France: Amid debates, left gives solidarity to Greece

July 31, 2015
French protest in solidarity with Greece's struggle against austerity.

In the aftermath of the harsh deal for brutal austerity and mass privatisation imposed on Greece in the early hours of July 13, both Berlin and Paris are floating alternative “solutions” to the euro problem.

Germany, on the one hand, wants greater fiscal integration, whereas France is calling for the creation of a eurozone government as well as a dedicated finance minister.

The mainstream press is talking up the divisions between the two nations as fundamentally different perspectives on the euro — or even differences in political “culture”.

Angela Merkel’s Germany is held up as a model of fiscal discipline, focused on stimulating growth. Francis Hollande’s France is chastised for demanding too much leeway in implementing eurozone rules.

In a recording of a phone conversation recently leaked to the press, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis can be heard stating that France “is terrified” of Berlin’s demands for the French economy. He said Germany was punishing Greece as a way of “terrorising” its largest neighbour into submission.

Yet while there are real tensions, it is telling that in their new proposals for Europe, neither has suggested any changes to the founding treaties of the euro or the European Union.

As such, they can appear as two sides of the same coin - both seeking to preserve the euro more or less as it is. That is, as a “liberalisation machine for national economies” in the words of economist Wolfgang Streeck.

In the marathon talks that led to the widely criticised agreement between Greece and its creditors, Germany and France played what some called a “good cop/bad cop” routine.

After months of playing a passive role in talks, “good cop” France stepped in at the last minute to avert a forced Greece exit from the euro (a “Grexit”), forcing minor concessions from Germany.

The German government and the European Commission steadfastly represent a pro-austerity position and the interests of European bankers, but Hollande’s “good cop” role is hardly born of any ideological conviction.

Instead the French president’s actions would be better seen as a barometer of the various social pressures to which he is exposed.

Hollande was elected in 2012 on anti-austerity rhetoric, but soon backed down on his promises. He has felt pressure from two sides ever since. On the one side are the needs of big capital and German-pushed and European neoliberal orthodoxy, on the other are his own constituents and those to his left.

In France, public opinion of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is generally high and disaffection with a German-dominated Europe is rising.

With Hollande’s approval rating stagnant below 30% and presidential elections less than two years away, he is feeling pressure to show not only a more “humane” Europeanism, but also an ability to stand up to Germany.

Hollande and the mainstream French press have declared the Greek deal a victory for France and for Hollande in particular. But parties to the left of Hollande's traditionally social-democratic Socialist Party criticised the agreement as humiliating and cruel to Greece.

Controversially, leader of the French Communist Party (PCF) and president of the Party of the European Left Pierre Laurent initially made a statement on Facebook praising Hollande for his role in the deal. It case a positive light on the deal.

However, Laurent rapidly changed his position, joining the ranks of those criticising the government's role in pushing the deal.

Other partners in the Left Front coalition, of which the PCF is part, were much quicker to condemn the agreement.

The Left Party's Jean-Luc Melenchon declared that, after the deal, “a Europe we dreamed of is dead and buried”. He said: “We cannot sign this agreement since it will resolve nothing and will make everything worse.”

Clementine Autain of Ensemble (“Together”) said that the negotiations revealed the Eurogroup prefers “competition between the peoples [of Europe] rather than solidarity, dogmatism rather than democracy, and the interests of the ruling caste over those of the popular classes”.

All three stressed the importance of supporting SYRIZA and Tsipras, while, at the same time, condemning the agreement forced upon the Tsipras government by Germany’s blackmail and threats.

As such, the left parliamentary bloc voted against the agreement in a vote in the French Senate on July 15. The motion nonetheless passed with support from the Socialist Party and the conservatives.

Autain, however, said the gloves-off approach of Germany and the Eurogroup raised fundamental questions about the European Left’s basic position on the European Union.

She said that, should a radical transformation of the existing European institutions prove impossible, the European Left should not hesitate to prepare for “other paths” - potentially including supplementary currencies and capital controls.

For Autain, these questions should not undermine the solidarity with Greece and SYRIZA, but should be debated openly and in a spirit of unity.

In a July 13 statement, Melenchon said: “We know that the best thing for Greece would be the victory of Podemos in Spain and our own victory in France. We are working on it!”

While those outcomes appear like long shots at this stage, his basic point stands. Greece, more than anything, needs a shift in the balance of forces in Europe towards the left and anti-austerity camp, regardless of any strategy towards the euro.

This is an international struggle, but for the moment, the gains will be made at the local and national level.

With regional elections in December, the French left is trying a variety of new regroupment strategies drawing on different forces in different parts of the country.

The French left has not yet resolved its internal debates and disunity that arose shortly after the 2012 presidential elections.

Yet in some regions, such as Midi-Pyrenees and Languedoc-Roussillon in the south of France, new regroupment projects cover almost the entire spectrum to the left of the ruling Socialist Party. They include the PCF, the Left Party, Ensemble, the Greens and leftist dissidents from the Socialist Party, as well as other local left-wing and social groups.

Many of these projects are trying to learn lessons from Podemos’s successes in Spain by building more participatory campaigns and drawing on various social media platforms.

The rise of the National Front has made the left’s task difficult in recent years. But the far right party is embroiled in a family feud that is still raging after more than five months.

The dispute has and has former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to threaten to run a separate ticket against his grand-daughter Marion Marechal-Le Pen in the December regional elections.

The left may have a chance to steal back some momentum from the National Front, and by doing so help build solidarity with the Greek people.

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