Issue 84 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1999 Copyright © International Socialism
The tide turns: class struggle, fascism and the left in France1
'Don't you think', the newscaster asked prime minister Lionel Jospin, 'that there's a whiff of a pre-May 1968 or a pre-revolutionary situation in the air?'2 Certainly, on this particular day in January 1998, two years after the great public sector strikes of December 1995, the combativity of French workers was showing little sign of abating. The events of that December had been followed by a series of successful strikes by tramworkers;3 a high profile campaign by immigrants seeking residence papers (sans-papiers) which culminated in the occupation of a Paris church in the summer of 1996; a militant strike by lorry drivers the following autumn; the occupation, in January 1997, of the Credit Foncier bank by 2,000 employees protesting against its closure; a massive and confident demonstration against plans to reinforce racist anti-immigration legislation in February; a magnificent 50,000 strong march on the National Front (FN) congress in Strasbourg a month later; a second lorry drivers' strike the following November; and then, before, during and after Christmas in the winter of 1997-1998, weeks of protests and occupations by associations of the unemployed which thrust the demand for more state aid for those out of work to the centre of political debate.
Television news pictures showed angry demonstrators striding into well to do restaurants and demanding to be given food. When one group was offered an out of the way table in the basement they stood firm until they were seated alongside the other diners. Jospin found himself obliged to appear on the evening news to put the government's case. The format of his interview revealed how the mood in France had shifted. Before anything was asked of him, Jospin was made to sit through two interviews with unemployed workers. 'If he says, "There you are, here's a £150 [a month] raise in benefits", he's going to solve nothing,' one of them warned Jospin. 'He's got to get that into his head'.4 Each time concessions were won from the government, the impression that Jospin, whom protesters compared to a piggy bank, could be made to give way again, grew-a feeling neatly summed up by one trade unionist who told the Libération newspaper, 'We're going to carry on shaking the little piggy from Cintegabelle'.5
Still the protests did not let up. On a bright spring day in March 1998 tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Paris to march from the Bastille to the Place de la Nation against the National Front. Many anti-FN protests had followed the same route during the 15 years since the party's emergence as a major political force. But this one was different. Whereas in the early 1990s demonstrations tended to be defensive, bitter affairs,6 anti-racist protests by the end of the decade had become a vibrant, heady mix of combativity and optimism. The imprint on the march of the so called social movement that had first exploded in December 19957 was everywhere: in the manifest confidence of those present, in the slogans and banners (one read simply, 'Watch out, here comes the spring'), and in the presence of contingents of revitalised anti-racist organisations and striking teachers from the Seine-Saint-Denis region to the north of Paris, in dispute with the Socialist education minister Claude Allègre. Throughout 1998 and into 1999 the struggles have continued, with teachers, medical staff, pilots, the unemployed and immigrants continuing to mobilise against Jospin's left coalition government elected in June 1997. In October 1998 school students, angry at the lack of teachers and resources, at their own workload, at overcrowded classrooms and at the state of school buildings, took to the streets. A wave of protests erupted across France. In a single week over a million school students demonstrated in over 350 towns.8
The revival of the labour movement during the 1990s has had implications for the whole of the political spectrum. On the right, the question of how to confront this resurgence has led to a polarisation between those seeking confrontation and those opting for compromise. All three major right wing parties--the Gaullist Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), the centre-right Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF) and the fascist National Front (FN)--put on the defensive since 1995, have suffered splits and resignations. On the left the Socialist Party (PS) has resurrected its reformist credentials, the Communist Party (PCF) is shedding its Stalinist image in an attempt to redefine itself as a mainstream social democratic party, while the Greens and the Trotskyist left have found a significant electoral audience. What follows is an analysis of the unfolding crisis of French society which centres on the different forces attempting to set the political agenda. It begins with an assessment of the resurgence of class struggle before examining its political implications, focusing on the labour movement, the record of the left coalition in office and the recent split in the National Front. The article ends with an assessment of how France's Trotskyist left has responded to the new situation.
The lessons of December
Towards the end of 1967, unaware that within months the biggest general strike in France's history would all but end his presidency, Charles de Gaulle declared, 'I greet the year 1968 with serenity...with satisfaction'.9 Jacques Chirac, leader of the Gaullist RPR, could have been forgiven for similar complacency as he surveyed the political scene in 1994 and prepared for his presidential campaign. The right held over 80 percent of seats in the National Assembly, the Socialist Party had been reduced to a rudderless rump, winning only 14 percent of the vote in the 1994 European election, and Chirac's friend and ally, prime minister Edouard Balladur, was riding high in the polls. Chirac seemed to have seen off the threat to his authority from within his own party, both from the so called 'fortysomething' reformers, many of whom were now under investigation for corruption, and from the orthodox Gaullists, the reactionary Charles Pasqua and the more moderate Philippe Séguin, who had formed an unholy anti-Chirac alliance in the early 1990s.
Chirac, however, had counted without the personal ambition of Balladur, who repudiated 30 years of friendship and an alleged agreement between the two men to declare himself a candidate for the presidency. Since Balladur had staked his campaign on his government's record of economic liberalism, Chirac's only chance, given the parlous state of the Socialists, would be to outflank Balladur on the left. This strategy was a risky one since Chirac not only had a reputation as being uncompromisingly right wing (as a government representative in negotiations with the CGT trade union in May 1968 he is rumoured to have gone into talks with a revolver stuffed in his belt),10 but was also responsible for the RPR's 'liberal turn' of the mid-1980s when he turned his back on the protectionist, state-directed legacy of de Gaulle and embraced the free market.11 Chirac's attitude to the 1995 campaign was breezily dishonest: 'I will astonish you', he told his advisers, 'with my demagogy'.12 Aided by Séguin, he drew up a manifesto which promised 'a France for all', and made the central theme of his campaign the 'social fracture' which had divided the country into haves and have nots. His strategy was based on the political calculation that the haughty and aristocratic demeanour of Balladur would appear remote and out of touch alongside his own earthy populism.13 But the campaign also struck a chord because the 'social fracture' was a reality.14 Having defeated Balladur and the Socialist Party candidate, Lionel Jospin, who managed to revive the PS vote and even win the first round ballot, Chirac appointed Alain Juppé prime minister. When it became clear that Juppé, an aloof, calculating technocrat, memorably described by a Socialist deputy as the 'personification of tax', had absolutely no intention of addressing France's social crisis, an almighty backlash ruined Juppé's career and effectively scuppered the Chirac presidency too.
The backlash came in the form of massive public sector strikes in December 1995 against the swingeing cuts which Juppé proposed for the social security system. The implementation of the Juppé Plan was itself an illustration of the uncertainty gripping the right over how to curb state spending and deal with opposition to the cutbacks. The concessions offered by Balladur in the face of protests during his premiership earned him the nickname 'Ballamou' (mou meaning soft as opposed to dur meaning hard). When Alain Madelin advocated taking an uncompromising hard line he was sacked from the Juppé government. Yet within months Juppé was waging an onslaught of his own. For several weeks two million public sector workers brought France's cities to a virtual standstill and hundreds of thousands of workers took part in the biggest demonstrations seen since May 1968. The strikes were initiated by the trade union leadership:
One journalist, present one evening at two impromptu mass meetings at a postal depot in Paris, described how the strike spread like 'a powder trail'.16 Striking railway workers called on the postal workers to join them: 'We can win but we need numbers. We are going to paralyse the economy. We have to get round other workplaces and explain to people.'
Across Paris at the Gare du Nord station someone wrote, 'No, the Commune is not dead!' on the walls. Day after day the press and TV were filled with images of strikers and demonstrations. The RPR's attempts to form anti-strike 'consumers' committees' were an abject failure. One group of strikers was watching a local news broadcast which went live to an RPR meeting. They immediately rushed down to the venue and bricked up the door to the building! Karl Marx was voted 'man of the year' by a national newspaper.18 'I was dreaming of this,' said one railway worker, 'a mini-revolution. I'm up to my neck in debt but I don't care. I've stopped counting. We're all together. We're not giving up'.19
The strikes represented a huge slap in the face for every professional sociologist who had argued that the working class was a spent force: 'They wanted to throw class struggle out through the door, it came back in through the window'.20 One group of influential academics, having published a petition in defence of the government's attack on public services,21 then proceeded to develop an analysis which sought to belittle the significance of the strikes. They were 'defensive', 'backward looking', 'corporatist', 'irrational', a 'one-off'. An article in Le Monde, disgracefully, even tried to insinuate a comparison between the strikes and National Front ideology.22 Even the term 'social movement', which is now commonly used to describe the continuing strike wave, is a euphemism which implies that it is fundamentally apolitical in character. The academic mainstream still clings to its dismissal of class. In a book published in 1996 two prominent sociologists summed up the main thrust of the argument:
The reality, as we shall see, could not have been more different. What began as a public sector strike against the Juppé government's plans to reform the social security system sparked a sea change in French politics, creating a new mood characterised by a backlash against free market economics, a belief that strikes work, and widespread rejection of the scapegoating of immigrants and the stigmatising of the unemployed. In short, 1995 marked the end of a 'period of resignation',24 and an end to the liberal consensus of the 1980s, ultimately posing the question about 'what kind of society we live in and want to live in'.25
A decade and a half of recession and austerity had had a cumulative effect. In some cases it led to profound despondency, reflected in the following remarks by a supermarket cashier:
The appalling record of the left in office, discussed below, had robbed many of any sense that an alternative way of living was possible. But cynicism about political representatives cut both ways. In the early 1990s increasing numbers began to take things into their own hands. Air France workers struck successfully in 1993 and the following year school students forced the Balladur government to back down on its plans to introduce a cheap youth employment scheme. Early in 1994 an article in Le Monde described France's social climate as poised 'between resignation and explosion'.27 Going by the bald statistics of the time the prospects for struggle looked bleak. Union membership was falling,28 and, from an average of around three million a year in the 1970s, the annual total of strike days had dropped to below half a million in the 1990s.29 But the explosion happened. Those involved in the strikes underlined again and again their cathartic effect. 'Instead of making the trains work, we made ideas work',30 was one railway worker's memory of December. 'Strikes', argued a Paris Metro worker, 'completely change a man':
Suddenly the possibilities for real change came alive. A nurse involved in the strikes told how, having dropped out of political activity, her ideas had been turned around:
Far from being a corporatist or sectional revolt, the strikes of December 1995 were, in the words of one union delegate, 'a conflict of existence'.33 Moreover, one of the defining features of the resurgence in class conflict has been the way in which links have been made, not just between different sections within particular industries, or even between different groups of workers, but between workers and almost every other group involved in struggle, from students and the unemployed to immigrants and gays. Sectionalism, which union activists had spent years trying to break down, suddenly began to disintegrate.34 'We are no longer fighting for ourselves,' one railway worker remarked a week into the 1995 strike:
The coordination movement and the role of the rank and file
Central to the solidarity that has underpinned the strikes of the past few years has been the ability of both rank and file union members and non-unionised workers to achieve greater democratic control over their actions. The strikes reflected a longstanding wariness of the trade union leadership. French unions are split along political lines into five main confederations and numerous smaller independent unions. The dominant union of the post-war period has been the Communist-dominated Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), which survived a right wing split in 1947, leading to the formation of Force Ouvrière (FO), to play a key role in bringing the strikes of May 1968 to an end. In the wake of the May events the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), formed in 1964, established itself as a younger, less dogmatic and more militant alternative to the CGT, more alive to feminism and ecological issues and, most importantly, to the new post-1968 buzzword, autogestion, or workers' 'self management', 'which could mean anything from full-blooded soviet power to a couple of union representatives on a consultative committee'.36
With the CGT suffering, along with the PCF, as a result both of the party's long term decline and of Communist participation in the first setbacks of the Mitterrand presidency, the 'realist' attitude adopted by the CFDT leadership during the 1980s, with the emphasis on concessions and negotiation rather than strike action, eventually provoked a reaction. Workers in several unions openly defied their leaders by taking strike action and turning their strike committees into 'coordinations' which by-passed the bureaucracy. Between 1986 and 1988 strikes by railway and motor industry workers, students, postal workers, nurses and teachers were all led by autonomous coordinations. Some of them, like the nurses' Coordonner, Rassembler, Construire (CRC) and the postal workers SUD-PTT, became permanent structures, led by activists expelled from the CFDT. The attraction of the coordinations, particularly to young and non-unionised workers, was in their combativity and in their emphasis on unity and the democratic participation of the rank and file in union activity.
In numerous workplaces during December 1995 the mass meeting, lasting sometimes up to two hours, became the focal point for the strikes.37 Strikers were conscious of the need to retain control over their representatives. 'For once', according to one commentator, 'the trade union rank and file was on the side of the active minority critical of the union leadership'.38 Workers from elsewhere, and students, invited each other to take part in the meetings. Whereas before, strikes involving different groups of workers had appeared 'closed in on themselves', a new unity was emerging.39 Another feature of the strikes was the involvement of young and non-unionised workers. One CGT representative for Paris transport workers recalls discussing with another union official, three or four days into the 1995 strike, whether to address political issues, only to find that 'we had already been overtaken by people who were neither politicised, members of an organisation, or unionised... They were mostly young, around 24 or 25 years old, who took up these issues in a very lively and very sharp way'.40 According to one commentator, 'The traditional process whereby the conflict, in a kind of "raising of awareness", makes non-unionised workers discover trade union activism, was almost replaced by the exact opposite: the activists discovered their colleagues'.41
Confidence rekindled workers' pride and combativity, a palpable element in the massive demonstrations which filled the streets of every major French town and turned the air thick with the red flares of the railway workers. 'Before the conflict', declared one striker, 'I worked for the SNCF. Now I'm a railway worker'.42 In Montpellier railway workers built tracks in the town centre.43 Their counterparts in Paris, finding themselves stuck behind a slow moving contingent of electricity workers on one of the first demonstrations of 1995, streamed into the closed off section of the road and overtook them, saluting them with clenched fists and attempting to infect them with their dynamism, encouraging them to take up the slogan, 'Tous ensemble, tous ensemble'.44
This desire to spread the conflict and to learn from others in struggle has also been a distinguishing feature of the new mood. In 1996, when a group of so called sans-papiers (immigrants made 'illegal' by racist legislation introduced in 1994), occupied a Paris church, their demands became a national issue, inflamed by the decision of the Juppé government to send riot police in to smash down the doors with axes and evict the protesters. Subsequent protests by the unemployed have borrowed the tactic and occupied various prominent buildings, from job centres to the Bank of France, the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Socialist Party headquarters. In 1996 a 5,000 strong protest against redundancies at a Moulinex factory in the town of Mamers took the form of a 'die-in', directly inspired by the AIDS awareness movement ACT-UP.45 Also, as we have seen, the mass meetings of 1995 forged close links between workplaces, to the extent that the strikers were often more aware of what was happening elsewhere than the union leadership. In the eyes of one Paris Metro worker, 'This strike was directed by the rank and file, by the mass meetings. The union was not rejected, but its role was a logistical one of following up and carrying out collective decisions'.46
Such views nevertheless overestimate the extent of rank and file control and underestimate the ability of the trade union leadership to exert its influence, not least when it came to calling a halt to the movement. But the leadership was all the same forced to embrace elements of rank and file democracy in order to retain this influence, and to respect another major element in the 1995 strikes, the desire for unity, reflected in the number of joint union banners on the demonstrations and the fact that from the end of November there were no separate union contingents. Certainly the union leadership took the threat posed by the rank and file seriously. During the December strike wave no attempt was made to challenge the authority of mass meetings, and the CGT in particular made concerted efforts to generalise the movement to the private sector, staging an attempt, for example, to persuade the workforce at the Renault plant and Boulougne-Billancourt to support the railway workers.47 But neither the CGT nor the Communist Party nor the Socialists offered a political lead to the movement. The slogan, 'Juppé, resign!' was never taken up by the representatives of the mainstream left. Indeed, on the demonstrations CGT representatives actively challenged those who did take up the slogan. Nor did the CGT draw up a list of general demands that could act as a rallying point for the whole movement, insisting instead on the need for sectional grievances to be dealt with first. When the government announced that it would hold a 'social summit' on the crisis and the question of ending the strike was posed, there was little effective opposition to the CGT's call to return to work.
In one railway depot on the outskirts of Paris the CGT ordered delegations from other workplaces (some of them invited by the CGT itself!) to leave the mass meeting which would vote on whether to end the strike, so that railway workers could decide 'among themselves'. CGT delegates proceeded to argue for a return to work, using the decision of a nearby depot of Metro workers to end their strike to support their argument. The workers, some of them in tears, voted to end their strike on the eve of a major demonstration. The following day Metro workers streamed into the depot to make an emotional appeal to continue the strike, having decided themselves to carry on. The CGT had lied to the meeting.48
The problem raised here concerns the best way to create an independent political alternative to the trade union leadership. The coordinations, which have been so much a feature of the struggles of the past decade or so, represent a powerful and democratic challenge to the bureaucracy. But their great strength is as an apparatus of struggle. In this sense they exist not so much as a subsititute for trade union organisation, but as a means of challenging the ability of the conservative bureaucracy to control strike action by providing a more democratic means of representing the wishes of the rank and file engaged in action.49 The tendency to establish permanent structures based on the experience of the coordinations (often, it must be said, as a result of the expulsion of their leaders by the trade union leadership), is a different matter. On the one hand, the SUD (Solidaires, Unitaires, Démocratiques) unions have provided a channel for the most militant activists and an alternative to the conservative bureaucracy of the CFDT. On the other, however, their proliferation has divided an already fragmented trade union movement. The danger is that the best union activists, in their impatience to defy the bureaucracy, will isolate themselves from the main body of trade unionists and find themselves in radical and combative unions which organise only a tiny minority of workers. While this has not happened in the case of SUD-PTT, which has the support of around 15 percent of postal workers, there are now around a dozen SUD unions, most of which do not enjoy the same degree of influence.
The failure of reformist politicians to deliver cannot be exposed without making a link between their specific failings over concrete, practical issues and the general question of reformism and its role. Such arguments are obviously more easily won in narrow groupings than in broad confederations. However, simply bypassing the major trade unions offers an organisational substitute for existing structures while leaving the question of how to break the political hold of the bureaucracy over the majority of workers unresolved. In some cases, as the example of the teachers' strike demonstrates, by focusing on general political demands--such as 'Allègre out!'--at the expense of the bread and butter issues of resources which concern all teachers, the coordinations proved unable to win over many non-strikers.50 Some have argued that the coordinations represent a return to the syndicalist origins of the French trade union movement,51 echoing various traditions from the soviets and the International Workers of the World (IWW), and that they reject the disinction between politics and economics.52 Indeed, the SUD-PTT charter of 1989 explicity identifies with the French syndicalist tradition, evoking the 1906 CGT charter which set out a dual role for the union: the defence of immediate and everyday demands combined with the struggle for the transformation of the whole of society, independent of political parties.53 But formally rejecting the distinction between politics and economics is not the same as defeating it in practice. Although we can point to many examples of economic struggles feeding political struggles and vice versa over recent years (with the fight against the National Front, discussed below, among the most dramatic), the conflicts opened up since 1995, despite the huge shift in ideas, have yet to go beyond what Marx, in characterising trade union struggle, described as 'a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system',54 and develop into a generalised attempt to change the system itself. The reproduction of trade union structures, however radical, offers a different set of weapons for waging this guerilla war, but as yet the confidence and solidarity generated by the resurgence of class struggle have yet to crystallise around a political alternative.
Reformism without reforms
A major factor in the Socialist Party's loss of direction during the 1980s was the inability of successive Socialist governments to offer an alternative to the market or the social decay which it left in its wake. During the 1970s the French left had drawn up the 'Common Programme' which pledged to 'smash the domination of big capital' through nationalisations, controls on financial markets and the creation of a national investment bank. François Mitterrand declared that his party would 'rip from the monopolies the instrument of their power by transferring the principal means of production of the private sector to the public sector'.55 Once elected in 1981 it was Lionel Jospin who put the new government's position in perspective: 'Thus political power is essentially us. Economic power is essentially the dominant sectors of financial and industrial monopoly capitalism. Will there be a clash or a compromise between these two powers?'56 Since, argued Jospin, the left had chosen to transform the economic system gradually, compromise would be sought.
This 'compromise' saw the Socialists turn on their electorate and wed themselves to an austerity programme, starting in 1983, with devastating results. Despite an increase in gross national product of over a third (the equivalent of a £50 a week increase in the entire population's wages), the proportion of value added (the difference between the overall cost of the manufacturing process and the final value of the product) given over to wages fell from 68.7 percent in 1981 to 60.6 percent in 1993. At the same time, the share given over to investment fell from 20.6 percent in 1970 to 15.4 percent in 1981 and 14.8 percent in 1993. 'What, then, have the companies done with their profits? They have redistributed them to their shareholders (in the form of dividends) and to their creditors (in the form of interest paid to banks or bond holders) or they have invested them on the stockmarket'.57
Over the past two decades unemployment has become a fact of life for millions, doubling to around 12 percent of the population. The proportion of France's workforce on very low wages (equivalent to less than half the average wage), has risen to 10 percent, while the average rate of pay has remained virtually unchanged (at around 7,300 francs a month).58 Those on the minimum wage (around 10 percent of the workforce) have seen their income stagnate and their spending power decline in relation to the average wage since the mid-1980s.59 The proportion of those in part time work has more than doubled, from 8 percent to 17 percent,60 and the number of people employed on fixed short term contracts had grown, by 1993, from 9.2 percent to 13.7 percent of the total workforce.61
As the need for reforms increased year on year, so the Socialists responded by reining in their ambitions until practically every last vestige of their vision of an alternative society had been relinquished. At its 1987 Lille congress PS values were summarised as follows:
The dangers of such a limited approach were underlined by a leading Socialist, Henri Emmanuelli, in 1989:
By the early 1990s, with the argument that globalisation had narrowed the scope for a voluntaristic role for the state gaining ground within the PS, one set of illusions, the myth of Keynesianism in one country, had effectively been swapped for another, the myth of the impotent nation state. As party secretary, Jospin played an important role in persuading PS activists to accept the retreat from the 1981 programme, declaring in 1987 that 'the period of great reforms' was over.64 Yet Jospin nevertheless remained, in his own cautious way, an advocate of a greater role for the state. Even at the height of France's liberal turn under the 1986-1988 Chirac government, he remained convinced that the government should actively direct the economy: 'We must say, with more modesty than before, that we are going to take hold of the harness and pull'.65 When those around him were converted to liberalism Jospin asked, 'When politics are inspired by liberalism, what part do we want our ideas, our socialist instruments to play?'66 'The dominant orthodoxy has stifled the debate,' he told L'Evénement du Jeudi in 1991.67 'Has the time not come to loosen the vice?' When voters emphatically rejected the Socialists' espousal of liberalism in 1993 Jospin declared:
Jospin's election, then, at the head of a Socialist/Communist/Green coalition,69 appeared to mark a return to old style Keynesian social democratic government, with job creation, the defence of public services and a shorter working week high on its list of priorities. Jospin was keen to distance himself from the overtures to the right that had dominated Mitterrand's second term, and demanded the 'right to an inventory' of his legacy. He cultivated an image of modesty and frankness which stood in direct contrast to the corrupt machinations of Mitterrand and his circle of fawning courtesans. The coalition itself was the fruit of several years of discussion between the Socialists and other left parties which had begun following the 1993 defeat. For the PS the alliance, and Jospin's leadership, represented a return to the values, or at least the rhetoric, of the left.
For the Greens and the PCF, the coalition appeared to offer a route out of marginalisation. The PCF, under the leadership of Robert Hue, is undergoing a period of 'mutation', which involves distancing the organisation from its Stalinist past and recasting it as a mainstream social democratic party, while at the same time claiming to remain a tribune of the oppressed and exploited. This strategy has obviously produced contradictions. The party claims to represent the aspirations of the 'social movement', but it is difficult to see exactly how. For decades the PCF enjoyed a significant influence over the labour movement via its own mass membership, its network of affiliated associations and publications (such as the Humanité daily newspaper), its prominent role in local government and the party's domination of the main trade union confederation, the CGT. Until the 1970s the party was the largest in France, both in terms of members and electorate, winning up to a quarter of the vote in parliamentary elections. Now in decline, with its membership falling and its share of the vote consistently below 10 percent, the PCF is gradually relinquishing its hold over the CGT, whose leader, Louis Viannet, resigned from the party's national bureau in December 1996 in order to emphasise the increasing autonomy of the union, although the strong links remain (Viannet was later replaced by railway workers' leader Bernard Thibault, a prominent figure in the December 1995 strikes, as part of the CGT's attempt to rejuvenate its image). L'Humanité has now opened up its pages to journalists outside the party and is no longer explicitly identified as the Communist Party newspaper, following an as yet fairly unsuccessful relaunch earlier this year.70 The party continues to lose support among workers and where new support is emerging it is largely among middle class voters (a poll commissioned by the party in 1997 showed working class support running at 35 percent of the total PCF vote, while support among liberal professionals and managers stood at 36 percent).71
In the wake of the left's victory both the PCF and the Greens were at pains to stress the importance of the 'social movement' and their desire to reflect its aspirations in office. 'We in government need strong social movements', declared Green leader Dominique Voynet in January 1998, 'so that we can do our work well and not forget the commitments we made... That's undoubtedly what was missing in 1981 and even more so in 1988, and that explains some of the setbacks and lapses of François Mitterrand's two terms of office'.72 Following the 1997 election, The New York Times expressed the widespread sense of surprise that a modern industrial power could elect a government on the basis that it would defend working conditions and the welfare state, particularly as Clinton and Blair had given all that up long ago.73 An editorial in Le Monde summed up what was at stake by asking whether the Socialists, 'having won by rehabilitating the idea of a "reformist" party', would be able 'to be really reformist and stand up to the tyranny of the markets'.74 Those hoping for such a showdown were quickly disappointed. Within days of taking office Jospin had signed up to the Amsterdam stability pact which he himself had denounced only weeks previously as a 'super-Maastricht'. A few weeks later the government stood by as Renault confirmed its proposed closure of the Vilvorde car plant in Belgium, which Jospin himself had demonstrated against the previous March. Despite obtaining a guarantee that alternative employment would be found for the 3,000 strong workforce, the government was hardly standing up to the markets.
The centrepiece of the government's programme is the 35 hour week. The success of the initiative will greatly depend on the second bill, due to be introduced by employment minister Martine Aubry in the autumn of 1999, although the government's decision not to impose a directive from above but to encourage employers and unions to take advantage of the framework provided by the legislation to negotiate their own agreements, and in the process, to revise working practices in their totality, does not bode well for the future. The effectiveness of the legislation has been almost nullified by a concerted offensive by the employers' association, the CNPF (renamed MEDEF in October 1998), whose president, Jean Gandois, referred to the decision to impose a deadline of 1 January 2000 on implementing a 35 hour week75 as one battle lost in a 'war' which would require a 'killer' to wage. Since he saw his own role as a that of a negotiator he stood down and urged his successor, Ernest Antoine de Seillière, to put up a 'pitiless' fight against the government. De Seillière duly promised to see Jospin off.76
So far the employers have come out on top. Of 240 agreements signed by September 1998 only 2,500 jobs had been 'created' (some of them were existing jobs that had been saved). In 75 percent of cases annualisation of working hours (as opposed to calculating them on a monthly basis) was conceded by the unions, while wage levels generally remained unchanged.77 The principal aim of the legislation, that the 35 hour week would create 700,000 jobs, was a long way from being met. Along with the flexibility created by annualising working hours, the CNPF had reason to congratulate itself on seizing the opportunity opened up by the negotiations. The most glaring case of a negotiated settlement flying in the face of the government's intentions was in the metallurgical industry, where the employers' organisation drew up an agreement with three unions according to which employees would work a maximum ten hour day (12 in exceptional circumstances), a 48 hour week (up from 46 previously), six days a week if necessary with the maximum number of overtime hours raised from 94 to between 180 and 205.78 As the personnel manager of one major company told Le Monde, 'The 35 hours could turn out to be a great opportunity. They give us the chance to rethink the way our work is organised and to negotiate an agreement on wage restraint over several years, which we have never been able to do up to now.' Only one firm in seven, according to one report, intended to take on more workers as a consequence of the legislation, while 64 percent of employers believed the effect on employment generally would be non-existent.79
Despite the proposal to end the sale of public companies made in the joint PCF-Socialist Party declaration at the start of the 1997 election campaign, more privatisations have been carried out under the Jospin government than under both the Juppé and Balladur administrations. One of the major privatisations carried out so far, that of Air France, was overseen by the Communist transport minister Jean-Claude Gayssot. 'For as long as I am minister, Air France will not be privatised,' he declared in May 1998, adding, 'The French state will remain a majority shareholder'.80 Despite Jospin's own hostility to the privatisation of Thomson, Air France and France Télécom in opposition, all, along with the insurance companies GAN and CIC, Société Marseillaise de Crédit, CNP, Aérospatiale and Thomson multimedia, have experienced an 'opening up of capital', the government's preferred term which allowed ministers, such as Gayssot, to deny that putting millions of shares on the market amounted to privatisation. This is despite the fact that the state's share fell, in the case of Air France, from 93 percent to 55 percent, and, in the case of Aérospatiale, below 50 percent.
The employers have not had things all their own way, however. Jospin has constantly been put under pressure by those who elected him. Within six months of taking office his government was jolted by a series of protests and occupations organised by various associations of the unemployed. The growing perception that long term unemployment was a structural problem requiring urgent attention ensured widespread backing for their action. Since 1982 the number of long term unemployed had been multiplied by 2.5, totalling 1,367,000 so that by the end of 1997 two out of five unemployed people were long term unemployed. For around six million people social security payments represent their only source of income. Between 1982 and 1995 the relative level of this income fell below the poverty line, to between 20 percent and 40 percent of average household income.81 When the government announced a slight rise in social security payments in December 1997 it provoked an outcry from unemployed associations which had been demanding a rise of 1,500 francs a month. The government responded by freeing up funds to head off the protests, but refused to raise payments. Jospin, remarked Ernest-Antoine Seillière, had shown 'true courage', and 'as entrepreneurs, we appreciate this...We cannot fight our battles with one eye on the infirmary'.82
Despite eventually agreeing to grant a backdated rise in payments at the end of 1998, the government has so far been unable to quell the protests and remains vulnerable to what one commentator has referred to as 'a latent combativity', ready to break out at the slightest false move on the part of the government.83 The explosion of anger in French schools in the autumn of 1998, which saw hundreds of thousands of students take to the streets in protest against the scarcity of resources, the occupations of schools by parents and the teachers' strikes of spring 1999, along with numerous other conflicts, such as the lightning transport strike which hit several cities following the death of a Paris Metro worker in June, bear witness to this. So far the government has been able to hold things together. Jospin has astutely stressed his identification with the left, distancing himself from Blair84 and deliberately provoking ideological clashes with the opposition, accusing the right of being on the wrong side when it came to the abolition of slavery in 1794 and the Dreyfus Affair at the turn of the century, and then calling for the rehabilitation of First World War mutineers.
But the government's hold is fragile and vulnerable to both the left and right. The potential for a right wing backlash was illustrated when government measures that would recognise the legal status of gay couples were defeated by the opposition. With the PS vacillating over whether to go ahead with the legislation, an enormous wave of homophobia was unleashed across Paris in November 1998 in the form of a 100,000 strong demonstration 'in defence of the family'. Meanwhile, the employers' line over the 35 hour week is hardening amid signs that employment minister Martine Aubry will offer them concessions in a new bill on the working week due in the autumn of 1999. Any lingering hopes that the Jospin administration would break with the priorities of its right wing predecessors were dispelled in March 1999 when the NATO bombing campaign began in the Balkans, uniting Jospin and Chirac behind the intervention. The Communist Party strategy of hitching its fortunes to the Socialists muted its opposition to the war, while the decision to open its European election list to various left wing 'personalities', most of whom adopted a hawkish stance from day one and called for the immediate mobilisation of ground troops, further undermined its credibility as a channel for left opposition to Jospin. For the Greens the logic of participation in government was articulated by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who, having left French politics as a firebrand anti-imperialist icon after May 1968, came back as a pro-NATO apologist for the European single market to lead the Greens' European campaign. In an interview given after the poll he complained that 'in France, there's something that complicates everything; it's the legacy of the strikes of 1995. It's time to go beyond all that'.85
Disaffection with mainstream parties is mounting. During the 1980s France's 'parties of government' won around three quarters of the vote in elections. In the late 1990s they were barely able to win half the vote. Polls show that 80 percent of the population believe politicians do not care what they think,86 while only 26 percent feel represented by a political party.87 The present period, then, is characterised by a political vacuum, one which, so far, forces to the left of the PS and the Communists have been unable to fill. On the right the events of December 1995 have provoked a crisis which continues to wreak havoc. Chirac's loss of authority, which began with the strikes and was confirmed following his distastrous decision to call an election in 1997, caused the discipline which he had exerted over the right, notably over the question of electoral alliances with the FN (which he opposed), to break down. The simmering debate over what strategy the mainstream right should adopt, given the new mood of the 1990s, resurfaced, this time in the form of a controversy over its relationship with the FN. At the same time, during the regional elections of March 1998, a number of alliances were concluded between the right and the FN, with the result that five members of the UDF, a coalition of various centre right and right wing parties, took the presidency of their respective regional councils with the help of votes from the FN.88 This marked a new stage in the integration of the FN into the mainstream political spectrum and provoked an outcry, with thousands taking to the streets in protest against the alliances. The UDF coalition was brought to the brink of collapse, with Alain Madelin, leader of Démocratie Libérale (DL), supporting the alliances, and François Bayrou, president of the coalition, opposing them. By May, Madelin and Démocratie Libérale had left the UDF.
The National Front, having caused the break up of France's second largest right wing party after the RPR, was once again at the centre of political life and, at least as far as those who took elections as the principal gauge of a party's strength were concerned, appeared in a virtually unassailable position. A year later, during the European election campaign, the RPR was wracked by divisions of its own. Philippe Séguin, Juppé's successor as RPR leader and head of the party's election slate, caused a sensation when he resigned only weeks before the poll, claiming that Chirac and his supporters were undermining him. Chirac was forced to turn to Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who had been jeered by the RPR congress only four years previously for supporting Balladur's 1995 presidential bid. Sarkozy assumed temporary control of the party and fronted the election campaign alongside Alain Madelin. Immediately after the election Sarkozy resigned, having polled only 12.7 percent of the vote, trailing the slate put up by Philippe de Villiers, a maverick nationalist aristocrat, and Charles Pasqua, a founder member of the RPR from the right of the party, who scored 13 percent. Pasqua claimed, in the wake of Chirac's backing for the NATO intervention in the Balkans and given his support for greater European integration, to represent a return to true Gaullist values of national independence and grandeur. To this end he announced that he was forming a new party with de Villiers, the Rassemblement pour la France. By this time, however, the FN was no longer in a position to dominate the recomposition of the right, having itself split in December 1998, only months after its triumph in the regional poll the previous March.
The National Front in crisis
The impetus given to the anti-racist movement by the events of December 1995 has had a devastating effect on the fortunes of the FN and its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the hitherto unassailable figurehead of the French far right, who was forced to look on helplessly as his organisation began tearing itself apart. One of the most enjoyable spectacles of 1998 was the sight of Le Pen in December, his authority seriously under threat, condemning those who had dared to challenge him as extremists, racists and fascists, who, he claimed, were using Trotskyist tactics to undermine him as part of a plot jointly financed by the president, US imperialism and international freemasonry. The split has largely been portrayed as one based on personal rivalry between Le Pen and Bruno Mégret. Although this is an important element of the conflict it reflects a much deeper crisis of the extreme right. The defensive position in which the Front has been placed as a result of the strikes and the revival of a militant anti-racist movement has caused the diverse elements that make it up to pull in different directions. The Front has experienced a crisis of the leadership cult which enabled it to federate the entire extreme right. This means that not only has the illusion of Le Pen as an omnipotent force guiding the Front been tainted but the federative strategy which held the organisation together has hit the buffers. After briefly outlining the strategy developed by Le Pen over the past three decades, this section examines how the FN's strategy has been knocked off course by the new mood.
The FN strategy: For 15 years the Front enjoyed almost unremitting success in embedding itself in national and local political life. The strategy developed by its founders in the early 1970s was to cultivate an image of respectability in order to reach out beyond its own narrow ranks and then set about transforming this new audience 'in our image'.89 This was based on the analysis that the stabilisation of capitalism during the post-war economic boom, along with the decline of the traditional petty bourgeoisie and the creation of a layer of civil servants loyal to the state bureaucracy, had, along with the experience of the Second World War and the Holocaust, fundamentally altered the conditions in which fascists were operating. This meant that the road to power would be a long haul and would have to combine a strategy of legitimisation, of apparent allegiance to the rules of liberal democracy, with an attempt to build an extra-parliamentary base.90
One of Le Pen's major achievements was to pay lip service to the rules of the parliamentary game while pursuing a strategy of radicalisation. He ruthlessly ensured that the Front remained both within and without the established party set-up, constantly risking defections by obliging his followers to defend the most extreme positions, from Holocaust denial to racial supremacy. At the same time he ensured the cohesiveness of the organisation by demanding first of all absolute allegiance to the Front's hierarchy of leaders and secondly by housing the different factions that made up the organisation in a system of parallel internal structures. This strategy had two advantages. Firstly, the leading lights of the various currents that had rallied to the FN could be given positions of responsibility. Secondly, by pitting them against each other, rivals to Le Pen's succession could be neutralised. In the 1970s the influence of François Duprat, to all intents and purposes Le Pen's deputy, was held in check by the national secretary, Victor Barthélemy. In the 1980s Le Pen's main rival, Jean-Pierre Stirbois, had his influence as national secretary curtailed by the creation of the post of chairman filled by Bruno Mégret. In the 1990s Mégret's increasing predominance was countered by the creation of a rival power base when Le Pen appointed Bruno Gollnisch to the beefed up post of national secretary.
For the past 20 years, success both in terms of votes and recruitment bound the organisation around the personality of Le Pen. At FN central committee meetings monarchists and fundamentalist Catholics sat alongside Pagans and veterans of the Waffen SS, while mercenaries,91 ex-collaborators and former leaders of right wing terrorist opposition to French withdrawal from Algeria brushed shoulders with Moonies, company directors and former Gaullists. Le Pen embodied the contradictory nature of the Front: a millionaire who proclaimed himself a 'man of the people'; a divorcee thrown out of a church for urinating in the font when a student, yet idolised by the party's reactionary Catholic wing; publicly hailed as a 'man of destiny'92 by those who were later to plot his overthrow; and promoted in the mid-1980s as the 'French Reagan' by those who now applaud his protectionist opposition to globalisation.
The FN on the defensive: Within six months of celebrating its 15 percent score in the parliamentary elections of June 1997, the illusion of the Front as an invincible monolith was to be blown apart. Events since December 1995 had thrown the organisation off course. During the strike wave the emptiness of the FN's claims to represent ordinary workers had been increasingly evident. The strikes, characterised by Le Pen as a 'revolt of the privileged', were denounced by the party leadership as 'archaic and ruinous'. But opinion polls showed that 71 percent of the Front's electorate supported them.93 The surge of anti-racist activity further marginalised the FN. The series of protests in support of the sans-papiers and the mobilisations against the anti-immigrant legislation proposed by Jean-Louis Debré marked a sea change in attitudes to the immigration issue. For the first time in over a decade those who opposed the scapegoating of immigrants found themselves on the offensive. Everywhere FN leaders went they found crowds of demonstrators ready to oppose them.
Aware that December 1995 had radically altered the political climate, the Front was forced to respond to the changing situation or face becoming irrelevant. Its response was to pursue the dual strategy that had proved so successful in the past. This involved on the one hand acting as a pole of attraction for the weakest elements of the traditional right, entering into electoral alliances with them where possible, and on the other bolstering its status as an anti-establishment party by reinforcing its network of extra-parliamentary satellite organisations. But the polarisation of French society now worked against the FN. The electoral defeat of the right had weakened the cohesion which Chirac's dominance had provided, opening up the possibility that sections of the right would depart from his strategy of refusing electoral alliances with the FN. But at the very moment when the attraction of alliances was growing, opposition to the FN, which was already hindering its attempts to infiltrate the workplace, drew out the hardline elements at the FN's core which in turn endangered the image of respectability essential for the conclusion of electoral alliances with the mainstream right. The Front's room for manoeuvre was further inhibited by an internal crisis which was to see Le Pen's strategy unravel before his eyes.
Crisis of legitimacy: Put on the defensive, the culture of brutality at the heart of the FN was forced out into the open. In October 1996 an anti-racist demonstration in Monceau-les-Mines was attacked by an armed and helmeted branch of the Front's security force, a 'secret' unit of former marines, one of whom boasted to the press that they were capable of overthrowing a government within 48 hours.94 At the Strasbourg congress in March 1997, while 50,000 marched outside, the Front chose to present its legal face, revising its constitution and proclaiming its fidelity to the 'institutions of the Republic and democratic pluralism'.95 But outside the hall, the organisation's security force presented a different face, several of them getting arrested for impersonating riot police and carrying out bogus identity checks on the demonstrators. During the truckers' strike of 1997 FN members in Mégret-run Vitrolles, led by the head of the municipal police force, attacked a picket line, seriously injuring a striker.96
For over a decade both Mégret and Le Pen had been united on the need for the Front to avoid becoming a part of the established party system and on the value of tactical electoral alliances with the traditional right. In two important ways the situation had now changed. Firstly, the crisis that had put the FN on the backfoot was also damaging the traditional right. The Front, and Mégret in particular, saw an opportunity to profit from the disarray of these disoriented and directionless parties by making tactical alliances with them. The alliance with Charles Millon in the Rhône-Alpes region in March 1998, concluded by Gollnisch, bore witness to this. Secondly, however, Mégret had gradually established his dominance over the party apparatus, coming top of the central committee elections at the 1997 congress, and positioning himself as the natural successor to the 70 year old Le Pen. This was a serious setback for those in the party, in particular the old guard of the French extreme right (fundamentalist Catholics, veterans of Vichy and Algeria, founder members of the FN), Le Pen included, who acknowledged Mégret's uses but despised him as an arriviste technocrat.97
With the FN in a defensive position these differences were magnified, with rival factions blaming each other for every setback and seeking opportunities to undermine one another. Internal rivalry became an obstacle to escaping the rut the FN found itself in. This is particularly evident in the organisation's attempt, led by Mégret, to strengthen its base in the workplace and in working class areas. Mégret himself took to leafleting workers at factory gates, turning up outside a Moulinex plant threatened with closure in Sarthe, in the Loire, in October 1996 and leafleting France Télécom workers threatened with privatisation the following September. He also set up an FN trade union for Paris Metro workers and ensured that the Front stood candidates for election to council housing committees. These efforts were hampered by Mégret's opponents, notably Bruno Gollnisch, who set up his own transport union in Lyon, and Le Pen's son in law Samuel Maréchal, who set up the National Circle of Unionised Workers to group together FN members in the unions.
Maréchal, deputy to Gollnisch, also runs the Front's youth wing, the Front National de la Jeunesse (FNJ), an organisation rivalled by the pro-Mégret student organisation, the Renouveau Etudiant (RE). Following the victory of Mégret's supporters in elections to the FN central committee in March 1997, Le Pen allowed Jean-Claude Martinez to set up yet another counterweight to Mégret's influence, in the form of a shadow cabinet. Mégret, in turn, formed his own security force to prevent the FN's official security unit from keeping track of his movements. Le Pen's strategy of creating parallel structures to house rival factions was now spiralling out of control.
Crisis of leadership: In describing the cult of leadership developed around Hitler by the Nazis, Trotsky drew a parallel with the fate of Alfonso XIII of Spain, forced to flee the country when the Republic was declared in 1931:
The mutual exchange of recriminations among FN factions were beginning to damage the cult of leadership which had defined the organisation for 25 years. Already Mégret's success in winning the town of Vitrolles in 1997 had convinced Le Pen not to stand as a candidate in either the parliamentary or local elections later that year for fear of being overshadowed by Mégret. For the first time since 1981 the Front went into a national election without its leader as a candidate. His prestige damaged, Le Pen was then successfully opposed by the FN bureau politique on two occasions, firstly between the two rounds of the 1997 election when both Mégret and Gollnisch publicly distanced themselves from his stated preference for a Socialist majority, and again in March 1998 when Le Pen demanded that the endorsement of the principle of national preference (priority rights for French nationals over immigrants) be made a condition of electoral alliances with other right wing parties.99 Le Pen's ability to continue as FN president was now openly questioned in the press,100 forcing him to assert his leadership by differentiating himself from Mégret.
Le Pen drew attention to the different conclusions each had reached concerning the position in which they had been placed post-1995. As far as he was concerned, the crisis of French society ran so deep that the FN was unlikely to remain trapped in a defensive position indefinitely. The Front must at all costs retain its status as an outsider in order to benefit from the bankruptcy of the mainstream parties. The Front should therefore 'embody the alternative to the system', claimed Maréchal, while another Le Pen loyalist, Carl Lang, attempted to undermine Mégret by invoking a maxim attributed to Lenin, 'Unity at the top, never! Unity at the base, always!'101 The Front's failure to advance beyond a 15 percent share of the vote, or translate electoral success into members, however, was a source of frustration. Much of the party cadre believed the organisation would advance more quickly if it followed Mégret's strategy of electoral alliances with the right which, he argued, would allow the FN to play a dominant role in the restructuring of the party system. His arm had been strengthened by the attitude of several leading figures on the right. One of de Gaulle's most faithful acolytes, Alain Peyrefitte, concluded in the wake of the right's election defeat that alliances with the FN should be considered, although not while Le Pen remained leader.102 The case for alliances with the FN was also put by two of France's leading bosses, Ambroise Roux103 and Jacques Calvet,104 while former Gaullist prime minister Edouard Balladur proposed setting up a commission, open to the far right, which would publicly debate the FN's ideas on 'national preference'.105 Responding to claims that alliances would soften the Front's image Mégret replied:
Le Pen and his followers were not opposed to electoral agreements but they did not see them as the Front's priority. If the goal of such alliances was to ensure the return of proportional representation, argued Le Pen, giving the FN 60 deputies and five ministers, 'it's totally useless. I'd even say it would be harmful. That would kill the only hope the French have left'.107
Although these differences arose from a genuine divergence over what strategy to adopt, they had the advantage of allowing Le Pen to expose what many saw as Mégret's principal weakness, his distant manner and effete technocratic style. In contrast to his own rough and ready populist image, Mégret lacked, according to Le Pen, 'popular fibre'.108 So when Mégret openly advocated alliances in the aftermath of the 1997 election, Le Pen deliberately tried to scupper the initiative (not least because sections of the traditional right were only prepared to contemplate such a move under Mégret's leadership), and to stress both the Front's anti-establishment status and his own street fighting credentials. It was in this context that Le Pen's attack on the Socialist candidate in Mantes-la-Jolie between the two rounds of the 1997 election took place, during the course of which he pinned her against a wall and tried to rip the Republican sash from around her body, scratching and insulting her until his own bodyguards pulled him away. Six months later, at a joint press conference in Munich alongside the former Waffen SS officer and Republikaner Party leader Franz Schönhuber, Le Pen declared that the Germans 'were the martyred people of Europe' and went on to reiterate his belief that the Holocaust was a minor detail of the Second World War.109
When things finally came to a head towards the end of 1998, Le Pen acted decisively, knowing that his status as a leader figure depended on maintaining the illusion that he was the all-powerful presence driving the FN forward. In November he informed staff at the party headquarters that only his portrait could appear on its walls.110 Having denied Mégret the right to head the Front's European election list by nominating his wife,111 thus avoiding the possibility of a Mégret bandwagon threatening his own chances of being the Front's candidate for the 2002 presidential election, Le Pen then expelled two Mégret supporters for having circulated an internal document critical of him.
Mégret, in turn, made his appeal to the party on the grounds that Le Pen's leadership was incapable of building a party of government. It had become 'bunkerised', with Le Pen 'contested', 'isolated' and surrounded by courtesans, wasting party funds on parallel structures designed to reduce Mégret's influence. But the criticisms made of Le Pen and his cronies were not simply about personal rivalry, they reflected frustration within the FN at its threefold crisis: its activist base was diminishing, its satellite organisations were little more than empty shells, and the party cadre was weak and inexperienced. Several leading Le Pen allies were singled out by the Mégretists as barriers to growth. All were criticised for their personal failure to retain members and build effective federations. The final straw was Le Pen's nomination of his rich wife to head the European campaign, a woman whose 'temperament, attitude, standard of living, all added up to a bourgeois candidate cut off from our most popular electorate'.112
Neither Mégret nor Le Pen did particularly well in the European elections: Le Pen had to contend with rumblings of discontent within his party after polling only 5.69 percent, and Mégret, having scored 3.28 percent and with his Mouvement National in severe financial straits, had to apply for readmission into the public service post he had left when he went into politics. The scores of the respective formations were not the only indication of the extent to which the extreme right had lost ground. In 1995 pollsters had attributed to the FN 27 percent of working class votes in the presidential election. By 1999 this figure had fallen to 6 percent. Immigration, for so long at the heart of political debate, came last in the list of voter preoccupations, with 22 percent citing it as a major factor in their choice of candidate, against 65 percent for unemployment and 45 percent for the defence of social reforms.113 Various polls have shown that Mégret has the support of more party functionaries than Le Pen, and that Le Pen has more support among FN voters. History has shown that it is possible for more than one fascist organisation to coexist in France; in the 1930s the Croix de Feu and Jaques Doriot's Parti Populaire Français both mobilised tens of thousands of supporters. The present situation has seriously damaged the the extreme right, but its electorate will not simply disappear overnight. It is also possible that Le Pen's party could emerge hardened and more cohesive from the split.114 Above all, however, the past few years have demonstrated that when the extreme right is consistently put on the defensive it finds it much harder to grow.
The struggle continues
The scale of the crisis of French society and the hopes for change engendered by the December strikes have ensured that the issues they raised have not faded. Above all, nobody involved could forget what had happened:
France in the 1990s has seen a tremendous backlash against the liberal economic orthodoxy of the 1980s, witnessed in the remarkable sales of books critical of the free market, such as Pierre Bourdieu's La Misère du Monde and Viviane Forreser's L'Horreur Economique; in the revival of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, which, having become a forum for analysis and debate on the left, now sells 200,000 copies in France alone; and in the return of class as a subject for French cinema.116 Another manifestation of the shift to the left has been the electoral success of the socialist organisation Lutte Ouvrière (LO), whose candidate, Arlette Laguiller, won 1.6 million votes in the 1995 presidential poll and achieved a similar score in the general election of 1997. The joint socialist slate put up by LO/Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) for the 1999 European elections performed impressively, scoring over 5 percent of the vote and sending the first Trotskyist deputies to the European parliament.
All of the above examples reflect, in different ways, the thirst for an alternative to the misery which the market inflicts on people's lives. So far this has not, as we have seen, translated into the emergence of a credible political alternative to the plural left. As Trotsky argued in the 1930s:
Yet both the two main organisations of the revolutionary left have experienced problems in taking to the open sea. One obvious question concerns Lutte Ouvrière. Despite its remarkable success in contesting elections on a platform proposing wage rises, job creation programmes and nationalisations, the organisation itself has not grown significantly since 1995. Why? One explanation is that LO has simply misjudged the current mood. It does not believe its own electoral success to be indicative of any kind of radicalisation on the part of French workers.118 Indeed, during the month of December 1995 Arlette Laguiller publicly bemoaned the 'demoralisation and apoliticisation' of the working class.119 The 1995 strikes, and those that followed in their wake, were interpreted as struggles driven and controlled by the bureaucracies of the main trade union confederations rather than the rank and file, leading LO to conclude:
Moreover, the organisation's leadership argued, Lutte Ouvrière should have no illusions about its own ability to convince workers to take up the demands contained in its 'Emergency plan for workers' ('Plan d'urgence pour les travailleurs'), or about their capacity to apply any of the measures, begging the question, if LO could not take its plan seriously, why should anyone else?121
While Laguiller has become a nationally known figure, LO has failed to go beyond the abstract propagandism which has brought such electoral success and to take advantage of, or even recognise, the fact that the tide of events has been flowing in its favour. Along with its narrow and pessimistic analysis of economic struggles, the organisation's most serious failing has been its failure to mobilise around key political issues. This has been most apparent with regard to the rise of the National Front. Since the emergence of the FN as a major political player in the mid-1980s LO has made no attempt to build a united front against the threat, arguing that a revival in class struggle will sweep it away:
This outlook partly explains LO's dismissive attitude towards anti-FN mobilisations. The February 1996 demonstration against the racist Debré laws, for example, the biggest and angriest demonstration against anti-immigrant legislation in a decade, was not only ignored by LO but the film makers who organised it were publicly condemned by the organisation for being cut off 'from the preoccupations of workers, including the vast majority of immigrant workers'.123 The 50,000 strong protest in 1997 against the FN congress in Strasbourg was dismissed by LO as 'festive', 'folklorique', and 'apolitical, not to say anti-political':
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that, as we have seen, such protests did precisely this, what is LO's principal objection to such marches? Given the Socialist and Communist participation in many of the demonstrations,125 LO deduced that 'to say that these demonstrations are better than nothing is to make out that if the left was back in government in a year, then the conditions for fighting the National Front would become more favourable'.126 Such attitudes are not merely sectarian, they amount to an abstention on the question of fighting fascism and a cavalier disregard for the way in which racism has been systematically used by all parties in the context of, and often as a direct result of, the rise of the FN, dividing workers and hindering their ability to fight back. This was brought out in the wake of the March 1998 demonstration mentioned at the beginning of this article, which LO shunned on the grounds that the targets of the march were the right wing politicians who had concluded electoral agreements with the FN, rather than the Front itself, implying that the demonstration served the interests not just of the Socialists, but also of those on the right who had not made alliances with the FN:
Responding to criticism from the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) that LO had betrayed its Trotskyist roots in disavowing its own call to attend the march only a few days beforehand,128 LO accused those who participated in the demonstration of giving 'their backing to political forces which bear a crushing responsibility in the rise of the FN'.129
This was nonsense. The demonstration, organised by a collective of left wing parties, anti-racist associations and trade unions, was not only militantly anti-FN but fiercely critical of other parties, not least the Socialists, who were berated throughout by a contingent of teachers from Seine-Saint-Denis (who themselves had been attacked prior to the march by the Socialist education minister Claude Allègre who argued their strike was 'playing the FN's game'). Moreover, the resignation of those who had allied with the FN would have damaged first and foremost the Front and dealt a severe blow to its quest for legitimacy.
One of the reasons for the inadequacy of LO's analysis of the situation derives from its weak theoretical grasp of fascism:
While in an abstract sense there is little to disagree with here, one crucial element is missing from the explanation. In order to prove itself worthy of financial backing the fascist party must build an organisation which looks capable of leading an onslaught on the labour movement. A fundamental stage in the rise of fascism is therefore the autonomous development of its party, which, as we have seen, is based on both the quest for legitimacy and the construction of an extra-parliamentary base.131 Part of the ABC of anti-fascism is therefore to hinder this autonomous development, both by exposing the fascist party's anti-democratic aims and by disrupting its efforts to ingratiate itself into the political mainstream, the latter being particularly important for fascist organisations in the post-war period.132
While LO's abstention from serious, consistent anti-fascist activity is based in part on a failure to come to terms with the aims and tactics adopted by the FN, it also forms part of a deliberate strategy to focus almost exclusively on building in the workplace,133 hence the relatively low profile of LO in movements such as those of the sans-papiers and the unemployed of the mid to late 1990s, characterised by the organisation as 'worthy' but ultimately 'marginal in relation to the labour movement'.134 LO's self-limiting and one-dimensional outlook undoubtedly contributed to the inability of anti-fascist groups during the 1980s and early 1990s to go beyond sporadic and inconsistent opposition to the FN. More recently, however, LO's pessimism has affected its ability to grasp the opportunities offered by the current climate and seriously undermined the possibility of forging links between those who take action over political issues, such as racist legislation, and those who are involved in industrial struggle.
Like LO, the LCR has experienced problems in trying to adapt to the new mood. The LCR has had a much greater presence than LO in the various associations which have sprung up since 1995, winning respect for the role which its members have played as leading activists in a range of bodies, from the breakaway SUD unions, the AC! unemployed groups, the CADAC association for a woman's right to choose, or the anti-FN organisation Ras l'Front. Indeed, its members are often known more for their role in such bodies than for their activities as members of the LCR. The criticism that neither LO or the Ligue use their newspapers as an organising tool has already been made in this journal and remains valid.135 For the LCR, this, along with its practice of expending its energies in the creation of countless breakaway groups and associations, is symptomatic of a tendency to seek short cuts on the road to building a party. Despite the dynamism and commitment of LCR members involved in a whole range of activities, unless concrete action around specific issues is related not just to wider political questions but to an alternative vision of how society could be organised any attempt to forge a genuine political challenge to the mainstream left will remain a pipe dream. At present the Ligue refers to the need to 'bring about a break on the left with liberalism using mobilisations seeking to impose aspirations partially taken up by the plural left during its electoral campaign and which remain for the most part unsatisfied today'.136 At a time when the audience for revolutionary ideas is growing, the Ligue offers little in the way of leadership beyond vague slogans about the need to create a 'left of the left' and appears distracted by the desire to be part of a realignment of socialists and communists into a broad left grouping.
In the 1930s Trotsky warned of the consequences for those who vacillated over the question of the independence of the revolutionary party:
Although such criticism may seem harsh when applied to the LCR, it loses none of its relevance in the light of the French left's failure to build any effective opposition to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Aside from the two demonstrations (on 23 March and 1 April 1999) called as an immediate response to the NATO intervention, no further mobilisations, no network of anti-war committees, no teach-ins or meetings or rallies on the question of the war were organised during the entire ten week bombing campaign. Yet during the three weeks prior to the European election the Ligue alone organised over 50 public campaign meetings, including joint meetings with LO in 15 cities across France. Having made the decision to direct their energies and resources into running an election campaign rather than an anti-war campaign, did the two organisations transform their meetings into anti-war rallies and use them as a springboard for anti-war activity? Not a single word of the extracts reprinted in Lutte Ouvrière of Arlette Laguiller's speech delivered to thousands of socialists at the LO fête in May referred to the war, nor was it mentioned on a single leaflet for the Paris election rally on 6 June, during the course of which neither Alain Krivine, LCR spokesperson, nor Laguiller, chose to put the war at the centre of their speeches to the 5,000 present.
Why did the two main organisations of the far left in France fail the test of the war so abjectly? The war exposed, in fairly dramatic fashion, some of the weaknesses referred to above, notably Lutte Ouvrière's essentially passive approach to political mobilisations and the LCR's lack of political clarity. 'It is particularly difficult to speak out (not to mention to mobilise) against Greater Serbian nationalism and at the same time NATO's intervention in this crisis,' declared the LCR newspaper Rouge at the start of the war, adding, 'However, it must be done'.138 But the even-handedness of the Ligue's coverage of the war, which put US imperialism on an equal footing with the Milosevic regime, blunted its ability to offer a decisive lead and led it to criticise others who opposed the war, from those who took part in the magnificent anti-war demonstrations in Greece to the intellectual Régis Debray, for lending support to Milosevic.139 LO's coverage, while clear and decisive in the abstract, meant very little in concrete, practical terms. The irony of the situation is that the the war highlighted, infinitely more than the various anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrations attended by Socialist politicians, the hypocrisy of the Jospin government which used the rhetoric of humanitarianism to lend support to the brutal imposition of NATO power in the Balkans. Here was the opportunity to draw a line in the sand between the government and the rest of the left and build an effective opposition to its policies home and abroad and in the process lay the basis for a clear and uncompromising political alternative. Compared with such a prospect 5 percent of the European election poll and a handful of MEPs must now seem a meagre consolation.
The 1990s in France have been characterised by polarisation and volatility. This article has argued that the tide has turned away from the right in recent years. Despite Jospin's ability to dampen the groundswell of anger at large in French society the present period is still characterised by the 'latent combativity' that we have referred to here. But the revival of fortunes of the Socialists themselves speaks volumes about the capacity of apparently moribund political formations to regenerate themselves. This does not just apply to social democracy. If a tide taken on the flood leads on to fortune, France's history is littered with examples of the opposite happening when powerful surges to the left have been succeeded by a reactionary backlash. The Paris Commune of 1871 was drowned in blood, the Popular Front of 1936-1938 gave way to Vichy, and the events of May 1968 were followed in June by a right wing election victory. More recently the Mitterrand victory of 1981 was followed by the emergence of the National Front. Jospin's government has so far managed to tread a fine line between the hopes engendered by December 1995 and the demands of the employers. There is evidence to suggest that the employers' line is hardening. The outcome of this stand-off will depend in part on the ability of those on the left to offer an alternative to Jospin's illusory vision of a 'market economy without a market society'.
One of the constant refrains of Europe's newly elected social democratic governments has been the need to ensure wealth creation before distribution. Such claims fly in the face of the reality of production under capitalism. Between 1969 and 1994 global production rose from $360 to $4,500 per head. During that time the poorest third of the world's population has seen its share of global resources fall from 2.3 percent to 1.1 percent, while the share of the richest fifth has risen from 69 percent to 86 percent. In a world where a third of people living in developing countries have no drinking water, where over a third of all children suffer malnutrition and where the director of the Disney corporation can earn $203 million in a single year,140 the need for an alternative to the anarchy of capitalist society is clear. In France, as we have seen, events of the past few years have led increasing numbers to seek an alternative. The chasm that divides political parties from society is widening. At the same time, the strikes and protests described here underline that after years of resignation and defeat French workers are rediscovering their combativity. This creates a situation of tremendous volatility. In such conditions, as we have seen, the audience for revolutionary ideas grows, offering opportunities even for the smallest of organisations, 'on the proviso that this small party discerns in its smallness not an advantage but the greatest misfortune of which it must be rid as speedily as possible'.141