Build on French success

Peter Manson celebrates the victory of the left wing 'non' camp and reports on the post-referendum stress in France

The 'no' votes in two of the founding states of the European Union have thrown the EU establishment into crisis. While in France the 'no' victory was clear-cut (and, what is more, succeeded in forcing the resignation of prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin), in the Netherlands the margin was even bigger, but there is no doubt that it is the former country where more opportunities have been opened up for the working class. The reason for this is that Dutch opposition to the constitution has, for the most part, been based on the sort of nationalist hostility to the European Union bureaucracy that is dominant in Britain - the EU being blamed by the chauvinist right for preventing the Netherlands exercising full control over the number of migrants it takes and for demanding too much in terms of the Dutch contribution to the EU budget. The French victory was of a totally different order - while the extreme right also opposed the constitution, the 'no' campaign was overwhelmingly led by organisations centred on the working class. As The Daily Telegraph notes, "The leftwing flavour of France's revolt could prove a major headache for business, bringing free-market reform to a halt and forcing Brussels to adopt a more protectionist, 'Gallic' stance in economic policy" (May 31). Of course, the Telegraph is putting its own slant on things - opposition to the neoliberal agenda of privatisation is not, in itself, "protectionist" (although that term might be used in relation to some of the Parti Communiste Franà§aise's pronouncements), and it is certainly not peculiarly "Gallic". Workers everywhere are coming under attack from the privatising assault and are resisting the drive to sideline their trade unions and weaken their fighting capacity - aims which are at the heart of neoliberal thinking. Understandably, however, French mainstream politicians tended to express their disappointment and frustration in terms of the 'national interest' and that of Europe'. Defence minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said: "This is a defeat for Europe and also a defeat for France", while Ernest-Antoine Seillère, president of Medef (the French equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry), added: "The result weakens France and Europe and damages its image throughout the world." What has certainly suffered damage is the idea of a neoliberal Europe that is enshrined in the constitutional treaty. For example, the future of the pro-privatisation 'Bolkenstein directive' now looks uncertain. The mainly state-owned service sector accounts for around 70% of the EU gross domestic product, but president Jacques Chirac and his new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, will now be under such domestic pressure that they may hold off implementing the directive. Chirac's administration has also been under a good deal of pressure from Brussels to push ahead with a full-scale programme of privatisation. But plans to float Areva, the nuclear engineering company, have already been postponed and it looks like moves to privatise the gas and electricity monopolies, due to begin later this year, could now go the same way. When Britain takes over the EU presidency on July 1, there will undoubtedly be fierce battles, with Tony Blair continuing to insist on "economic reform". The constitution, in its current form at least, may well be a dead duck, but Blair is adamant that it is not the end of the road. Of course he will be relieved that he no longer need hold a referendum that he would be almost certain to lose, but he claims there are "more profound" issues at stake: ie, "the future of the European economy and how we deal with the modern questions of globalisation and ensure that the European economy is strong and is prosperous in the face of those challenges". In other words, he will insist on "greater economic liberalisation" in opposition to Chirac, who will now be under increasing pressure to deliver a constitutional arrangement which highlights a 'social Europe'. Only nine out of the 25 member-states have ratified the constitution, but now two have declined to do so, which means that for practical purposes the constitutional treaty cannot come into force as things stand, even if the remaining 14 agree. Of course, many measures deemed essential can in any case be pushed through on an intergovernmental basis, but the French rebuff in particular has undoubtedly thrown a huge spanner in the EU neoliberal works. First attempts to resolve the crisis will be made at the heads of government summit on June 16. In France it is not only the right that has suffered humiliation. The standing of Socialist Party leader Franà§ois Hollande, who was a 'yes' enthusiast, has also been undermined. His number two, former prime minister Laurent Fabius, like many lesser known members, broke party discipline following an internal 60-40 vote to back the 'yes' campaign and was a central figure in favour of a 'no'. The SP left wing will now be strengthened by the mood of buoyant confidence that has affected most of the working class movement in France. The main groups that took part in the left campaign for a 'no' together with trade unions and a number of smaller organisations - the PCF, Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, Attac - all issued statements proposing ways of taking forward the victory. The LCR called for the unity of "the numerous forces that defend the perspective of a social, democratic, ecologist and feminist Europe: a Europe that would harmonise social and democratic rights upwards; that would tax profits and big business; that would impose a radically different redistribution of wealth for the benefit of the majority; that would guarantee the right of free abortion and contraception over all its territory; a Europe without WMD and nuclear weapons, conscious of the need to preserve the great ecological balance; a Europe of peace, cooperation and solidarity between peoples which would turn its back on Nato and the militarisation promised in the treaty" (May 29). While, apart from abortion and contraception, this is rather short on detailed demands, and thus has the appearance of a left wish list, the positive sentiment for a Europe in the interests of the working class, not capital, is unmistakable. When it comes to France itself, the LCR calls for Chirac to be forced out along with Raffarin. "As for the national assembly, it was almost 90% in favour of ratification. It no longer has any legitimacy." The unity achieved during the campaign must not be wasted. Local assemblies of all the left forces involved should be set up "to organise, in conjunction with the European Social Forum, an initiative which would really permit the peoples to debate the kind of Europe we want." Surprisingly perhaps, PCF general secretary Marie-George Buffet, echoed the LCR's call for local assemblies in a statement issued on behalf of her party. However, she simultaneously demanded: "The French parliament must reconvene before the European council of mid-June" (statement, May 29). While for the LCR there was a hint of forming alternative centres of power, the PCF aim, as always, is for mass mobilisation in order to put pressure on the establishment, not to pose a totally different order: "France must ask for the renegotiation of the treaty and demand the immediate abandonment of Brussels' neoliberal plans "¦ Let us aim to build a force so powerful that it will dictate the direction of the treaty's renegotiation." Evoking "the great moments of the popular front and May 68", comrade Buffet invites "with all my heart "¦ those of the left who voted 'yes' to take part with us in the exalting adventure of building another Europe, and a genuine left alternative in our country." The ultra-economistic Lutte Ouvrière was not quite sure how to react. While its chief spokesperson, Arlette Laguiller, described the victory for which it had campaigned (although not in conjunction with the rest of the left) as "only right", she insisted: "The 'no' has not changed much ... Sackings and closures will continue in accordance with the needs of the market and capital "¦ Unemployment will continue to grow "¦ It will not halt the making of profit" (statement, May 29). But then, as an afterthought, she adds: "Unless "¦ this 'no' victory, this rejection of the constitution, gives hope to the masses and the means to go onto the offensive against the bosses." Yes, comrade, that was the idea. Clearly, for the moment at least, even LO has been infected by the near euphoric mood of the left. The question is, can this mood be translated into something more concrete? The ruling class project for a Europe of capital has been set back. But to make the vision of an alternative Europe, forged from below, a reality, we need a form of organisation that none of the main French groups dare mention: a Communist Party of the European Union. Peter Manson