At the third national congress of the Left Party (Parti de Gauche) held in Bordeaux from March 22 to 24, France’s newest and fastest-growing socialist group seemed to come of age.
Only four years old, the Left Party was born after its leading figure, Jean-Luc Melenchon, long-time leader of left currents in the Socialist Party (SP), abandoned it after the tendencies in the SP opposing neoliberal austerity mustered only 19% support at its 2008 congress.
The December 2008 founding of the Left Party was immediately followed by that of the Left Front (Frnt de Gauche). Initially, the Left Front was a coalition between the Left Party, French Communist Party (PCF) and Uniting Left (a current that left the New Anticapitalist Party).
With Melenchon as its candidate, the Left Front won 11.1% (nearly 4 million votes) in the May French presidential poll last year. It was the best result in 30 years for a force to the left of the SP.
It also put the term “revolution” back onto the French political agenda.
Over the past four years, the Left Party has grown from 4500 to more than 12,000 members and gone through rapid changes. Originally it was mainly made up of ex-SP members and left republicans such as national secretary Eric Coquerel.
But the party rapidly won recruits from the NPA and the Greens (EELV).
Many ex-members of other left groups also joined. But the main source has been people inspired by the Left Front’s presidential campaign, especially union activists and young people.
Over the same period, founding members like former SP deputy Marc Dolez and prominent railway unionist Claude Debons left the new party. They criticised its “leftist” line towards the SP.
The major issue of debate within the Left Front remains over how to relate to the presidency of the Socialist Party's Francois Hollande and the millions who voted for the SP last year but who are now becoming disillusioned with the SP-EELV government.
Developing the principles
When the Left Party was founded, its basic DNA was clear. A December 2008 statement specified “the society we want” as human-centred and ecological and built upon a radical redistribution of wealth. It supported citizen participation in a democratic Sixth Republic and the refounding of the European Union as a “democratic and social space respecting popular sovereignty”.
The “party we want” was to be open and democratic, internationalist, respectful of differences on the left yet committed to unity wherever possible, and a promoter of social action and popular education.
The task of the third national congress was to flesh out those principles. The 900 delegates who filled the cavernous hall on the outskirts of Bordeaux had four main jobs to do: to adopt a detailed political perspectives document (called “Let’s dare!”), vote on the party’s statutes, elect new national leaders, and decide whether to adopt an explicitly ecosocialist objective, as outlined in the document Eighteen Theses for Ecosocialism.
This last text had been developed through a process involving forces outside the Left Party, including former NPA leaders Michael Lowy and Janette Habel. It had been launched in December at the first of series of “Summits for Ecosocialism”.
This process is now being repeated across France and with plans for it to become international.
The text explains: “Ecosocialism is a refounding of political ecology which would be powerless without a strategy for overcoming capitalism. It is also a refounding of socialism freed from productivism.”
But what is the strategy? A third of “Let’s dare!” is devoted to the Left Party’s perspective of “a citizens’ revolution for ecosocialism”.
It summarised as being “fed by electoral contest, social mobilisation and democratic debate. Made by citizens, it also creates citizens. The taking of power we aim for therefore merges with the emancipation of the people.”
“Let's Dare” fuses the French revolutionary republican tradition and the Marxist class struggle outlook ― drawing inspiration from revolutionary processes in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.
As a result, “all forms of domination must be fought simultaneously”.
It says a primary duty of the Left Party and Left Front is to be the voice of people’s rage against the system and the “political class”. The price of neglecting this, as Melenchon stressed in his closing public meeting, is that the job will be done by forces like Italian comic Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, or worse.
The document lays great stress on the battle for hearts and minds. This is to be achieved by linking all-round social resistance to a massive effort of enlightenment against capitalist brainwashing.
“We must master the tools of popular education, those which allow a fight against all forms of domination,” it says. “We do not seek passive support for our project: we aspire to help everyone recover their voice so that this project can be built collectively.”
Another essential element are what the Left Party calls “concrete radicalities” ― practical examples of cooperative production, community administration, communication, education and culture that can be the seeds of future alternatives. Left Party elected representatives can promote and fight for such things.
These issues were underscored at the congress in speeches from a union delegate at Air France and activists in the struggle for equal marriage rights for LGBTI couples (presently being attacked through a huge counter-mobilisation by the right).
A feature of “Let’s dare!” is its internationalist outlook. It not only views the struggle in France as part of a Europe-wide struggle against neoliberal austerity imposed by the European Union, it views the Left Party and Left Front as part of “the other left” ― other than the social democracy ― on a world scale.
“Our ties [with Latin American revolutionary processes] are deepening because we are conscious of being the distinct national expressions of a same international movement.
“That’s why we have a lot to learn from experiences carried out in Latin America. It’s where the other left has come to power for the first time.”
It says the Left Front must have the same goal in France: “We are aware that there is a debate within the Left Front on the level of ambition which we should have.
“For our part we reaffirm the objective clearly put forward by the Left Front during the presidential election ― to become the majority force on the left capable of taking power in order to restore it to a sovereign people.
“If we judge that this is an impossible road then the situation of our people will be permanently without solution, and instead of being part of the solution we will become part of the problem.”
The document sums up: “The citizens’ revolution needs another way of governing. A fighting government is needed to break with the oligarchy ... Confrontation with the powerful is not be to rejected. On the contrary, it is the motor force of popular mobilisation.”
“Let’s dare!” as amended by the congress debate finally won 95% support from delegates. But this was not without debate on a number of issues, distilled into 12 counter-posed positions by a document commission that sat for 100 hours to sift throughthe 3000 amendments received from members and local Left Party groups.
The most important of these involved:
* A clearer statement of conditions of support for the euro. A Left Front government “would refuse to apply the strong euro policy of the European Central Bank and would be ready to take unilateral decisions in that direction, for example by bringing the Bank of France into action.”
* Alliances for the 2014 municipal elections. An amendment opening the way for conditional Left Party participation in broad left lists (including the SP) was voted down in favour of one stating that “everything in the municipal elections must prepare and reinforce the European [election] campaign. As a result, if we cannot form autonomous lists, we will not participate in lists led by parties that support the Ayrault government.” Immediately after the congress, the Left Party announced that it would be standing in 60 major cities. This pressures the PCF to choose between joining it in Left Front tickets rather than maintaining its traditional non-aggression agreements with the SP at the municipal level.
* Use of the term “protectionism”. “Let’s dare!” spells out a policy of breaking with the World Trade Organisation and favouring local production, especially in agriculture, and of requiring imports to meet social, ecological and labour rights standards. It says that “reconstituting a capacity for national production is impossible without strong measures of trade protection”, calling this approach “solidarity-based protectionism”. A proposal to change the title of this section of the text to “Cooperate to stop the destructive logic of free trade” was lost.
The issue that created the most controversy at the congress was the procedure for electing the national leadership, which made the election of members not proposed by the election commission very difficult.
The session devoted to the procedure was marked by cries of “Democracy, democracy” and complaints that a Paris-centred leadership was being imposed from above.
A parallel concern for improving internal party functioning was shown in the overwhelming adoption of a new preparation procedure for the next congress.
However, whatever the rights and wrongs of these issues, they had little impact on the buoyant mood of the delegates at congress end.
After a fighting public speech from Melenchon to a completely packed hall, and after singing the “Marseillaise”, Portuguese revolutionary song “Grandola, Vila Morena” and the socialist anthem “The Internationale” and at the tops of their voices, inspired delegates setting off home for the next phase in building the “citizens revolution”.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He attended the Parti de Gauche Third National Congress as a representative of the Australian Socialist Alliance. A more detailed version of this article will soon be available at Links Internatinal Journal of Socialist Renewal.]