In the first round of the French presidential election, on 22 April, postal worker Olivier Besancenot, standing for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, won 1.5 million votes (4.11%). That was 300,000 more votes for Besancenot than in the 2002 poll, which at the time was considered a surprisingly good score for a revolutionary candidate.
Besancenot had a slight decrease in percentage points, since turnout shot up to 85%. However, Arlette Laguiller, standing for Lutte Ouvrière for the sixth time, slipped back from 5.7% to just 1.3%, just under half a million votes.
Among trade unionists Besancenot did very well. Among members of the CGT federation, France’s largest, once so solidly dominated by the Communist Party that known Trotskyists were liable to be expelled from the union with little ado, and still led mainly by the CP, Besancenot won 9%, more than the CP candidate’s 7%. (Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal got 42%; Laguiller, surprisingly, only 2%).
In the Force Ouvrière federation, Besancenot and Laguiller got 7% each (Royal 25%).
In the FSU (a relatively new, leftish federation, based on teachers and public service workers), Besancenot got 9%; in the more markedly left-wing SUD federation, 20%.
In 2002 fascist leader Jean-Marie le Pen came second in the first round, defeating Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin and going forward to the second-round run-off against mainstream right-winger Jacques Chirac. The shock of that result created a big pressure on leftish voters this time to “vote pragmatically” and cast their ballots for Ségolène Royal however much they detested her Blairite politics. Against that background, Besancenot’s score is very good.
The LCR ran a strong, visible campaign, its meetings with Besancenot apparently twice as large as in 2002. After the 2002 election the LCR membership rocketed, and with the increasing national profile of the group, it looks likely to do the same now.
Le Pen fell from nearly 17% last time out to just 10.4%, blaming this collapse on the moves by mainstream right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy to plagiarise Le Pen’s core policies. Sarkozy has promised a new “Department for Immigration and National Identity”.
The collective score of the groups to the left of the PS — if we also factor in the Communist Party, the “Lambertiste” Parti des Travailleurs (which, believe it or not, ran Gerard Schivardi as “the candidate of the mayors” on an almost exclusively anti-European Union platform), and anti-globalisation peasant leader José Bové — was about 9%, down from 14% in 2002.
Both Besancenot and Laguiller have called for a vote in the second round for Ségolène Royal and the Parti Socialiste. This makes sense, given the strong working class support for that party and antipathy towards Nicolas Sarkozy, a very right-wing conservative who has stolen much of le Pen’s anti-immigration platform. Besancenot’s call was rather weasel-worded, saying “it’s not a vote for Royal, it’s a vote against Sarkozy”, or “fight [Sarkozy] in the streets and at the ballot box”, a reprise of the slogan which in 2002 led the LCR into wrongly supporting for a vote for Chirac to defeat le Pen.
The situation here is not however the same as 2002. The Parti Socialiste is not just a bourgeois party like Chirac’s. If Jean Marie le Pen had had any chance of winning in 2002, which he didn’t, rallying to the mainstream right-winger Chirac would have been the last way for the left to prepare resistance to a far-right seizure of power.
Arlette Laguiller rightly refused to endorse Chirac in 2002. This time she says she will vote Royal in the second round — somewhat surprisingly, since it is the first time since 1981 that LO has supported a vote for the SP except against Le Pen’s Front National. Laguiller made her stance much more clear-cut than Besancenot:
“I will be voting for Royal, and I call on all voters to do the same. But when I do this, it is simply in solidarity with all those among the masses who say they want ‘anyone but Sarkozy’. I share their desire to defeat Sarkozy, but I will say to them however that Ségolène Royal will not improve the lot of the working class any more than Sarkozy. Royal is just as much in the camp of capital, in the camp of the exploiters, financiers and those who lay off workers, as Sarkozy....”
As Alain Krivine of the LCR has warned, Royal’s right-wing agenda is likely to alienate many of those who voted for the activist left in the first round, even despite the calls from Besancenot and Laguiller. Royal toned down her Blairite rhetoric in the months leading up to 22 April, but she is now very openly courting the voters of the Tory third placed candidate François Bayrou.
Bayrou poses as a “centrist”, describes himself as “Clintonite”, and is setting up a new “Democratic Party” — but his current vehicle, the UDF, is very much a conservative party, while he himself served as Education Minister under Chirac’s administration.
The French Communist Party won only 1.9% of the vote. It was once one of the largest political parties in Europe, nearing a million members in the 1950s. Its control over the working class and its labour movement used to be enormous. French revolutionaries used to think that the only way to revolutionise the French labour movement would be through forcing a large left-wing split from the CP in circumstances of capitalist crisis, when its reformist nature would be clearly exposed to revolutionary-minded worker-members.
Things have not happened that way. Instead the CP has simply declined. It has thrown off splits, but only small ones, and mostly right-wing ones. Its score in presidential elections has decreased dramatically: 1981, 15.3%, 1988 6.76%, 1995 8.66%, 2002 3.37%, 2007 1.94%. Its membership has decreased 50% over the last ten years.
Looking across the channel from Britain, the Trotskyists’ performance seems very impressive. It is all too easy to romanticise about this and attribute it to France’s past of revolutions and a weighty intellectual left. But that would be false.
Although the French working class has suffered no imposition as stifling as the anti-union laws in Britain, and industrial militancy there is higher than in Britain, the French labour movement too has suffered since the early 1980s. The relatively recent rise in LCR activism has not been as large as the decline in CP activism, so for two decades now the French working class has suffered an attrition of the activist cadre in its unions and communities.
What the revolutionaries have done in France — gaining the ear of a significant minority of the working class — is not beyond imagining in Britain, if our activist left here were more united and more focused on working-class politics. And in France the far left faces significant obstacles to progress.
The revolutionary left vote is not stable. In 2002 LCR and LO between them scored almost 10% in the presidential election, but they were reduced to 2.5% between them in the parliamentary elections soon after. Opinion surveys show about 4% of the population “identifying with” the activist left; but a lot of those 4% do not vote activist-left, and a lot of those who do vote activist-left do not feel a general, long-term “identification” with the activist left. The decline of the CP leaves a wide terrain open to the activist left, but it is a difficult one.
Working-class militancy does not automatically mean big electoral support for the left. It is hard to identify a specific impact on the presidential election from the spring 2006 movement against attacks on young workers’ rights and the CPE law. That movement, which included strikes by millions of workers, did succeed in stopping the government’s plans, but the union leaders refused to broaden the struggle onto issues such as the minimum wage, housing or migrant workers’ rights. When the government capitulated on the CPE, the movement dribbled away, having conquered no new ground on anything else.
The autumn 2005 riots in many French suburbs expressed deep discontent, but had no political demands, and turned to such blind alleys as attacks on schools and on local people’s cars. The activist left has practically no base in those pauperised, heavily-immigrant suburbs.
And the LCR does have a certain tilt towards “movementism” — chasing anything that moves, with scant attention to a consistent working-class compass — as shown by its enthusiastic participation in the anti-EU Constitution collectives and the subsequent efforts to use those collectives to run a united election campaign with the CP and others. The CP insisted that it provide the “unitary” candidate, and that the door was open to taking part in a Parti Socialiste government, so the LCR rightly backed off. However, the LCR’s “Fourth International” allies in Italy have had ministers in a coalition government including conservatives.
During the campaign Besancenot claimed that his hero is Che Guevara. Such is the “movementism” of the group that a significant minority of the LCR even called on Besancenot to withdraw in favour of José Bové. Turning away from the working class to the ill-defined concept of “the movement” is bone-headed.
We have to hope that the LCR will not looking for regroupment with, and political concessions to, such politically awry elements as José Bové, but instead will work with Lutte Ouvriere in order to rebuild a solid and effective class-consciousness in a French working class scarred by the unrelenting capitalist attacks of the last decades and by the demoralisation of the old Communist Party cadre.