Tuesday, March 20, 2012

France: NPA Confirm Presidential Candidate

Lisbeth Latham

The Neaveau Parti Anticatiliste (NPA) announced March 13 that they had completed the final administrative step in nominating Philippe Poutou for the April 22 Presidential election. Poutou is a Confédération générale du travail (CGT) militant at Ford’s Bordeaux plant.

Under France’s undemocratic electoral system presidential candidates require the endorsement of 500 of a list of 45, 000 elected officials, the majority of which are municipal mayors. Presidential nomination is a simple process for larger parties as they can rely on the endorsement from their own members. For smaller parties the process requires that they convince officials from the larger parties to endorse their candidate, which means it is possible for the larger parties to actively exclude smaller parties from the elections and rob people of the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate.

This is precisely what has occurred to the NPA and other parties to the left of the Parti Socialiste (PS), with the PS leadership sending a letter to its elected officials directing them to not endorse the presidential candidates of other parties. Despite this obstacle, after more than eight months work of talking to elected officials across France, NPA activists were able to obtain endorsement from 520 officials.

Official nomination will help to secure a greater public profile for Poutou’s candidacy. It remains to this increased exposure enable Poutou to lift his current support of 0.5-1% in opinion polls.


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Friday, March 9, 2012

The NPA and French Politics

Below is the contribution I have submitted as part of thediscussion of Dick Nichol's presentation to the 2012 Socialist Alliance Conference that has been published by Links. I should have a longer piece finished in a few days.

Lisbeth Latham

I’ve been meaning to comment on this thread for a while, but have not had a chance as I have been busy writing an article that deals with issues but over a longer time frame than either Dick’s report or Jason Stanley’s articles go into. While the most significant point of discussion is the question of the NPA’s orientation to the Left Front (FG), I also want to touch on the question of the “Veil” and it’s impact on the NPA as I think the question of the “veil” has been a factor that has undermined the ability of the NPA’s membership to be united in action.

Inside or outside the left front
I agree with Nathan that Dick’s contributions over simplify the question of what attitude the NPA should have taken towards the FG. While on one level the question of the NPA’s participation in the FG has been posed several times and the balances of forces and other social factors such as the state of the class struggle in France has changed over this time period. Which factors that needed to be considered over this time period.

I agree with Nathan regarding the NPA also being concerned regarding the participation of the PCF in the 1997-2002 PS government, and at the municipal level. It is also important to note that PS municipal government’s invoked the new essential services laws to end strikes by municipal workers during the 2010 campaign in defence of pensions. By May 2011 the PS had already dropped some of its promises to repeal the changes to the pension laws pushed through by the Fillon government.

The dispute over relationship to the FG at the NPA’s founding congress was on the question of whether to link up with the FG prior to any discussion with the Front regarding relationship with the PS (which was the position of approximately 15% of the delegates – with some 3.5% of the membership departing to form Gauche Unitaire). Or alternatively to enter into a discussion with the Front make a decision as to whether to join based on this. While I agree with Nathan’s is correct to point out that in the European elections the question of government was not posed, I think there were some other factors at play in the NPA majority’s thinking. First the LCR and subsequently had cohered a base of support over the period between the 2002 elections and 2009 based on independence of social liberal left – at the time of the decision the NPA was polling around 10%. Secondly there was probably a concern that once they entered the Front without agreement on independence it would be difficult to exit later on when government was posed – a point I will return to later.

In assessing the European Election results I think there are a number of things to take into account. The NPA substantially improved on the performance of the LCR/LO ticket in 2004– almost doubling the vote - and was higher than Olivier Besancenot’s percentage in the 2007 presidential elections. This compared favourably with the FG only improved on the PCF’s vote by around 0.5%. However the NPA’s result was not as high as they had hoped for and the NPA unlike the FG fell short of the threshold to elect MEPs. At the time Francois Sabato argued that the lower than expected result reflected the down swing in the mass movement against the austerity between the NPA’s founding and the European elections, linked to this would have been the high rate of abstentionism amongst young voters where the NPA had a much higher level of support.

In the 2010 regional elections the NPA was able to negotiate electoral coalitions with the Left Party (PG). These were generally in areas where the PCF ran joint tickets with the PS rather than with the FG. These joint NPA/PG tickets performed as well or better than the FG tickets did.

The 2011 Congress debate occurred within the context of the NPA’s electoral fortunes not being as strong as had been hoped, but also following a significant defeat of the anti-pensions movement. By the tail end of that movement, the more conservative union confederations, the PCF and the PS made it clear that the only way to save people’s pensions was through parliament. The more radical unions were unable to get agreement in the Intersyndicale to continue mobilisations once the laws were passed – which isolated and ended the defiance of more militant sectors of the movement such as the oil workers. In this situation the debate was essentially between three positions regarding the best way forward to build the party – whether it lay with entry in the FG (a little over a quarter of the delegates); an attempt to continue to build a consistent anti-capitalist electoral pole (the largest minority with a little over 40% of delegates) and third position (again around a quarter of delegates) that argued for a greater orientation to the social movements. There was also a fourth tiny platform that argued to embed the party in the proletariat.

By the time the July conference occurred the situation had changed – the attempt to construct broader support around the NPA’s candidate had been unsuccessful. The new balance of forces within the NPA a round three positions. A new narrow majority (50.4%) position that made it clear that their would be an NPA presidential campaign rather than continue at that point to regroup anti-capitalist forces around that position. A large minority (40% of delegates) advocating a greater attempt to engage with the FG that also argued that the majority was retreating from the NPA’s original project and was articulating a sectarian position. Finally there was a small platform (5.8% of delegates) which argued that the NPA majority perspective was not revolutionary enough.

The larger minority grouping has now constituted itself as an organisation, Gauche anticapitaliste, that is functioning both inside and outside the NPA. GA is attempting to rally anticapitalist activists to save the NPA project and is pushing for the NPA to participate in the FG to engage with both PG and PCF members who oppose entering into a PS government.

The GA has called on the NPA to abandon their presidential campaign based on its low poll results and arguing the NPA is simply contesting with LO for 1-2% support in the elections. The GA argue that the NPA’s campaign is becoming indistinguishable from that of LO. The GA has called for the NPA’s March national leadership meeting to discuss and adopt the GA’s perspective.

In response to the emergence of the GA, the NPA majority is attempting to accommodate the GA. IT is looking to both pursuing its own election campaign in both Presidential and National Assembly elections, and at the same time saying that the GA can pursue the possibility of alliances with the FG for the National Assembly elections where agreement can be reached. As part of this the majority is exploring what resources can be made available to support any joint campaigns.

Its unclear where this discussion will go. It’s also difficult to know exactly what the prospects are like inside the FG compared to an electoral campaign outside. It is however possible to make a couple of observations about the character of the positions. I think that there is a real danger that the NPA majority is developing a position that not only is a sell out by the FG leadership, and particularly the PCF, inevitable, but that the crisis experienced by the USFI sections inside both the PRC in Italy and the PT in Brazil is also inevitable. As a consequence they seem to be avoiding question of the possible gains that could be made by leading fight inside the FG for a principled position in the wake of the National Assembly elections. It’s also difficult to get a read on exactly how the GA is relating FG and the extent they are turning engagement with the FG into a principle and thus making the NPA majority’s concerns justified.

Finally on the question of the NPA’s tactical orientation, I want to address what I see as fundamentally problematic with Dick’s analysis, that is attempting to judge what is the question of what os correct orientation for the NPA to adopt based solely on the prospects on the electoral front. Particularly the extent to which the NPA or the left in general will hold up following 2007 elections. It may be the case that due to the shifting state of the social movements unlike 2007 the NPA is not going to the elections having had its presidential candidate play a key role in a successful national campaign (i.e. Olivier Besancenot’s role in the “no” campaign on the European constitution). It may be possible that the NPA’s capacity to effectively build support in the social movements may be better in the long term outside of the FG, but that’s something you can’t get a clear view of outside of direct intimate experience of the French situation. I think it is significant that NPA has been able to successfully build joint mobilisations with both the Solidaires and the FSU education union around solidarity with the Greek movement against austerity.

On the “veil”
While I agree with Nathan in pointing out that the PG has taken a pretty hardline stance on around the “veil”, most of the French left have pretty awful positions based both on supposed advocacy of women’s rights and defence of laïcité. I mean this so as not to excuse the problems with the NPA but to give context to those who are not aware. In response to Ilham Moussaid candidacy for the NPA, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, “You can’t call yourself a feminist while showing off a sign of submission to the patriarchy.” Others examples include:

  • In the vote the National Assembly around the law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools, only 36 deputies voted against the law; 
  • In 2004, Arlette Laguiller the long term spokesperson of LO, marched alongside Nicole Guedj, a secretary of state in the justice ministry, in a march against the Hijab;
  • In the vote to ban the Burqa, the PG’s two senators voted in favour of the ban, with Agnes Marie La Barre, explaining in an article on the Party’s website on September 16 that “nobody is fooled by the xenophobic context in which the law is passed. However our senators felt that the struggle for women’s rights requires the passing of the law”.

I think that the NPA have been affected by this issue more than other forces on the French. This effect was due to a number of reasons. I was the NPA that had the mass media controversy in response to having a “veiled candidate”. It is also important to remember that the LCR had a history of attempting to engage with marginalised émigré communities many of whom come from Muslim backgrounds. This is reflected in the work of LCR/NPA militants such as Catherine Samary in fighting against the law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols and working for the inclusion of women who wear the hijab into feminist mobilisations and the LCR’s public defence and solidarity with youth who rioted across France following the deaths of two boys fleeing police on October 27.

This work meant that that the LCR and subsequently the NPA were able recruit and build networks in these communities. The debate in the NPA, which was sparked by Ilham’s candidacy, undoubtedly damaged this work – I can’t see how having a public debate about whether believers are welcome in the party could not damage this work irrespective that the outcome was that yes they can be members. In my opinion this component of the debate meant that it was not possible for the NPA to put having at least of the debate the 2011 Congress. Another major impact was that it divided the party, and while it’s true that the divisions did not correspond to the divisions around the NPA’s electoral and movement perspectives, this division impacted the ability to intervene around other issues. An example of this was the Law banning women from wearing the Burqa and Niqab in public, where the NPA only endorsed a mobilisation against the ban the night prior to the protest. Another important element of divisive character of the debate is that it raised questions of individuals’ feminist credentials based on how they choose to express their religion, and implications this has for the rights of women to control their own bodies.

While only a small number of individuals who obviously left the NPA over the issue of Ilham’s candidacy. This included Ilham and a group of militants around her, and a group angered by Ilham’s candidacy, some of which like Fabien Engelmann joined National Front over the issue. It undoubtedly had a negative impact on the NPA’s internal unity.

Finally I think that the situation that has confronted the NPA has been extremely complex, and has occurred within a political situation that has become more difficult for political action outside the electoral sphere – which is a major factor that differentiates the NPA from both the PCF and the PG. While I think we should be attempting to learn from the NPA experience I think it is problematic for us to suggest that there are simple answers to the challenges faced by the NPA.

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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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