Picture: Georges Marchais, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of France
On 15 January, 1981, the Morning Star, the daily paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain, once called the Daily Worker, had a fine front page article denouncing a proposed Tory anti-immigration law.
Straight to target: the “Nationality Bill”, it told its readers, is a racist Bill. That is why immigrant groups are vigorously opposing it, and why the broad labour movement must fight it too.
But now turn to page 2 of the same issue of the Star. There, you will find a report on the policy of the French Communist Party (CP) on immigration to France, and an attempt to explain away a recent shameful incident at Vitry, a suburb of Paris. What happened at Vitry?
There, just before Christmas, the CP mayor of Vitry, Paul Mercieca, led a gang of 60 men, reportedly CP members and supporters, in a “direct action” to stop 300 immigrants from Mali being rehoused in Vitry.
The gang turned off water, gas and electricity, and used a bulldozer to smash up the hostel.
Then on the weekend of 10-11 January, a big anti-immigration (which, in the real world of tensions and scapegoating, means anti-immigrant) demonstration was organised in Vitry to support the mayor’s action and the Party’s immigration policy. Over 10,000 people attended.
One of them was Georges Marchais, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of France (PCF), and the Party’s candidate for President of France in the upcoming April election. Marchais made it clear that Mercieca’s gang acted in line with Party policy.
According to the Guardian, the Vitry policy is being generalised. The “Communist” town council at Rennes in Brittany has cancelled a building permit for an Islamic centre. “Other Communist councils have said that they will resist attempts to settle more immigrants” (Guardian, 16 January 1981).
What does the Morning Star (and the CPGB) have to say about the scandalous antics of its French comrades? It excuses them, covers for them, and thereby supports them!
The article, by one Harry Samson, “reporting from Paris”, denounces the comments in the press as a “smear” on the French CP. His version of what happened more or less admits the facts — but presents the actions of the mayor of Vitry and his gang as acceptable and reasonable.
“A dumping operation”
He describes attempts to move immigrant workers into ‘Communist’-controlled municipalities as “a dumping operation”. He implies that the Vitry mayor’s vigilante operation was a valid means of defending the interests of the workers in Vitry, a proper communist response to an action by the middle-class, conservative-controlled St. Naur municipality, which was trying to “get rid of the immigrants and at the same time whip up feeling against a Communist (sic) municipality”.
Vitry, you see, “already has two 600-bed immigrant hostels, a 17 per cent immigrant population (twice the national average), and a 3,500 long waiting list. The town council wants decent conditions for all the town’s inhabitants — French and immigrant...”. That, it seems, justified direct action against the immigrants.
But Henry Samson doesn’t want you to run away with the idea that the “Communist” mayor of Vitry has the reflexes of a fascist thug, or that the first thing he did was to send for the bulldozer and the other thugs. Not at all. First he talked to the Mali workers. He cut up rough only when he couldn’t persuade these bewildered newcomers in a strange and obviously hostile country to leave the hostel peacefully and go back to St. Naur: that is, to abandon the accommodation they had been allotted and put themselves on the streets.
They wouldn’t listen to reason; they were too unsophisticated to understand that the mayor was a “Communist” and not an ordinary racist gangster.
It was only then, says Samson, that “some local inhabitants took it upon themselves to destroy symbolically the gates leading to the premises and to turn off the water, gas and electricity”. So it was only “symbolic”. Or perhaps the writer — or his subconscious — is trying to say that they should be grateful that the 60 thugs didn’t Klu-Klux it properly and kill a few of the black intruders?
Samson’s account implies that contrary to the reports in the serious bourgeois press the mayor and the CP had nothing to do with it. It was only “some local inhabitants”.
So what was the mayor doing while it was happening? What is the PCF doing calling an anti immigrant demonstration in Vitry (or anywhere)? Samson shows that he is a calculating liar when he explains why “some local inhabitants” made the hostel uninhabitable. They did it he says to “prevent [the premises] from being occupied, so as not to play into the hands of the St. Naur council”.
Better to “play into the hands of” the racists, fascists and chauvinists. Better to abandon the only policy that undercuts attempts to divide the working class by blaming immigrants for the social problems capitalism creates — united working class action and opposition to all scapegoating. Better to trample the ideas of communism, socialism and even decent liberalism in the mud churned up by the bulldozer and in the noxious waste matter of people like Henry Samson who now takes on the job of rationalising what the CPF is doing.
This display of rancid chauvinism lines up the CPF with the French racists. It must encourage them and make their poison more palatable to sections of the French working class who would be ashamed to find themselves consciously adopting racist attitudes.
In 1968, the British Labour Government’s racist decision to stop British passport-holding Kenyan Asians entering Britain was followed first by Enoch Powell’s speech predicting and threatening “rivers of blood” unless immigration was stopped, and then by an enormous shift of “mainstream” British politics towards that open racism which has unashamedly been expressed in all immigration legislation and immigration-control practice since. Racist definitions, concerns and obsessions were moved from the crank right-wing fringe of politics to centre stage.
Nothing less than this can be the result of what the PCF is doing now.
How many of the 10,000 demonstrators who turned out to march behind Georges Marchais in support of the Communist heroes of Vitry can be assumed to be free from the taint of racism?
And finally, all this must be seen in the context of the eruption of antisemitism in France, which has taken the form of terrorist attacks on Jews. In Paris right now a heavily armed CRS man carrying a sub-machine gun stands guard outside each synagogue.
The PCF calls for a halt to all immigration. The Morning Star justifies this too. Samson explains that many of the four million south European and north African immigrants live in “overpopulated badly-adapted unhygienic hostels and are subjected to racism, police harassment and insecurity”. Many of them had known unemployment in their own countries and are experiencing it again in France.
The PCF opposes racial discrimination, says Samson, and in a recent document “condemns all threats to the dignity of these men and women living far from home and reaffirms its solidarity with them as it has always done in the past”. And so?
He goes on: “It is for this reason that in the present economic crisis and to avoid adding to the two million French and immigrant workers already unemployed that the PCF is calling for a halt to immigration in the mutual interests of all workers in France irrespective of their origin”!
Apart from the reference to the working class, you could travel far rightwards across the ranks of the Tory Party — as far as the repatriationists in fact — and get more or less exactly the same sort of reasoning to justify this policy in Britain. It is the declared policy of the Tory Party!
And that is the ground on to which their justification of the PCF now takes the Morning Star and the CPGB. The Morning Star and the CP of course have long refused to oppose all immigration controls. Refusing to accept that all immigration controls are intrinsically racist, they only oppose the 1971 Act and its later refinements. But this is a new departure.
For if the Tory policy is correct for France when pursued by the PCF, then in principle it must be correct for Britain too. How can the front page of the Morning Star carry conviction when page 2 champions stringent and inevitably racist immigration laws for France and justifies and excuses racist violence and gangsterism?
On this basis, the weaselling of the right wing and soft-left Labour politicians is good working class policy to defend the workers black and white already here. At any rate, those who smear themselves publicly with the racist filth of Marchais’ party won’t carry much conviction with themselves or anyone else when they try to fight these policies.
• This is a guest column by Sean Matgamna, taken from Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Solidarity) in 1981. Jim Denham will be back in January.