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Non de gauche: the French Left after the referendum

The French No vote in the 29 May referendum on the European constitution had immediate consequences, both for the fate of the treaty and for domestic politics. But this was no mere mid-term protest against an unpopular government, nor further evidence of France's famed 'ungovernability', the fact that no government in the last thirty years has lasted more than one term in office. It actually marks an important staging post in the making of a new Left on the terrain of capitalist globalisation.

July 1, 2005
8 min read

With Le Pen’s far right Front National and Villiers’ more traditionalist conservatives both eclipsed at last year’s European elections, the result should not be read as a chauvinist anti-European vote. Exit polls show that 72 per cent of those who voted No consider themselves to be pro-European. And it was the explicitly pro-European and internationalist Non de gauche campaign, rejecting a neo-liberal for a genuinely democratic and ‘social’ Europe, that carried the day.

The 10 point margin of victory was remarkable, given that the Socialist Party (PS), the parties of the centre-right, and the mainstream media overwhelmingly favoured the Yes camp. But arguably of greater significance is the unity that has been forged between the various parties, movements, trade unions and leading individuals of an emergent anti-neo-liberal, and to a large extent explicitly anti-capitalist, Left. On the ground, eight hundred local ‘collectifs unitaires’ formed the backbone of the Non de gauche campaign. But where now for the post-29 May Left? How to build on this victory?

The death and resurrection of the French left

Elected in 1981 on the promise of a ‘break with capitalism’, the PS, once in office, quickly abandoned any such radicalism. Indeed, the turning point of 1983 was a signal moment in the capitulation of European social democracy – radicalised after 1968 – to the Reaganite-Thatcherite counter-revolution of the New Right. Since then, French elections have seen an uninspiring alternation of neo-liberal administrations of centre-right and centre-left. They have become a game without risk to capital, robbing them of their meaning, resulting in widespread disillusion, abstention and, not least, the emergence of the far right.

The referendum, on the other hand, unambiguously posed the question of neo-liberalism at the heart of the vote. For the constitutional treaty, in tedious detail in its infamous part three, sought to set in stone unregulated competition (read ‘profit-making’) above all other considerations – human, social, ecological -and place the capitalist economy beyond public debate or democratic politics. It was an opportunity not to be squandered, reflected in the energy committed to the campaign by the parties and movements of the Non de gauche camp and in the fact that there was a clear ‘class’ vote against the constitutional treaty, with 80 per cent of industrial workers, 60 per cent of other employees, 70 per cent of those unemployed, and 63 per cent of those earning less than 3,000 euros (roughly £2,000) a month voting No.

The Non de gauche has been no bolt from the blue, but the result of several years of contestation, as the ‘pensée unique’ crumbles and the leaders of centre-right and centre-left are outed as so many neo-liberal emperors with no clothes. If the November-December 1995 strikes and demonstrations were judged by some the first revolt against globalisation,,it was the 1998 campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and the foundation of ATTAC that gave birth to ‘altermondialisme’ – seeking an alternative, non-capitalist, globalisation rather than being more narrowly, or even chauvinistically, ‘anti-globalisation’. This has helped to sink ancient differences between, amongst others, Catholic radicals and Marxists, Communists and Trotskyites.

Who are the principal players in this altermondialiste Left? Unlike the Labour Party, the PS operates with open factions within a relatively pluralist structure, resulting in a solid 40 per cent vote for the party’s left-wing currents at recent Congresses. While an internal referendum on 1 December 2004 – before the groundswell of opposition to the constitutional treaty had developed – committed the PS to campaign for a Yes vote by a margin of 58 to 42 per cent, the left of the party, and its leading figures such as Henri Emmanuelli and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, actively supported the No campaign. According to exit polls, almost two-thirds of the left electorate voted No, including a majority of PS voters. Similarly, the Greens, favoured partners of the PS and instinctively pro-European, voted by 53 to 42 per cent (with 5 per cent abstention) to support the Yes campaign – a surprisingly narrow margin, given that all the party’s leading figures, including Alain Lipietz, one of the historic leaders of the party’s Left, argued in favour of ratification. Yet 60 per cent of the Green electorate voted No, seriously damaging the party, at least in the short-term, and marginalising it from the altermondialiste Left where it should be most at home. Only one Green députée, Martine Billard, and a regional councillor, Francine Bavay, were active in the Non de gauche camp.

The only party on the parliamentary Left to campaign for a No vote – and thus the only party on the Left to receive campaign funds – was the Communist Party (PCF). It was happy to have found an issue on which it could reunify, and enjoyed a pivotal role in rallying the Non de gauche camp. Under the leadership of Marie-George Buffet, the PCF has successfully distanced itself from the PS, aligning itself with France’s energetic social movements.

Equally important has been the involvement of the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) – the most unsectarian and libertarian of the parties of the revolutionary Left, and currently fronted by the youthful Olivier Besancenot – as a key partner in the No campaign. A majority of trade unions rallied to the cause, and there should be no doubting the central role played by ATTAC – ‘a movement for popular educational oriented towards action’ – and others, such as the Fondation Copernic, whose ‘Appeal of 200’ launched the ‘collectifs pour le non’.

The altermondialiste dilemma

A key strategic dilemma facing the altermondialiste Left remains its relationship to the PS – electorally the dominant force on the Left, around which the smaller parties currently orbit – whose future evolution remains an open question. While in Britain and Germany, for example, the political road may be harder and the choice easier – combating neo-liberal parties of the erstwhile centre-left head-on – the PS, despite its recent history, is not for the most part as committed to the neo-liberal agenda as New Labour or the German Social Democrats. And there can be little doubt that the PS Left has been strengthened by the result of the referendum.

All eyes have now turned towards the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections.

While the option of a coalition of the centre is not out of the question, the electoral dynamic of two-round voting tends towards a choice of candidates of either Right or Left, placing the PS in need of the votes of the latter, and seemingly putting a brake on any overtly rightward trajectory à la Blair. In re-engaging with its own electorate – which voted No by a significant majority, despite the party’s campaign to the contrary – it is at least possible that the PS leadership, which confronts an emergency congress in the autumn in the wake of the referendum, will indeed tack leftwards. The real question is, to what extent and with what conviction.

A second curiosity of the French electoral system is a directly elected presidency, resulting in an unending jostling for position amongst various pretenders. Presidential hopefuls of the Yes camp such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jack Lang and François Hollande have all been weakened by the referendum result. The long-term winner in the PS may be Laurent Fabius, despite his being ousted from the party leadership in the aftermath of the referendum. Although he is very much a figure on the party’s Right, he was the only senior figure to argue for a No vote, perhaps wily enough to sense which way the wind was blowing.

As the horizon of 2007 draws near, the challenge before the altermondialiste Left is a large one. It enjoys sufficient resources – in parties, movements, well-respected individuals and policies and ideas – to rally considerable political support. Plans are already afoot to hold a national congress of the local collectives unitaires and there is considerable grass-roots pressure for the Non de gauche parties and movements to build an anti-neo-liberal coalition beyond the referendum.

However, while the Chiraquian inheritors of Gaullism are perhaps fatally weakened, others on the Right, such as the formidable Nicolas Sarkozy, wait in the wings. Can the altermondialiste Left remain united? Can such a disparate Left act as a counterweight to a rudderless ‘gauche lite’? Will the PS, outflanked on its left, espouse a certain radicalism, if only rhetorically or in mere opportunism, or perhaps, just perhaps, with conviction? Or will the Left of the PS, and those who rallied to the Non de gauche camp in the Greens and the PCF timidly submit, as during Jospin’s 1997-2002 government, to the big guns of the PS leadership?

How such a challenge is answered will have repercussions far beyond France.

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