Sunday, June 11, 2017

France: France Insoumise, the PCF and the challenge of building a left fight-back against Macron

Lisbeth Latham
The strong performance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the French presidential election (19.58%), the highest vote by candidate to the left of social democracy since 1969, gave rise to hope for the potential for the French left to rebuild its presence in the French parliament and establish itself as a barrier to Macron establishing a parliamentary majority. A factor that could contribute to fully realising this opportunity would be the extent to which a united-left electoral campaign could be built– particularly between the parties which made up the Front de Gauche (Left Front - FG).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon addresses a France Insoumise rally
However, rather than unity the dynamics of division that have been in play for more than two years have largely deepened and could potentially result in the left returning fewer members to parliament than in 2012.

Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was primarily driven by France Insoumise (Indomitable France – FI), the mass organisation which Mélenchon launched on February 10, 2016 with the support of Parti de Gauche (Left Party – PG), the party he launched following his resignation from the PS in 2009. When FI was launched, Mélenchon also announced the dissolution of the Front de Gauche – the electoral front which had been launched between the PG, the Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party – PCF) and a number of smaller left parties. FI has primarily organised via the web, with supporters being organised into committees of between 5-12 people, By May 1, FI had more than 450, 000 supporters, in March, when the organisation had over 260, 000 supporters, there were 2, 800 committees across.

Pierre Laurent
In addition to the support from FI, Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was supported by the PCF and Ensemble (a regroupment of smaller left groups within the FG). However, while the launch of FI and Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was supported by some of PCF’s leadership, particularly Pierre Laurent, PCF National Secretary, and Marie-George Buffet, current MP and former PCF National Secretary, many PCF members were hostile to both the creation of FI and to Melenchon’s presidential campaign. Fifty-five percent of the PCF’s National Conference on November 5, rejected a proposal to support Melenchon’s presidential bid. Three weeks later, 54% of the party’s 50, 000 paid membership voted to support Mélenchon’s candidacy. This support was vital, as in order to be formally nominated for president, he required the endorsement from 500 elected officials – which the PCF’s formal support gave him. There was also significant resistance within Ensemble where 30% of members voting against supporting Mélenchon’s candidature.

Mélenchon’s success in the presidential elections while being a culmination of a growth of in hope around his campaign – also raised the hope that if the vote could be translated through to the legislative elections there would be a possibility that the left of the PS could not only significantly boost its presence in parliament, but have a big enough contingent to be able to block Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche! (the Republic on the Move – LREM) holding a majority in the parliament. This need was reinforced after Macron announced his government with former right-wing Les Repulicains MP Édouard Philippe as his prime minister. Macron announced plans for a new round of attacks on workers to follow on from last year’s El Khomri labour laws which significantly undermined worker and union rights.

Despite this hope and need for a united left electoral response, it has not materialised. While in the wake of the Macron’s victory in the second round both the PCF and Ensemble! issued statements calling for a united left electoral ticket. FI insisted the basis for unity was for candidates run under FI’s banner, be based on acceptance of FI’s program, and that all public funding generated based on votes for FI candidates would go to FI. Positions which the PCF was unwilling to accept, based on their desire run under a common banner but also allow individual parties to be profiled and the PCF’s unwillingness to campaign for the withdrawal from nuclear power generation. On May 9, Manuel Bompard an FI spokesperson announced that negotiations had broken down, he blamed the PCF’s Laurent for this. As a consequence, the FI would be running its own candidates in every constituency including constituencies where the PCF, Ensemble!, or Europe Ecology les Vertes (Europe Ecology - The Greens) have sitting MPs (unless the sitting MP had endorsed Mélenchon’s presidential campaign).

The failure to form a united ticket reflects long-running tensions within the FG which culminated in the 2015 regional elections where the FG was heavily divided and received tiny votes. From the outset there were tensions within the Front about both the character of the front, was it an alliance between organisations or should individual activists be able to join and have a say, and around democracy, with the PCF, particularly in areas where it was the largest organisation, imposing its candidates, there had also been tensions as to who could say they were front candidate – which was a problem in municipal and regional elections where tickets are run and at times member organisations were represented on different tickets – with the sharpest question being could a ticket involving official PS candidates be labelled a FG ticket? With the PCF (which was more likely to be in such an alliance pushing for the ability for it to wave the FG flag in these circumstances).

These tensions culminated in a meeting of the European United Left/ Nordic Green Left (EUG/NGL) in 2014 where PG sort to block Pierre Laurent’s election to the presidency of the EUL/NGL over the question of the PCF’s running joint tickets with the PS, although Laurent was subsequently elected. In the 2015 regional elections (which were marked by a sharp increase in support for the Front National) the FG ran only a seven of tickets involving all of the FG– with the rest being a variety of separate tickets with the PCF and thePG running on different tickets. The joint tickets performed badly, with the only ticket in Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées receiving sufficient votes to contest the second round – all the remaining tickets averaging 2.49%. In the wake of this failure, the Front essentially stopped operating as a joint organisation and Mélenchon announcing the PG would be leaving the Front.

The rupture between the PCF and FI has created considerable concern that it will dramatically undermine the ability to of the left to maximise its parliamentary representation and build an effective block to work with social movements to oppose Macron’s regressive agenda for France. On May 10, Ensemble! issued a statement saying that it was not the time to settle scores or for mutual accusations, but instead to build a framework for bringing together the forces which had supported Mélenchon’s candidacy, based on a proposal of a common charter for candidates for the legislative elections that Ensemble! had made to the PCF and FI – Ensemble! had also called for regional and departmental meetings of the organisations to try and overcome the “national bottleneck”. While these proposals if adopted might create clarity for the basis of joint candidates, it doesn’t overcome the sticking point of who would be the candidate in each constituency – particularly when the PCF is faced with a fight for its electoral survival, and there is a view that Mélenchon’s approach to the PCF is partly motivated by desire to further marginalise the PCF.

It is unclear what the impact of the electoral division will have on the elections. The shared polling for the FI/PCF has been in decline since early May from a high of 18% to a low of 14.5% with projected returned candidates down from a projected high of 25-30 to a low of 12-22 (the FG components currently hold 10 seats). The splitting of the vote is likely to result in less candidates making it through to the second round (unlike the presidential elections where only the top two candidates go through to the second round, in the legislative elections if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote then all candidates receiving more than 12% of the vote qualify for the second round) other than lowering confidence of the left electorate, having two or more left candidates (both the Nouveau Parti Anticapitlisate and Lutte Ouvrier will also be standing candidates) in a constituency may not undermine the capacity for the left to win seats. The bigger threats are the potential rebound in the PS vote from the historic low of 6.38% which Hamon received in April – while the left division could contribute to this – the PS performs is likely to be better at the local level particularly from the PS’s left who opposed the regressive record of the Hollande and the governments of Aryault and Valls. An additional factor is that Hamon’s vote also collapsed as Mélenchon’s campaign built momentum and it looked more likely he could overtake Francois Fillon and possibly Le Pen – this dynamic is much less likely to occur in the legislative elections, at least at the national level. By far the biggest threat to the return of left candidates, however, will be the threat of abstentionism as people see a victory for Macron’s LREM and the forces to its right as inevitable.

The reality is that no matter the result for the parties of the left – they will not be able to block Macron’s agenda by their actions in parliament alone – even if LREM does not achieve an electoral majority outright, it will be in a position to try and stick together sufficient support from the PS and Les Repulicains to pass legislation. The only force which will be able to stop that process will be the resistance in the streets. To this end, there has been a positive boost to the resistance with the formation of the Social Front. Initiated by union activists who had been involved in the campaign against the El Khomri laws and who had been frustrated by the decision by union leaderships to end mobilisations against those laws on September 15, 2016. The FS called for mobilisations against both Le Pen and Macron on April 22, May 1, and May 8 – it has now expanded its support to from 70 militant organisations. The FS has also called for a national meeting on June 10, along with local organising meetings after that date, and a mass mobilisation for June 19. The significance of the emergence of the FS is that in the last decade resistance to government attacks, particularly on workers, has primarily occurred via the intersydicale which brings together the leaderships of France’s union confederations – however if some of these confederations refuse to participate such as the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) and the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers) in the campaign against the El Khomri laws in 2016, then there is a very limited framework for engaging rank-and-file members of these confederations who want to fight government attacks. The formation of the FS may provide a framework to reach out to broader layers of workers and build resistance despite the direction of the more conservative confederation leaderships.

While there are serious challenges for progressive forces in France – made more difficult by the organisational divisions within the left, both the legislative elections and the formation of the FS pose a positive opportunity to build resistance to the attacks which Macron is preparing on French society. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 


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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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