Whither France?

The CPGB's Peter Manson, Francois Rouleau from Lutte Ouvriere and Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group debated the way forward for the left in France at a special CPGB seminar on Sunday April 28. Mary Godwin reports

Comrades from Workers Fight - LO's fraternal organisation in Britain - and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty also contributed their point of view. During the debate a comrade from Workers Fight seemed to query the very purpose of the meeting by arguing that we cannot fight Le Pen from Britain. She stated that we were in no position to give advice to the French comrades of LO, who had, after all, just won six percent of the vote in a national election. Comrade Manson disagreed. It is our duty as proletarian internationalists to warn comrades when we believe they are making mistakes. Comrade Manson began by saying that the title of the meeting - 'How do we stop Le Pen?' - was perhaps a "trick question". The real issue is not how we stop Le Pen, but how we advance the cause of the working class in order to defeat the state. He quoted Alain Krivine of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, who called Le Pen the workers' "worst enemy". True, Le Pen has nauseating and appalling politics. But our main enemy is not the populist right, which the mainstream political establishment is at present attempting to keep sidelined, but the state and the system of capital which lies behind it. However, comrade Krivine's description led him and the LCR to imply that workers should vote for the other candidate, Jacques Chirac, who was not quite as rightwing as Le Pen. Comrade Manson compared this to the SWP's advice to voters in Britain - 'Don't vote Nazi'. The majority have no intention of doing so, and such 'lesser evilism' is in fact the equivalent of telling a minority to carry on voting for parties which they have already rejected and whose dismal record has driven them into the hands of the extreme right in the first place. What we need to do instead is provide our own working class alternative. Comrade Manson also criticised those like Red Action who have made anti-fascist work the main focus of their activity. Comrade Rouleau condemned the French equivalents of Red Action whose work consists of beating up far right activists on the street as "Toy Town playing". But in recent years Front National activists, as opposed to FN voters, have been hard to find, he said. In the past leftwing paper sales had been attacked by violent bands of rightwing students, but comrade Rouleau described such incidents as lacking "social content". Continuing his theme of downplaying both the rightwing threat and the opportunity presented to socialists by the anti-FN mass movement, he said the electoral milieu of the far right has been present for decades. The danger it poses only becomes acute when support for the extreme right coincides with a social crisis. Although by coming second in the first round of the election Le Pen has succeeded in putting his politics centre-stage, the total vote for the far right has not significantly increased, comrade Rouleau pointed out. In 1995 there was a second far right candidate and, taking this into account, the total vote for the far right then was actually higher than Le Pen's vote on April 21. For comrade Rouleau, the main significance of the election is not the success of Le Pen but the setback suffered by the reformist left, with Lionel Jospin of the Socialist Party being pushed into third place. Comrade Thornett agreed that the collapse in electoral support for social democracy across Europe provides opportunities for the far right to advance, but also for the revolutionary left. There has been a polarisation of society in France. If our goal was simply to stop Le Pen, comrade Manson pointed out, the left could join the bourgeoisie and the leaderships of the PCF and Greens in calling for a vote for Chirac in the name of anti-fascism. The French bourgeoisie will strive to obtain the highest possible vote for Chirac in the second round, with the fewest number of abstentions, because they want Chirac legitimised as the president of France, along with the undemocratic Fifth Republic itself. It is vital that the left does not constitute itself the left wing of the establishment coalition to re-elect Chirac, he said. We have seen spontaneous protests by tens of thousands, including a high proportion of young people. They are angry not only against Le Pen but also against the electoral system that has given him such prominence. Comrade Manson called for an active boycott of the second round, fought for using the most militant working class methods objective circumstances allow. A low turnout would make Chirac a lame duck president and lay bare the undemocratic nature of the presidency itself. We call for the working class to take the lead in the fight for a Sixth Republic, winning hegemony over the movement for democracy. We want the working class itself to fight for the abolition of the presidency, for single-chamber annual parliaments with recallable delegates. Comrade Rouleau argued for the tactic of spoilt or blank votes, which LO had eventually decided to recommend in response to suggestions that many voters intended to simply abstain. However, he did not seem to grasp that individually spoiling your vote was very different from the mass action that is integral to an active boycott. Neither did he understand the significance of the call for a Sixth Republic. He said that not only the Fifth Republic, but all such bourgeois institutions are and always have been illegitimate - including the First Republic of 1789. Lutte Ouvriere is against cultivating illusions in bourgeois institutions. "We are a bit anarchistic," he remarked. This certainly summed up LO's economistic dismissal of democratic questions, questions that apparently should be left to the bourgeoisie. Comrade Jack Conrad said there is a constitutional crisis of the Fifth Republic, and to imagine the working class is only interested in economic questions is a profound mistake the left makes too often. All the speakers formally agreed that what was needed was a united working class party. Comrade Thornett said the three revolutionary groups who stood in the election should have joined forces, with comrade Laguiller as the candidate. He called for a united party consisting of all those to the left of the Socialist Party. Matt Cooper from the AWL also criticised the sectarianism which keeps Lutte Ouvriere and the LCR apart. He summarised this sectarianism as LO calling the LCR "rainbow coalitionist" and the LCR accusing LO of pandering to French nationalism in its critique of the European Union. Comrade Rouleau said in reply that those who thought the LO and LCR could unite in one party were "living on another planet". LO did not want a Socialist Alliance-type social-democratic formation. The two groups had agreed a united slate in the Euro elections solely in order to reach the five percent threshold necessary to get comrades elected, although it meant a bad platform which neither side was really happy with. In the presidential elections there was "no need" for such a compromise. He said that unity for the sake of it is not in the vocabulary of Marxists. The LCR thinks a revolutionary party can be built by uniting the small groups. "Fine. Let them try. But we don't believe in that. We will try our own way." This involved spending a summer visiting towns and villages seeking to sign up 30,000 to 40,000 workers to the project of building a new party. "Short of that, forget it." Analysis of voting patterns across the 95 administrative units shows that, while support for the LCR was evenly distributed across France, Lutte Ouvriere did best in what used to be strongholds of the Parti Communiste Francais. However, despite his party obviously picking up votes from the PCF, comrade Rouleau insisted that the collapse of its vote on April 21 was not a cause for celebration. It demonstrates that the working class of France has shifted to the right politically. For all its faults, the decline of the PCF weakens the working class as a whole. Comrade Thornett disagreed. He said the collapse of the PCF vote ought to be celebrated. The fact that the Trotskyist candidates were able to outvote the PCF by almost three to one is a huge step forward for the revolutionary movement in France. The far left can take the initiative in areas where the PCF would once have dominated, such as the anti-war movement. He said the party deserved its fate, not least for its failure to break with Jospin in the 'pluralist left' government. He argued that lamenting the fate of the PCF is like wishing the 'official' Communist Party of Italy had not been superseded by Rifondazione Comunista. Comrade Rouleau said that the left cannot call a party into being: it can only prepare for it. In the 1960s there used to be PCF activists who would organise and educate the youth around them. Whenever there was a problem, such as a racist incident, this network would deal with it. Rebuilding such a network is the main communist task. Comrade Thornett declared himself optimistic about the prospect for the Trotskyist groups moving into the space opening up to the left of social democracy as it moves to the right. Comrade Rouleau declared that he does not view the world through comrade Thornett's rose-tinted glasses. He said a workers' party that is not present everywhere is not worth that name. "You cannot make a party on the basis of just putting together all the tiny little groups that make up the left. What you get is a few thousand people more or less committed, more or less settled in life, and certainly not very rooted in the working class." In his reply at the end of the debate, comrade Manson agreed that a party could not be created simply through the coming together of the left. Nevertheless, the importance of left unity in gaining the support of the class should not be underestimated. He said that going to every village to find supporters was not the way to build a party either. A Communist Party must be based on trained cadre. Comrade Manson considered the LO to have a dismissive attitude to the mass movement, which was throwing up the raw material for a new workers' party, if only the left could relate to it correctly. We need to combine the fight for the Sixth Republic with a fight for a genuine Communist Party, and that fight has to be taken out to the hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating on the streets on May Day.