As everyone knows, in the 2005 referendum the French people rejected the European Constitutional Treaty. What had enabled this success was that, for the first time, forces opposed to neoliberalism worked together and created a really dynamic popular debate and exchange of ideas, a deep-rooted political mobilisation in which the political parties of the radical left took part, alongside the left wing of the Socialist Party, which has since broken away from that party to create the new Left Party, as well as trade unionists, activists in social movements, alter-globalists and citizens who until then had hardly had any involvement in political debate or had abandoned it. This was how the apparently impossible took place – an immense victory linked to a popular dynamism that carried the discussions to the very heart of firms and working-class neighbourhoods, starting from their everyday concerns: jobs, public services and wages. This victory inspired hope and the desire to continue the work undertaken together. Two years later, a number of those active in the 2005 struggle tried to put forward a common candidacy for the presidential elections. However, it proved impossible to get the popular dynamism under way. While it was possible to draw up a common programme despite important differences, the same was not true when it came to agreeing on a common candidate. Partisan reflexes and their inverse, anti-party reflexes, finally got the upper hand and the “transformative” left entered the campaign divided, with catastrophic electoral results.1 Bitterness and confusion ensued amongst those who had hoped to arrive at a common candidacy.
The French Communist Party’s (PCF) decision to opt for a Left Front strategy, together with the split that took place in the Socialist Party (PS), the left wing of which, with Jean-Luc Melenchon, had taken part in the referendum’s NO campaign on the European Constitution Treaty, made it possible to revive hope by establishing a Left Front. Initially this was a partnership between parties or political organisations2 of the “social transformative” left. It received its baptism by fire in the 2009 European election, then in the 2010 regional elections and the 2011 cantonal elections (for department councillors). The first election scores3 were fairly encouraging, although still less than hoped for, with a very high rate of abstention.
These first results, including the traumatic experience of the 2007 presidential elections, encouraged the continuation of the Left Front experiment. Building this seemed more urgent than ever in the face of the growing social emergency and the need to find a political way out, since the social movements, despite their strength, were coming up against a brick wall, as seen by the reform of the pensions system passed in the autumn of 2010, despite demonstrations bringing 3.5 million people onto the streets.
A “Popular Shared Programme” was drawn up. The activists jointly chose their common candidate for the Presidential elections (scheduled for May/June 2012). From the start Jean-Luc Melenchon remained the incontrovertible major candidate and a clear majority of PCF members, recalling the lessons of 2007, set aside their hesitations and chose him as the common Presidential candidate.
The way ahead is not an easy one. The Left Front is not die Linke and could not become one without losing an important part of its originality. Indeed, their activists4 differ in their history, their political culture (going from social-democracy to the most radical left), their orientations on some important issues and the way they are rooted in society. They do not intend to put all this aside. Moreover, (and this is not the least important problem) once the partisan reflexes (still too often at work inside the constituent political forces) have been set aside, this diversity can become the source of a real popular dynamism. Various forces of the alternative left and the social and trade-union movements have gathered round it. Citizens who have long been disappointed by political partisanship have found themselves involved in this front dynamism without at all finding a place for themselves in any partisan organisation.
Indeed, here lies one of the greatest challenges facing the Left Front: to serve the emergence of a real popular mobilisation for a politics of social transformation. To sum up, the Left Front is above all a front of citizens intending to get the process under way. The people of the left make up its backbone. It is in this spirit that the local committees are being formed.
In France, as in many countries, the social movement has shown its great capacity to mobilise. There is massive popular resentment of the profound social injustice of the reforms being imposed by the right in office. Rejection of the neoliberal policies and growth model is growing. However, no alternative is visible. The same can be seen throughout Europe. The elections that have followed the great social movements show the gap that exists between the rejection of liberalism, social militancy and an alternative perspective. Thus during the cantonal elections in France, the massive abstention in working class strata and the National Front’s score are worrying signs. The intensification of the crisis and the massive rejection of the pension reform have not noticeably changed the balance of power in favour of the transformative left.
Thus, there is much to do to overcome the difficulties we are facing, to connect the social movement to the political dynamic, aspirations for social justice, the rejection of liberalism and political responses. There has been no lack of struggles in the last few years but, when they dealt with the major social questions, their protagonists too had their backs against the wall and they came up against the liberal offensive.
To break this deadlock, the social movements must intervene directly in the political field, confront the neoliberal orientation and put alternative choices on the political table. It is no longer possible today simply to rely on the political parties to carry the social and trade-union demands, for which they act as intermediaries. The failure of the 1972 “common programme” period, the “Mitterrand years”, and Jospin period5, which led to disillusion and disgust with politics show that we can no longer evade this problem. Other, more recent experiences confirm this: the Socialist Party’s programme of reforming the pension system basically differs little from that being enacted by the government and the employers. For broad sections of public opinion the “left” no longer means social progress, social justice or the defence of working peoples’ interests.
The trade-union organisations and the social movements distrust politics and have distanced themselves from it. The division of labour, accepted on both sides, has become an insuperable chasm, confining each to their own role and making any inter-reaction capable of carrying forward an alternative extremely difficult.
Today, the neoliberal model has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of a growing section of the population. The rejection of an unjust and anti-egalitarian system is being expressed, in one way or the other, everywhere in Europe. However, a certain fatalism has also set in; there is scepticism about the possibility of any other policy. The social-democratic left has, itself, given credence to the idea that politics is powerless in the face of economic forces.6 The Socialist Party’s programme engraves in stone the acceptance of liberal globalisation. François Hollande, a leading candidate in the “socialist primaries”, which was to select a socialist candidate for the 2012 presidential elections, speaks of “realism”, “reason” and even “severity”, and his position on debt reduction is quite close to social-liberal discourse.
Bridging this gap between the “social” and the “political” has thus become an imperative issue to meet the crisis and its consequences that incessantly weigh on society. Gathering all the available forces – while respecting their identity and autonomy – necessitates a profound reassessment by each of the actors. This demands putting an end to the idea of the superiority of politics and requires a change in the conception of the role and place of parties, and this work has already begun, particularly within the Communist Party. The social movements, for their part, cannot limit themselves to the social arena – they need to burst into the political area and bring to the centre of public discussion the demands of which they are the bearers.
The Left Front must provide clear responses to the social expectations and must dialogue, on an equal footing, with the forces of the social movement to draw up alternative proposals opposed to liberal logic. In order to tackle the problems of social insecurity, the chief ones being unemployment, job insecurity, poverty and fear of becoming declassed, it will have to reconnect to the working classes who have for too long been left to their own devices. This approach is all the more necessary that a growing part of the “middle” strata feels threatened and is becoming impoverished.
If it fails to take this path, the rejection of social injustice will be taken up by the National Front, which is monopolising the “social question” while Sarkozy and his followers stir up xenophobic hatred and play on “law and order” issues as a way of staying in power.
By taking the offensive on all these issues and giving full space to the forces of the social movement, the Left Front will be able to gain the credibility that it still lacks for publicly making the transformation of society and break with capitalist logic the central issue. It has to put forward a programme for change and create the dynamic of a project. It should be noted that 75,000 copies of its “shared people’s programme” for the 2012 elections, called “Human Needs First” were sold when it was launched at the Fête de l’Humanité last September. These proposals aim at overcoming resignation and fatalism. This first success indicates the beginning of an encouraging dynamism.
In this context, a remarkable event took place. Up to now it has been generally acknowledged that, under the 5th Republic’s 1958 Constitution, the Senate (the upper house of Parliament) could never swing left. However, during last September 25th’s senatorial elections, despite an election system tailored to the right, the “grand electors” (that is the local councillors and Members of Parliament) elected a left majority to the Senate for the first time ever. The divisions within the right, the rejection of government policy, the anger of local councillors at the attacks on local democracy, the financial strangling of the local authorities and public services explain this result. Although the 72,000 “grand electors” cannot be identified with the mass electorate, this upset sounds like a sign of hope for the 2012 elections. A first positive result: the “golden rule” (enshrining into the Constitution the prohibition of public budget deficits) cannot be adopted unless the Socialists vote for it. However, for this upset to become the basis for a real alternative and to avoid the setback of a simple “alternance” between centre-left and centre-right, the Left Front must maintain an offensive and the social movements must carry their demands right into the Senate. The latter must from now on become a place of resistance to the policies of social regression and for working out a possible change in political logic.
The Left Front is faced with the weighty responsibility of creating a real popular dynamic in which everyone can find their place, and play a part and everywhere spread multi-faceted citizens initiatives, thus enabling a new hope to take root in the left. To do this the parties behind this initiative must free themselves from the party logic that remains alive inside them. The first initiatives launched by the local committees in which the citizens and the social movement fully participate, in which the protagonists of the social movements take public positions, the organising of legislative workshops for the purpose of collectively developing law projects and setting up legislative workshops for drawing up bills and carrying out the political project – when all this occurs a dynamic can develop around the construction of a true politics of social transformation. We are only at the very first steps. The road will be hard, but it seems full of promise.