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.
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry