France: Which way forward for the Left Front?

Nearly five years after it was formed, the Left Front [Front de Gauche] is passing through a turbulent period. In a number of cities – and not minor ones at that – the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Left Party (Parti de Gauche, PG) have decided not to stand joint lists in the first round in the March 2014 council elections.

Back in December, the PG announced that it was suspending its participation for four months in the Party of the European Left (EL), which includes several European parties of the "radical left" (including the PCF ), and which recently re-elected Pierre Laurent (leader of the PCF) as its President.

How does one explain this self-suspension on the part of the Parti de Gauche? The leaders of the PG say it is because Pierre Laurent supported the formation of joint PCF-PSF lists (i.e. with the governing Socialist Party) in the first round of the municipal elections in Paris.

In the 19 December edition of L'Humanité, Cédric Clérin (PCF) responded as follows: "Does the Left Party want the skin of the Left Front? One might think so, considering that its actions of breaking with its Communist ally have multiplied." The PG answers that it is the PCF leaders who are responsible for this situation and that it is they who are endangering the Left Front.

Activists and supporters of the Left Front find it difficult sometimes to hold on to their bearings in this crossfire of public criticism. What in recent months has made it difficult to understand the internal situation within the Left Front is the complex mixing together of real political differences with positions which were – both within the PCF and the PG – based on the interests of the party apparatuses involving more or less artificial manoeuvres and posturing. On the issue of the council elections, for example, all manner of political arguments and fine principles have been thrown in (and not just on the part of the PCF) to justify tactical decisions that have in reality been dictated essentially by the desire to win, come what may,  the maximum number of seats that provide money, prestige, etc.

Similarly, by temporarily suspending its membership of the EL, the leadership of the PG has adopted a position that does not advance our struggle one inch. Workers do not know the EL or are not the least interested in it. This initiative of the PG teaches the workers nothing about its ideas or its programme. It is very distant from their problems and aspirations.

The positions adopted in reference to the government

It is clear, however, that all this expresses – albeit in a confused manner – real political differences between the leaders of the PCF and the PG. And the main difference was over what position to adopt towards the government. We write "was" and not "is", because as we shall see later, the position of the PCF leadership on this issue seems to have moved on in recent weeks.

Both the PCF and the PG criticise the government's austerity policies, but the PG makes a more severe criticism than the PCF in general. This difference in tone is already not a detail, considering that most workers do not mince their words when attacking François Hollande and his ministers. The Left Front must express this anger. But until December 2013, there was also a significant difference in how the two leaderships saw the role and political aims of the Left Front in relation to the government

From the very first measures of the Hollande government in 2012, the PCF leadership called on the PSF for a "change of course" and "to carry out a genuine left policy." This slogan is ever-present in the party’s public propaganda. This was not bad in itself. But taking into account the actual policies of the government, it stands completely disconnected from the real mood of the mass of workers, who quickly realized that François Hollande had abandoned them while only looking after the interests of the rich and was pursuing basically the same policies as Nicolas Sarkozy. They no longer believe – and have not done so for some time – that a left turn on the part of the government is possible. In fact, his political trajectory did not turn to the left but to the right. Workers therefore had no illusions about the effectiveness of the "appeals" the PCF addressed to the government. And in this they were absolutely right.

Aware of this, the party leaders have consistently explained that it was a question of imposing on the government such a "change of course" through the mobilisation of the workers. The Left Front was thus presented as an instrument through which the labour movement could exert pressure on the Socialist government to change its policy towards the left. But even this perspective was very abstract. The whole experience of left governments in Europe in recent years, shows that due to the deep crisis of capitalism and the complete pro-capitalist degeneration of the "socialist” leaders, even well attended mass protests and 24-hour general strikes, have no influence whatsoever in pushing government policy to the "left". This much has been understood by many French workers.

The PSF leaders are no different from their Greek, Spanish or Portuguese counterparts, who, once in government, have stuck rigidly to austerity measures in the face of powerful mobilisations of the youth and workers. Completely subordinate to the market economy, Hollande and his ministers are determined to drink the poisoned chalice down to its last dregs, and even to suffer on the electoral front as a consequence if needs be. A government that accepts the capitalist system must also accept the laws that govern it. In the context of the current crisis, this means that Hollande must apply the austerity policies dictated by the ruling class. And Hollande, Ayrault and company carry out this task with enthusiasm.

The Left Front must present itself to the workers as a left alternative to the Hollande government, that is to say, as a political force that wishes to remove the PSF from power and take its place – and not just as a mere instrument for exerting “pressure” on it from the left. This has been the formally correct position of the leaders of the PG practically since the beginning of François Hollande’s term in office. That said, what should be highlighted is the shift in position of the leaders of the Communist Party since François Hollande’s end-of-year “greetings” addressed to "the French people" (especially to the big capitalists) on December 31. For example, Pierre Laurent [PCF secretary], in his "greetings" of January 13, did not call on the government to "change course", declaring that, "it is no longer a question of expecting [from the government] what will not come". He also said it was time to "elaborate the general outlines of an alternative left policy." Other formulations were more ambiguous. But the change is a significant one – and it is a welcome one, on condition that it is consolidated and built on.

The position of the PG

Although this remains to be confirmed, the position of the PCF seems to have moved closer to that of the PG on this issue. However, the position of the leaders of the PG is also far from satisfactory. For while they (rightly) blame  the PCF leaders for discrediting the Left Front by increasing the number of councils in which they have formed alliances in the first round with the PSF, at the same time, the leaders of the PG  have turned to the Greens (EELV) and have increased the number of towns in which they are forming joint lists with this party ! This is a serious mistake on their part, for the Greens are also in government. Their MPs in fact abstained on the latest attack on pensions (among other cowardly behaviour). The alliance of the two main parties of the Left Front with parties that are both in the government can only sow doubt and confusion among the youth and workers who are sickened by the pro-capitalist policies of the government. This applies to both the PSF and the Greens.

Some PG activists answer us, not without some embarrassment, "Yes, but the Greens are only a small force in the government...". But opportunism is not judged according to weight and size! One cannot be "a little" opportunist, as one cannot be "a little" pregnant.

Mélenchon clarified on his blog that the PG is building alliances "with the rank and file structures of the Greens," but this changes nothing. According to this logic, the PCF could respond to criticisms on the part of the PG, "Well, we are building alliances with the rank and file structures of the PSF"! Furthermore, it is not surprising that the "rank and file structures" of the Greens should form alliances with the Left Front. This party which is full of petty bourgeois careerists has always been willing to ally with anyone, so long as there are elected positions to be won. The Greens have long cultivated an image of "independence" from the PSF, which, however, they always end up submitting to in exchange for seats. In order to build a left alternative to the present government, the Left Front should not cling to the rotten branches of the Greens, but should resolutely turn to the mass of workers, youth and unemployed who are seeking a solution to the crisis of capitalism.

Break with capitalism!

By carrying out pro-capitalist policies, the PSF is preparing its own downfall. In Greece, PASOK has collapsed opening up room for the rise of SYRIZA. The same process could take place in France, with the Left Front gaining. But there is no guarantee of such success in advance. By dividing their forces in the forthcoming council elections, and with their opportunism, the leaders of the PCF and the PG have had the effect of slowing the growth of the Left Front – both electorally and in terms of members. The enthusiasm raised by the Mélenchon campaign in 2012 highlighted the radicalization of a section of youth and workers. If the Left Front has been treading water since then, it is not because the radicalization has disappeared, but because the leaders of the PCF and PG did not provide it with an adequate expression.

The question of the slogans and programme of the Left Front is decisive here. The idea of the "6th Republic" and the call for "fiscal revolution" do not go far enough. Faced with the current dramatic economic and social situation, these slogans do not clearly meet the most pressing concerns of workers, the soaring unemployment and the attacks on working conditions. The Left Front must go on the offensive and defend a programme that aims to break the economic power of the capitalists. This is the only way to end austerity, mass unemployment and worsening social conditions. However, neither the PG, nor the PCF , or "Ensemble" (the third force within the Left Front) defend such a programme. This is the fundamental weakness of the Left Front. If they want to give adequate expression to the exasperation of the masses, the organisations of the Left Front should present the prospect of a revolutionary break with the capitalist system and the socialist transformation of society, in which the economy would be firmly under the control of the workers themselves.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote: " In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time." The opportunities to "bring to the front… the property question" are not lacking in France, as plant closures and unemployment continue to rise as each day passes. The Left Front should put itself at the head of a mass campaign to mobilise the workers around the slogan of expropriation – without compensation for the large shareholders – of the big capitalists who close plants and sack workers for the sole purpose of safeguarding their profit margins.

Jean -Luc Mélenchon recently wrote on his blog: "We are preparing a path for the future that goes to the root of the problems facing the country: the question of the redistribution of wealth and the tax system to organise it." But the roots of our problems go much further than the "the redistribution of wealth"; they stem from the capitalist ownership of the means of production. One determines and limits the other. This is why Marx insisted that ownership was the "fundamental question" of our movement. We can better share out the wealth fairly, rationally, and in accordance with social progress, once we become masters collectively of the means of production. This is the great socialist idea that the current crisis puts back on the agenda - and that the labour movement must again take up.

When activists of La Riposte defend these ideas, in the local branches of the PCF, they sometimes arouse perplexity among comrades who say "these ideas are too radical and people would not understand them." But people will understand them even less if no one raises them! While it is true that not all the workers readily accept the programme of the socialist revolution, a decisive section of the youth and workers will eventually come to support it, based on their collective experience which will prove to them that it is the only programme that can provide a long-lasting solution to their problems.