NPA makes its mark

Anti-capitalist party set for breakthrough, writes Jean-Michel Edwin

The June 7 European elections in France take place against the background of a highly charged social climate: since the beginning of the year millions of workers have been involved in repeated strikes. The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anti-capitalist Party) is considered by many workers to be one of their best political advocates, and the NPA’s popular leader, Olivier Besancenot, has become a symbolic figure of class struggle.

Founded in February, the 9,000-strong NPA is now in full election mode. According to polls, the party looks set to win more than 5% of the vote - the minimum required in the seven electoral regions for candidates to be elected to the European parliament. But with Besancenot considered the most popular leftwing leader in France, a much bigger share for the NPA is objectively possible. However, to achieve such a result will not be easy for a number of reasons.

The main problem is that the same workers, youth and the army of unemployed or semi-employed workers who form the NPA’s natural constituency are also those who are not persuaded to vote for any party at all - leftwing or rightwing, radical or moderate - in the EU elections. As the European parliament is not a democratic institution, has no real power, does not really influence the politics of the EU executive, why, they ask, take part in an election which will not change anything? A significant proportion of the millions who demonstrated in massive numbers on numerous days of action called by the trade unions may well stay at home on elections day: NPA activists have a hard job just to convince them to take part in the ballot.

In addition, there is a subjective problem with the emergence and likely success of senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche (Left Front) - an alliance of his own Parti de Gauche (Left Party), the Parti Communiste Français and a handful of ex-NPA members led by Christian Piquet. Comrade Picquet was the leader of the former Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire right wing, which insisted that the NPA was insufficiently ‘broad’, and has now formed his own group, the Gauche Unitaire (Unitary Left), after the NPA refused to join Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche.

Class confrontation

Since January the social and political situation has been one of growing confrontation between workers and the Sarkozy government. Union calls for a series of one-day national strikes have been answered by millions and there have been street demonstrations against unemployment and for a higher minimum wage in hundred of towns. Demonstrators have also demanded the safeguarding of public services, which are under attack from the government, called for the banks and the rich - not workers - to pay for the crisis. The strikes have enjoyed the support of a clear majority of the population and its most popular slogans has been Sarkozy démission! (Sarkozy out!): the working class wants to get rid of his rightwing government and many believe it both necessary and possible to at least force it to retreat.

Rail, electricity and postal workers, together with teachers, have been the principal sectors supporting the strikes, along with parts of the private sector. The main conflict, however - one that has not been limited to one-day actions, but has continued for months - is taking place in the universities: lecturers, researchers and students are opposing the LRU (Law to Reform the Universities) which will dismantle the public higher education system in favour of local semi-privatised universities, strongly linked to industrial capitalists. Tens of thousands of students and teachers have been on strike, paralysing the universities and stopping exams. Only a minority of students and teachers are actively involved, but the overwhelming majority - of students especially - are opposed to the government and its LRU.

The economic crisis has produced a rapid deterioration of social conditions in France. There have been more than 30,000 lay-offs a month, leading to growing unemployment alongside public services cuts. In the private sector, workers have adopted illegal means of struggle, including ‘boss-napping’ - in the Grenoble Caterpillar factory, in Sony and in 3M, managers have been locked up by striking workers, labelled “terrorists” by the bosses’ federation and the Sarkozy government. However, their actions have struck a chord with large sections of the French population.

Workers on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe have been even more popular thanks to a general strike action which lasted 44 days and ended in victory in March: Sarkozy had no choice but to retreat and accept the workers’ demands for higher pay and lower prices. Many - including the NPA - hold up this strike as an example of what could be done in France.

But, as workers in France - a large majority of whom are not unionised - well know, most national union confederations, including the traditionally PCF-led Confédération Générale du Travail - are not in favour of direct confrontation with Sarkozy, and certainly not a general strike (the exception being the ‘social movementist’ Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques). The main national demand of the union leaderships is to be regularly consulted and “associated” in government decisions - in other words, to share responsibility for them. They posture as a “proposition force” and long to be treated as an equal and important player in high-level discussions with bosses and government officials.

So union leaders call for single days of action in the hope of defusing anger and avoiding or at least delaying a social explosion. They consciously and willingly sabotage the generalisation and politicisation of the strike movement and are a serious obstacle to developing the class struggle. In contrast to their national leaders, however, many CGT local branches, as well as those of other unions, have called for the stepping up of the fight and a decisive confrontation with the ruling class and its government. The result has been a growing opposition movement within the unions.

NPA role

NPA militants have played an active part in strikes and demonstrations, supporting every action of the workers, criticising the union leaders, encouraging workplace occupations, calling for independent strike committees and networks, and putting on the agenda radical demands - from an extra “€300 for all now” to “an indefinite general strike à la Guadeloupe”. The NPA has called for democratic self-organisation: “Take the struggles into your own hands and go forward”.

The party rightly refuses to enter class-cross electoral coalitions advocated by the Socialist Party and accepted by the Left Front parties led by Mélenchon and the PCF. The NPA has taken up democratic demands in support of the sans papiers, the illegal, undocumented migrant workers; it is also involved in the ‘new social movements’ of youth, women, tenants, etc.

As I have said, polls show that support for the NPA’s radical stand may be reflected in the Euro results with a good share of the vote and the election of a number of European deputies. Yet its attitude remains ambiguous in relation to the union leadership: the NPA has refused the proposal of a minority of its members to build an openly political opposition within the official trade unions - a communist, or anti-capitalist, revolutionary fraction. Such a fraction would gain large support amongst rank and file members and would be a key to further developments. But NPA leaders do not want to call into question the loyalty of union members to their leaders - they stick to the tradition of the Charte d’Amiens, adopted by the CGT in 1906, which stipulates the union’s independence from political groupings, including workers’ parties.

For similar reasons - in a tactic supposedly designed to ‘challenge’ the PCF and Mélenchon over their calls for ‘unity’ - the NPA has, along with the Left Front, the unions and a number of other left and progressive groups (including on some occasions the neoliberal-led Socialist Party), signed a number of appeals supporting union one-day strikes on a narrow platform of demands.

Yet the NPA is taking encouraging positions on many important political questions. It is highly conscious of its own responsibility as an example outside the narrow frontiers of France, using the European elections to call for steps towards a European New Anti-capitalist Party. Its European platform - in contrast to Left Front demands for “reform” of EU institutions and those of the left nationalist Parti Ouvrier Indépendant to “break with Europe” - wants to overturn the anti-democratic institutions of both the EU and France, and calls for a “European assembly of peoples directly elected by proportional ballot”, to form a “ social, democratic and ecological Europe”.

With its new weekly paper Tout Est à Nous (‘Everything belongs to us’ - a popular workers’ slogan heard on demonstrations), the NPA has already made its mark in France and aims to take the lead in developing working class unity across Europe. Communists must critically support such NPA initiatives and aim to give them consistent and principled content.