On the weekend of February 7-8, over 600 delegates and as many observers attended the founding conference of France's New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), held at la Plaine-Saint-Denis in the working class suburbs to the north of Paris.
Less than a week before, on January 29, around 2.5 million people took to the streets across the country in a nationwide strike against the efforts of the President Nicolas Sarkozy's government to foist the burden of the capitalist economic crisis onto working people.
The idea for the NPA was publicly proposed in August 2007 in the wake of the country's presidential and legislative elections by Olivier Besancenot, the presidential candidate of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR).
Since then 465 regional committees in support of the project were launched and over 9000 people have joined.
Besancenot's vote of 4.7% surpassed that of the once mighty French Communist Party's (PCF) candidate. The elections established the LCR as the most recognised and authentic anti-capitalist voice in French politics.
Widely rated as France's most popular politician, Besancenot, or "the Postie" as the media calls him in reference to his job, recorded a 54% satisfaction rating in the latest opinion polls, his highest since the election.
Besancenot's strong showing in the last two presidential elections was the immediate catalyst for the formation of the NPA; however its origins lie in important transformations in French politics over the last decade.
Following a massive public sector strike in late 1995, regular waves of workers' struggles have surfaced against cut-backs, casualisation and privatisation.
While these struggles have been defensive and only partially successful, they have been sufficient to keep alive the traditions of struggle and left-wing ideas.
Despite the massive rejection of the neoliberal agenda by the working class, the traditional or "institutional" parties of the left — especially the Socialist Party (PS) — have faithfully tried to implement the neoliberal austerity program.
Furthermore the PS has effectively drawn both the PCF and the Greens into its web, offering them cabinet posts and electoral deals in return for their support.
Their integration into PS governments has eroded the PCF's once significant base among blue collar workers. In the case of the Greens, their image as a fresh and radical party has been badly tarnished.
In fact, without the PS electoral deals, both parties would struggle to win any national deputies.
In this context, the LCR tripled in size from 1995, growing to over 3000 members.
It also started to develop a significant base in some of the country's industrial heartlands that had once been the sole domain of the PCF.
However, the LCR recognised that there existed a much wider audience for a resolutely anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, pro-worker and pro-environment political force.
This audience includes people from different political traditions, and even more people without any previous political identification. The NPA is an attempt to reach out to those people.
To guarantee the success of the NPA,the LCR decided it had to completely dissolve into it.
This decision was designed to demonstrate to the rest of the NPA that it would be one united party of equals, and to allow for new and fluid debate to take place in the new organisation.
As Pierre Rousset, a long time leader of the LCR, explained, "One of the worst things the LCR could bring into the NPA would be its old debates".
On February 5 the LCR, born of a fusion between a current of French Trotskyism and some of the leaders of the student protest movement of May-June 1968, held its last ever congress.
Alain Krivine, a central leader of the youth revolts of May-June 68 and founder of the LCR who did time in prison when the organisation was banned in the early 70s, was joined by other members of his generation at the front for an emotional rendition of the Internationale at the congress close.
But the tears did not last long. The next day, as the NPA congress began, delegates spontaneously rose to their feet to chant "All together, all together ... General strike!" before getting down to the practical business of adopting the raft of founding principles, policy and structures needed for the new party.
Exciting much interest, especially among the corporate media, was the NPA's policy regarding possible electoral alliances in the upcoming elections to the European parliament.
Neither the NPA, the PCF nor the newly formed Left Party (PG) are likely to achieve the 10% threshold required. Both the PCF and PG were frantic that the NPA agree to deal.
Congress delegates were presented with two counterposed positions regarding the European elections. The position presented by the commission established for drafting policy declared that the NPA should be open to running on a joint ticket with these parties (and others).
But they argued an agreement must first be reached on some basic common policy — including a commitment to not take posts in pro-capitalist administrations.
However, the PCF appears addicted to the trappings of office and it's unlikely that it will agree to refuse posts offered to it by the PS.
An amendment from members in the Clermont-Ferrand region proposed that the NPA accept in principle a joint ticket with the PCF and PG, with the precise basis of the agreement to be worked out later.
This amendment was overwhelmingly rejected, only winning the support of 16% of the delegates.
For commentators in the capitalist media this was proof of the NPA's "immature" refusal to accept the "responsibility to govern".
Is this a sign that the media may turn against France's favourite postman and try to transform him from charming idealist into dangerous villain?
Already there has been an abortive attempt to tar him with a bogus allegation of workplace harassment. Last year, listening devices were discovered in Besancenot's home. The boss of a company that imports taser guns is currently being tried over the affair.
To counter this the NPA is moving rapidly to broaden its image and promote its other spokespeople.
The NPA's revolutionary politics is likely to gain greater currency among French workers as the economic crisis deepens, hardening opinion against the conservative Sarkozy government.
[Sam Wainwright is a co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance in Western Australia and attended the LCR and NPA congresses as an invited observer.]