Since the sequence of presidential and legislative elections in 2012, the Left Front (Front de gauche) has been riven by a series of serious disputes that have kept it from recovering the unity of action that it once had.
The strategy to adopt in drawing up the candidate lists for the municipal elections of March 20141 is, of course, at the heart of the dispute. But to reduce the controversies to this level would be a caricature. If the disagreements among partners or within organisations often crystallise around strategy to implement for the municipal elections, everyone understands that the different positions have to do with much more than the elections. They address the very definition of the Left Front and therefore require some reflection on what this name really conveys.
Our hypothesis is that the future of the assembled anti-liberal forces, its potential and its challenges, cannot be formulated without analysing the ambiguity of the name itself: Left Front. The complexity of its different meanings is reflected in its short but rich history. On the one hand, by overcoming electoral and social hurdles the Left Front has acquired considerable political importance. Starting as a somewhat vague political entity, it has become an identifiable and looked-for political factor. Despite the disagreements within it, a number of people have declared affiliation with it and want to participate in its development. On the other hand, because it has reached its primary objective, which was to contribute, with 4 million voters, to the ousting of Sarkozy and the right, it must now position itself at a time when a left majority is in power but its two main components, the Socialist Party (PS) and Europe Ecology The Greens (EELV), want to avoid a discussion on national policy with a left party. This is a political landscape that has not been seen for 30 years.2
The conjunction of these two developments explains the differing meanings of the name: The old meanings clash with the new, while the new are still gestating. The meaning of the name has become the subject of a more or less productive debate over terms that are increasingly complex and difficult to unravel.
In actual fact, the name refers to political objects that change depending on the goals attached to them. If the ongoing debate is going to lead anywhere, we must, in my opinion, come to an agreement on the terms. Semantically, in fact, a ‘left front’ can mean three things. I propose we start with three definitions:
- Alliance (I)
- Social force (II)
- Political responsibility (III)
Given the current complexity of the debates, due as much to disagreements as to successes, we need to deconstruct the term ‘left front’ in order to understand how its meanings fit into the realities of unity, power and anticipation that it reflects.
Alliance is the primary meaning of ‘left front’. It is a call to active unity to assert a combative left.
- Alliance is primary. Definition on this level is the most difficult to understand because the ‘value’ of this sort of alliance depends on its connection with other meanings of ‘left front’. When it crushes other potential definitions, a left front is considered a cartel. Activists as well as leaders then decry the risk of sclerosis. Moreover, there is a risk that comes from reliance on unity solely at leadership level. When the act of alliance is not repeated and maintained, notably by the parties, other potential definitions of left front fall by the wayside.
- When anti-liberal forces on the left are not united, the tendency to become marginalised is rapid and violent, as we have seen at the time of the 2007 elections. When the social-transformation left is weakened over the long run, the unity of the forces that compose it is transformed into a condition of existence. Alliance is primary, historically, but it is also primary logically, since a series of other possible definitions cannot exist without it.
- The alliance goes beyond the electoral process. The act of alliance often is confused with an electoral process or with the range of candidate lists presented. We then speak of ‘left front lists’: the combination of the candidates’ different party affiliations becomes the meaning of ‘left front’ in this instance. This is reductive. The political act of alliance, which in 2008 led to the Left Front, was organised around the call of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the positive response of the Party of the Left and the United Left. It was a symbolic act of unity signalling a shared sense of the need to confront neoliberalism. The Left Front was then constructed as a global front rather than a simple electoral alliance. The community of activists has justifiably aimed at going beyond the limits of the initial agreement and in so doing concretely redefined the contours of the grouping, depending on the place and the issues involved.
- The alliance betokens the re-foundation of a liberated militant left. It affirms the failure of a PS that was incapable of modifying its relationship with neoliberalism in 2008. Despite its No vote on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, its message reloads at least to some extent the imaginary of the market-driven logic. The alliance in effect signifies a project of bringing together people who are looking for a left alternative project of social organisation, starting from the premise that the commodification of people, their activities, the environment and money is a threat to the emancipatory dynamic resting on social and democratic struggles.
The Left Front is a social force. This is its second definition. The trials of representative democracy that it has undergone while finding its electorate have allowed it to build on its alliance and become a social force. The Left Front still cannot be reduced to being a merely electoral phenomenon. Its dynamic implies that its action is reaffirming a permanent return of the people to politics – at the ballot box, in the street, in the clash of ideas, in the production of action that lends credibility to an alternative to liberal capitalism. As such, concentrating solely on municipal elections, and relegating the struggle against pension reform to a secondary priority, constitutes an error as to the very identity of the Left Front.
- Electoral consolidation. The transition beyond an electoral alliance was a gradual process, one of whose defining moments was the presidential election of 2012. Support gained during the 2008 regional elections, then in elections to the European Parliament in 2009, essentially enabled the remobilisation of a Communist electorate. Starting with this basis, the 2012 election results reflected the coming together of a left electorate with diverse orientations (New Anti-capitalist Party, Greens, PS) but with a shared criticism of the liberal options pursued by the Greens and the PS. Results in 2009, 2010 and 2012 allowed the Left Front process to be counted among political forces that were identified, looked for and listened to.
- The search for a lasting popular and rural base. Despite repeated Left Front campaigns projecting a clear political position, the consolidation of its electorate remains fragile. As a social force, the Left Front inevitably must question the two prongs of its strategy: appeal to those who already have cast a vote in its favour (4 million in the presidential election) and at the same time go beyond this electorate, which is insufficiently anchored in popular milieus and rural areas. Its strong inroads in city centres among white collar workers and middle-level professions need to be consolidated, but the paths to the politicisation of the broader population remain to be found. Combatting political abstentionism in these low-skilled social categories that are far from large urban centres means truly going beyond the logic of representation. The rallying of the popular classes, which are particularly aware of how unfavourable to them the relations of force within liberal capitalism are, can only occur by permanently involving them. Without their massive participation as a force for pressure and political proposals, nothing will change.
- Being tested in the context of social struggles. Being put to the test of social mobilisations, in their different forms from demonstrations to the activity of organisations and associations, is therefore as crucial for the Left Front as elections because these kinds of involvement demonstrate the front’s ability to cooperate with trade-unionists, associations, movements and all of the people who wish to fight for social rights in the 21st century. The enormous gathering on 18 March 2012 at the Place de la Bastille, which turned into a combination of electoral and protest meeting, shows the power of a political conception that makes of voting not the only political activity but just one of a long list of activities that include occupation, protest, speaking out or running things. Consolidating and enlarging the Left Front’s electoral base necessarily depend on a commonality of action with the popular classes, actions that are not exclusively electoral.
Imminent municipal elections across 36,000 French municipalities will be a new test. At issue is the pursuit of a left front strategy taking account of the diversity of situations confronting activists. The national policy carried out by the left (PS and Europe Ecology The Greens), will assuredly be at the heart of the political debate. Nevertheless, in the light of the municipal elections, the subordination of all political positions developed at the local level to the Front’s national positions criticising the government’s austerity policy paradoxically favours, in the minds of the people, the already widespread notion that the power of the markets is too strong to permit significant change. Against this, however, the Left Front should actively demonstrate that Municipal Councils have options other than austerity, if local authorities join with popular forces in a common struggle. Revolutionary municipal policies have been systematically built around the goal of widening the margins for giving back power to the people. They recognise the fact that the constraints determined by the government, by the markets or by the European Commission are not immutable. Awareness of the complexity of the municipal elections confers a double responsibility on the militants and leaders of the Left Front.
- The ethics of responsibility for the members of the alliance The constellation to be built for the municipal elections cannot take the same form in all places. Despite the diversity of situations, the primary imperative for activists and their leaders should be to preserve the alliance. We know the price of disunity and the rewards of unity. When there are local strategic disagreements over what electoral list to present, these disagreements should not be dramatised and amplified as if they were disagreements over essentials. Fundamentally, if the Left Front is not simply an alliance but on the way to becoming a force for social change, it cannot be totally threatened by a disagreement over an election. It is the responsibility of the protagonists to develop, independently of elections, a common motivation to overcome the weakness of the left in its current form. This ethic of responsibility is, I believe, only a minimum requirement at the present time. It must be completed by an ethic of conviction.
- An ethic of conviction for Left Front activists We must maintain the conviction that the political acts of unification put in place by the activists can bring about the resurgence of a popular intervention that can have impact. The forces of the Left Front, in the unity that they incarnate, must base their activity on an analysis that critically acompanies the political acts intended to enlarge the social and electoral base. The alliance that the Left Front has achieved between Socialists and Communists is a first move towards the shared wish to establish the Left Front as a political force above divisions and with the capacity to take action. It has to find ways – through the vote, through speaking out and through taking action – to let the dominated and currently instrumentalised classes recover the sense of their power to act. In this light, the next European elections should be thought of as a key moment for popular self-expression against austerity.
Disagreement on one of these three terms – voting, speaking out and taking action – does not mean that the others become inoperative. Voting has its limitations, as we have seen. Speaking out has its limits too, since other forces also lay claim to being the voice of the people. That leaves the need to take action. If the people only get down to business for presidential elections and only sporadically at certain other electoral moments, then the people are weak and willing to delegate: a people that grumbles but does not act, a people that does not do. It is our conviction that the people can ‘do’ better than to delegate politics at the time of the presidential election and subordinate itself to the dominant class. And if they do better in this way, then an electoral disagreement never will be able to destroy the left’s Front.
translated by Deborah Davis-Larrabee
1 Municipal elections are held simultaneously in 36,000 municipalities with widely varying political configurations.
2 The Left Front, therefore, had no alternative but to organise two large demonstrations – against the European Fiscal Pact and against austerity policies – while its deputies in the Assembly voted against the Socialist government’s 2014 Budget.