France: Opportunity to build a new workers’ party

France goes to the polls next Sunday, 21 March, for elections in the regions and districts (‘departements’ that are divided into ‘cantonments’).

This is one in a series of elections during 2004 that offers the left in France an excellent opportunity to launch a new party that can attract working people and youth.

The right-wing Chirac/Rafarrin government has launched vicious attacks on pensions and social welfare, as well as laying the basis for privatisation of education through decentralisation. The Parti Socialiste (PS), as part of the ‘plural left’, which previously was supported by large sections of the working class, offers no alternative to these neo-liberal policies. The last PS government of Jospin undertook, what was at the time, the most ambitious privatisation programme in French history. During the struggle against the attacks on pensions last summer, when millions of French workers went on strike, national PS politicians said they did not oppose pension reform, merely the way it was introduced by the right-wing Chirac-Rafarrin government.

While the PS provides no alternative to neo-liberal policies, it may receive increased support in the elections as a protest vote against the right-wing government.

For this month’s election, two parties, describing themselves as Trotskyist, Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), and Lutte Ouvriere (LO), made an electoral agreement to stand lists of candidates for the regional parliaments. This gives the opportunity for French workers and young people to vote for an anti-capitalist alternative that argues for the defence of public services and against increasing unemployment. The LO-LCR list is getting between 6-7% in national opinion polls and over 10% in some regions.

Gauche Révolutionnaire (GR), the CWI’s affiliated organisation in France, supports the LO-LCR list, and has two candidates on the list for the regional elections in Haute-Normandie, north of Paris. GR is also standing a candidate under its own name in one of the districts in the city of Rouen. Kevin Simpson from the CWI, who recently visited France, interviewed Leïla Messaoudi and Arnaud Benoist, the two GR members standing in the elections.

KS: What programme are you standing on in the cantonment (district) elections?

Leïla and Arnaud: The main things we are fighting against are for an end to sackings, social insecurity, and privatisation. In our election campaign material we have put forward demands for real jobs, decent housing, and for well funded and accessible public services.

The cantonment we are standing in is one of the poorest in Rouen, with a high number of immigrants and unemployed young people. There is 32% unemployment in the local area and it is 49% in one part. Over 50% of the population is less than 20 years old.

We have explained in our door-to-door campaigning that the demands we put forward can only be achieved through the local community uniting with the unions and fighting for these demands.

As a result of the social deprivation in the area, and the ‘radical’ rhetoric of the far-right Front National (FN), this party has got a good vote here in the past. In an attempt to undermine their poisonous propaganda, we have linked the question of a united struggle on social issues to democratic demands, such as the rights of immigrants to vote. We have also pointed out the hollowness of the propaganda of the FN by explaining that the leader of the party, Le Pen, argued in favour of raising the pension age to 67, and [he] also [argued] for a cancellation of taxes on big business.

In the 5th Cantonment, the local authorities have already decided to close five classrooms in local schools. The local politicians say that no-one is interested in what is going on in the area. But when the cuts were announced, parents linked up with the local teachers’ union and occupied the school in protest against the closures. We are part of this campaign.

During the campaign we have organised stalls, three or four times a week. Unlike most other political parties we have gone door-to-door to explain to people why we are standing. As part of the campaign we have put up over 500 placards for the campaign in the cantonment. We have got a very good response. Many people say that they are pleased someone from an immigrant background is standing. A lot of women are also pleased that a women’s candidate is standing and we have become involved in a campaign to end the harassment of women in one particular public area of the cantonment. A local journalist who interviewed us said that he could not believe that we were such an honest organisation and prepared to fight for issues which affect the majority of the population.

KS: Why did you support and stand on the LO-LCR list?

Leïla and Arnaud: Since the last European elections, when LO-LCR stood and did so well, many radical workers and young people saw this development as an alternative to the betrayals of the ‘plural left’ and, in particular, the Parti Socialiste. But they also hoped that this initiative would be the first step towards a new workers’ party in France.

While we don’t agree with every demand raised by the list, we think it provides an anti-cuts and anti-capitalist alternative for people to vote for.

Our slogan for the regional elections is: “Vote for the LO-LCR list: For a new workers party to fight against capitalism”.

Unfortunately, we are the only party component of the list which is campaigning for it to take this step – towards a new workers’ party.

KS: What reasons do the LO and LCR give for not using the list as a first step to campaign for a new workers’ party?

Leïla and Arnaud: The LO explains that there is not enough support for the idea of a new party. This is not our experience nor is it indicated in interviews with people in the mass media. Over 3000 people attended the meeting in Paris to launch the list. In Lille it was 1400. So, even with limited publicity, these meetings are drawing big numbers. Unfortunately, LO seem to want to use the election campaign just to build their organisation, without seeing the potential that exists.

The LCR use the refusal of the LO as a reason for saying that a new party cannot be built. The LCR leadership have explained that the list is likely to stand in the European elections, as well, and in order not to threaten this possibility [the LCR leaders argue] no discussion on the idea of a new workers’ party can take place until after the summer.

However, it does not seem that they are willing to take their own initiatives. While the LCR have set up official support committees for the list, they have not put much energy into them. In the public meeting in Rouen held in support of the common list, they had a poster advertising the committee but you would have needed very good glasses to read it and none of the speakers mentioned it in their speeches.

We put forward the idea that support committees for the list should be set up in every area and should be used to popularise the idea of a new party. We argue that these support committees should become involved in local struggles against school closures, cuts in public spending and also against redundancies in the public and private areas. In this way, these committees would be able to build a concrete base for the idea of a new workers’ party in those sections of the communities that most need it.

KS: Thank you, Leïla and Arnaud, and good luck in the elections. will carry reports of LO/LCR list and your election results, and the general political situation in France after 21 March.

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March 2004