutionary left appears to be in a state of stagnation; despite its numerical and electoral weight, it seems unable to take any effective initiatives against unemployment, the trade union bureaucracy, etc. The danger is that the revolutionary left becomes

  1. too orientated on ‘exposing’ the reformists rather than organising real struggles, and
  2. too inward-looking.

Another aspect of the same problem is the electoral intervention of the ecologists. Ecological candidates took around 10% of the vote in Paris and Lyons in the first round. This is not to be explained by the traditional French love of nature, but by the fact that a whole layer of the electorate do not find any of the political alternatives very attractive. The tragedy is that these layers have not been affected by the revolutionary left, which, having issued out of a wave of mass struggle nearly ten years ago, now seems too concerned with its own structures and with its relations to the reformists to touch those who are alientated from established politics. The ecologists – like Italy’s ‘metropolitan Indians’ – may be the revenge of youth on former ultra-lefts who have grown middle-aged and respectable.

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