In his state of the republic address last year, French President Jacques Chirac said: "The dissolution of the National Assembly is a constitutional weapon which the president cannot deploy for reasons of personal convenience". But On April 21, Chirac did just that, calling the first round of legislative elections, not due until next March, for May 25. Green Left Weekly's LISA MACDONALD spoke to Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) leader ALAIN KRIVINE in Paris on April 26.
According to Krivine, the government has decided to go to the polls early for party-political reasons. "The euro [European Union currency] is supposed to be implemented in one year. Under the Maastricht treaty, to enter into the euro, each country must meet certain conditions, including that their budget deficit be no more than 3% of GDP.
"A recent confidential budget document revealed that France is unable to reach this target. So it is absolutely necessary that the government escalate its austerity measures.
"It knows, of course, that it is better to have elections before these measures than after, when it would be certain to lose."
The volatile social climate since the big upsurge in strikes and street demonstrations in 1995 means the government is very afraid, says Krivine. "In 1995 there was a total political and social change. It was the opening of a new period; the majority of the population are now willing to fight, refusing to accept austerity.
"It marked the end of the resignation that followed the election of the Communist Party (CP) and Socialist Party (SP) to government in 1981. For a long time people thought, 'We voted the left into government, it betrayed our hopes but what can we do, there is no alternative'. There were some strikes and struggles, but they were entirely defensive.
"Today it is totally different. This is largely because the austerity policies are harsher. Today there are just under 4 million people unemployed [almost 13%], and another 2 million with jobs living under the poverty line. People speak about the Third World situation inside France.
"This new climate means people are ready to fight."
Krivine points to the strikes in many sectors, including some that have traditionally been very conservative, as indicative of the changed conditions.
Most importantly, he says, every time there is such a struggle now, it produces the same consciousness: "When people begin to fight on some small point, to resist this or that attack from the government, immediately the question of society is raised in their consciousness. For example, a strike in the hospital sector today immediately raises the questions of the need for public services, who is paying, why we work, for whom, for what, in what conditions, in what kind of society, and so on.
"Even the truck drivers, who were traditionally very right wing, are now fighting for exactly the same demands as the working class, including the 35-hour week with no loss in pay, leave entitlements, etc."
Krivine argues that there has been a "political reorganisation" because "the French people have known both right wing and left [CP and SP] governments. Both resulted in total defeat for the working class and, added to the savagery of the current austerity policies, this has produced the political radicalisation."
Krivine points out that on the one hand there is a growing fascist movement "which is a kind of radical political reaction — in a bad way of course. The people who vote for the National Front are not the rich and powerful but the unemployed, the poor people, people who are isolated from society and so on. On the other hand, there is also a big radicalisation on the left.
"The main problem on the left is a huge gap between the new social movements, which are growing stronger, young and radical, and the political level. The traditional left cannot reflect the aspirations of the new movements. If in the next year the left cannot build a radical political alternative, a political answer for the new social movements, the fascists will grow."
There are many new, non-party organisational developments which reflect the new radicalisation. "For example, there are now big debates inside the official trade unions. In the second trade union federation, the CFGT, nearly 40% are members of a left opposition. They have a paper called All Together — the slogan of the 1995 demonstrations — with a circulation of 60,000 inside the unions.
"There has also been a growth in the new radical left trade union, SUD, which was formed in 1995 in the post office by people expelled by the trade union bureaucrats. In the last union elections, they won 20% of the vote and are having such an impact that now in other sectors, such as the airways, people want to build the same trade union.
"There is also a new organisation to defend homeless people. This has become a big movement in France. They occupy vacant corporate buildings and wealthy residences, and the police cannot evict them because more than 50% of people now say they are for occupations, even though they are illegal.
"There is also a new organisation to defend the unemployed which is central to building the Euromarch [a Europe-wide march against unemployment, austerity and exclusion]."
The traditional left parties have been forced into more radical words and policies, says Krivine. "Of course, we know that when the SP get into government again, they will probably renege on those policies, but it is nevertheless significant that in Europe today the French SP is now more left than its equivalents because of the pressure of the new social movements."
The CP's three years in government alongside the SP from 1981 mean that it too is very discredited in the eyes of the movements. But after two years of debate inside the party, a growing number of members are increasingly open to engaging in discussion, debate and campaign activity with the rest of the left, says Krivine. A split to the left of the CP sometime soon is not out of the question, he says.
Krivine argues that people may still vote for the CP or the SP, but not because they agree with them. Rather, they do it to vote against the right wing. "People want unity of the left", he says, "because they want to defeat the right. But at the same time, they don't want the same experience of the SP and CP in government. This is a major dilemma for the left, and the big danger in these elections is that a lot of left people will abstain."
In discussions initiated by the LCR, both the left of the SP and the CP refused to participate in a national left electoral front based on the main demands of the social movements, although some agreements between the LCR, the Greens and the left of the CP have been reached at the local level.
"There are thousands and thousands of people in France who want a left radical organisation", says Krivine. "There are many more trade unionists, leaders of the social movements and organisations who now understand the need for a new political organisation. This is new, the result of social mobilisation."
The main problem is how to begin. "The election has come too soon for that this time, but we [the LCR] have initiated with other groups in many cities a kind of charter or public call explaining that we are the left, we want to defeat the right, we have no confidence in the SP and CP, and we want to get a real left together. Many people are endorsing this call.
"If the SP wins there will be a very different social response than when it won in 1981 because people will not be as easily betrayed; they are ready to force the SP to be radical.
"If the right wing wins, its further austerity measures will generate even bigger mass struggles. Either way, the next year in France will be very interesting, with big potential for recomposition of the left."