Three funerals and a wedding

French 'official communists' are in terminal decline, writes Jean-Michel Edwin

The 34th Congress of the Parti Communiste Français will be held in Paris from December 11-14. As part of the preliminary process, a membership ballot was held on October 29-30 to decide which of three rival documents on the future direction of the party will form the basis of congress discussions. The vote produced a series of interesting results.

First of all, although the party claims 134,000 members, only those who pay dues - just 78,779 - were entitled to vote. This figure for dues-paying members has contracted by a further 20,502 over the last two years. Of those 78,779, only a fraction over half bothered to vote - this figure of 39,683 is a reasonable reflection of the true state of the PCF’s active membership.

Of those who did vote, only 55.3% supported the motion proposed by the party’s national council. This calls for a “profound transformation” of the PCF, but leaves open the question of whether it will eventually be liquidated into a future broader party. The support for the leadership text fell substantially compared to the 72.6% received for the national council document prior to the 33rd Congress in 2006.

While it is now certain that France’s ‘official communist’ party will limp on after December 11-14, the congress will have all the characteristics of a funeral. The well-known oppositionist, Pierre-Alain Millet, comments: “While the losses are uneven, there has been a veritable collapse in the red suburbs of Paris.” In two key departments, the PCF has lost more than half of its paid-up members, even though the drop in electoral support has not been quite so drastic. “What has disappeared is the mass party - to be replaced by the party of the elite and the specialists.” While the militants have “tried to resist”, others have accommodated to the change - they think this ‘mass party’ was an illusion. “But the truth is, the people have been ejected from their own organisation!”

To the fact that the leadership won such a narrow majority must be added the further discomfort of knowing that 9.22% cast a blank or spoiled vote, indicating a strong sense of detachment from the whole process. And there were some strange results: for example, in the Nord region, traditionally dominated by ‘left Stalinists’, there were more dues-paying comrades than the official number of members! And surprisingly too, the strong Marseille Bouche-du-Rhône federation has registered more members than for the previous congress - a unique case of progress in the PCF?

The 34th Congress might well be a time for the burial of the traditional left wing of the PCF as we knew it. A good number of left Stalinists, mainly from the northern region of France, have already deserted the official party to establish a new one called the PRCF (the ‘R’ stands for ‘Renaissance’) - and to join forces with traditional Gaullists in an alliance against the “Europe of Maastricht”! Then there is Jean-Jacques Karman’s non-Stalinist Gauche Communiste (Communist Left). It did not present its own document this time, but committed what must surely be hara-kiri by backing the text of the opposition led by André Gerin, which won 21.8% of the vote.

Who is this André Gerin, the deputy mayor of Vénissieux, outside Lyon, who is described by some as a PCF reformer and by others as a ‘professional bureaucrat’? His ideology consists of a strange mixture of ‘revolutionary’ phrases, calls for class-cross unity with small businessmen, a sprinkling of chauvinist and even racist ideas borrowed from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, and an obsession with ‘security’ shared with the latter. He campaigns for the re-establishment of the death penalty for terrorists and a night curfew for youth. Gerin recently published a book with a foreword written by the vice-president of the national assembly, Eric Raoult, who is close to Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the PCF, Gerin poses as a so-called ‘traditional communist’. If only the PCF would elect him in place of Marie-Georges Buffet as general secretary, he would lead it “back to double-figure results” in national elections - with Gerin, of course, as the presidential candidate. Even an alliance with him is unacceptable for Marxists. But to accept him as leader of the ‘left opposition’, as Gauche Communiste did, was to commit suicide.

In this context of PCF decline and demoralisation, the achievement of the Grantites around the journal La Riposte is all the more remarkable. Presenting a text to congress for the first time after years of patient entrist work, La Riposte won 13.7% for its document, ‘Strengthen the PCF, re-engage with Marxism!’ This was achieved in spite of a campaign of slander, including allegations that the Grantite Trotskyists have “sympathies with the Nazis”, because they refused to back Gerin.

In fact they were the sole group within the PCF to openly oppose him, issuing a clear but restrained statement: “André Gerin is known for his appeals for ‘revolution’. But in his writings he presents this ‘revolution’ as aiding the competivity of ‘investors’ (capitalists) and small businesses!

“In other words, the revolution that Gerin wants is not socialist, but confines itself to ‘national sovereignty’. This nationalist and ‘republican’ perspective is the central theme of his alternative text. It presents France as an oppressed country in the framework of an imperialist Europe.”

La Riposte’s text won the support of a significant layer of PCF members, who saw it as the only acceptable alternative on offer. Typical is Marc Busch, who batted aside dismissals of the result by Gerin supporters on an internet discussion site: “I have been a member of the PCF since 1969 and am a union official for the CGT … I am perfectly capable of judging a text without needing a truncated explanation. Communists are not sheep who might get ‘confused’.

“As for entrism, every communist has the same rights and duties within the party … Why should it be different for someone who supports La Riposte or sympathises with their ideas? And why not make the same arguments when it comes to those who belong to Attac or the [left liberal] Fondation Copernic? Enough of your witch-hunts and Moscow trials.” He added: “The struggle for socialism can only be international and all the rubbish about national sovereignty in a capitalist Europe … or a social Europe, as the leadership expresses it, are utopias opposed to our revolutionary struggle.”

LCR last rites

A few weeks after the PCF congress, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire will be holding one of its own - the final one, since the LCR is destined to dissolve itself just before the founding of the new anti-capitalist party (NPA). Will the funeral of the old Mandelite Ligue of Alain Krivine be a celebratory occasion, a voluntary and positive passing that makes way for the birth of a new, vibrant organisation led by Olivier Besancenot? Hopefully the militant, democratic and anti-reformist part of the LCR tradition will not be buried with the Ligue itself.

Will the NPA develop into the larger, more principled party of the far left that the LCR leadership claims to want? Or will its weaknesses - symbolised by the enthusiastic welcome given to reformist bureaucrats coming from the right wing of the PCF - become dominant? Will it be more of a ‘movement’ than a party? Will it succumb to economism, whether of the trade union type or the feminist, environmentalist variety?

We shall have a clearer idea of what is on the agenda after this weekend’s NPA national conference preparing for the founding congress in January. What sort of a wedding will the NPA congress be? Not, alas, that of the far left and the principled opposition within the PCF - a union capable of giving birth to a strong, solid anti-capitalist party in France. The majority of the LCR - not to speak of the numerous young, unorganised activists who have joined the NPA committees - seem totally uninterested in the strong anti-liquidationist PCF element, which La Riposte has now tapped into.

Of course, the Grantites themselves have always professed a deep sectarian hostility to the LCR, along with the rest of the far left. But their tremendous achievement in the pre-congress vote results not only from their own serious and patient work, but also from a paradoxical but understandable reflection of the NPA phenomenon within the PCF: ‘Yes, we agree that something new, a real anti-capitalist party, must be built, but why destroy our old party to achieve it?’ This sentiment is shared by many PCF members, but represents the limit of their real but passive sympathy towards Olivier Besancenot’s NPA project.

At this weekend’s conference, Christian Piquet, leader of the rightwing Unir tendency, which won 10% of the vote at the last LCR congress, will be making a strong play to win over the LCR rank and file. Unir has positioned itself as the ‘pro-partyist’ wing of the LCR, opposing the ‘movementist’ majority. It has engaged with a number of oppositionists in the Parti Socialiste and PCF, including that element of the right which refused to take part in the PCF congress discussion, labelling it an anti-democratic farce. No doubt Piquet’s most leftwing and constructive pro-party face will be on display.

The perspective for Marxists in France remains the principled regroupment of the revolutionary left, wherever and whenever we can work to achieve it: in the future NPA, certainly - but also among the anti-liquidationist PCF opposition. The winning of such a communist tendency is today a vital necessity.