All across the world, capitalism's name is mud these days, and that's very encouraging for any left activist. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is busy demolishing important social gains and playing emperor, but he is also provoking fightbacks.
Regular mass strike waves and the growth of the student movement over recent years have sharpened the demand for a real radical left party, and the economic crisis and Sarkozy's 'billions for the bankers' policy, pumping money into propping up private banks, have raised the temperature even more. The combination of Sarkozy's policies (swingeing cuts in education, tax cuts for the rich, the privatisation of the post office and more troops for Afghanistan to name but a few) and the lukewarm opposition of the Socialist Party have increased the political space for the radical left.
New parties and movements
In February 2009, two new left parties will have their founding conference in France, while a third, looser entity, La Fédération, will also be setting up shop. These organisations aim to propose winning strategies and analyses to the movements, of which there are many. Public sector trade unions called for a mass day of strike action on 29 January, while the movement for Gaza is enormous. The school student movement in December already forced the education minister into a humiliating climbdown: he has had to abandon his flagship reform of high schools, at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, strikes by illegal immigrants have resulted in many getting papers, and train drivers, airline staff and teachers have also been involved in industrial action. Media workers on public television channels went on strike against Sarkozy's plan to give himself the right personally to appoint their new boss. Sarkozy commented in December that the French like to decapitate their kings, and has been reduced to repeating in interviews that 'anti-capitalism is not the solution'.
New Anti-capitalist Party
Nonetheless, the first new party of 2009 will be the New Anti-capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA) set into motion by Olivier Besancenot and the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. The LCR and its ideas have a popularity that goes far beyond its three or four thousand activists. In 2007, 62 per cent of the population 'had a good opinion' of Besancenot, and he has recently been voted 'best opposition voice' because of his outspoken support for strikes and immigrant movements.
The NPA is an attempt at a broader party than the LCR, one that will be based on opposition to capitalism, but not insisting on members being attached to any specific model of revolution - it has been called 'almost revolutionary'. In its first few months it is likely to surpass 10,000 members. Preliminary events showed a promising dynamic - several towns got more than a thousand people to their meetings, and nationwide there are 400 constituent committees.
The LCR will dissolve into this new formation, the rest of the NPA members largely coming from trade unionist circles, the student movement and the many activists of the non-party left. No other major national political current has decided to join, partly because of sectarianism on both sides. Debate rages inside the NPA about what alliances are acceptable. On one side are those who are worried that the NPA will lose out by working with people who haven't really broken with the neoliberal wing of the Socialist Party. On the other are those who fear that the new party could be missing a chance to unite with wider forces with the double aim of winning more partial class victories in 2009, and of demonstrating in practice the quality and desirability of the NPA.
Other NPA debates include whether to redefine socialism as 'eco-socialism' and whether to concentrate on working in the major trade union federations or support much smaller but more radical unions. On more theoretical issues, there are red-green, syndicalist and libertarian ideas aplenty alongside Marxism.
The Left Party
The other new party is the Parti de Gauche, launched by Jean Luc Mélenchon and supporters who have left the Socialist Party, which is, in their view, hopelessly headed for full-scale Blairism. Openly based on the German Die Linke model (though far smaller), it is supported by a growing group of intellectuals and local and regional elected figures. Cheerfully opposed to ideas of revolution, Mélenchon believes there is space for a campaigning radical reformist party to the left of the Socialist and Communist parties. His party-in-embryo is printing campaign material against Sunday working and in defence of public services, while organising a series of discussion meetings with each of the forces of the radical left.
A number of grass-roots activists hesitate between the two parties. Could these parties have been wings of a united radical left party, in the way that Die Linke in Germany has revolutionaries and reformists and many undecided inside it? The possibility was dashed when the radical left did not manage a united candidacy in the 2007 presidential elections, but the jury is still out on who was most to blame. In the future, the two parties just might be able to work together, and the economic crisis makes it urgent that they learn to do so.
It is interesting to see that despite Mélenchon leaving the Socialist Party, the level of class struggle in France ensured that the Blairite wing of the Socialist Party represented by Ségolène Royal (who was keen to ally with moderate conservatives) was defeated at the recent conference by a centre-left alliance around Martine Aubry, who presents a slightly more human face of capitalism that at least involves a higher minimum wage and rent controls.
Finally, a third new organisation, La Fédération, is trying something more modest. Convinced that a new united party has little chance of flowering (and even that the party form is no longer appropriate for the 21st century), a series of red and green groups have set up La Fédération to coordinate common struggle, while people can remain in the parties they come from (or don't). La Fédération includes the few hundred 'Communists for Unity' who are on their way out of the Communist Party, and the 'anti-neoliberal unity collectives' who go back to the united and successful campaign against the European treaty in 2005.
Despite widespread anger against Sarkozy, and the popularity of strike movements, French trade union leaderships are massively 'new realist', calling for days of action on separate days, unable to believe that a real challenge to Sarkozy is possible. The influence of a combative radical left is necessary, but unity is hard to build. The New Anti-capitalist Party seems to me a real step forward, although ideological purism remains a danger. Of the three new initiatives, the NPA is far and away the one that attracts the most students and school students; many universities have a committee. La Fédération is fiery but often excessively grey-haired.
On a negative note, there seems to be no real progress on that terrible blind spot of the French left - opposing Islamophobia is in practice a taboo, and paranoid secularism is common. In a 2007 poll, 49 per cent of radical left voters felt Islam was 'negative for French identity' - and that's compared to 44 per cent in the population as a whole. Arson attacks against mosques provoke practically no comment from the radical left.
The struggle continues to build a powerful radical left, capable of winning over a very numerous new generation of activists thrown up by recent mass movements, while avoiding unprincipled alliances with the pale pink 'left', which puts managing capitalism before struggling for change.
John Mullen is an NPA activist in Agen. He blogs at johnmullenagen.blogspot.com