Sunday, February 27, 2011

Can we beat racism by suppressing it?

Lisbeth Latham

In January, Fabien Engelmann, secretary of the Confédération générale du travail's (General Confederation of Labour - CGT) union representing workers in the Nilvange town hall, announced that he would be standing as a candidate of the far-right Front National (National Front-FN). The announcement has rocked not only the CGT but also the far-left parties Lutte Oevriere (Workers Struggle – LO) and the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (New Anticapitalist Party – NPA), as Engelmann was a former candidate for both parties in the 2007 and 2010 elections.

The CGT responded on January 16, by initiating a vote for a new secretary in the local union, which Engelmann won overwhelming, 20 votes to 3. The CGT then gave the members an ultimatum, remove Engelmann and elect a new Secretary, or they would suspend the local union. In a joint statement, the CGT’s Public Service Federation and the Moselle Department explaining the suspension of Engelmann, these were:
Firstly, that Engelmann as a CGT militant was being a propagandist for ideas that run against the fundamental values and directions of the CGT
Secondly that Engelmann sort to use the CGT political purposes.
In its statement explaining the suspension of the local unions the Departmental Union and Public Sector Federation explained that it would remain suspended until it could be re-established on a basis consistent with the values of the CGT.

Engelmann in his public statements has explained his transition from a militant of the far-left, to a militant of the far right in terms of immigration and defence of secularism. In an interview with the website Reposte Laique (Secular Response) that he left the NPA along with other members in his branch, after the regional elections, as a consequence of the NPA standing a veiled candidate (Former NPA candidate Ilham Moussaid, wore the Hijab). Engelmann has explained his decision to join the FN on the basis that Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is the only one “defending secularism” in France, and that he could not support the lefts support for immigration to France and support for legalisation of workers without papers in a time of high unemployment.

In response to Engelmann’s announcement both LO and the NPA have issued statements. The NPA organisation in Mosselle statement condemned the racism not only of FN, but of President Sarkozy, which legitimises FN’s policies, that “wrongly blames immigration for the majority of society’s ills. The statement also rejected the notion that FN is a defender of secularism, instead stating that the FN only targets the supposed “Islamisation of France”, which “serious studies prove is only a phantasm”, while ignoring the real privileges of other religions, while the FN allows in its organisation self acknowledged Catholic activists who have threatened doctors who provide abortions. Finally the NPA statement explains that the FN economic policies such lower corporate taxes, limiting the right to strike, increasing the defence budget while lowering the education budget, are in contradiction to the demands of the labour movement”. The LO statement described both Le Pens (Marine, and Jean-Marie, Marine’s Father and the founder of the FN) as middle class and their orientation to the working class is to shift workers anger towards immigrants, the poor and the most oppressed and away from the middle class and capitalists who are for the disaster of the crisis and the drama of unemployment”.

FN have indicated that they will launch a case in the European Court of Human Rights to seek his readmission. In 2007, Bredin Prat who was expelled from the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen for being a member of the British National Party , launched a similar case in the ECHR. In that case the ECHR found under clause 11 of the European Convention to Protect Human Rights, which protects the right of freedom of assembly, that unions have the right to determine who can be a member. Engelmann’s lawyer has indicated that their argument will be focused on clause 9 and 10 which protect freedom of expression.

Irrespective of any court ruling on the legality of Engelmann’s suspension, the FN will attempt to paint Engelmann as a victim, who has had his democratic rights impinged. Their efforts are helped by CGT regional official Denis Pesce’s acknowledgement to Free Actualité, that members of the union had wanted to keep Engelmann as secretary as they felt that he was “doing a good job”. Engelmann has said that in the coming week’s more CGT members will come out as FN members. Given the social crisis in France it is likely that there are a number of members who will at least be FN sympathisers, particularly as Pesce has acknowledged that union has not done in enough to combat racist ideas. While more members coming out will add to the FN publicity, it will create environment in which the ideas can be combated head on through an ideological struggle. Further attempts to win the battle against racism in the CGT via suppression can only drive the ideas underground and risk giving them the ring of truth by making martyrs of its advocates, making it all the more difficult to combat the ideas.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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