The Radical Left in France1

By Jean-Numa Ducange

Recent history

France, together with Italy, is the only West European country in which a Communist party occupied the main political space on the left for several decades. Since the end of the 1970s, however, the French Communist Party [PCF] suffered a net decline, to the point of becoming a secondary or even marginal force by the early 1990s. The radical left Maoist and Trotskyist parties, which had tens of thousands of members in the 1970s, also declined.

Nonetheless, in the wake of the great strike of November-December 1995 (against Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s proposed cuts in pensions and social security), these political forces, which some had consigned to a premature grave, experienced a certain renewal. The PCF obtained 10% of the votes in the 1997 legislative elections; then, in the regional elections of 1998, the Trotskyist far left had a breakthrough that was confirmed in the European elections of 1998 and then, above all, in the 2002 presidential election (the most important election in France because of the powers of the president), where its candidates got 10% of the votes while the PCF candidate Robert Hue, hampered by turmoil in the party, got barely over 3%. One can add to this some of the votes of the Green party (henceforth, “Europe écologie les verts”), reflecting their left wing. After the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution and the resounding victory of “No” (almost 55%, with a participation rate of nearly 70%), one might have contemplated a political realignment, given that most of the politicians had favored “Yes” (recalling the 1992 Maastricht referendum which had been only barely ratified). The meetings of the “left-wing No’s,” which called a “social” Europe as opposed to the Europe of high-finance (the far right advocated “No” for different reasons), were hugely successful in uniting the different currents of the radical left together with a significant portion of the left wing of the Socialist Party (PS).

But this realignment failed and the committees that arose from the “No” campaign lost their momentum. The dispersion of the candidacies led to a disaster in the presidential election of 2007: the PCF candidate, Marie-Georges Buffet, got only 1.97%. The most successful radical left candidate in that election, Olivier Besancenot, got barely over 4%. Olivier Besancenot launched the New Anti-Capitalist Party [NPA],2 which, after a few spectacular successes assembling up to 10,000 activists, went into rapid eclipse with the formation of the Front de Gauche [Left Front], a coalition of the PCF, the Parti de Gauche [PG],3 and a portion of the far-left Gauche unitaire. The NPA, in trying to realign all of the radical left around itself, thought that it could easily ignore the PCF and the other anti-neoliberal forces. Very hostile to the rest of the left, it gathered above all various highly sectarian Trotskyist splinter-groups, which undermined its internal workings. Many NPA members, especially those who came out of the LCR, ended up rejoining the Front de Gauche, in successive waves.

The Front de Gauche candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the PG scored 11.1% (4 million votes) in the 2012 presidential election – the best result for the left since 1981, when Georges Marchais of the PCF got 15%. We should note that in France the presidential elections are those with the highest participation with near 80%, compared to 40% in 2009 elections for the European Parliament. The institutions of the 5th Republic, shaped between 1958 and 1962 by General de Gaulle on a Bonapartist model (the head of state “above parties”), clearly polarize political life around this presidential contest. Despite the French people’s disaffection from politics and their declining participation in most elections (in the regional elections of 2010, it went above 50% only in the second round), their interest in the presidential choice has held firm.

We must keep in mind this “plebiscitary” aspect of French political life, which blends democratic features (“the people decide”, by choosing the head of state) with the worst aspects of absolute monarchy (belief in the “supreme savior”) to form a neo-Bonapartist synthesis of a direct link between the leader and the people, short-circuiting intermediate institutions. Without a candidate and without a score in the presidential election, it is difficult for a political formation to survive. Since the early 1980s, this has been the recurrent problem of the PCF, none of whose candidates have been able to reach a percentage in the double-digits.

The Front de Gauche has not been able to mount an effective opposition from the left to the Socialist president elected in 2012. The Front has split, sometimes violently, on the question of local and regional alliances with the incumbent PS. For example, during the 2014 municipal elections, many sections of the PCF allied with the PS to retain office in the municipalities in which they still comprised a majority. An emblematic case was the city of Paris, where already in the first round the PCF allied itself with the PS, while the PG and most of the other groups of the Front de Gauche ran independent lists. Between 2012 and 2015, the far left (outside the Front de Gauche) almost completely disappeared. A part of Europe-écologie les Verts allied itself with the PG in some settings, leading to victory, for example, in the city of Grenoble. Finally, the decline of “municipal communism” continues, even as the PCF still governs some of the banlieues.4 But these exceptions pale next to political dynamic around the far right, the Front National of Marine Le Pen, which has made important gains even in localities normally not favorable to her party. In sum, the overall electoral share of the “left of the left” or of the “radical left” has stayed between 8% and 15% since the beginning of the 1990s.

Diverse identities

The differences within the left are rooted in the varied histories flowing into the Front de Gauche. The PCF remains the most important force in this coalition. It is one of the oldest French parties, founded in 1920. From 1936 to 1980, it was the only party really implanted in the working class. Despite a continuous decline, in addition to numerous elected officials, it still has tens of thousands of members (about 50,000,5 although the party claims more than 100,000), including numerous trade unionists active and sometimes influential in one of the biggest French unions, the CGT, historically very close to the PCF, even though these ties are no longer officially noted. Both leaders and members of the PCF are torn – regarding the party’s work in local councils – between asserting more autonomy from the PS and maintaining the historic ties (from the period of the Union de Gauche of the 1970s) which supposedly assure it an important place in the institutions. The leadership has a lot of trouble controlling its sections that oscillate between these different attitudes. The PCF’s popularity is also hampered by its appearance of being an aging party without a charismatic leader; its top official, Pierre Laurent, is not well known.

The leader of the PG, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is a strong political personality with good media presence and great oratory skills, which had a particular impact in the 2012 campaign. But its initially strong activist dynamic has slowed down, and the party no longer has more than about 3,000-4,000 members. It attracted young people and trade unionists but without extending beyond the traditional sectors of the left. Several waves of members left the party criticizing methods of leadership around Mélenchon. Despite these difficulties, Mélenchon remains relatively popular, and surveys predict that his level of support in 2017 will be similar to that of 2012.6 For the general public, he is the only well known figure of the “radical left” except for Olivier Besancenot (candidate from the Trotskyist sector in 2002 and 2007) who still enjoys a positive image. Mélenchon embodies a historic socialist current identified with the ideals of republicanism and laïcité (separation of church and state). At the same time, he also resonates with a Podemos-type discourse, opposing “the people” to “the elites” (rather than left against right).

Finally, there is a new third component of the Front de Gauche called “Ensemble,” with brings together former NPA members, frustrated PCF renovators, and a few other activist groups. Not yet rooted, this ensemble has slightly fewer members than the PG and with more disparate origins (on some subjects such as the Muslim headscarf, it harbors sometimes violent disagreements), but often more experienced. Many of them want to go beyond a party-type formation and, often citing SYRIZA or Podemos, advocate broader gatherings of citizens. Its main spokesperson, Clémentine Autain, is the second-most well known figure of the Front de Gauche after Mélenchon.

There have been numerous debates within these various currents on whether individuals might directly join the Front de Gauche without having to go through one of its constituent organizations. Without agreement on this point, the risk of implosion becomes increasingly severe. Although Mélenchon will certainly run for president in 2017 (as he announced at the July 5, 2015 PG Congress), it is possible that he will not be supported by the PCF and the other groups because of tensions around the strategic choices.

We should also note, apart from the continued existence of the Trotskyist far left, those anarchist and neo-situationist fringe-groups which may have a certain appeal among students who enjoy imaginative and spectacular gestures.7

A revolutionary reformism?

How should we characterize the political program of the Front de Gauche, which is well summarized in “l’Humain d’abord!” [Humanity First!], the platform of the 2012 presidential campaign (not subsequently revised in any essentials)? It is not a “revolutionary” program, in the sense that it no longer imagines a model more or less inspired by Leninism. Only tiny fringe-groups of the far left, like the Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière [LO], still refer explicitly to Leninism (its spokesperson Arlette Laguiller received more than 5% of the votes between 1995 and 2002, but since then the LO share has dropped to less than 1%). For the Front de Gauche, the point is rather to identify itself with a long revolutionary tradition (1789, 1848, the Commune of 1871, the Popular Front of 1936, May-June 1968, etc.), all the while preaching a new politics of radical structural reforms similar to the program of wealth-redistribution that might have been envisaged by social democrats between 1950 and 1970 – of course, adapting them to the present conjuncture. The proposed measures show a mix of Keynesian and Marxist influences. Despite any tension in this mix, it provides a broad front from which to challenge the neoliberal approach of the PS and of orthodox economists.

The multi-faceted French crisis

France was affected by the economic crisis of 2008. Like other European countries, it suffered a policy of austerity, which President François Hollande has largely maintained since his election in 2012. These measures have a particular impact in the civil service – a major job-provider in France (approximately 6 million wage-earners, or about one-fourth of the labor force). Nonetheless, compared to the countries of Southern Europe, the economic situation remains relatively privileged. The middle classes are at risk, but are less affected by the crisis than in Italy or Spain. The new burdens are real (for example, a recent project to add working hours on Sundays), but less important than elsewhere. French capitalism remains more stable, thanks to several major financial groups with global operations. But the unemployment rate is nonetheless very high (even if less so than in the other Latin countries) and has continued to rise for several years (from about 8% in 2007 to 10% in 2015). There is no doubt that this weakens the bargaining power of wage-workers. The movements of the unemployed have less impact than they did in the 1990s, when several of them, like “AC! contre le chômage” – often close to the radical left – gained a certain visibility, alerting large sectors of the population to their condition.8 But these social movements have lost some of their vigor.

This weakness points to a more general decline of large popular mobilizations. The general strike of November-December 1995 which toppled then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé seems like a distant memory. Although there was a strong mobilization in 2003 against pension-reform (stronger in certain provincial cities than even May-June 1968), it did not block the reform. Another big movement in 2006, with strong support from students, defeated a proposal to permit paying an especially low wage to workers under the age of 26. Since that time, however, no other mobilization has reached the same level, and the new demonstrations against pension-reform have been much smaller. This does not signify the end of social antagonism, as there are regular strikes over jobs and wages (showing the continuing strength of certain unionized sectors around the CGT) and also in defense of public services (e.g. a strong mobilization by university students against a 2009 law establishing greater “autonomy” for higher education). But one has to go back more than a decade to find visible nationwide mobilization on a unifying issue.

The political crisis is complex. There is a great distrust of political leaders. Many public opinion surveys show that political parties of every tendency are hated by a large portion of the French population.9 Within the radical left, the most visible effect is the number of declarations over the last fifteen years on the need for a political realignment from below, favoring horizontality over the traditional verticality of the organizations. The historian Roger Martelli, a former PCF leader, embodies this sensibility. At the same time, the crisis of confidence in the parties and organizations tends to reinforce a neo-Bonapartist disposition. We should not forget that the massive non-participation in most elections and the disgust for traditional politics does not necessarily mean a massive turn to horizontal organizing; it can also lead to entrusting all decisions to supreme authority, embodied in France by the President of the Republic. Abstention has also occurred in presidential elections, as in 2002, when the left candidate was eliminated in the first round. But the elections of 2007 and 2012 were closely followed by a very large majority, with strong participation.

What does this mean for the radical left? Prediction is difficult, but it is clear that a candidate who shows qualities of leadership in this election – even if, being from the radical left, he does not win – acquires an aura in the eyes of the population that is hard to imagine in neighboring countries. With very few members, the Trotskyist far left drew 10% of the votes in 2002 because it had excellent charismatic candidates. From this point of view, we should pay close attention to how the French political field is affected by Podemos. Since 2014, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has developed ties with Pablo Iglesias and Podemos, and called for attention to their proximity. He wagers that a similar approach could resonate in France, where attempts to transform the Front de Gauche into a real political organization like Die Linke or SYRIZA have failed. An alliance between a charismatic personality and a relatively dense network of activists hostile to traditional structures remains a risky political bet, but one that could give the PG the “citizen” appeal that it seeks. It could reconcile the neo-Bonapartist distrust of parties with the disposition to horizontality. Some Front de Gauche activists are noting that SYRIZA and Podemos, whatever the difference in their settings, advanced without the participation of the Communist Party.

European and international questions

One of the most important debates in the French left is over the legitimacy of the European Union and the single currency. Citizens and politicians alike recall the No vote of 2005. France remains a country in which a large part of the population is suspicious of Europe, if not openly hostile. Several intellectuals of the radical left view exit from the EU and the Euro as the sine qua non for an alternative politics. This perspective is regularly presented by economist Frédéric Lordon in the columns of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, several of whose producers are close to the radical left. The book, En finir avec l’Europe [Let’s Put an End to Europe], one of whose authors, Stathis Kouvelakis, belongs to SYRIZA’s Central Committee, is representative of this tendency.10 On the other side, Étienne Balibar, well known former student of Louis Althusser, advocates an “alternative Europe,” and initiated a petition significantly entitled “La Grèce au coeur de l’Europe” [Greece in the heart of Europe].11 Within the leadership of the Front de Gauche and the radical left, no one openly calls for leaving the single currency and the EU, even though that approach has some following in the PG and to a lesser extent in the PCF. Historically, the PCF was very hostile to the unification of Europe and until the 1980s defended a line that we would today consider “nationalist.” Since the end of the 1990s, however, under the influence of party leader and MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Francis Wurtz, the PCF has made a significant but internally controversial turn toward advocating “another Europe.”12 This line currently seems to be prevailing, but the recent acceleration of events in Greece could intensify debate and aggravate divisions over Europe within the Front de Gauche.

International questions are thus significant sources of division within the left. While all agree that France should leave NATO and have a different approach to Europe and the world, there has been little consensus on other topics. For example, when the Ukrainian crisis erupted, a fraction of the Front de Gauche, while not openly favorable to the Russian government, viewed the US/European policies and the sanctions against Russia as totally illegitimate.13 Mélenchon and Clémentine Autain took opposed public positions, with Autain considering Mélenchon too pro-Russian. Similar differences exist over China (though not aired publicly for some time).14 The same lines of cleavage appear also, perhaps less sharply, with regard to other parts of the world. The PG defends the Venezuelan government almost unconditionally, whereas other sectors of the Front de Gauche are more critical. In general, the progressive Latin American governments are strongly supported by the PG. More recently, controversy has arisen over Germany’s role in imposing austerity policies – the “German poison” denounced by Mélenchon, in remarks criticized by leaders of the PCF and of Ensemble.15

These debates reveal differences regarding the concept of the nation. Symbolically, in meetings of the Front de Gauche, some people refuse to sing the national anthem, La Marseillaise, singing only the Internationale (which everyone sings). Activists, especially of Trotskyist formation, view La Marseillaise as a chauvinist song revered by all the bourgeois parties and even by the far right. Most members of the PG and the PCF, for their part, believe that the national anthem, like the nation, should be defended, albeit in a quite different way from that of the Front National. In brief, they reject nationalism but uphold a certain patriotism which they tie to particular values and to the revolutionary heritage.

As to relations with other European parties, solidarity with SYRIZA has become, since that party’s rise, a constant of the Front de Gauche. Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, is vice-president of the European Parti de Gauche, whose president is the PCF Secretary-General, Pierre Laurent. Since Tsipras took office, the parties of the Front de Gauche have supported his actions. Only a fringe-minority within the PCF supports the KKE (Greek Communist Party), which has been hostile to SYRIZA. Political developments in the countries of Southern Europe are watched very closely by members of the French radical left; they view their future in the light of those events.

Translated by Victor Wallis

Notes

1. In this article, we distinguish between “far left” [extrême-gauche] and “radical left” following the definition I developed with Louis Weber and Philippe Marlière: “The far left, although democratic, does not envisage overthrowing capitalism by means of elections or by relying on the liberal-capitalist state. By contrast, the radical left thinks that profound changes can be achieved through elections […]. The radical left does not rule out reformism, whereas the far left has no faith in it, and rejects it in favor of a more sudden revolutionary break.” J.-N. Ducange, P. Marlière, and L. Weber, La gauche radicale en Europe (Paris: Le Croquant, 2013), 91-92.

2. A transformation of the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire [LCR] founded in 1974.

3. A split from the left of the PS, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

4. R. Martelli, L’empreinte communiste. PCF et société française 1920-2010 (Paris: Éditions sociales, 2010).

5. R. Martelli, Prendre sa carte 1920-2009. Données nouvelles sur les effectifs du PCF (Bobigny: Fondation Gabriel Péri/Département de la Seine-Saint-Denis, 2010).

6. IFOP survey, July 2014. http://www.marianne.net/Le-sondage-Marianne-Ifop-qui-alarme-Marine-Le-Pen-en-tete-du-premier-tour-en-2017_a240405.html

7. Comité invisible, L’insurrection qui vient (Paris: La Fabrique, 2007).

8. E. Pierru, ‘Les mouvements de chômeurs’, in Michel Pigenet et Danielle Tartakowsky (ed.), Histoire des mouvements sociaux en France (Paris: La Découverte, 2014), 688-95.

9. G. Michelat, and M. Simon, ‘Le peuple, la crise, et la politique’, La Pensée, hors série – Supplément au n° 368, mars 2012.

10. C. Durand (ed.), En finir avec l’Europe (Paris: La Fabrique, 2013).

11. http://www.politis.fr/La-Grece-au-coeur-de-l-Europe,31727.html

12. See the controversial work of A. Bernier, La gauche radicale et ses tabous (Paris: Seuil, 2014).

13. See Mélenchon’s remarks reported by the Russian press agency Sputnik,
http://fr.sputniknews.com/international/20150222/1014846801.html

14. See the section on foreign policy in Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Qu’ils s’en aillent tous! Vite la révolution citoyenne, (Paris: Flammarion, 2010).

15. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Le hareng de Bismarck. Le poison allemand, (Paris: Plon, 2015).

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