No to Popular Frontism!
French ‘Far Left’ Moving Rightward
A month after Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France in May 2007, his party, the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), won a majority in the legislative elections. Sarkozy, who campaigned on a promise to revitalize French capitalism by “liquidating once and for all” the “heritage of May ’68,” quickly launched a series of vicious attacks on workers and the oppressed.
Last year more than 20,000 “illegal” immigrants were expelled from France and tens of thousands more face deportation. Under a law touting the “autonomy of universities,” post-secondary institutions have been opened to corporate investors while administrators can now replace public employees with contract staff. Sarkozy has pledged to phase out tens of thousands of government jobs and introduce a strikebreaking “minimum service” in public transit and education. The new government has overhauled the “special scheme” pensions in the transportation and energy sectors and plans to extend the standard contribution period to 41 years for all workers (in the early 1990s it was 37.5 years).
In autumn 2007, a wave of campus occupations protesting the moves toward privatization was aborted through a combination of state repression and reformist misleadership. The labor bureaucrats hobbled attempts at resistance by civil servants and broke the back of a potentially powerful transit strike in November. The day before transportation workers were set to walk off the job, Bernard Thibault of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) stabbed them in the back by agreeing to enterprise-by-enterprise negotiations. A presidential spokesperson saluted this strikebreaker: “Bernard Thibault has seen to it that the crisis can be resolved from the first day of conflict” (Le Monde, 15 November 2007). Rank-and-file railworkers continued their actions for over a week, and on 20 November 2007 joined striking civil servants as some 700,000 people demonstrated across France. But without a viable alternative leadership, resistance soon fizzled out.
A Crisis of Leadership
Sarkozy’s easy victories resulted from the treachery of the union leaders and reformist workers’ parties. Socialist Party (PS) leader, François Hollande, openly admitted that his party has only tactical differences with the UMP:
Last year various “revolutionaries” voted for the PS as a way to “beat the right,” despite open declarations by the Socialist Party leadership of its intent to carry out the capitalists’ agenda. None of the PS careerists who jumped ship to join Sarkozy—including Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner—have felt any need to repudiate their previous views.
The French Communist Party (PCF), which positions itself slightly to the left of the PS, is primarily concerned with maintaining its share of elected positions. In the March 2008 municipal elections, PCF candidates ran on joint lists with the PS and openly bourgeois parties (Left Radical Party [PRG], Republican Citizens’ Movement [MRC] and the Greens). Some of these popular-front blocs even included the Democratic Movement (MoDem—François Bayrou’s faction of the defunct “center-right” Union for French Democracy).
The French “far left” has sought to occupy the political terrain vacated by the PS and PCF. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR—flagship of the United Secretariat) is eagerly proclaiming its willingness to dissolve into a “New Anti-Capitalist Party” (NPA) organized on a social-democratic basis:
The LCR’s program for the 2008 municipal elections provides a classic example of “sewer socialist” reformism:
While rejecting an open alliance with the PS in the first round in favor of setting up popular-frontist lists with assorted petty-bourgeois and bourgeois elements (Greens, MRC, “alter-globalists” and Breton nationalists), the LCR advocated “technical agreements” with PS-led coalitions for the second round where MoDem was not participating.
The rightward devolution of the pseudo-Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (LO) has been no less grotesque. After backing Ségolène Royal, the unsuccessful PS presidential candidate, LO participated in municipal joint slates with the PS and PCF as well as the bourgeois PRG, MRC and Greens (which it considers part of “the left”):
The demoralized reformists leading LO did not even bother trying to disguise their motivation for participating in the popular-front lists, stating simply that “obtaining municipal councilors is extremely important for our political influence” (Lutte de Classe, December 2007-January 2008).
The following text was posted on www.bolshevik.org on 19 April 2007
Bourgeois democracy is valuable to the bourgeoisie chiefly because it promotes the illusion that voters decide social and economic policy, and must therefore accept responsibility for the consequences. While specific mechanisms vary from one country to another, capitalist elections are always organized to ensure that the interests of the bourgeoisie are not threatened. At the same time they provide an opportunity for different factions of the ruling class to sort out their differences.
This year’s two-round presidential and legislative elections center on the issue of how best to “rationalize” French capitalism, i.e., increase profits by reducing overhead and labor costs. There is an overwhelming consensus within the French bourgeoisie that in order to reverse its deteriorating position relative to its imperialist rivals, it must drive down popular living standards. Yet any attempt to do so is likely to encounter significant working-class resistance of the sort manifested in the mass strikes of 1995-96, and, on a lesser scale, in last year’s confrontation over changes to the labor code (see “Revolt Against Globalization,” 1917 No.18 and “The ‘Anti-CPE’ Movement in France,” 1917 No.29).
The spectacular failure of America’s war in Iraq, which has dramatically reduced Washington’s leverage over its European rivals, is seen by the French ruling class as an opportunity to participate in the reconfiguration of the imperialist world order on a scale not seen since the end of World War II. The French bourgeoisie seeks to entrench itself as the dominant power in its former colonies, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, and massively expand its influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
While refusing to participate in the disastrous U.S. adventure in Iraq, France has played a key role in imperialist attempts to bully Iran into abandoning its nuclear energy program and has contributed 2,000 troops to NATO’s colonial occupation of Afghanistan and almost as many to the United Nations’ force in southern Lebanon. French soldiers are also active in the effort to prop up the client regime Washington imposed on Haiti. France currently has 3,000 soldiers in the Ivory Coast, where French forces destroyed the tiny air force and brutally gunned down some 60 unarmed protesters in November 2004 (Guardian [London], 21 December 2004). Another 1,100 French soldiers are providing protection to the neo-colonial regime of Idriss Déby in Chad, and 300 more are helping François Bozizé cling to power in the Central African Republic. In all, there are currently over 36,000 French troops deployed outside France.
The constant propaganda in the domestic media portraying French intervention in its neo-colonies as a force for progress goes hand-in-hand with racist denunciations of the supposed threat posed by the brutally oppressed immigrant and Muslim populations at home. An ugly anti-immigrant mood has characterized much of the election campaign, as capitalist politicians propose to address the debilitating poverty of the ghetto masses by increasing “flexibility” for employers through gutting existing labor legislation and by introducing compulsory military service.
The presidential candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who prides himself on his role in the brutal suppression of the October-November 2005 riots by black and Arab youth who were enraged at police chasing two teenagers to their deaths. Sarkozy is openly courting supporters of the fascist National Front with slogans such as: “France, love it or leave it!” Some elements of the UMP are so uncomfortable with Sarkozy’s crude chauvinism that they have opted to support François Bayrou of the “center-right” Union for French Democracy (UDF).
Sarkozy’s main opponent, Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party (PS), who is promoting a “strong France” through maintaining a high level of military spending and the French nuclear arsenal, is also pandering to anti-immigrant chauvinism with promises to introduce boot camps for “delinquents” (i.e., minority youth from the suburban ghettos). Royal combines this with vague talk of raising the monthly minimum wage to 1,500 euros “as soon as possible” and “mastering globalization” with a variant of the Tobin tax.
Marie-George Buffet, presidential candidate of the French Communist Party (PCF), positions herself just slightly to the left of Royal with promises of boosting the minimum wage immediately, and talk of converting the “neo-liberal” European Union into “a social, democratic, eco-friendly Europe.” Buffet applauded President Jacques Chirac for dispatching more troops to Lebanon last summer and claims that French imperialist forces in the Middle East can provide “international security and protection for the civilian populations [of Israel-Palestine] under the flag of the UN” (“Pour une autre politique à gauche—le programme,” 23 January ).
Despite their occasional pro forma references to “socialism,” both the PS and PCF are what Lenin termed bourgeois workers’ parties, i.e., reformist formations whose unambiguously pro-capitalist leaders aspire to nothing more than a chance to govern on behalf of the bourgeoisie. The “plural left” government of 1997-2002, a “popular front” (i.e., cross-class coalition) composed of the PS, the PCF and a few small bourgeois formations (the Greens, the Left Radical Party and Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Citizens’ Movement), eagerly participated in NATO’s criminal attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 and the reactionary U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan a couple of years later. At home, there was little to distinguish its policy of privatizing public assets and attacking working-class gains from the austerity policies of its right-wing successor.
This time the Left Radicals and Chevènementistes agreed not to contest the presidential election in exchange for the PS standing down in a number of constituencies in the legislative elections. The Greens were unable to reach a similar deal, but François Hollande, PS general secretary, made it clear that they will still have a place in any new popular front:
The PCF, which depends on no-contest agreements with the PS to maintain its parliamentary fraction, is running its own presidential candidate in the first round, but will support Royal in the second, if she makes it that far. While Buffet has thus far publicly avoided comment on the question of her party’s participation in a PS-led popular front, it is no secret that the PCF will be just as eager to join a new version of the “plural left” as it was in 1997.
Left Reformism & Class Collaboration
In 2002, after five years of anti-working-class attacks by the last “plural left” government, an unprecedented ten percent of voters supported ostensibly Trotskyist “far-left” candidates in the first round of the presidential elections. This expression of dissatisfaction by a large section of the traditional base of the PCF/PS had only limited impact because none of the major “revolutionary” formations stood for a hard break with popular frontism.
Pierre Lambert’s Parti des Travailleurs (PT), which received some 130,000 votes in 2002, is backing Gérard Schivardi this time. Schivardi, a former member of the PS and mayor of the small town of Mailhac, billed himself as a “mayors’ candidate” who would champion the interests of French municipalities against the European Union (EU) bureaucracy. Daniel Gluckstein, the PT’s leading spokesperson, has touted this campaign as a step in the direction of breaking France’s “subordination” to the EU, which “empties universal suffrage of all meaning” (Informations ouvrières, 18-24 January ). In supporting Schivardi’s campaign, the Lambertistes, who still claim to be “Trotskyists” of some sort, demonstrate the logic of their bizarre notion of “re-conquering” bourgeois democracy and their obsessive anti-EU nationalism.
Arlette Laguiller, the perennial presidential candidate of Lutte Ouvrière (LO), another of France’s ostensibly Trotskyist groups, claims to stand for the working class. Yet this self-proclaimed revolutionary openly acknowledges that the slogans advanced in her campaign:
Why should class-conscious workers consider voting for a “revolutionary” who aspires to recreate conditions that are “difficult for working people”?
The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) opted to run Olivier Besancenot for president after concluding that the “anti-neo-liberal” coalition that coalesced to oppose the proposed EU constitution in 2005 was unlikely to turn into a suitable electoral vehicle. This decision produced a serious rift in the LCR cadre. In May 2006, four members of the LCR’s political bureau—Christian Picquet, Alain Faradji, Céline Malaisé and Francis Sitel—co-signed a call for a “unitary” multi-class electoral bloc with the PCF, dissident Socialists around Senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon and an assortment of petty-bourgeois formations, including a faction of the Greens, the Citizens’ Convergence for a Left Alternative, the Republican Left and the Movement for a Republican and Social Alternative.
The LCR majority, led by Alain Krivine, does not object in principle to participation in a cross-class coalition, but did not share Picquet’s enthusiasm for a “unitary” campaign dominated by the PCF. In June 2006, an LCR national conference called to discuss the question voted to send observers to meetings of the “anti-neo-liberal collectives” promoting a “unitary” left campaign, but announced that Besancenot’s candidacy would only be withdrawn if the PCF pledged in advance not to participate in any future government with the “neo-liberal” PS. While rejecting collaboration with the PS, the LCR remains perfectly happy to pursue a bloc with the constellation of small capitalist parties whose presence in any governmental coalition signals to the bourgeoisie that its fundamental interests will be protected.
In October 2006, the “anti-neo-liberal collectives” adopted a political program that called for “a democratic and social Sixth Republic” with a “new division of national wealth,” declaring: “France and Europe must not be, nor even appear to be, associated with the aggressive policy of domination of the United States.” Two months later, the “anti-neo-liberal” gambit imploded when the PCF used its organizational control of the collectives to impose its leader, Marie-George Buffet, as the “unitary” presidential candidate. Jean-Luc Mélenchon announced that he and his supporters would support Royal rather than Buffet, and a minority of the collectives opted to support the campaign of José Bové, a radical farmer nationalist best known for leading the Confédération Paysanne in dismantling a McDonald’s franchise.
The Picquet faction of the LCR wanted to support Bové, but Krivine et al refused to withdraw Besancenot on the grounds that Bové was also willing to support a PS-led coalition government. The French adherents of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) who operate in one of the LCR’s smaller factions, also preferred Bové to Besancenot, but their mentor, Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers Party, advised them not to openly campaign for Bové because splitting the LCR would “weaken one of the main instruments for renewing the French left” (Socialist Worker [London], 10 February ).
While the French supporters of the IST have found a home in the LCR, adherents of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT—associated with Alan Woods and the late Ted Grant) have attached themselves to the PCF and its youth group. These self-proclaimed “Trotskyists” who “categorically reject the arguments of those who see in the difficulties of the last period signs of the irreversible ‘historic’ decline of our party [i.e., the Stalinist PCF]” (www.lariposte.com, 30 May 2005) are enthusiastically backing Buffet. The IMT is outraged by the LCR’s pretense of “refusing any sort of agreement with the PS”:
Everyone knows that the LCR, which in 2002 voted for Jacques Chirac as a “lesser evil” and which today proclaims that “Sacking the right in 2007 is for us a public health measure” (Rouge, 17 November 2006), is going to end up voting for the PS in the second round (if Royal is still on the ballot). Besancenot admitted as much when asked how he intended to vote in the second round:
‘Beating the Right’ vs. Trotskyist Principles
The French electoral system provides the “far left” with an opportunity for socialist speechifying and “Trotskyist” posturing in the first round. In the second, in which the top two candidates have a runoff, the fearless “revolutionaries” are virtually all prepared to vote for popular-front candidates in order to “beat the right.” But popular frontism can only “beat the left” (i.e., the interests of the working class and oppressed). The strategy of building a cross-class coalition is an explicit repudiation of the central axis of socialist politics—the necessity for the workers’ movement to remain independent from the bourgeoisie. Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the Russian Revolution, declared in 1936 that “the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch” and as such provides “the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism” (“The POUM and the Popular Front”).
Reformist parties involved in popular fronts are not necessarily more likely to govern in the interests of the capitalist class than they would on their own. But when they act as a component of a popular front, their working-class character is effectively suspended and the contradiction between their ostensible socialism and their actions as the open agents of the capitalists is therefore suppressed. Voting for candidates who are openly committed to the creation of a cross-class coalition can only hold back the class struggle. Trotsky’s observation that “All the Popular Fronts in Europe are only a pale copy and often a caricature of the Russian Popular Front of 1917” is just as true today as it was in the 1930s.
At its October 2006 national conference, Lutte Ouvrière, which is capable of making occasional criticisms of the reformist logic of lesser-evilism, adopted a document which recalled the formula it used in 1974 and 1981 when it supported the candidate of the “Union of the Left” popular front: “Without illusions but without reserve, we call to vote for Mitterrand.” In denouncing a refusal to vote for “left” candidates today as “imbecilic leftism,” LO advanced the following opportunist calculation: “it is precisely to be in a position to give them [workers] reasons to vote for Arlette Laguiller that we do not currently, nor during the campaign will we, say to them that the left is the same as the right” (Lutte de Classe, December 2006-January 2007). But when the “left” is a coalition of openly bourgeois parties with reformist workers’ parties there is no way for working people to cast a class vote.
The LCR and LO are not alone in abandoning the Trotskyist position of hard opposition to popular frontism. Many smaller formations that claim to represent “orthodox” Trotskyism also accept the logic of lesser-evilism. For example, the group known as the Cercle (now part of the Groupe pour la construction du Parti ouvrier révolutionnaire), one of the surviving fragments of Stéphane Just’s 1984 split from Pierre Lambert’s Organisation Communiste Internationaliste, attacked LO for its (entirely disingenuous) hint that it may decide not to back Royal in a second round runoff against Sarkozy on the grounds that this fails to take advantage of “the popular aspiration to ‘beat the right’” (Combattre pour le socialisme, 12 January ). They also denounced the LCR’s objections to PCF cooperation with the PS as placing:
The Groupe Bolchevik (GB), the most left-wing of the Justist organizations, criticizes LO and the LCR for failing to pose a revolutionary alternative, but stops short of making the repudiation of a bloc with any bourgeois party a precondition for electoral support. The GB is prepared to vote for PS and PCF candidates even though they are running on the basis of establishing a coalition government with capitalist formations, claiming that this represents an application of the “workers’ united front”:
The GB asserts that: “To Get Rid of Sarkozy and Le Pen, Break with the Bourgeoisie and Open the Road to a Workers’ Government and to Socialism!” (Révolution Socialiste, January ). But in France today, a “break with the bourgeoisie” requires revolutionaries to make electoral support for reformist workers’ parties conditional on their repudiation of any perspective of coalition with capitalist parties. That is what the Russian Bolsheviks demanded of the Mensheviks and other reformists in 1917 when they called on them to eject the “Ten Capitalist Ministers” and govern in their own name. This approach remains every bit as important today as it was 90 years ago. Would-be revolutionaries who are prepared to vote for reformist parties when they campaign as components of a multi-class political bloc are, in effect, supporting a popular front. The GB asserts that it “accords only minor importance to electoral tactics,” yet voting for the “workers’ component” of the popular front is neither a minor, nor a tactical question. Marxists oppose popular frontism as a matter of principle.
Electoral Tactics and Class-Struggle Politics
In June 1940, several leaders of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) visited Mexico, where they discussed tactics for the U.S. presidential election with Leon Trotsky. As the SWP was unable to stand its own candidate for president, Trotsky suggested a policy of “critical support” to the Communist Party (CP), which was then, as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact signed less than a year earlier, assuming an anti-imperialist posture of opposition to American involvement in World War II. Trotsky suggested that the SWP should try to take advantage of “the coincidence between their slogans and ours,” which, he observed, could only be “transitory,” by approaching the CP ranks and clearly posing the conditions for electoral support:
Trotsky did not view critical support to the CP as some sort of “class against class” categorical imperative, but rather as a “very short and very critical” maneuver:
James P. Cannon, the SWP’s central leader, raised the following objection:
Trotsky’s approach was diametrically opposed to a policy of automatically voting for reformist parties regardless of their record and declared intentions. Electoral support to candidates of the PCF/PS when everyone knows they will form a coalition with bourgeois forces amounts to endorsing class collaboration. A revolutionary policy must begin by making independence from the bourgeoisie a precondition for any form of electoral support. This is not the omega of Trotskyist electoral tactics, but it is the alpha.
The French working class has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity for struggle and its desire to find a way to effectively resist capitalist attacks. What it lacks is an organization capable of providing revolutionary leadership, which is prepared to aggressively combat the defeatist, pro-capitalist polices of the trade-union bureaucracy and their parliamentary counterparts among the “socialist” and “communist” left. The critical task of forging such a leadership must begin by assembling a nucleus of militants committed to a revolutionary “class against class” policy and unconditionally opposed to every form of popular frontism.