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Breakthrough of the Left Front in France

Christophe Aguiton looks at the foundations and future of Jean-Luc Melenchon's Left Front and left politics in France

June 6, 2012
11 min read

The results of recent presidential elections in France on 22 April and 6 May this year are interesting in more ways than one. This is the first victory for a president from the Socialist Party after 17 years, following two successive presidents of the right. It will not result in a radical change in economic and social policy but will at least allow an opening of the debate in Europe on the management of public debt and the implementation of austerity policies, whose disastrous effects are more and more visible every day in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, and soon throughout Europe.

The foundations

The coming together, in France, of forces to the left of social democracy in practice arose from this 2005 campaign. The campaign enjoyed range of groups acting together: the French Communist Party (PCF); far-left forces and especially the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) – forerunner of the NPA; currents from the left of the Socialist Party such as PRS, ‘For a Social Republic’, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon; and community groups and unions such as ATTAC, the Confédération Paysanne and Solidaires, the Confederation of SUD and other social movement unions.

Following on from this success, several calls were made attempting to sustain this alliance in the 2007 presidential election. These attempts failed however, mainly as a result of the refusal of the LCR and the PCF to come together and the 2007 election was marked by an electoral fragmentation for these forces. The LCR’s presidential candidate, Olivier Besancenot, received the least bad result, with just over 4 per cent of the vote. Following on from this result the LCR transformed into the NPA, which – for a short time – dominated this space to the left of the Socialist Party, enjoying a significant media impact and favourable opinion polls. This was a situation that was something of a flash in the pan ahead of the creation of a new alliance, the ‘Left Front’ (Front de Gauche).

The Left Front was made possible by the resignation from the Socialist Party of both Jean-Luc Melenchon and the PRS, which would join with the PCF and a small breakaway group from the NPA to form the “United Left” (Gauche Unitaire). At the time of its birth, the Left Front did not appear to be any more credible or attractive than the NPA, with whom Jean-Luc Melenchon proposed to make a permanent alliance for the 2009 European elections and regional elections of 2010. Melenchon’s offer was rejected by the NPA however. This was based on an incorrect prediction that the Left Front would rally unconditionally to the Socialist Party, and an overestimation of the impact of the admittedly considerable charisma of the NPA’s spokesman, Olivier Besancenot. In the 2009 European elections, the Left Front trounced the NPA. This advantage was only amplified in the regional elections in 2012, and became crushing in the presidential election.

Today the Left Front consists of the PCF – a party historically in decline but which still has a militant potential and an important activist network of elected representatives; a series of small organisations coming mainly from the far left; and the ‘Left Party’ (Parti du Gauche or PG) of Jean-Luc Melenchon that formed at the start of 2009 at the same time as the wider Left Front by the PRS and activists from other backgrounds. The PG is a party that wants to combine the ideas of the labour movement with the French Republican tradition and, more recently, environmentalism.

Melenchon argues that a worsening debt crisis and a deteriorating economic situation, will lead to significant political and social instability, a foretaste of which is provided by Greece. Hence the need for him to remain completely independent of the Socialist Party in representing an alternative to social democratic ‘crisis management’, and to focus his attacks on the National Front and the extreme right, which he fears has been one of the main beneficiaries of the growing crisis, and finally to develop a centralised and disciplined party, a party that will be the only one capable, according to his point of view, of being able to work and organise in the coming troubled period.

Alongside the PCF and the PG, several small member organisations of the Left Front were in discussion with other currents that have supported the campaign of Jean-Luc Melenchon or are interested in the momentum it has generated, such as the ‘Anti-Capitalist Left’ (Gauche Anticapitaliste, or GA), the current that broke with the NPA over the issue of uniting with the FG, the ‘Alternatives’ – those activists from ‘Europe Ecology / the Greens’ who disagree with the alignment of the Green Party with Socialist Party positions, and participation in a government formed by Francois Hollande.

The aim of these discussions is to create a new political movement within the Left Front, that could present a vision focussed on social issues, but also internationalism and alter-globalisation, and immigrant rights, environmentalism, defending the ‘right to the city’ and digital rights.

The rootedness of a radical vote

The results of the elections were very interesting in a number of ways and have highlighted that there is solid support for left-wing politics in France. To this however, we must add that the far-right National Front enjoyed a very high level (17 per cent) of support, repeating its 2002 success, and with a massive vote amongst those working class sectors confronted with international competition, but also in rural areas of the North and East of the country, where an employment crisis and the withdrawal of public services place a key element of the population in ever more precarious circumstances.

At the same time, the election was also marked by the breakthrough of the ‘Left Front’ and its candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who, with over 11 per cent support, is enjoying a great success to the left of the centre-left Socialist Party after a very active campaign, one of whose most striking aspects was the mounting of three giant outdoor meetings each attended by around 100,000 people in Paris, Toulouse and Marseille.

This result is interesting for two reasons. It shows first of all, the rootedness of a radical vote to the left of social democracy. The total of votes for candidates to the left of the Socialist Party in presidential elections since 1995 has been – with the exception of 2007 – between 11 and 14 per cent. In 2012, the voice of the Left Front, Workers’ Struggle (Lutte Ouvrière) and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) represent 13 per cent of the vote – far more than the 9 per cent achieved by those to the left of the Socialist Party in 2007. A score comparable to that of 1995, which involved replacing François Mitterrand, the first socialist president of the 5th Republic, or 2002, in which the outgoing parliamentary majority was left-wing. After a period of ‘left’ government, the radical left is always stronger as many people from the left feel disappointed by the policies of social-democrats. In 2012 it was viewed as vital the punishment of Nicolas Sarkozy and the right-wing parliamentary majority, in a context where many observers stressed the need for the ‘useful vote’ against the right, and feared a breakthrough of the Front National would weaken, as in 2007, the left of the Socialist Party.

This result is interesting because unlike 1995, 2002 and 2007, it marks the first successful attempt to rally the ‘left of social transformation’, a subject to which we will return.

This electoral success is largely the product of three factors. First, it comes after a series of significant and sizable social struggles, the most important of which was the movement to defend retirement at age 60, a movement that inspired millions and millions of demonstrators some 18 months ago, in the autumn of 2010. It is also a response to the platform of Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader and now President, a programme that sticks to the main outlines of austerity policies implemented by all European governments with only two detours: a tax policy that would be less favourable to the most wealthy than the programme of the right; and a desire to mobilise Europe, such as the European Investment Bank to kick-start a European recovery. In comparison to such a moderate programme, the Left Front and Jean-Luc Melenchon were able to defend a radical platform of social redistribution and a tougher attitude toward financial markets. Lastly, his success is also the expression of a left-wing refusal to European policies of austerity, which places these developments on a continuum that dates back to the 2005 campaign against the proposed European constitution.

The evolution of a left future

The future of the Left Front will obviously depend on the evolution of the social and economic situation and the strength of social struggles that could develop in France. But it will also depend three questions that remain unanswered.

The first issue, decisive in the short term, is the relationship with the Socialist Party and specifically on government involvement. It involves both a general strategic problem regarding management of government institutions and an immediate tactical question: whether to participate in this particular government, that of Francois Hollande. At the time this paper was written, all the actors of the Left Front ruled out any such participation, arguing that none of the conditions that would allow such an alliance to have been fulfilled in any way, given that this government will put austerity at the centre of its policies. It seems that this judgment is to be confirmed after the parliamentary elections next month, which are crucial for the continuity of the Left Front beyond the presidential candidature of Melenchon. In the longer term, the question of institutional management will have to be seriously discussed, as the PCF has traditionally participated in all executives of the left without ever really discussing political orientations. Meanwhile, the PG and the forces that are in the process of regroupment believe it absolutely necessary to have a discussion and programmatic agreement – including the key points that separate them from the parties of the right – with other leftist parties before any participation in the executive.

The second question concerns the structures of the Left Front. At the moment, the Front is just a coalition of parties and political forces that has only allowed the participation of individuals during the presidential campaign via local ‘citizens’ assemblies.’ In the medium to long term, the Left Front can be transformed into an attractive and militant political force if it is transformed and democratised in allowing direct participation by individuals in all decisions, both local and national. This is an essential discussion, but one that has yet to be launched between the various partners within the Left Front.

The third question, and perhaps most important one, concerns the direction of the Left Front. A question that can in turn be broken down into two further ones: What are to be the relations with popular struggles and social movements? And what are to be the main perspectives to be developed by the Left Front? The Left Front has demonstrated its ability to conduct active, politically relevant electoral campaigns that deliver significant results. However, it has yet to conduct any advocacy campaigns on political or social grounds outside elections. This will be an important issue for the months and years ahead. The relationship with the movements must also be discussed while avoiding two pitfalls: the subordination of social movements to party-political forces that are “by nature” superior in importance; and a separation of tasks that would allow the political forces to manage institutions and elections while social movements are left confined to the sphere of social relations. What the Left Front’s perspectives on these issues are to be requires debate and discussion. To put it briefly, if social issues must remain central as austerity policies became more widespread in Europe, these issues remain at risk of confining the Left Front to a defence of social gains without taking into account other issues that concern the whole of society and especially the younger generations, notably immigrant and digital rights, etc.

All these issues will be at the heart of the debates of the Left Front and its individual components, whether in existence or in the process of being formed. They are also being discussed by the different forces in Europe that are developing to the left of social democracy: Germany’s Left Party (Die Linke), Greece’s Syriza or Portugal’s Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda). Exchanges on these experiences across Europe, learning from the successes and failures of these political formations, will be vital if we are to advance and define alternatives to the current crisis of the European Union!

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