Class Politics & the French ElectionsBreak with the Bourgeoisie!
No to Popular Frontism!
Bourgeois democracy is valuable to the bourgeoisie chiefly because it promotes the illusion that voters decide social and economic policy, and must therefore accept responsibility for the consequences. While specific mechanisms vary from one country to another, capitalist elections are always organized to ensure that the interests of the bourgeoisie are not threatened. At the same time they provide an opportunity for different factions of the ruling class to sort out their differences.
This years two-round presidential and legislative elections center on the issue of how best to rationalize French capitalism, i.e., increase profits by reducing overhead and labor costs. There is an overwhelming consensus within the French bourgeoisie that in order to reverse its deteriorating position relative to its imperialist rivals, it must drive down popular living standards. Yet any attempt to do so is likely to encounter significant working-class resistance of the sort manifested in the mass strikes of 1995-96, and, on a lesser scale, in last years confrontation over changes to the labor code (see Revolt Against Globalization, 1917 No.18 and The Anti-CPE Movement in France, 1917 No.29).
The spectacular failure of Americas war in Iraq, which has dramatically reduced Washingtons leverage over its European rivals, is seen by the French ruling class as an opportunity to participate in the reconfiguration of the imperialist world order on a scale not seen since the end of World War II. The French bourgeoisie seeks to entrench itself as the dominant power in its former colonies, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, and massively expand its influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
While refusing to participate in the disastrous U.S. adventure in Iraq, France has played a key role in imperialist attempts to bully Iran into abandoning its nuclear energy program and has contributed 2,000 troops to NATOs colonial occupation of Afghanistan and almost as many to the United Nations force in southern Lebanon. French soldiers are also active in the effort to prop up the client regime Washington imposed on Haiti. France currently has 3,000 soldiers in the Ivory Coast, where French forces destroyed the tiny air force and brutally gunned down some 60 unarmed protesters in November 2004 (Guardian [London], 21 December 2004). Another 1,100 French soldiers are providing protection to the neo-colonial regime of Idriss Déby in Chad, and 300 more are helping François Bozizé cling to power in the Central African Republic. In all, there are currently over 36,000 French troops deployed outside France.
The constant propaganda in the domestic media portraying French intervention in its neo-colonies as a force for progress goes hand-in-hand with racist denunciations of the supposed threat posed by the brutally oppressed immigrant and Muslim populations at home. An ugly anti-immigrant mood has characterized much of the election campaign, as capitalist politicians propose to address the debilitating poverty of the ghetto masses by increasing flexibility for employers through gutting existing labor legislation and by introducing compulsory military service.
The presidential candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who prides himself on his role in the brutal suppression of the October-November 2005 riots by black and Arab youth who were enraged at police chasing two teenagers to their deaths. Sarkozy is openly courting supporters of the fascist National Front with slogans such as: France, love it or leave it! Some elements of the UMP are so uncomfortable with Sarkozys crude chauvinism that they have opted to support François Bayrou of the center-right Union for French Democracy (UDF).
Sarkozys main opponent, Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party (PS), who is promoting a strong France through maintaining a high level of military spending and the French nuclear arsenal, is also pandering to anti-immigrant chauvinism with promises to introduce boot camps for delinquents (i.e., minority youth from the suburban ghettos). Royal combines this with vague talk of raising the monthly minimum wage to 1,500 euros as soon as possible and mastering globalization with a variant of the Tobin tax.
Marie-George Buffet, presidential candidate of the French Communist Party (PCF), positions herself just slightly to the left of Royal with promises of boosting the minimum wage immediately, and talk of converting the neo-liberal European Union into a social, democratic, eco-friendly Europe. Buffet applauded President Jacques Chirac for dispatching more troops to Lebanon last summer and claims that French imperialist forces in the Middle East can provide international security and protection for the civilian populations [of Israel-Palestine] under the flag of the UN (Pour une autre politique à gauchele programme, 23 January).
Despite their occasional pro forma references to socialism, both the PS and PCF are what Lenin termed bourgeois workers parties, i.e., reformist formations whose unambiguously pro-capitalist leaders aspire to nothing more than a chance to govern on behalf of the bourgeoisie. The plural left government of 1997-2002, a popular front (i.e., cross-class coalition) composed of the PS, the PCF and a few small bourgeois formations (the Greens, the Left Radical Party and Jean-Pierre Chevènements Citizens Movement), eagerly participated in NATOs criminal attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 and the reactionary U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan a couple of years later. At home, there was little to distinguish its policy of privatizing public assets and attacking working-class gains from the austerity policies of its right-wing successor.
This time the Left Radicals and Chevènementistes agreed not to contest the presidential election in exchange for the PS standing down in a number of constituencies in the legislative elections. The Greens were unable to reach a similar deal, but François Hollande, PS general secretary, made it clear that they will still have a place in any new popular front:
These past weeks we have taken important steps and parties which presented [presidential] candidates in 2002Left Radicals, Citizens Movementhave decided to support Ségolène Royal in the first round in exchange for an electoral agreement. We are open to others joining us.
But this regroupment is also for the second round. For several weeks we have engaged in a discussion with the Greens to conclude a governmental agreement that includes an electoral section. I hope well be successful. The Socialist Party cannot, nor does it intend to, govern alone, and the Greens, along with others, are an essential component of the left.
The PCF, which depends on no-contest agreements with the PS to maintain its parliamentary fraction, is running its own presidential candidate in the first round, but will support Royal in the second, if she makes it that far. While Buffet has thus far publicly avoided comment on the question of her partys participation in a PS-led popular front, it is no secret that the PCF will be just as eager to join a new version of the plural left as it was in 1997.
Left Reformism & Class Collaboration
In 2002, after five years of anti-working-class attacks by the last plural left government, an unprecedented ten percent of voters supported ostensibly Trotskyist far-left candidates in the first round of the presidential elections. This expression of dissatisfaction by a large section of the traditional base of the PCF/PS had only limited impact because none of the major revolutionary formations stood for a hard break with popular frontism.
Pierre Lamberts Parti des Travailleurs (PT), which received some 130,000 votes in 2002, is backing Gérard Schivardi this time. Schivardi, a former member of the PS and mayor of the small town of Mailhac, billed himself as a mayors candidate who would champion the interests of French municipalities against the European Union (EU) bureaucracy. Daniel Gluckstein, the PTs leading spokesperson, has touted this campaign as a step in the direction of breaking Frances subordination to the EU, which empties universal suffrage of all meaning (Informations ouvrières, 18-24 January). In supporting Schivardis campaign, the Lambertistes, who still claim to be Trotskyists of some sort, demonstrate the logic of their bizarre notion of re-conquering bourgeois democracy and their obsessive anti-EU nationalism.
Arlette Laguiller, the perennial presidential candidate of Lutte Ouvrière (LO), another of Frances ostensibly Trotskyist groups, claims to stand for the working class. Yet this self-proclaimed revolutionary openly acknowledges that the slogans advanced in her campaign:
are not in the least revolutionary demands, far from it. They are merely indispensable measures to allow workers to regain their living conditions from 30 years ago, which were even then difficult for working people.
Why should class-conscious workers consider voting for a revolutionary who aspires to recreate conditions that are difficult for working people?
The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) opted to run Olivier Besancenot for president after concluding that the anti-neo-liberal coalition that coalesced to oppose the proposed EU constitution in 2005 was unlikely to turn into a suitable electoral vehicle. This decision produced a serious rift in the LCR cadre. In May 2006, four members of the LCRs political bureauChristian Picquet, Alain Faradji, Céline Malaisé and Francis Sitelco-signed a call for a unitary multi-class electoral bloc with the PCF, dissident Socialists around Senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon and an assortment of petty-bourgeois formations, including a faction of the Greens, the Citizens Convergence for a Left Alternative, the Republican Left and the Movement for a Republican and Social Alternative.
The LCR majority, led by Alain Krivine, does not object in principle to participation in a cross-class coalition, but did not share Picquets enthusiasm for a unitary campaign dominated by the PCF. In June 2006, an LCR national conference called to discuss the question voted to send observers to meetings of the anti-neo-liberal collectives promoting a unitary left campaign, but announced that Besancenots candidacy would only be withdrawn if the PCF pledged in advance not to participate in any future government with the neo-liberal PS. While rejecting collaboration with the PS, the LCR remains perfectly happy to pursue a bloc with the constellation of small capitalist parties whose presence in any governmental coalition signals to the bourgeoisie that its fundamental interests will be protected.
In October 2006, the anti-neo-liberal collectives adopted a political program that called for a democratic and social Sixth Republic with a new division of national wealth, declaring: France and Europe must not be, nor even appear to be, associated with the aggressive policy of domination of the United States. Two months later, the anti-neo-liberal gambit imploded when the PCF used its organizational control of the collectives to impose its leader, Marie-George Buffet, as the unitary presidential candidate. Jean-Luc Mélenchon announced that he and his supporters would support Royal rather than Buffet, and a minority of the collectives opted to support the campaign of José Bové, a radical farmer nationalist best known for leading the Confédération Paysanne in dismantling a McDonalds franchise.
The Piquet faction of the LCR wanted to support Bové, but Krivine et al refused to withdraw Besancenot on the grounds that Bové was also willing to support a PS-led coalition government. The French adherents of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) who operate in one of the LCRs smaller factions, also preferred Bové to Besancenot, but their mentor, Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers Party, advised them not to openly campaign for Bové because splitting the LCR would weaken one of the main instruments for renewing the French left (Socialist Worker [London], 10 February).
While the French supporters of the IST have found a home in the LCR, adherents of the International Marxist Tendency (IMTassociated with Alan Woods and the late Ted Grant) have attached themselves to the PCF and its youth group. These self-proclaimed Trotskyists who categorically reject the arguments of those who see in the difficulties of the last period signs of the irreversible historic decline of our party [i.e., the Stalinist PCF] (www.lariposte.com, 30 May 2005) are enthusiastically backing Buffet. The IMT is outraged by the LCRs pretense of refusing any sort of agreement with the PS:
To beat the right, the PCF must support the PS candidate in the second round of the presidential election and systematically give its support to Socialist candidates who take the lead in the first round of the legislative elections. The sectarian policy of the LCR on this question comes down to letting the right into power. Standing down in favor of Socialist candidates does not in any way imply providing cover for the politics of the PS.
Everyone knows that the LCR, which in 2002 voted for Jacques Chirac as a lesser evil and which today proclaims that Sacking the right in 2007 is for us a public health measure (Rouge, 17 November 2006), is going to end up voting for the PS in the second round (if Royal is still on the ballot). Besancenot admitted as much when asked how he intended to vote in the second round:
Ill tell you the night of the first round [April 22]. You should know that the LCR has never hoped to benefit politically from a bad situation, and in fact Im standing against Nicolas Sarkozy. I differentiate between the left and the right. As far as a vote recommendation, that depends on what is said in the framework of the campaign.
Beating the Right vs. Trotskyist Principles
The French electoral system provides the far left with an opportunity for socialist speechifying and Trotskyist posturing in the first round. In the second, in which the top two candidates have a run off, the fearless revolutionaries are virtually all prepared to vote for popular-front candidates in order to beat the right. But popular frontism can only beat the left (i.e., the interests of the working class and oppressed). The strategy of building a cross-class coalition is an explicit repudiation of the central axis of socialist politicsthe necessity for the workers movement to remain independent from the bourgeoisie. Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the Russian Revolution, declared in 1936 that the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch and as such provides the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism (The POUM and the Popular Front).
Reformist parties involved in popular fronts are not necessarily more likely to govern in the interests of the capitalist class than they would on their own. But when they act as a component of a popular front, their working-class character is effectively suspended and the contradiction between their ostensible socialism and their actions as the open agents of the capitalists is therefore suppressed. Voting for candidates who are openly committed to the creation of a cross-class coalition can only hold back the class struggle. Trotskys observation that All the Popular Fronts in Europe are only a pale copy and often a caricature of the Russian Popular Front of 1917 is just as true today as it was in the 1930s.
At its October 2006 national conference, Lutte Ouvrière, which is capable of making occasional criticisms of the reformist logic of lesser-evilism, adopted a document which recalled the formula it used in 1974 and 1981 when it supported the candidate of the Union of the Left popular front: Without illusions but without reserve, we call to vote for Mitterrand. In denouncing a refusal to vote for left candidates today as imbecilic leftism, LO advanced the following opportunist calculation: it is precisely to be in a position to give them [workers] reasons to vote for Arlette Laguiller that we do not currently, nor during the campaign will we, say to them that the left is the same as the right (Lutte de Classe, December 2006-January 2007). But when the left is a coalition of openly bourgeois parties with reformist workers parties there is no way for working people to cast a class vote.
The LCR and LO are not alone in abandoning the Trotskyist position of hard opposition to popular frontism. Many smaller formations that claim to represent orthodox Trotskyism also accept the logic of lesser-evilism. For example, the group known as the Cercle (now part of the Groupe pour la construction du Parti ouvrier révolutionnaire), one of the surviving fragments of Stéphane Justs 1984 split from Pierre Lamberts Organisation Communiste Internationaliste, attacked LO for its (entirely disingenuous) hint that it may decide not to back Royal in a second round run-off against Sarkozy on the grounds that this fails to take advantage of the popular aspiration to beat the right (Combattre pour le socialisme, 12 January). They also denounced the LCRs objections to PCF cooperation with the PS as placing:
obstacles to the inevitable aspiration of the masses for a government to carry out policies that conform to their immediate needs and aspirations, a government that cannot be conceived at the current stage by excluding the Socialist Party in advance.
The Groupe Bolchevik (GB), the most left-wing of the Justist organizations, criticizes LO and the LCR for failing to pose a revolutionary alternative, but stops short of making the repudiation of a bloc with any bourgeois party a precondition for electoral support. The GB is prepared to vote for PS and PCF candidates even though they are running on the basis of establishing a coalition government with capitalist formations, claiming that this represents an application of the workers united front:
the Groupe Bolchevik cannot support any candidate. Nevertheless, we call on those workers who are able and who desire to vote to choose, during the first rounds [of the presidential and legislative elections], a candidate from a working-class organization (PS, PCF, LCR, LO) over all the bourgeois candidates. For the same reasons, the Groupe Bolchevik calls to vote for a candidate of a workers organization in the second round, or to abstain if one is not present.
The GB asserts that: To Get Rid of Sarkozy and Le Pen, Break with the Bourgeoisie and Open the Road to a Workers Government and to Socialism! (Révolution Socialiste, January). But in France today, a break with the bourgeoisie requires revolutionaries to make electoral support for reformist workers parties conditional on their repudiation of any perspective of coalition with capitalist parties. That is what the Russian Bolsheviks demanded of the Mensheviks and other reformists in 1917 when they called on them to eject the Ten Capitalist Ministers and govern in their own name. This approach remains every bit as important today as it was 90 years ago. Would-be revolutionaries who are prepared to vote for reformist parties when they campaign as components of a multi-class political bloc are, in effect, supporting a popular front. The GB asserts that it accords only minor importance to electoral tactics, yet voting for the workers component of the popular front is neither a minor, nor a tactical question. Marxists oppose popular frontism as a matter of principle.
Electoral Tactics and Class-Struggle Politics
In June 1940, several leaders of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) visited Mexico, where they discussed tactics for the U.S. presidential election with Leon Trotsky. As the SWP was unable to stand its own candidate for president, Trotsky suggested a policy of critical support to the Communist Party (CP), which was then, as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact signed less than a year earlier, assuming an anti-imperialist posture of opposition to American involvement in World War II. Trotsky suggested that the SWP should try to take advantage of the coincidence between their slogans and ours, which, he observed, could only be transitory, by approaching the CP ranks and clearly posing the conditions for electoral support:
I have a concrete suggestion, that we publish a letter to the Stalinist workers: during five years your leaders were protagonists of the democracies, then they changed and were against all the imperialisms. If you make a firm decision not to permit a change in line then we are ready to convoke a convention to support your presidential candidate. You must give a pledge. It would be a letter of propaganda and agitation to the Stalinist workers. We will see. It is probable that the line will change in some weeks. This letter would give you free possibilities without having to vote for their candidate.
Trotsky did not view critical support to the CP as some sort of class against class categorical imperative, but rather as a very short and very critical maneuver:
Our party is not bound to the Stalinist maneuver [i.e. critical support in the presidential election] any more than it was to the SP maneuver [i.e. the American Trotskyists successful entry into the Socialist Party]. Nevertheless we undertook such a maneuver. We must add up the pluses and minuses.
James P. Cannon, the SWPs central leader, raised the following objection:
It is a false issue: [U.S. president Franklin D.] Roosevelt vs. the Stalinists. It is not a bona fide class opposition to Roosevelt. Possibly we could support [CP candidate Earl] Browder against Roosevelt, but Browder would not only repudiate our votes, but would withdraw in favor of Roosevelt.
Trotsky replied: That would be the very best occurrence for us. After laying down our conditions for support, this capitulation would win us a section of the Stalinists.
Trotskys approach was diametrically opposed to a policy of automatically voting for reformist parties regardless of their record and declared intentions. Electoral support to candidates of the PCF/PS when everyone knows they will form a coalition with bourgeois forces amounts to endorsing class collaboration. A revolutionary policy must begin by making independence from the bourgeoisie a precondition for any form of electoral support. This is not the omega of Trotskyist electoral tactics, but it is the alpha.
The French working class has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity for struggle and its desire to find a way to effectively resist capitalist attacks. What it lacks is an organization capable of providing revolutionary leadership, which is prepared to aggressively combat the defeatist, pro-capitalist polices of the trade-union bureaucracy and their parliamentary counterparts among the socialist and communist left. The critical task of forging such a leadership must begin by assembling a nucleus of militants committed to a revolutionary class against class policy and unconditionally opposed to every form of popular frontism.
Posted: 19 April 2007