Problems of the broad left in France

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Ten years ago the situation of the French left looked promising enough. There seemed a possibility of recovery of a little of the Communist Party’s (PCF) lost ground, and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) , Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and PCF had successfully cooperated within the United Left Group (GUE) in the European Parliament (EP). Since the 2004 EP elections, however, France’s radical left has taken a bashing. The failure of LCR and LO to repeat their success of 1999 did not benefit the PCF. The Socialist Party (PS), however, had a great success that year, gaining close to 29% of the votes, a position from which it has since declined, despite winning the Presidency.

Hollande’s success thirteen years on has turned out to be a mixed blessing for the man himself. A vicious media campaign, some injudicious decisions in both the personal and political lives of its leaders, and the embrace of neoliberalism have rendered Hollande the most unpopular president since polls began. This is despite a number of impressive facts, such as France being the only country in the EU in which the gap between rich and poor is lessening rather than growing. At the same time, the rise of the far right Front National has created an atmosphere of unpredictability in the country. The FN is currently attempting to make itself ‘respectable’, in a sense to transform itself from a French BNP into a French UKIP. It is winning votes from workers who in the past likely voted PS or PCF.

As a result of these developments, and in a context of persistent high unemployment, inter-ethnic tension and an indefinable malaise which makes the mass of the people believe that things are worse than they are, the left has been losing heavily, while there is a lack of any optimistic evidence that disgruntled PS voters are moving leftwards. Both the local elections in March and the European elections two months later were little short of disastrous. The PS recorded its lowest vote – just 14% - since its foundation in 1969 as a successor to the SFIO, a social democratic party dating to 1905.  Parties of the radical left were unable to take advantage. The Front de Gauche (FdG), a radical left alliance dominated by the PCF and the Left Party (PdG - a split from the PS) and led by Jean Luc Melenchon, polled only 6.3%, little over half what Melenchon had achieved in the previous year’s presidential elections.  This, remember, was an election in which Le Pen’s fascist FN topped the poll with around a quarter of the votes cast. The only bright spot was that the PCF did at least retain seats, while a new party of the ‘Alt.Left’ Nouvelle Donne – looking to Podemos and similar movements for inspiration - won 2.9%. While well short of the 5% threshold, the half-million votes it attracted may make it a significant factor in any realignment.

France’s social democrats are clearly in crisis, with ever-declining support tempered only by the consideration that there seems a possibility that the 16% who according to polls would still vote for Hollande in the next presidential election, and the slightly lower percentage (14.7%) who actually voted PS in the EP elections in May, are an unassailable core below which it is unlikely they will go. Experience in other countries, however – particularly Greece, where PASOK has all-but disappeared – demonstrates that this may be dangerously complacent. As many in France argue, instead of radically changing Sarkozy’s policies, Hollande has merely moderated them, seeming to take orders from Berlin, failing to mount adequate resistance to Brussels ‘austerity’ diktats, and cutting both corporate taxes and public spending. As a result, unemployment is at record post-war highs, poverty is increasing, and debt is at a post-war high of over 90% of GDP, with the deficit at 4.4% and rising.

The PS seems to be eroding key elements of the welfare state more slowly than elsewhere, but while this isn’t enough to retain electoral support, it is sufficient to earn admonishment from the European Commission, the right-wing media and the employers. Rather than parties of the left, however, it is the far right which is the principle beneficiary of this disillusionment. Having won 25% of the votes in the European elections, the Front National (FN) has since seen its leader Marine Le Pen come out top of several opinion polls which asked people for whom they would vote in the 2017 presidential elections. Scarcely disguised racist rhetoric from mainstream parties, including the PS, hysteria surrounding a poll which purported to show that one in six French citizens sympathised with ISIS, and a media campaign whose aim appears to be to create a sour atmosphere in the country to ensure that French people remember that ‘PS government means bad times’ (to this reader, very reminiscent of the media campaign against the Labour government in Britain 1974-79), are all contributing to a sense of inevitability that in 2017 we will have a right-wing president supported by a right-wing National Assembly. The really frightening prospect is a repeat of 2002: except this time, instead of a choice between a fascist and a reassuringly familiar grubby politician of the centre-right, it could be Le Pen v. Sarkozy, a sort of French version of the anachronistic Mussolini v. Berlusconi.

Under these circumstances the chances of a revival of any kind of radical left seem remote. However, the FdG is looking to broaden its appeal by drawing in the many PS members who dissent from the embrace of neo-liberalism. Not only the active dissidents – the ‘frondeurs’ – but probably the vast majority of PS members are unwilling to go all the way with Prime Minister Valls, who has openly abandoned anything resembling social democracy, in much the same way as his mentor Tony Blair did in the 1990s across the Channel. So attempting to encourage a split in the PS, while attracting the Greens – who left the government when Valls was appointed PM - seems a better way forward than any thought of direct cooperation between PS and FdG at the leadership level.  There are some encouraging signs. The Parti socialiste deputés ‘frondeurs’, totalling forty in all, refused to support the government’s budget cuts in the early part of the year. More recently, socialist activists including a grouping led by ex-MEP Liem Hoang Ngoc and intellectual and journalist Philippe Marlière have joined leading FdG figures and some Greens in calling for a new party or movement uniting those to the left of the PS. It is unclear, however, whether dissident PS members are willing to leave the party, or whether they believe they can gain control of the Assemblée Nationale PS group. Some clearly favour the latter strategy, while others within the PS want to participate in the construction of a new party. Marlière is firmly in this camp.

Priority for many is to bring some coherence to this dissidence. Eva Joly, green presidential candidate last time, has proposed a primary to elect a single candidate to the left of the PS. A common platform would write itself: anti-austerity, anti-corruption (an endemic problem at all levels of French politics), defence of public services, greater industrial democracy, and resistance to neoliberalism in general, with focus on specific current threats, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Issues such as ethnic tension and France’s participation in imperialist wars, police violence, environmental matters, the unfairness of the tax system, the financial problems besetting the health service, and many others – would require detailed examination and debate.

The PS and PCF have periods of amicable collaboration, enjoying two periods of coalition government, in the 1980s and early years of this century. Most PCF or FdG voters will vote PS in the second round elections which are a feature of the French electoral system, and in the few cases where the PS doesn’t come in the first two, and the PCF or FdG does, the same would generally apply.  Many who are sympathetic to the PCF, however, believe this close relationship, and in particular the experience of coalition government, to have been a major factor in the party’s decline. Groups to the left of the PS often differ (both between themselves and internally) over whether to offer ‘critical support’ to the PS, or condemn them as thoroughly bourgeois. The fact that the PS can no longer claim to be ‘the main party of the working class’, as well as its abandonment (as is the case elsewhere with centre-left parties) of any kind of recognisably social democratic perspective or policies, is persuading many that these ‘Socialists’ have in fact ceased to be any potential part of a solution, and have become instead part of the problem.

Steve McGiffen is Spectrezine’s editor and lives in France. This article is an edited version of a report originally prepared for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, which is affiliated to the United Left Group/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament.