Left unity - at what cost?

Parti Socialiste leader Melenchon aims to be new Mitterrand, writes Jean-Michel Edwin

With so much happening in French politics, it is easy to believe that the left is on the move. But appearances can be deceptive.

Take the Parti Socialiste. Its left wing is now completely marginalised and the party is deeply divided between two rightwing factions. One is led by last year’s presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, and the other by Martine Aubry, the minister of social affairs under the government of Lionel Jospin who was responsible for introducing the 35-hour week. Her last-minute, purely opportunist coalition with what remains of Benoît Hamon’s ‘socialist left’ was just enough to see her elected PS leader last week. At the end of the day, Aubry scraped home with a majority of one hundred votes in a party of 200,000 members. After initially disputing the result, Ségolène Royal accepted her defeat - only to immediately launch her own presidential election campaign for 2012, whether Aubry liked it or not!

The well-known leaders of the PS left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marc Dolez, had, of course, just walked out of the party - leaving poor old Benoît Hamon virtually alone on the PS left - to launch their own Parti de Gauche (Left Party) modelled on - and with the active support of - Oskar Lafontaine’s Die Linke in Germany.

On Saturday November 29 the Parti de Gauche was launched with a mass rally outside Paris in front of 1,500 enthusiastic supporters - Lafontaine himself was a star speaker. Mélenchon had just achieved an important success the week before when he won the leadership of the Parti Communiste Français to his project for a ‘left front’ for next June’s European Union elections. The PCF officially signed the agreement with senator Mélenchon just before its own congress, which will take place from December 11 to 14. This had the effect of pre-empting the congress decision on electoral strategy - delegates will be expected to applaud rather than endorse the alliance with Mélenchon.

His Parti de Gauche will have its founding congress in February 2009 - just a week after another new party - Olivier Besancenot’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) - is born. But the rightwing minority in comrade Besancenot’s Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire is already looking in Mélenchon’s direction, and the self-proclaimed leader of the French left will know how to exert the maximum pressure on the NPA before its congress: ‘If you refuse to sign up to the left front for the EU elections and decide to run your own anti-capitalist list instead, guess what will happen next week? How about a quick split the week after your NPA is founded?’

There is nothing improvised about the Mélenchon operation. It is crystal-clear that the whole thing has been planned down to the last detail.

Mélenchon’s strategy

The NPA project for a ‘do it yourself’ party has been built in a confused, yet mostly democratic manner, and has met with real success: not only has Olivier Besancenot personally registered impressive scores in pre-election opinion polls - a recent one for the most popular leader of the left placed him first, with 40% support - but the NPA may well start in January with 12,000 members or even more.

In marked contrast to the steady, democratic party-building process of the NPA, Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche has been launched like a French version (on a much bigger scale, of course) of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in Britain: here is the leader, with his ready-made programme; all you need do is join now and he will tell you what you have to do next. That is the senator’s method. Mélenchon’s party is anything but a democratic project.

How about the Parti de Gauche’s - I mean Mélenchon’s - aims and strategy? No doubt there either! Mélenchon wants to be in the French government - and soon. That will, in all likelihood, mean a coalition with the PS, and it goes without saying that the Parti de Gauche will be a junior partner.

But Mélenchon is dreaming of bigger things. The 2009 EU elections are seen by him as a fantastic window of opportunity. A space will open up for a very short moment in June, when Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, is expected to still be in a bad state, when the divided PS will not be seen as an acceptable alternative by French electors and when the new rising star of the far right, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, will not have had enough time to rebuild her Front National on its new, better packaged and more populist basis (despite the best efforts of the new FN ideologue, the former PCF member and ‘Marxist’ writer, Alain Soral).

Into the vacuum will step the left front led by Mélenchon - if it is broad enough (from the NPA to all kinds of left nationalists), with its relative majority - ie, the largest share of the vote - in the June elections. To continue the fantasy, Mélenchon will then have three years to become leader of a new mass party, incorporating the PS and PCF - the new François Mitterrand.

This strategy requires the manoeuvring associated with Bonaparte’s military tactics - ‘concentrate your forces in the right place and then attack’. Mélenchon will first aim either to integrate the NPA into his project or neutralise it fast. In order to achieve this, Mélenchon is using left-sounding, but openly reformist and nationalist rhetoric: “Let us assemble in our country a new political majority of the left in order to govern,” he urged those who attended the November 29 rally.


However, his sudden rise to prominence may prove to be a positive help in clarifying the dividing lines on the far left.

First of all, there is the Parti Ouvrier Indépendant, the new ‘broad party’ set up in June by the Lambertist Parti des Travailleurs. The PT had been France’s largest Trotskyist grouping, but has now dissolved itself into the left-nationalist POI, which claims 13,000 members. Despite its size, however, the POI is completely isolated because of its ultra-sectarian method, inherited from the PT. Yet it promptly applauded Mélenchon’s move - so what will happen if the POI decides to join the Parti de Gauche, either as an open faction or as deep entrists?

More importantly, what will be the impact of Mélenchon’s new party on the NPA? Christian Piquet, leader of the rightwing LCR tendency, Unir, has made it clear where he sees the NPA’s future: “After the Communist Party opened up the possibility with its national council resolution (which we immediately welcomed), the Parti de Gauche has today proposed an inclusive left front … open to all political forces wishing to take part, up to and including Lutte Ouvrière and the Parti Ouvrier Indépendant.”

Unir also welcomes Mélenchon’s view of how the alliance should develop: “Form a front and then see what is possible - rather than proclaim the necessity of total political, ideological and organisational convergence before getting down to work.” In other words, Unir agrees with Mélenchon that the left (very broadly defined) should unite for unity’s sake - in practice for the sake of getting him elected.

Unir talks about a “political dynamic” in favour of what it calls the entire “transformation left” coming together for the EU election and demands that the NPA steering committee immediately discuss the matter. The opportunity is too important to miss, “beginning with the NPA”, said Picquet, taking advantage of the confusion that exists within the NPA and the LCR itself. The weak point in the NPA project - which Mélenchon and his lieutenant, Piquet, have put their finger on - is the absence of any real strategic perspective: a new working class, anti-capitalist party, sure. But for what? France needs a left government now, doesn’t it?

The left majority in both the LCR and the NPA committees have decided that the party they will found will not take part in any reformist government - even one that calls itself ‘anti-neoliberal’ (although, with the rediscovery of Keynes, you could say that we are all anti-neoliberal now). The LCR continues to promote the classical ‘transitional’ alternative of a ‘workers’ government’ based on a radical ‘emergency platform’, which will be unacceptable to the bourgeoisie. In this scenario, a radical new party posing such an alternative will soon be faced with a choice - either build soviets everywhere in France … or accept the more realistic proposal of a left front headed by Mélenchon.

We Marxists have a different vision: the long, patient work necessary to create a mass party of opposition to the system, based on working class independence, extreme democracy and proletarian internationalism. The NPA must be part of the process to create such a party.