About 200 activists from France’s Left Front gathered in Paris on Saturday 6 to discuss the group’s future. The Left Front has been in limbo for the past few months after disagreements about strategy led to a weak performance in the European and local council elections in May.
The meeting took place at a time of controversy in French politics. Socialist Party (PS) President Francois Hollande had sacked the cabinet and appointed a new one — for the second time since the start of the year — and the far-right National Front (FN) topped the presidential polls for the first time.
On top of this, Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the Left Party, one of main groups in the Left Front, stood down as Left Front co-president. Melenchon announced he would soon launch a new Movement for a Sixth Republic.
This political instability is an outgrowth of a deeper economic malaise. Since Hollande’s election in 2012, the economy has been on shaky ground. It has stagnated for the first two quarters of the year.
With unemployment running at more than 10%, a growing social crisis in France is hurting the government, which has admitted that it will not reach its deficit reduction targets for the year.
Hollande in trouble
The Hollande government — elected on “anti-austerity” slogans — has recently introduced a raft of measures aimed to make a total of €50 billion of public spending cuts by 2017. This will deepen the social cost of the crisis.
This goes some way to explain the government’s horror polls. Hollande’s approval rating has now dropped to below 20%.
According to TNS polls, Hollande has become the most unpopular president since popularity polls were introduced in 1978.
This only worsened in recent days with allegations in Hollande’s ex-partner Valerie Trierweiler’s newly published memoirs that the president refers to the poor disparagingly as “les sans dents” or “the toothless”.
The expression comes from a 16th-century French proverb, according to which “a man without money is like a wolf without teeth".
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also suffered a severe decline in support during his five months in office, dropping from 58% in April to 36%.
In this context, the open rebellion of then-economics minister Arnaud Montebourg on August 24 was the last thing the government was looking for.
Montebourg publicly criticised the Hollande government and the European Union for their commitment to austerity and free trade, which he said locked France into stagnation. Instead, Montebourg argued for greater public spending to revive household consumption, saying that the “priority must be exiting the crisis, and the dogmatic reduction of deficits should come after”.
This was the last straw for Valls, who called on Hollande to accept the “resignation” of the entire cabinet. The next day, a new, more pro-business cabinet was instated. It was missing leftist critics and included ex-Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron as economics minister.
This political crisis has opened even more space for the rise of the far right. A recent poll published in Le Figaro shows that if presidential elections were held today, FN leader Marine Le Pen would easily triumph in the first round.
Polls suggested the FN candidate would, as in 2002, lose in a second round run-off against a centre-right UMP candidate. However, the margin would be smaller.
In 2002, the results were 82% for Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen’s 18%. The latest poll shows the margin would be between 20-30%.
Left Front differences
At the end of its September 6 meeting, the Left Front adopted a common statement, recognising that such a dire political situation requires action from the left. The statement condemned the PS’s austerity policies as “suicidal” and calls for the “constitution of a large front of resistance to defeat the politics of the government”.
But, while the parties that make up the Left Front could agree on the nature of the Valls government and the need for building an alternative, precisely what kind of alternative, and how to build it, remain sticking points. The statement was decidedly lacking in concrete initiatives.
This debate goes back to the May elections. The Left Front won a disappointing 6.61%, a gain of only 0.13% on their 2009 vote. In the 2012 presidential elections, Melenchon won 11.10% as Left Front candidate, after a fiery campaign that had the Left Front polling at times above 15%.
One of the main causes of the weak vote in European and local elections was a disagreement over strategy between the two major parties in the Left Front. In the municipal elections, Melenchon’s Left Party decided to distance itself entirely from the deeply unpopular ruling PS.
The French Communist Party, on the other hand, continued its strategy of working with the PS in selected municipalities, so as to retain as many local seats as possible. For the Left Party, this tarnished the far left by association.
This difference has plagued the Left Front since, with neither side willing to budge.
On August 22, Melenchon further clarified his side of the debate when he stood down as Left Front co-president and announced plans to launch a new Movement for a Sixth Republic.
For Melenchon, the disaster of the May European elections, where the far-right FN topped the polls, did not primarily represent an electorate moving to the right. Instead, it represented a voter base so disenchanted with the political system that they were willing to “let Le Pen win”.
Abstention, while down slightly on the 2009 European elections, was still at more than 57%.
The political crisis in France is so deep, say Melenchon and the Left Party, that simply gathering the left forces together is not enough. New Left Party spokesperson Eric Coquerel explained: “We do not agree with the idea of gathering the left, since for ordinary people the left extends only as far as Valls and Hollande.”
For Melenchon, the goal is therefore not to “gather the left”, but “unite the people” in struggle around a common point: a new constitution for a new republic, leading to an “insurrection” at the presidential ballot box in 2017.
For Melenchon, the Left Front should be an “essential ideological and activist component” of the new movement — but it will not be the movement.
This idea of going outside of the established left and appealing directly to the disenfranchised majority explicitly draws inspiration from revolutionary movements in Latin America. It also draws from the recent experiences in Spain with the rapid rise of Podemos, a left-wing “anti-political” party that emerged out of the indignados movement.
Yet a difficulty emerges in the fact that the anti-political sentiment in France is not accompanied by such widespread grassroots radical organisation of the indignado type. Whether such local-level organisation can be inspired by Melenchon’s call remains to be seen.
The Left Front’s common statement supports the idea of a Sixth Republic as an “indispensable means” for exiting the crisis. However, the Communist Party disagrees with the Left Party’s approach.
The Communist Party supports the bid to unify all the left forces who “no longer recognise themselves in the politics of the current government” according to party secretary Pierre Laurent.
This would be a “plural left”, including the left of the PS and the Greens, working together on a common anti-austerity platform. The crisis in the PS is as an opportunity, the Communist Party says, for the far left to address itself to PS members and voters.
Therefore, it wants to avoid too big a gulf between the PS and the Left Front, so as not to lose this hearing.
For the Communist Party, the Left Front should fight on all fronts needed to help build a new social force. This includes the many defensive struggles of the moment, and is critical of throwing all its eggs in the basket of a Movement for the Sixth Republic.
A third pillar of the Left Front is Ensemble! (Together!), which put forward a mediating position. Ensemble! spokesperson Clementine Autain explained: “We sit today in a tension between the need to occupy a political space distinct from the governmental left and the difficulty of not falling into the logic of a cordon sanitaire [a sanitary barrier] with the PS.”
Its aim is to re-found the Left Front as a more cohesive party, rather than as a broad alliance. To do that would require more common initiatives around which activists within the party as a whole could organise.
It would also mean initiating a broader process of building links with partners such as the Greens, the New Anticapitalist Party and PS dissidents. Such an approach would ultimately be aimed at building a new political force entirely distinct from the ruling PS.
This middle-ground position is yet to win over either the Communist Party or the Left Party.
There will be another meeting in November that will aim to finally resolve this debate. For now, the Left Front will continue to persevere and try to remobilise its activists, alongside the new movement to be launched soon by Melenchon.