France: For the Political Independence of the Working Class
By François Forgue
(excerpts from article published in The Internationale No. 13, February 2019)
The capitalist order in France is in deep crisis. The Macron presidency and government resulted from that crisis, which they have been unable to overcome. Macron himself acknowledged this when he said that he came to power “as the result of a break-in”. He was in fact elected President by just 18 per cent or so of registered voters, after the political parties which were directly responsible for the situation created in recent years – the Socialist Party in particular – were rejected by the voters, and after the traditional right wing blew apart. Macron was only elected thanks to the call to vote for him issued by the whole of “the left”, citing the need to block the National Front and its candidate, Marine Le Pen. It is amusing to note that several of those who today have no problem calling for demonstrations which the National Rally – led by Marine Le Pen – also approves, were the strongest proponents of a vote for Macron at the time of the 2017 election.
To some extent, Macron represents a concentrated version of Bonapartism. It was by default, as a last resort to defend the institutions of the Fifth Republic, that he came to power. He thus finds himself having to act as referee between different political forces, none of which are under his control.
The deepening of the crisis is the result first and foremost of the workers’ class struggle, of the fierce fightback they waged for several months against the Hollande government’s wish to destroy the Labour Code, an enterprise pursued subsequently by Macron. A struggle which, despite the obstacles and difficulties, was continued in many different forms after Macron’s election, notably in the big railworkers’ strike and in the growing number of strikes in every sector, which are the main characteristic of today’s situation.
Populism and “left populism”
Today, one has to be careful when employing the term “populism”, given the way in which it is being used. Traditionally, one of the most common definitions was to say that it was a question of “a political approach that counterposes the people to the elites”. The term “populist” referred notably to the political currents which fought in 19th century tsarist Russia for the overthrow of the imperial regime, and called on the people – beginning with the massed ranks of the peasantry – to organise against that regime. The Russian Marxists opposed the populists, stressing the importance of the working class specifically organising in its own class interests. The fact remains that the term “populist” therefore described those who fought against the privileged and the ruling elites in the name of the “people’s interests”.
Today, supporters of the established order often use the word “populism” as a negative term. For example, any opponent of the European Union – whatever their motive – is thus described as a populist. For example, the 2019 edition of the yearbook published by French daily newspaper Le Monde, titled “Le Bilan du Monde” [The Balance-sheet of the World], revisited Emmanuel Macron’s election to the presidency in the following terms: “His surprise election in May 2017 appeared to put a stop to the populist wave sweeping over the West with the British referendum on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the White House.”
The legitimate wish of the workers and people of Britain to break free from the straitjacket of the European Union and its procession of anti-democratic and anti-working-class measures was identified with the election of Donald Trump, which was a blow delivered against the US working class that was permitted by the attitude of the leadership of the working-class’s organisations in refusing to offer an independent political solution.
Furthermore, some political currents claim to stand for populism, and especially what they call “left populism”, which is “a political ideology that combines left-wing values with the themes and rhetoric of populism”, and which the [French] Larousse dictionary defines as “aiming to free the people without resorting to the class struggle”. Naturally, it is difficult to determine what “left-wing values” are exactly, but what is clear is that the class struggle must be rejected.
If we need to pause to consider this notion of “left populism”, it is not due to interest in an indigestible ideological gruel; rather, it is because especially in France, this ideology serves as cover for a policy: the policy initiated by Jean-Luc Melenchon and other France Unbowed officials. They refer notably to a book by political theorist Chantal Mouffe, entitled “Pour un populisme de gauche” [For a Left Populism] (3).
One of France Unbowed’s officials, Raquel Garrido, explained in an interview with the US quarterly magazine Jacobin (reproduced in Europe Solidaire, 12 April 2017): “Our ideology is humanist populism. In many respects, we have adopted the populist strategy of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.”
Chantal Mouffe explains in her book that “at the origin of this book is my conviction that it is urgent for the left to grasp the nature of the current conjuncture and the challenge presented by the ‘populist moment’” (p.1). By “populist moment”, Chantal Mouffe means a period opened by the 2007-8 financial crisis, in which what she refers to as “the neo-liberal hegemonic formation” “is being called into question by a variety of anti-establishment movements, from both the right and from the left” (p.5). So, as far as Chantal Mouffe is concerned, it is a question or replacing this – within the maintained framework of capitalism – with a new hegemony based on “the defence of the environment, struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of domination” (p.6). Let us leave Chantal Mouffe to her complicated attempts to counterpose a “left-wing hegemony” to a “right-wing hegemony” within the framework of the capitalist system, which for her must remain untouchable.
For her, this means the need to “take account of a series of movements that had emerged in the wake of the 1968 revolts and that corresponded to resistances against a variety of forms of domination which could not be formulated in class terms” (pp.1-2).
Things are becoming more precise, if not clearer. It is a question of attacking what is referred to as “the essentialist conception of politics”, in other words the notion that the struggle between two fundamental classes – the exploiting class and the class of the exploited – is essential. To put it bluntly, the enemy is the Marxist concept of the class struggle (“class terms”) and therefore the necessity of a social revolution, to which Chantal Mouffe counterposes “the wider field of the democratic revolution” (pp.2-3). It is therefore a question of engaging in the struggle against “different forms of subordination without attributing any a priori centrality to any of them” (p.3). She adds: “the left populist strategy that I am going to defend is informed by an anti-essentialist theoretical approach that asserts that society is always divided (…) through hegemonic practices” (p.10).
“A left populist strategy aims at federating the democratic demands into the collective will to construct a ‘we’, a ‘people’ confronting a common adversary: the oligarchy. This requires the establishment of a chain of equivalence among the demands of the workers, the immigrants and the precarious middle class, as well as other democratic demands, such as those of the LGBT community. The objective of such a chain is the creation of a new hegemony that will permit the radicalization of democracy” (p.24).
Everything is therefore placed on the same level. It is not a question of putting an end to the system of capitalist exploitation through the social revolution, but of retaining it while changing – if possible! – some of its forms. It is not capitalist exploitation that is the source of various forms of oppression and discrimination, so that is not what should be fought against.
This “strategy”, explains Chantal Mouffe, has found a successful application in the France Unbowed movement.
Jean-Luc Melenchon has returned the compliment, in relation to recent political developments in France.
In an article on his blog dated 2 December 2018 and titled “Regarding the citizens’ revolution of the yellow vests”, he wrote that this “citizens’ revolution” marks “a break with the centrality of the concept of proletariat (wage-earners)–socialist revolution as an unsurpassable pairing in the dynamic of History.”
Although its form may appear convoluted, the content of the message is clear: the great merit of the “citizens’ revolution of the yellow vests”, is that, according to Jean-Luc Melenchon, it denies any reality to the class struggle.
Regarding some recent developments
The emergence in France of what has been dubbed the “yellow vests movement” (we will come back to the vagueness and inaccuracy of this name) provoked a wave of commentary which did not necessarily correspond to reality. The more distance from the events on the ground, the more these appeared extraordinary; Trump went so far as to say: “Paris is on fire.” Without going that far, many news headlines tended to indicate that a civil war was breaking out over the roundabouts occupied by determined activists, while “yellow vests” and law enforcement clashed viciously in demonstrations…
Rejecting these deliberately exaggerated interpretations does not mean denying the importance of the event. What was the trigger? The Macron government introduced a new tax on fuel, citing environmental concerns as a justification. The tax was felt to be intolerable by a whole series of consumers on tight incomes who were forced to use their cars due to the lack of public transport. In the first place, this affected craftspeople, tradespeople and small business owners, but obviously it also included wage-earners directly hit by this measure and retirees surviving on pitiful pensions. At the local level, some people acted as spokespersons for this discontent by issuing calls for “resistance” on social media. This was the starting-point for a protest that found its symbol in the wearing of a yellow vest (11) and its form of action in the occupying of highway roundabouts, which led to initiatives aimed at disrupting highway traffic. Following the call for a first demonstration on 17 November 2018, the occupying of roundabouts was quickly combined with the organising of demonstrations every Saturday.
When we say that the name “yellow vests movement” is imprecise, this is because strictly speaking there is no “movement”, in the sense of a regroupment of those who choose to be associated with it, take decisions and delegate to certain people the tasks that are necessary for implementing those decisions. Their “spokespersons” and “leaders” are self-appointed and are not subject to any control by those who attend the roundabouts protests. Moreover, there is no overlap between the composition of the demonstrations taking place every Saturday and the people who occupy the roundabouts; the demonstrations are broader and more diverse, but they also prominently contain elements – notably linked to the far-right – who play a provocative role.
The speed with which these protests developed, their entrenchment and the sympathy which they evoke show that they are the product of the intolerable situation into which the needs of finance capital – expressed by the Macron government – have plunged the social layers that are participating in the protests, namely and first and foremost the petty bourgeois “lower strata, oppressed and exploited” of which Trotsky spoke.
This situation forms part of the challenge to the Macron government and its policy that is being expressed first and foremost in the multiple actions and strikes of the working class, in the struggle against the government’s reactionary plans and measures.
At the heart of what is referred to as the “yellow vests movement”, there is a strong component that is hostile to the labour movement as such, to whom the organised workers and the rights they have won through struggle appear as “privileges” which must be condemned in the same way as the privileges of an “oligarchy”.
The protest has come to the fore at a time when the government is developing all of its anti-working-class programmes, notably those aimed at destroying the whole of the public pensions system and the Social Security system, and a time when the leaderships of the working-class organisations are remaining remarkably discrete in the face of this offensive. The “yellow vests movement” does not even mention the government’s plans. They do not constitute the target of its protest.
While resorting to brutal repression during the demonstrations, the Macron government immediately recognised the existence of a “yellow vests movement” as such, and began “equal status” negotiations with it. The government thus agreed to receive representatives of the “movement” without knowing who they were or who had appointed them. It then made a few modest concessions that were strictly limited to the grounds on which the protest took place (cancellation of the new increase in fuel prices), but the so-called measures aimed at increasing the purchasing power of wage-earners on the lowest incomes (the loudly proclaimed 100-euro increase in the monthly minimum wage) was simply a fraud.
This fraud was demolished in Issue No.168 (12 December 2018) of La Tribune des Travailleurs [Workers’ Tribune]; the newspaper demonstrated that, in fact, the 100 euros breaks down into: 20 euros via the 1.8 per cent rise in the minimum wage that had already been decided; 60 euros corresponding to the payment of an activity bonus, a wages supplement for wage-earners who earn between 0.5 times and 1.2 times the legal minimum wage, paid out by the CAF (the State’s family benefits fund); and 20 euros in the form of a decrease in social insurance deductions. The so-called 100-euro increase therefore does not cost a penny to the employer. More than the strength of the mobilisations that were occurring at that time, it was the government’s weakness and its deep crisis that were revealed in this way. It was not the “yellow vests uprising” that provoked the crisis, it was the crisis that gave this “movement” its resonance.
Today, the political reality which various “yellow vests” spokespersons have tried to deny by affirming their “apolitical” character is manifested in the diversified nature of this so-called united movement: in the recent period, at least three proposed candidate lists for the May 2019 European elections have emerged, all of them located on the grounds of acceptance of the institutions.
As it has unfolded, the “yellow vests” mobilisation has been marked by the presence and influence of far-right political currents and organisations. This has been expressed in the hunt for “illegal migrants” at certain highway roundabouts, in the declared hostility towards the working-class organisations, in the wish to subject the working-class organisations to the diktats emanating from the “yellow vests” and in the acts of violence against groups of protesters representing the labour movement.
Of course, there will be objections that these positions are not shared by everyone caught up in the “yellow vests movement”. Obviously, but none of the people speaking on behalf of the “yellow vests” has condemned them, and it is no less remarkable to note that not one example has been given of contrary actions. For weeks, the red flag has not been waved nor has The Internationale been sung on any one of the demonstrations called in the name of the “yellow vests”. Those demonstrations have taken place to the sound of The Marseillaise and under the national tricolour flag (often accompanied by regionalist or monarchist emblems). Nor has as a single case been indicated of an occupied roundabout where the red flag was flying or where the occupiers were joined by a contingent of organised workers from a city-based enterprise. We are not claiming that many of those who participated in the demonstrations under the “yellow vests” label would not have willingly sung The Internationale or that they would have been shocked by the presence of red flags. But the fact is that this did not happen. For historical reasons, every working-class demonstration in France has always been accompanied by red flags – it is the colour of trade union flags – and The Internationale has always been sung, even on the most anonymous demonstrations. The fact that it is the national flag (the State’s flag) and The Marseillaise (the official State anthem) that have been the only symbols of the “yellow vests” demonstrations give a clear indication as to the political and social reference-points of those who constituted the framework of this “movement”.
Furthermore, many of those who have welcomed the “yellow vests” as marking the start of a new era, like Jean-Luc Melenchon, have had to acknowledge that faced with this “movement”, they find themselves in competition with the most openly reactionary bourgeois parties. Thus, Jean-Luc Melenchon has explained in his blog: “We think we have succeeded in preventing the terrible divide that was threatening: seeing the movement obliged to turn to the right or far-right in order to find political expression.” (12) Whether Melenchon likes it or not, “the right or far-right” have nevertheless made their presence felt on several occasions.
One of the specific characteristics of this “movement” and the way it has been exploited is that it has created the notion – articulated as a kind of commonplace – that “right-wing or left-wing” points of view – in other words, references to opposing political positions – were unimportant, since unity against poverty was built by ignoring those opposing viewpoints, so the priority was not to refer to them, as this would constitute a factor of division. Including when this involved openly anti-working-class positions and actions that went against the most basic aspects of democracy. In this way, even those among the “yellow vests” who condemn the attacks committed against other “yellow vests” – for example, a march by the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) was attacked by a commando of far-right activists – agree that those who commit such attacks can be part of the “movement” just like those who were attacked, provided there is no violence.
It is not possible to list here all of the incidents of this type. But this willingness to erase any political cleavage was clearly stated in the 17 February 2019 issue of L’Humanité (the daily newspaper of the French Communist Party). The paper quoted – without being indignant about it – the comments made by one participant in a “yellow vests” rally in the commune of Avon (in the Seine-et-Marne département, just east of Paris), who declared: “I like listening to everybody. You can talk with someone who votes for the [far-right] National Rally, or someone on the far-left, or someone in the centre, because that’s not the main point.” L’Humanité commented: “In this surprising forum could indeed be found a local CP official as well as other people who are happy to see Marine Le Pen in good shape”.
The example comes from above. For example, Manuel Bompard, one of the leaders of France Unbowed, said the following about various platforms published by the “yellow vests”: “In the first document of demands, apart from the demand to send those who have been denied asylum back to their country of origin, all the rest corresponds to ideas which we champion” (13). How can the expulsion of migrants be important, when all of us together form “the people”?
This is the context in which the importance of the fight of the militant activists of the Fourth International becomes apparent, as recalled in a briefing note by the TCI leadership dated 19 November 2018. “We are in a situation where every attempt is being made to erase class lines and organise the destruction of the organisations – political parties and trade unions – which stand for the labour movement; there is a sharpening of dégagiste (14) offensives, and these are being relayed inside those organisations. It is significant that on the eve of the 17th (15), Melenchon is not only not ignoring his inter-mixing with Marine Le Pen, he is claiming responsibility for it and theorising it: ‘‘We are seeing a repeat of the break embodied by the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution. On one side, all the bigwigs and the various well-meaning proselytisers, and on the other, a people with a broad composition.’’ (16) Are we dealing here with a social characterisation, workers on the one side and bosses on the other? No, we are dealing with a political characterisation, since Melenchon goes on to point out: ‘France Unbowed, which disputes the claim of the far-right, which is dominant today, to politically represent the “people–popular will”, has directly linked up with the movement while fully respecting its characteristics of autonomy and self-leadership.’’ The next issue of La Tribune des Travailleurs will examine these characteristics of “autonomy and self-leadership”, which actually owe very little to spontaneity. We invite the members to carefully re-read this quotation by Melenchon (from his blog dated 19 November) and to answer the question: are we very far from the strange combination that has led to the coalition between the Northern League and the Five Star Movement, the two heads of the “people–popular will” in Italy?”
Is it not clear that the references to the experience gained through the struggle against fascism – and the experience of the disaster to which the Popular Front policy led – are not simply a matter of history? As we emphasised earlier, drawing an analogy does not mean identifying one situation with another different situation. The fact remains that in the absence of a working-class leadership, the influence and pressure of the exploiting class, of the bourgeoisie, cannot fail to weigh heavily on the whole movement of the petty bourgeoisie. The anger of crushed and despairing elements can be diverted against those being referred to as “the well-to-do”, workers with recognised job-grades, and particularly against civil servants, workers who legally benefit from a pension scheme, and of course, against their organisations, the trade unions. In this situation, the policy of the leading apparatuses becomes a decisive factor. But by chasing after petty-bourgeois movements, by rejecting the role which the working-class should play, in practice one absolves the leaderships of any responsibility and allows an offensive to be developed against the organisations of the working class as such, with cover being provided by false theories gathered together under the name of “left populism”.
— 13 February 2019
(3) Chantal Mouffe, Pour un populisme de gauche, Paris: Éditions Albin Michel (2018), published in English as For a Left Populism, New York: Verso Books (2018). The quotes and page references given in this article are from the Verso Books edition.
(11) A 2008 French law requires all motorists to keep a high-visibility yellow vest in their vehicles and to wear it in case of emergency.
(12) Jean-Luc Melenchon, “Trou d’air pour Macron” [A breathing-space for Macron], 28 November 2018, available at https://melenchon.fr/2018/11/28/troudair-pour-macron/.
(13) From an article by Abel Mestre and Lucie Soullier in Le Bilan du Monde, January 2019.
(14) Translator’s note: “Dégagisme”, which can be translated as a “kick them out” perspective, is a relatively new political term in France, derived from the popular slogan “Dégage!” [Clear Out!] used against the Ben Ali regime by the revolutionary movement in Tunisia in 2011. The France Unbowed movement is calling for the working class’s traditional forms of organisation – political parties and trade unions – to “clear out” in favour of a movement which claims to “federate” the people while glossing over the antagonism between distinct class interests. Specifically in the trade union context, this essentially populist perspective treats unions as out-of-date and dogmatic organisations, and rejects the need to defend their class independence from corporatist attempts to atomise them and/or integrate them into the State.
(15) Translator’s note: This refers to the call by the “yellow vests movement” for nationwide action, including their first demonstration in Paris, on 17 November 2018.
(16) Jean-Luc Melenchon, “Le mouvement révolutionnaire en jaune” [The revolutionary movement in yellow], 19 November 2018, available at https://melenchon.fr/2018/11/19/le-mouvement-revolutionnaire-en-jaune/.