Paige — Nathan Rao — Another Left is Possible: The Protests in France and the New Anti-Capitalist Party

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Another Left is Possible: The Protests in France and
the New Anti-Capitalist Party
by Nathan Rao
The Bullet – No. 198, March 25, 2009
A Socialist Project e-bulletin
It would be wrong to see last Thursday’s massively
successful protest actions in France as distant and
exotic, of no particular relevance to us here in
Canada. With the economic meltdown heralding a new
political era, and with most of the country’s Left and
social movements still stunned and disoriented
following their embrace of the misguided and failed
Liberal-led coalition plan, the French experience is
instructive and inspiring.
France has just gone through another day of mass
strikes and protests against the hard-Right government
of president Nicolas Sarkozy. The protest action is
hugely popular in opinion polls and comes on the heels
of another successful but smaller day of action on
January 29, a victorious six-week general strike on the
Caribbean island of Guadeloupe that spread to other
overseas colonial territories and the proliferation of
radical protest actions among students and in a number
of workplaces – all in the context of growing job
losses and a deepening financial and economic crisis.
`France’s Thatcher’ on the defensive
Not long ago, Sarkozy was widely hailed in Anglo-
American circles, from the Blairite “centre-Left”
across to the Bushite and Harperite neo-conservative
Right, as the French Thatcher – the man that would
usher in the “normalization” of French society by at
long last breaking resistance to growing inequality,
job insecurity, privatization and cutbacks. And yet, a
mere 18 months into his mandate the swaggering and
obnoxious Sarkozy is now stumbling in the face of the
resilience and scale of popular resistance.
Though still very far from being defeated, Sarkozy and
the neoliberal project more generally are on the
defensive in France, a country at the heart of the
global capitalist and imperial order. This has not
failed to raise a few eyebrows in other European and
western capitals, where the fear is that developments
in France will serve as an example for workers and
young people in their own countries.
Further stoking these fears is the fact that Olivier
Besancenot – the 34 year-old postal worker and
spokesperson of the newly created New Anti-Capitalist
Party (NPA) – has consolidated his position as by far
the most popular opposition figure in the country. For
several months now, polls have ranked him well ahead of
the leader of the nominally social-democratic Socialist
Party (PS) Martine Aubry – and even further ahead of
the PS candidate in the 2007 presidential elections
Ségolène Royal and centre-Right leader François Bayrou.
Besancenot recently even earned the unusual distinction
of being the only left-wing and working-class figure to
be named to the Financial Times list of 50 people “who
will frame the debate on the future of capitalism.” New
Party, New Politics for France’s Left
As its name suggests, the NPA has an explicitly anti-
capitalist profile and its program calls for a
revolutionary transformation of the country’s political
institutions and property relations. It is an activist
party, with a growing base of more than 10,000 members
across the country involved in local organizing efforts
and broad activist campaigns and the internal work and
debates of the NPA itself.
The party brings together former members of the largest
surviving (and now “self-dissolved”) organization of
the 1968-era far-Left (the “Trotskyist” LCR), a wide
array of experienced and previously non-party-
affiliated trade-union and social-movement activists, a
new generation of radicalized students and youth and a
significant layer of people of all ages for whom the
party is their first political experience ever. It is
quite easily – certainly within the industrialized
world at any rate – the most dynamic and radical
example of attempts at fashioning a left-wing
alternative to the increasingly discredited policies
and institutions of neoliberalism and capitalism.
Relevant to Canada’s Left?
This is all very heady stuff. So heady, in fact, that
it is tempting to see these developments in France as
distant and exotic, of no particular relevance to our
own work and debates here in Canada. That would be
To be sure, there are important differences between the
context and relationship of forces in the two
countries. For one thing, today’s protest movements are
at least in part an extension of those that have shaken
France since late 1995; and the initiative to found the
NPA was taken only after a long, complicated and
occasionally rancorous debate between the various
political and social-movement forces involved in these
movements in one way or another. It will certainly take
time and a significant upsurge of protest and
resistance in Canada before these kinds of debates get
any kind of traction beyond the margins of political
life here.
Fundamentally, however, the strategic lay of the land
in the two countries is not so dramatically different.
Whatever the fate of Sarkozy’s cabinet in the face of
the present protest movement or of Sarkozy himself in
the 2012 presidential elections, the NPA are under no
illusions that there will be a serious breakthrough for
anti-capitalists in the short term. Even in France, the
relationship of forces and rules of the institutional
game are firmly stacked against such an outcome.
The NPA understand that they are just now entering a
long period of rebuilding working-class and anti-
systemic movements and of developing a new vision and
strategy for enduring radical change. This is something
the party’s program describes as “21st century
socialism,” tipping its hat to the Bolivarian
revolutionary process underway in Venezuela and other
Latin American countries.
What are the broad lessons we can take away from the
French experience?
For one thing, the protests and strikes, and the
organizing that made them possible, show that
resignation, panic and “everyone for themself” are not
the only possible responses to the onset of economic
hard times. While people will often respond in a
conservative and individualist manner at the onset of a
crisis, there comes a time when they realize that
systemic issues are at play and that only broad,
collective action and political alternatives will do.
For another, the party and trade-union organizations of
the traditional Left are too weakened and compromised
by years of adaptation to neoliberalism and dependence
on positions in parliament and the state to respond to
the challenges thrown up by the hard-Right and the
economic crisis. While rightly associated with a range
of measures of socio-economic progress, the post-war
mediations between the organized working classes, their
party, trade-union and social-movement representation
and the state itself were never ideal; but after 25
years of neoliberalism they have ceased even to be
operative for some time now.
In France, repeated waves of mass protest and
organizing over the past 13 years have failed to halt
the traditional Left’s drift toward the Blairite
“centre-Left.” As the Right and ruling elites toy with
various ineffective solutions to the crisis, the forces
of the “centre-Left” will be quick to latch on to the
handful of “stimulus” and ersatz “Keynesian” measures
that are thrown into the mix to artfully declare a
major breach in the neoliberal fortress. So the crisis
is just as likely to deepen the rightward trend of the
traditional Left and “centre-Left” as it is to push
these forces in a more radical and combative direction.
The new days of action in France provide further
confirmation of this analysis. While they could not
have occurred without trade-union unity at the top,
this unity “from above” came about in response to
pressure “from below” and simultaneously acts as a
trammel on the further development of the current
movement. The pressure “from below” has itself been the
result of a surprising and noteworthy development – the
confluence of a substantial segment of public opinion
with radical sectors scattered across traditional and
new trade-union groupings, local workplace and activist
campaigns, the student and international-solidarity
movements and the relatively small party-political
organizations of the radical Left. How a `Radical Left’
Can Get a Wide Hearing
And this brings us to the particular significance of
the NPA. It is as much a product of this surprising
confluence of forces as it is a vital ingredient in
ensuring that the present unity and momentum are not
lost in the face of hard-Right intransigence and
“centre-Left” weakness and perfidy.
In other words, the debate on political strategy and
organization now occupies centre stage; and the main
lesson of the NPA’s undeniable success is that a
radical-Left political project can both receive a
sympathetic hearing and play this strategically
essential unifying and galvanizing role, on condition
* Its message consistently targets the systemic
origins of the crisis and identifies those
responsible for bringing us to the brink of
economic and ecological calamity.
* It contains an iron-clad commitment to the
broadest unity “in the streets” of all forces
willing to oppose the right-wing agenda, overall
and on an issue-by-issue basis.
* It confidently enters the electoral,
institutional and media fray but strikes a position
of defiance and strict independence on the question
of electoral and governmental agreements and
alliances with the forces of the traditional “Left”
and “centre-Left” (not to mention centre-Right
forces such as those around François Bayrou in
France and the Liberal Party here in Canada). These
forces are beyond redemption as any kind of
credible vehicle for popular aspirations and seek
to govern at all costs – in practice along lines
that vary only slightly from those of the Right and
* It prioritizes work among those sectors of the
population and country ignored or abandoned by the
traditional institutions of the “Left” and “centre-
Left.” The NPA has, for example, made a priority of
organizing in the working-class and immigrant areas
that have been hit hard by neoliberal structuring
and were the backdrop of the banlieues revolt of
late 2005. This is why the topics of racism and the
precarious work imposed on young people figure
prominently in the NPA’s internal discussions.
* It aims to be a grassroots force, rooted in the
actual struggles and debates of workers and young
people, eschewing any kind of elitist, rigid and
hyper-activist model of organizing and
transformation, throwing its doors wide open to
seasoned activists and interested newcomers alike,
while creating a democratic and transparent
framework for collective discussion, decision-
making, action and the drawing of balance-sheets.
* It takes a long-term approach to its project of
social and political transformation and understands
that we are in an extended period of resistance and
development of alternatives to capitalism and
imperialism. While history and politics always have
surprises in store, especially in a period of deep
crisis such as now, the relationship of forces is
too unfavourable, and the vision of an alternative
too weak, to expect major breakthroughs on an
institutional level in the near term. Better to
understand this and get down to the serious work of
organizing and rethinking than to feed technocratic
and armchair illusions about quick fixes and
imminent elite-level “paradigm shifts.”
A New Generation’s `New Left’
Finally, the protest movements in France and the birth
of the NPA inaugurate a new chapter in the life of the
international radical Left, especially when viewed in
tandem with the developments of recent years in Latin
America. The fact that the main figure associated with
events in France was born in the mid-1970s also signals
the emergence of a new generation of radicals.
We had a whiff of this trend during the wave of anti-
globalization protests ushered in by the Battle of
Seattle in 1999. But now it appears to be asserting
itself much more forcefully, with a larger and more
receptive audience than the one that existed just a
short time ago. This, too, is a tremendously important
and encouraging development.
[Nathan Rao attended the founding convention of the NPA
in Paris earlier this year. He lives in Toronto and is
a supporter of the Socialist Project. He welcomes
comments at natrao99@gmail.com ]
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