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Ian Birchall

French Left

On the road to Rome

(December 1980)

From Socialist Review, 12 December 1980-16 January 1981: 1, pp.28-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In 1968 the French left was a beacon for the whole of Europe. In the early seventies France was overtaken by Italy, but by the end of the decade the Italian left had paid a heavy price for missed opportunities. The recent anti-semitic bombings in Paris open up the grim possibility that France now faces the development of a more and more ‘Italian’ type of political situation.

With inflation at over 13 per cent, and unemployment around one and a half million, France faces the same crisis as other Western countries. But in France the problem is compounded by the evident disarray of the mass parties of the left. Since the collapse of the Union of the Left before the 1978 elections, the divisions between the Communist Party and the Socialist Party have grown ever deeper. Accusations of ‘treachery’ and worse are common currency in discussion between the two parties, and both devote more energy to attacking each other than they do to fighting the right-wing Giscard government.

Moreover both parties are torn by debilitating internal dissension. In the Socialist Party the struggle between Rocard and Mitterrand for the presidential candidacy has dragged on for over a year. The Communist Party, because of its traditional monolithic structure, has felt the strain even more.

In the period of the Union of the Left, the CP aimed to present a social-democratic, ‘Eurocommunist’ face to the world, and recruited extensively on that basis. The subsequent left turn, made to prevent itself losing the initiative to the Socialist Party, has had tremendous repercussions inside the party. Hardly a day goes by but some more or less prominent member of the party unburdens their conscience in the bourgeois press.

Five Paris councillors have announced that since the decisions on the party’s presidential election campaign were not taken democratically, they do not consider themselves bound to support it publicly. Eleven members of the CP in Marseilles have issued a statement saying that the party ‘has failed to carry out its duty in face of racist violence.’ And the Communist Party of Martinique, France’s West Indian colony, has called on its supporters to abstain in the presidential elections, even though a Communist candidate, Georges Marchais, is standing.

The dispute erupted this autumn in a set of squalid manoeuvres surrounding the senatorial elections. The excitement generated bore little relation to the actual significance of the French senate. The system of indirect election for the senate, based on an electoral college drawn from municipal councillors, gives the Socialist Party a huge advantage over the CP, which it has no qualms about exploiting. When, however, the CP announced that it would not follow its traditional policy of standing down on the second round to enable the Socialists to be elected, it was accused of breaking with the traditions of left unity.

What was at stake was not, of course, the Senate. The French Constitution devised by de Gaulle, which elects both president and parliament by universal suffrage, has an effect highly conducive to political demoralisation – it means that France is virtually permanently in a pre-electoral period. For over a year France has already been plunged into manoeuvres about the forthcoming presidential elections; already the main parties are looking beyond next Spring to the parliamentary elections scheduled for 1983 (and after that, of course, the 1988 presidential election will be just round the corner!) Hence the repeated hints and threats from the CP that they will not support the Socialist candidate (likely to be the closest challenger to Giscard) on the second ballot.

Inevitably the disarray of the left has spilled over into the trade union struggle. The polemics between Socialists and Communists are echoed by the bureaucrats of the CGT (aligned on the CP) and the CFDT (aligned on the SP). Even in important strikes the two unions have failed to work together. The CGT has adopted a more militant stance, though it has always stopped short of effective action to coordinate the various fragmentary struggles. The result, inevitably, is demoralisation. Union membership, which has been low in France since the 1940s, is on the decline. Initiatives like the campaign for ‘Unity in Struggle’, sponsored by individual CP and SP militants, and encouraged by the LCR (French section of the Fourth International), obviously respond to a widespread desire for unity, but have not been able to stop the rot.

The disarray of the left has given Giscard’s regime the green light to launch an attack on all sections of the working class. In particular immigrant workers have been the victims. France is imposing even stiffer regulations on the right of immigrants to stay in the country, and Stoléru, minister allegedly responsible for the well-being of immigrants, recently announced that there could be no question of any further immigrants being admitted to France. An Egyptian journalist, Simon Malley, is being unceremoniously thrown out of France because of his views on third world politics.

All this means that police attacks on immigrants go virtually unchecked. Indeed the French police seem to be more or less completely out of control. When Marseilles police recently killed a seventeen year old Moroccan during an identity check, it was the fourteenth case of an ‘accidental’ killing by police since the beginning of this year.

The emergence of small but ruthless groups of neo-Nazis is in no way surprising in such a situation. Not only do these groups have significant support within the police force, but the state authorities and courts have conspired to take no action. A Communist militant who has received repeated death threats from extreme right-wing organisations had his complaints rejected by the courts on the grounds that there were ‘no known neo-Nazi organisations in France.’ Yet the killings at the Paris synagogue at the beginning of October have been preceded by a whole series of attacks on synagogues, Jewish shops and similar buildings. In September the government did ban the main Nazi organisation, the FANE; it simply changed its name (by one letter, to FNE) and carried on meeting unmolested in the same premises.

In the short period after the bombings a certain degree of left unity was achieved. But it did not go beyond a few large demonstrations. In the absence of an effective response from the left, the initiative has gone predominantly to the Jewish (and generally Zionist) organisations. These organisations have spoken quite rightly of the need for self-defence and physical retaliation against the fascists. But Zionist politics in isolation from the working class movement has little to offer. Some prominent figures in the Jewish community have gone so far as to allege that it was actually the left which was responsible.

Self-defence has tended towards individual retaliation; in fact the first act of retaliation by a Jewish organisation led to a serious physical attack on an 84-year-old man, who had acid thrown in his face. It transpired that he had no fascist connections, but simply had the same name as a well-known Nazi journalist. The situation could easily degenerate into a futile round of terror and counter-terror.

The general shift to the right in French politics leaves the revolutionary left in an isolated and dangerous position. The revolutionaries participated wholeheartedly in the demonstrations that took place up and down the country after the Paris bombings. Most of the revolutionary groups have put forward formally correct positions on the nature of fascism.the responsibility of the government, the need for self-defence and a working-class response. But in general the left seems to have lost the initiative. Objectively the French situation is absolutely ripe for an initiative like the Anti-Nazi League; in fact no-one seems willing or able to take the initiative. Yet the milieu seems to be there: at the beginning of October a rock concert called ‘Rock Against Peyrefitte’ (the minister of justice) attracted three thousand people.

One reason for the lack of initiative seems to be that the electoralism which is tearing the mass parties of the left apart is also infecting the revolutionary left. The LCR in particular is putting all its energies into a campaign for unity between the Communist and Socialist Parties. Their presidential candidate Alain Krivine seems to be running almost exclusively on the programme of demanding that all left candidates should support the best placed left candidate in the second round. In practice this almost certainly means Mitterrand; presumably many workers will follow the logic and vote for Mitterrand on the first round too. The LCR’s electoralism has gone so far that it recently commended the Zionist organisation Renouveau Juif (Jewish Renewal) for having raised anti-Giscard slogans on the antifascist demonstrations. In fact Renouveau Juif ‘s criticisms of Giscard are confined to a condemnation of his oil-fired pro-Arab foreign policy.

As for the rest of the revolutionary left, Lutte Ouvrière are proposing to run Arlette Laguiller for the Presidency on a purely propagandist basis; while the organisation that has grown fastest over recent years, the OCI seems to be degenerating yet further; a group of its members recently launched an unprovoked physical attack on LCR members with such slogans as ‘Nazis’ and ‘Kill them’.

Unfortunately there seems little evidence of any widening audience for the revolutionary left on an electoral level. There was recently a municipal by-election in Orleans, where in 1977 a joint revolutionary slate obtained the impressive score of 11.8% of the vote. This time three revolutionary groups presented separate lists; the total score was 8.4%.

All in all a bleak outlook for the French left. Yet the French working class is far from defeated. An effective initiative, on jobs or racism, could easily turn the tide. If not, the Italian road is all too likely a prospect.

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Last updated: 19 March 2010