To an almost audible sigh of relief from its tens of thousands of activists, the two main forces in France’s nine-party Left Front ― the French Communist Party and the Left Party of Jean-Luc Melenchon ― have called a halt to hostilities.
The infighting was undermining the front's chances in France’s March municipal elections and those of the aligned Party of the European Left in the May 25 European poll.
The dispute has been running since last October, when Paris members of the Communist Party narrowly voted to continue their alliance with the Socialist Party (PS) for the municipal elections in the Paris region.
The party of President Francois Hollande, the PS governs nationally and its austerity policies have been feeding the growth of the racist and xenophobic National Front (FN) of Marine Le Pen.
Communist Party supporters of keeping municipal alliances with the PS say the councils they run have not implemented austerity. They say breaking these alliances would risk handing councils to the right.
Communist Party national secretary Pierre Laurent campaigned for this position.
However, the Left Party said these local alliances undermine the campaign to create a credible left opposition to the PS government. It says such alliances risk the Left Front being viewed by disillusioned people as just another bunch of politicians concerned about their perks ― further boosting the “anti-system” credibility of the FN.
The Communist Party left the decision to its local branches. In about half of France’s towns with more than 20,000 people, the Communist Party will take part in Left Front tickets. In some cases, this decision overruled opposition from outgoing councillors who wanted to keep PS alliances.
In other centres, such as Toulouse, Communist-PS tickets will be opposed by tickets made up of other Left Front affiliates, sometimes with the support of the Greens, the New Anti-capitalist Party and local activist groups.
This situation has posed a difficult question within the Left Front itself ― what is a Left Front ticket? Is it one in which all affiliates take part or one in which any affiliate takes part?
When can the precious Left Front logo (a reminder of Melenchon’s inspiring 2012 presidential election campaign) be used?
The nadir in Communist-Left Party relations was reached at the fourth congress of the Party of the European Left, held over December 13-15 in Madrid, which brought together left parties from across the continent.
To the concern of many delegates from other European parties, the Left Party delegation opposed the re-election of Laurent to the Party of the European Left president.
Left Party co-president Martine Billard cited Laurent's support for alliance with the social democrats in the PS, saying it “clouds the message” of the Party of the European Left's autonomy.
After Laurent was re-elected with over 75% of the vote, the Left Party delegation announced it was suspending its membership of the Europe-wide group until after the French municipal poll. This move alarmed other Left Front affiliates present in Madrid.
Clementine Autain, spokesperson for Ensemble!, which groups four of the smaller Left Front affiliates, told Mediapart website: “I really don’t understand. You gains points within the French Communist Party by staying positive, by convincing people, not by pulling out … if there’s division, everyone will lose …
“These continuing signs of division upset and demoralise the activists. For their part, they would love to see a photo of Jean-Luc and Pierre all smiles.”
A January 17 leadership meeting between the Communist Party and Left Party produced the desired photo opportunity. Without pretending the strategic differences had magically evaporated, it was agreed to cool the dispute, given the pressure from Left Front activists and the burning need to gear up for the European election campaign.
After the meeting, Melenchon said: “We have a strategic difference of opinion, but we need a positive escape route from it: we shan’t continue to demand that the Communist Party pull out of tickets where it is with the PS.”
Laurent said: “The crisis is behind us.”
The one remaining point of discord, under what circumstances Left Front affiliates can use its logo, will be decided in negotiations between the two leaders. One suggestion is that the logo not be used in meetings involving groups other than Left Front affiliates.
The critically important underlying issue — of how to relate to social democratic forces in a period when these are losing traditional support — recently split the Left Front’s third founding affiliate, the Uniting Left.
Its traditional leader, Christian Picquet, has negotiated a position on the PS-Communist ticket in Paris on the grounds this would strengthen a potential basis of opposition to the austerity of the national PS. This view is opposed by most of the Uniting Left.
The group has now split three ways — between members who entered Ensemble! late last year and the rest who oppose or support Picquet’s move.
As for Ensemble!, two of its municipal candidates for the Left Front tackled the underlying issues in a recent statement: “Let’s not deceive ourselves: distance from the PS is not the alpha and omega of a winning political strategy. If it were, the far left would have been in power long ago!”
For Ensemble!, finding the winning approach towards the PS depends most of all on preserving and enlarging the “precious unity” of the Left Front itself, transforming it from an alliance of parties into “a real people’s front”.
After the Communist-Left Party meeting, Ensemble! commented: “A positive way out of the difficulties besetting the Left Front is taking shape.”