Choosing the butcher

With the presidential elections looming and the two mainstream candidates neck and neck, France's establishment looks set to take another step towards its goal of establishing a stable, two-party system. Peter Manson looks at the failure of the left to provide an alternative

At the beginning of February, anti-war, environmentalist and 'alter-mondialist' activist José Bové became the latest candidate of the French left to announce he would be standing in the April 22 presidential election.

He joins Marie-George Buffet of the Parti Communiste Franà§ais, Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière and Gérard Schivardi of the Parti des Travailleurs (PT), who had already announced their candidacies. As with all the others, Bové must persuade 500 mayors to nominate him under France's undemocratic electoral provisions.

Bové's announcement puts the final seal on attempts to stand a joint left candidate under the 'anti-neoliberal' umbrella, uniting the PCF, LCR, some smaller left groups and a range of anarcho-liberal and green leftists who had joined forces in the victorious 'no' campaign in the 2005 referendum on the European Union constitution.

The circumstances of the referendum had conspired to pull the PCF to the left - very much against the wishes of its leadership, which regards being a junior partner in a Parti Socialiste-led government as its rightful place. The PCF rank and file was already unhappy with the experience of the privatising 'plural left' administration of Lionel Jospin and, when the PS voted to join with the rest of the establishment in backing the neoliberal EU constitution, the PCF leadership had no choice but to look for alternative allies in a 'no' campaign whose linchpin was the call for a 'social Europe'.

The PCF-led 'no' campaign, which was joined by PS dissidents, including leading leftwinger Laurent Fabius, and prominently featured the charismatic figure of Bové, was remarkably successful not only in actually defeating the mainstream, but in setting in train a certain anti-neoliberal momentum.


Local 'no' committees - known as 'May 29 collectives' after the date of the referendum - far from dissolving themselves, remained in existence as part of an anti-neoliberal network, which drew up a green-tinged social democratic 'anti-neoliberal charter'. Buffet, who was minister of sport and youth under Jospin, called on those PS members who had cast a "leftwing 'yes'" to join with the PCF in a new alliance. The PCF congress in March 2006 voted overwhelmingly to reject an electoral pact with the PS in 2007 and go for a common candidate representing a union populaire based on the 2005 'no'.

However, although all the components of the anti-neoliberal network favoured a united electoral challenge, they were totally at odds over who should be the candidate and on what programme. For its part, the PCF was undoubtedly hoping to gather broader support around its own candidate than it could possibly muster by standing alone under its own name.

A sizable vote for the PCF on April 22 at the head of firm bloc of forces would leave it in a stronger position when it came to negotiations with the PS over the June elections to the national assembly and over ministerial positions in any new 'plural left' government that resulted. The PCF has not openly said it would enter a PS government once again, but what else would it do if the mainstream 'left' won a majority?

In fact the PS has, in its presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, a Blairite of the first order. Partner of PS leaders Franà§ois Hollande, she wants to introduce 'boot camps' for young offenders, has implied that teachers do not work hard enough and has called into question the 35-hour week - the one major, if partial, gain achieved under the plural left (which also included the greens).

"I want enterprises to have the flexibility to compete in overseas markets," she told a journalist in December. At a PS rally last week, however, she rephrased things slightly, talking about "consolidating" (ie, relaxing) the 35-hour week in order to "reduce its negative impact on workers and employees". Obviously what is good for the bosses is good for the workers, and vice versa.

Despite all this, Buffet intends to call on all PCF voters to switch to Royal in the second round of the presidential elections on May 6, when a tight battle is expected between Royal and the right's main candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy of the UMP, the current interior minister. That should bring the PCF some extra reward in the shape of ministerial posts, Buffet has calculated - but only if she has a large block of first-round votes at her disposal.

Unfortunately for her, that now looks increasingly unlikely, since Buffet is standing for the PCF alone and her support is currently down at around 3.5% - just about what the PCF achieved in the first round in 2002.

LCR breaks ranks

The first component to break ranks in the anti-neoliberal alliance was the LCR, which announced that it would once again stand comrade Besancenot, who polled 1.2 million votes (over 4%) in the 2002 first round. The LCR had been making the obvious point that the network was hiding behind 'anti-neoliberalism' to avoid confronting capital head on. For the LCR (or, more correctly, its majority - a minority grouping around Christian Picquet continued to work in the collectives) the central question was maintaining the "momentum of the 'no'".

LCR political bureau member Franà§ois Sabado explained: "Can there be joint government between supporters of the 'yes' and 'no' on the European constitution? We answer no, unhesitatingly. The PCF explained to us that one could not rule out the possibility of a policy change by the SP leadership, of making it shift under pressure and then envisaging the possibility of forming a government" (International Viewpoint December 2006).

In other words, the LCR is quite prepared, at the very least, to actively support a reformist government consisting of dissident PS members, the PCF, greens and Bové 'alter-mondialists'. It would be another plural left, but purged of the PS right. But, as this now seemed a remote possibility, the LCR decided to launch its own campaign -although it announced that, in the unlikely event that the network were to agree a common candidate on those terms, it would withdraw Besancenot.

Meanwhile Bové was determined to be the anti-neoliberal candidate himself. In a repeat of a theme that gained prominence in the European Social Forum, he insisted that ordinary people were fed up with the manoeuvring of political parties and would respond more favourably to a non-party candidate - ie, himself.

The means of selecting a common candidate could not be agreed. The PCF wanted a consensus to be reached among the activists in local networks, whereas Bové called for 'one person, one vote' - a highly problematic proposal in such a loose organisation. But the PCF opposed this because it was "too similar to the internet vote of the Socialist Party for their candidate and was also too prone to favour a campaign focussing on the 'personality' of the candidates" (L'Humanité in English February 13 2007). In other words, it might lead to Bové, not Buffet, winning the nomination.

Bové departs

In response the party's opponents claimed that the PCF had returned to the Stalinist methods of the past in stacking local meetings in order to win support for Buffet. In fact this was absurd, since the most optimistic estimates of the strength of the anti-neoliberal collectives were that they boasted only around 5,000 activists. The PCF still claims 100,000 members, but even if we assume this is greatly exaggerated there is no doubt that it is around 10 times larger than the network's second biggest component, the LCR.

The truth is, the PCF had not energetically thrown its resources into the anti-neoliberal network, as some Stalinite oppositionists had demanded. The leadership clearly did not want to commit itself too much to an organisation that was never actually going to amount to anything in terms of institutional weight. The network was, after all, mainly a bargaining chip to be put on the table in negotiations with the really important players, as the PCF leadership saw it.

When his proposals were rejected, Bové walked out of the collective in November 2006, claiming to be fed up of the party-provoked divisions and disagreements. The LCR had criticised him for saying the network should not stand at all if the PS elected Fabius as its presidential candidate.

With the departure of Bové the PCF was forced to admit defeat and it announced that it now had no option but to stand a candidate in its own name - to the cheers of the Grantite entrists around the journal La Riposte, who had been demanding such a course of action all along.

Lutte Ouvrière

One group that had played no part whatsoever in the anti-neoliberal network was, of course, the ultra-economistic Lutte Ouvrière, which had long announced that it would be standing Arlette Laguiller for the fourth time. In 2002, she did the best of all the left candidates, polling 1.6 million votes (just under 6%).

Back then the three Trotskyist candidates (the third being Daniel Gluckstein of the PT) won a combined vote of just under three million - more than 10% of the total - while the PCF gained just 3.3%.

But the success of the far left was not the main story of the first round, as readers will recall. It was the fact that Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National finished in second place, despite winning less than 17%, as against Jacques Chirac's 20%. Le Pen narrowly beat the PS's Jospin into third place, sending the Fifth Republic into a short-lived crisis.

Millions came out onto the streets in protest against not only the FN, but a system that was so undemocratic that the two rightwing candidates ('a fascist and a thief') who qualified for a run-off had polled less than 37% of those who voted (just over a quarter of the total electorate) between them.

Despicably the PCF and LCR rallied to the establishment call to 'defend the republic' and recommended a vote for Chirac in the second round (the LCR did so cryptically, calling on workers to "vote against Le Pen"). Meanwhile LO played no real role in the demonstrations - as everyone knows, the 'real class struggle' takes place in the factories and offices, not in mobilisations on the street against the way we are ruled.

Two-party system

Thanks in part to the votes of the PCF and LCR, Chirac was returned for a second term with a crushing majority, but the establishment resolved never to let such a thing as Le Pen's second place happen again. What was needed was a stable, two-party system, where the extremes of right and left were marginalised. From now on it was essential for responsible citizens to cast a "useful vote" and back in their overwhelming majority the two main establishment parties - the UMP and PS.

This theme has featured prominently in the mass media and up to now seems to have achieved the desired effect. Royal and Sarkozy are neck and neck in the polls at around 30%, with Le Pen, now 78, some way back at just over 10%, alongside Franà§ois Bayrou, a centre-right candidate. However, there is one problem with the plans of the bourgeoisie. In 2002 it was the dismal performance of the plural left government working in tandem with a rightwing president that led to the splintering of support for both camps.

True, with the presidential term reduced to five years, the national assembly elections now take place immediately after the vote for president, making it less likely that there will be a right-left team in office, and allowing whoever is the opposition to be put forward as a safety valve. But there is no escaping the inevitable disillusionment that bourgeois governments of whatever shade always produce.

This time it will be no different. Facing the Blairite, Royal, will be the current interior minister, Sarkozy, renowned for his 'law and order', anti-migrant policies, who notoriously described inner city youth as racaille (rabble) in 2004 and now has the right to strike in his sights. He is variously known as the "neo-conservative with a French passport" and "France's No1 cop".

Whoever wins is likely to achieve sufficient momentum to carry them to victory in June's parliamentary elections. And whoever wins is certain to launch fresh attacks on the working class. But, as in Britain, France's workers are sorely handicapped by a divided, bickering left and the absence of a genuine Communist Party.