Vive la Crise: The Left Rises in France

Maui Time | February 10, 2009
PARIS--Two improbable new political parties have been born in France. One claims to already have the support of 15 percent of the population --not merely of the French republic but of the entire European Union. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, that's big. And mainstream pundits expect that number to double within a year.

France's resurgent left has been born of a movement borne of a level of mass rage and popular resentment the likes of which no one has seen here since the 1930s. Like Americans, French voters are terrified as securities markets falter and companies lay off tens of thousands of workers. They're furious about bank bailouts that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of euros, with little to no accountability as the beneficiaries spent the money on everything except helping the ordinary people and small businesses who need it most. But unlike the United States, the incendiary rhetoric of France's left has seized the popular imagination and is redefining the acceptable range of political debate.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon quit France's Socialist Party a few months ago, decrying his former comrades as out of touch. Now he's the co-founder of France's Left Party (PG), a coalition of left-of-center parties. A week earlier, Olivier Besancenot formed the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), which he says has 9000 "militants" dedicated to the overthrow of the liberal economic system that has dominated Europe since the end of World War II. Anti-capitalist!

Even in left-leaning France, there wouldn't have been enough wine in all of France to convince a politician that he could successfully market the NPA's battle cry--they want nothing less than "a total break with capitalism"--to the voting public. "The right to happiness," a PG deputy said flatly, "is still a new idea." And that's what they're selling.

The Left Party seeks to unite France's left-of-center factional parties--communists, socialists, greens and members of the New Anti-Capitalist Party--under an umbrella alliance that would preserve their ideological differences while focusing their attention on dismantling the free market system that many agree has brought France to the brink of economic ruin.

To this American's eyes, revolution is in their air. One week ago, labor unions and leftist political parties declared a national strike, forcing schools, banks, transportation links and government offices to close. More than a million Parisians marched in the streets, calling for the ouster of [conservative French president Nicolas] Sarkozy. (Adjusting for France's population, that's the equivalent of five million demonstrators in Washington demanding that Obama step down.)

"There is room for everyone with legitimate political opinions, a PG official said in a radio interview. "This does not include the right." What should French conservatives do, he was asked? "They should leave the country." "Down with Sarkozy," a sign hanging from a city hall in the Auvergne region read, "Death to the capitalists." The Auvergne is one of the country's most conservative regions.

What does "anti-capitalism" mean? Besancenot, head of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, foresees a society where "the majority controls and expropriates wealth. Nowadays, the fruits of one's labor is stolen by a minority; we will ensure that everyone gets his or her fair share."

Communists have always been around, especially in France. But the mainstream Socialist Party (PS) has expressed a willingness to unite with its erstwhile rivals. The PS, PG and NPA all say they're setting aside factionalism. The last time France's Left was this unified was 1936, when a similar anti-capitalist coalition formed the Popular Front government.

Of course, there are cynics...on the left. "I'm not going to close down my shop and waste the afternoon marching in the streets unless it's for real revolution, for a real popular movement," a store manager told me. These demonstrations are just to prop up the official left, which supports the status quo," he continued.

Capitalism is in crisis, both here and in the United States. Is it doomed? No one knows, but the future of minimally regulated free markets is anything but certain.


Most Americans don't care what happens in France. But the oldest country in "Old Europe" remains the Western world's intellectual capital and one of its primary originators of political trends. (Google "May+1968+Sorbonne.")

The French are reacting to a situation almost identical to ours--economic collapse, government impotence, corporate corruption--by turning hard left. National strikes and massive demonstrations are occurring every few weeks. How far left? This far: the late president François Mitterand's Socialist Party, the rough equivalent of America's Greens, is considered too conservative to solve the economic crisis.

A new poll by the Parisian daily Libération finds 53 percent of French voters (68 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds) favoring "radical social change." Fifty-seven percent want France to insulate itself from the global economic system. Does this mean revolution? It's certainly possible. Or maybe counter-revolution: Jean-Marie Le Pen's nativist (some would say neofascist) National Front is also picking up points.

One thing is certain: French politics are even more volatile than the financial markets these days. In yet another indication of How Far Left?, the Communist-aligned CGT labor union is on the defensive for not being militant enough. "We're not going to put out the blazing fires [of the economic crisis]," the CGT's secretary general said, trying to seize the initiative by calling for another strike on February 18th. "We're going to fan them."

Two new entities, a Left Party (PG) umbrella organization trying to unify opposition to the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy (who'd be to the left of Obama in the U.S.) and the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), have seized the popular imagination. The NPA claims to have registered more than 9000 "militants" willing to use violent force to overthrow the government if given the word.

"Only combat pays," read a banner at the NPA's first convention.

Communism is dead, most pundits--the mainstream, stupid ones anyway--have been telling us since the USSR shut down in 1991. As it turns out, the libertarians were wrong. Half-right, anyway: Human nature may be inherently individualistic, as free market capitalists claim, but it's also inherently social. When economies boom, most people are sufficiently satisfied to leave well enough alone. Who cares if my boss gets paid 100 times more than I do? I'm doing OK. As resources become scarce, however, we huddle together for protection. The sight of a small rich elite hoarding all the goodies violates our primal sense of fairness.

"In Soviet times," a man in present-day Tajikistan told me, "we lived worse than we do today. But we were all the same. Now we live a bit better, but we have to watch rich assholes pass us in their Benzes." Which would he choose? No hesitation: "Soviet times."

In America, a French cliché goes, people are afraid of the government. In France, the government is afraid of the people. With good reason, too: the French have overthrown their governments dozens of times since the Revolution of 1789. The French are hard wired with class consciousness. Strikes, demonstrations and general hell-raising are festive occasions. Only when things spin totally out of control--as when Muslim youths rioted in the suburbs of Paris and other cities--are conservatives like Sarkozy able to make headway.

Riots over police brutality by disenfranchised minorities make the French nervous. But contempt for American-style "harsh capitalism," where citizens pay $800 a month for healthcare and write nary a letter to their local newspaper to complain, is 100 percent mainstream. The French don't think they should have to suffer just because some greedy bankers went on a looting spree.

Even Sarkozy is getting the message. "We don't want a European May '68 in the middle of Christmas," he warned his ministers in December. He shelved proposals to loosen regulation of business. Arnaud Lagardère, CEO of the Lagardère Group, told the financial daily Les Echos: "We're seeing, in renewed form, the most debatable aspects of Anglo-Saxon capitalism called into question."

The French and Americans face similar problems. But their temperamental differences lead them to different conclusions. An average working-class Frenchman possesses a deeper understanding of economics, politics, history and economics than most college professors in the U.S. Go to a bar or café, and sports will be on the television--but not on people's lips. They're talking politics and how to force their leaders to protect their quality of life.

Americans, on the other hand, don't expect direct help from their government. They're giving Barack Obama time to see whether his economic recovery program will work. It won't, of course; economists say so. But indolent hopefulness is less work than chucking Molotov cocktails.

Back in France, the NPA sets off rhetorical bombs Americans wouldn't dream of. "We're not a boutique party out to get votes, or an institutional mainstream party, but a party of militants," says the NPA's leader to the Le Monde newspaper. "We're real leftists, not official leftists." The NPA is currently negotiating a temporary alliance of convenience with the Communists.

A communist revolution in western Europe would be greeted by curiosity and derision in the U.S. state-controlled media. But if such a social upheaval were to protect French living standards from a global Depression spinning out of control, it might also prove inspiring to increasingly desperate Americans.

(Ted Rall is the author of "To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue" and "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?" He draws cartoons and writes columns for Universal Press Syndicate.)


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