France: Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Question of the Sixth Republic

On 5 May, more than 100 000 demonstrators marched through the streets of Paris in answer to a call from the Left Front, around the demand for a “Sixth Republic”. The Left Front is essentially an alliance between the Communist Party (PCF) and the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The attendance shows the capacity of the Left Front to mobilise massive support, as it did on an even more impressive scale during the presidential elections one year ago.

At the time, something like 300 000 copies of the programme of the Left Front, L’Humain d’abord, were sold. The programme contains many militant demands to fight for improvements housing, health, education, wages, pensions, etc.. This explains the enthusiasm it has aroused among the active layer of the working class. However, the programme fails to expound the need for decisive measures against the capitalist class, limiting its general programme to tax reforms and changes in the banking system. Instead of fixing the attention of the workers on the need for socialism, it calls for a new constitution – a Sixth Republic.

The present Republic was founded in 1958, following the attempted military coup of that year and the coming to power of General de Gaulle. The institutions of the Fifth Republic are – and were from the very outset – riddled with corruption. Sarkozy and his ministers were corrupt, and two leading members of the Socialist Party have been exposed in corruption scandals over the last two years, namely Dominique Strauss Kahn and Jérôme Cahuzec, who was in charge of state finances until he was forced to resign for tax evasion. In this respect, the Fifth Republic is no different to previous capitalist republics. The only honest government France ever knew was that of the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was a democratic workers’ Republic, which abolished privileges for state officials, although its authority was limited to the confines of Paris.

In the minds of those on the 5 May demonstration, the struggle against mass unemployment – now at the highest level ever, in the history of France – and the constant attacks of the capitalists and the “socialist” government against the rights and living conditions of the working people is linked to the need for an overall change in the social order. They want to sweep away the present republic – which they correctly see as being an instrument for the defence of capitalist interests – and replace it with a new one, which they hope would be more democratic and therefore more responsive to their demands.

Clearly, however, a new republic would only emerge on the basis of a major social and political upheaval. In the past, the capitalists have resorted to new constitutional arrangements in order to stave off the threat of social revolution. This was the case after the defeat of the Nazi occupying forces by the workers’ uprising of 1944 and the inauguration of the Fourth Republic, just as it was in 1958, when France was on the brink of civil war. Superficial constitutional changes were a means of perpetuating capitalist domination.

Now as then, any new constitutional arrangements wherein the banks, industry and trade remain in the hands of the capitalist class would solve precisely nothing. Across Europe, many different constitutions are in place, but everywhere workers are faced with the same disastrous consequences of the impasse of capitalism.

The communist journal La Riposte published a leaflet for the demonstration, which summed up the problem in the following way:

“Yes, we want to bring down the Fifth Republic. But constitutional changes will solve nothing unless they are the product of a social overturn. As long as banks, the major industries – and in fact the entire economy – remain under the control of the capitalists, it will not be possible to put an end to social and economic decline. The workers’ movement should take account of this reality and place the expropriation of the capitalists at the core of its programme. The capitalists are only interested in profit. All the main levers of the economy should be taken out of their hands and put under the democratic control of the workers. A new republic on a new social basis - that is the kind of change that we need!”