Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The bitter fruit of an unprincipled political combination

France: The NPA in Crisis

— Jason Stanley

FRANCE’S NEW ANTI-CAPITALIST Party (NPA) is in crisis. While only two years ago many on the international left talked about the NPA as one of the brightest lights on an otherwise dim revolutionary horizon, today the Party is hemorrhaging members and struggling to stay afloat.

Founded in 2009, the NPA brought together members of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and a number of diffuse anti-capitalist, anti-globalization and identity-based movements in France. Whereas the LCR had been a party that sprouted from the fertile terrain of the May 1968 moment, the NPA was to be a party of the new, post-Berlin Wall left.

Some on the revolutionary left had doubts about the move away from explicitly socialist, Marxist politics, towards something more in line with the broad global justice movement. Yet growth and momentum — at least apparent momentum — brushed those concerns aside.

At its founding convention, the NPA had 9,123 members spread over 467 local branches. Approximately 5,900 members participated in the Party’s local congresses leading up to its national congress.

All this promised a level of commitment and dynamism to be reckoned with. Even before the NPA was founded, many on the left felt that a window had opened for revolutionary politics. In 2002, the LCR’s candidate in the country’s Presidential election, Olivier Besancenot (later to become the NPA’s Presidential candidate), received 4.25% of the national vote, while a second revolutionary party (Workers’ Struggle) scored 5.72%.

This was better than either party had ever performed in a national election and, significantly, each of the two revolutionary parties had out-competed the long dominant and often stifling French Communist Party (PCF).

Five years later, in the 2007 Presidential election, Besancenot tallied 4.08% of the vote, outdistancing the PCF by an even larger margin. Coupled with a political climate that gave rise to large-scale social mobilizations that won key victories against neoliberal attacks, this appeared to be a special moment.

Yet only two years after the NPA’s founding congress, the Party looks to be on life support. By early 2011, it had lost over one-third of its members. Eight months later, activists close to the Party suggest numbers had continued to decline precipitously. Perhaps more importantly, the sense of hope and dynamism that pervaded the Party in 2009 has been displaced by disappointment and shock.

Shifting Majorities

The immediate crisis in the NPA was precipitated by a subtle but important shift in support among members for one strategic direction over another. In 2009, party members voted in favor of a leadership slate (including eventual Presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot) that supported guarded electoral engagement with a newly formed political coalition — the Left Front — that had uncomfortably close ties to the social-liberal Socialist Party.

One segment of the NPA membership wanted the Party to more fully cooperate with the Left Front to build a broad anti-capitalist coalition. Another segment wanted just the opposite — a turn away from emphasis on electoral activity, and specifically away from the wishy-washy Left Front, towards a concerted effort to build a party committed to revolution. The slate that won offered a compromise between these two positions.

This compromise held until 2011, when a new leadership vote tipped slightly in favor of those opposed to engagement with the Left Front. For those on the winning side, the Left Front offered a reformist lure that was sure to undermine revolutionary politics. This meant that the best strategy was to dig in for the long haul, slowly building the Party through a difficult conjuncture.

Yet for many of those who favored some form of unity with the Left Front, this shift was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The strategy of guarded engagement pursued between 2009 and 2011 had rarely offered enough left unity to satisfy these members, yet it had at least offered enough engagement to keep alive hope for greater unity in the future. By contrast, the 2011 shift signaled a turn towards isolation and sectarianism. Consequently, a number of leaders and members stormed out of the Party, publicly chastising it on the way.

This fracture has taken a considerable toll on the NPA in recent months. Yet a close look at the Party’s brief history suggests that other challenges have been festering for some time.

Personalization of the Party

In May 2011, Olivier Besancenot stepped aside as the NPA’s Presidential candidate and spokesperson, leaving a gaping hole for the party. Besancenot inferred his decision should come as no surprise, as he had repeatedly said that the party needed to regularly replace its spokespersons in order to avoid over-identification with and over-dependence on individual personalities.

Yet over-personalization and over-dependence was precisely what had occurred over the two years preceding his decision to step aside. For many in France, Besancenot was the NPA. On the surface, this was driven by the media’s practice of identifying a single channel to which it could turn for positions from the party. More generally, a cult of personality had arisen in French party politics since 1962 when the position of president was opened up to direct universal suffrage, granting it greater legitimacy and power than had been the case previously.

Yet, if the political environment made an over-personalization of party politics difficult to avoid, the NPA itself did little to deflect attention away from Besancenot. A young, hip, passionate,and eloquent spokesperson, Besancenot had become a media darling. He enjoyed more press attention than the revolutionary left had ever seen (so much so that some on the broader left were suspicious that economic and political elites on the right were pulling media strings in ways to legitimize the far left just enough to fracture the overall left’s vote share).

This media attention was tantalizing for the NPA. Here was an opportunity to broadcast a well-spoken and well-defended revolutionary politics to a national — not even international — audience at a time when the global economy was in crisis and an angry population was looking for new paths forward. Besancenot was regularly invited for interviews and debates on media programs previously dominated by the most mainstream of political elites. What was not to love about this newfound spotlight?

The over-identification of the NPA with Besancenot created two challenges for the party. First, it raised questions over how the NPA would proceed once Besancenot stepped down, as he’d promised he would.

Many have looked to the party’s two new spokespersons new presidential candidate to fill this void, yet the media has found them less compelling. Members and leaders alike agree that the over-personalization of the party was dangerous, but the sense of disappointment in the loss of Besancenot’s charm is still palpable.

The second challenging effect of Besancenot’s fame was the impact it had on recruitment. Widespread media attention meant that it was increasingly common for new members to have come across the party and its politics on television or in a newspaper, rather than in interaction with activists in social movements or trade unions.

This brought many new recruits who identified with some element of the party’s message but had little or no experience with the challenging work of building movements over the long term. The churn in membership increased as more and more recruits came to the party through these channels, only to leave not long after.

Recruitment was also affected by the particular kind of revolutionary politics on display in Besancenot’s media engagements. He spoke often of protest, disobedience, the need for a general strike, and the importance of revolution — in short, his message was overwhelmingly one of insurrection, and often had a tone of impatience.

Consequently, those who came to the Party upon identifying with its public message were sometimes difficult to retain once it became clear that mass disruption was either not on the agenda or not effective in turning back the attacks, as in the mobilization against pension cuts in 20101.

Seeds of Sectarianism

For some who recently left the party, the turn away from any electoral engagement with the Left Front represents an intensification of a sectarian tendency that was already present in the latter days of the LCR’s history and that has remained a factor since the founding of the NPA.

Among the various groups on the far left of French politics, the LCR had long had a reputation for non-sectarian work, yet there were signs that this orientation was under threat by the early 2000s.

The LCR’s actions in the wake of the 2005 campaign against the proposed constitutional treaty for the European Union offer a good example. Much to the surprise of political elites on both the right and center-left, the proposed treaty provoked enormous opposition from trade unions, anti-neoliberal organizations, social movements, and all political parties to the left of the Socialist Party. The far right similarly mobilized to block the treaty, but the “No” campaign was overwhelmingly constituted and driven by the left.

One of the most exciting aspects of the campaign was the appearance of roughly 1,000 “unity committees” in communities throughout the country, bringing together activists from a range of unions, movements, and parties, and attracting large numbers of citizens with little experience in organized politics. These committees gave the campaign a motor that no party or union had control over. They also made possible genuine cross-party and cross-union bridges on the left2.

In the wake of the victory of the No campaign, the potential for left unity was abundant. Yet it took only months for much of this potential to fizzle away as the LCR pulled back from efforts towards left unity, leaving little counter-weight to the overly controlling French Communist Party (PCF). It surprised few, though still disappointed many, when the PCF pushed to take over and run the local unity committees. The energy and dynamism of the committees soon dissipated, and any hope of building upon the nascent anti-capitalist unity evident in these committees dissolved.

The hubris that grew out of the LCR’s electoral successes in the early 2000s no doubt played a role in these decisions. In both 2002 and 2007, the Trotskyist left had outscored the long-dominant PCF in Presidential elections. In 2002, a second revolutionary party (Lutte Ouvriere, “Workers’ Struggle”) had done just as well as the LCR, but by 2007 the LCR stood out as the party of choice for the majority of voters to the left of the social-liberal Socialist Party.

The PCF still had a sizeable membership of older activists, but party obituaries appeared by the hundredfold — this was a party on the verge of extinction. Why seek unity with a collapsing dinosaur? Instead, the LCR saw itself as a pole to which an anti-capitalist left would gravitate, even as it understood the need to create a new political vehicle that appealed to a new generation of global and social justice activists.

It was from these circumstances that the NPA sprouted. Yet just as the NPA was created, France saw the rise of a new political formation, also to the left of the Socialist Party. The Left Front brought together the newly created Left Party, the French Communist Party, and smaller groups of activists in favor of left unity, including some who had split from the LCR.

At times, the NPA has engaged with the Left Front constructively, especially in parts of the country where regional committees are more open to unity work and where Left Front committees are more openly opposed to cooperation with the Socialist Party. Yet the NPA’s overall approach towards the coalition has been to treat it as little different from the Socialist Party itself.

While the NPA and the Left Front have political platforms that are virtually indistinguishable, the NPA has refused almost all efforts towards common electoral work unless and until the Left Front agrees to promise that it won’t, under any eventuality, cooperate with the Socialist Party in governing. Seeing such a promise about an unpredictable future as unreasonable and unrealistic, the Left Front has refused to meet the NPA’s condition, even as it continues to urge the NPA to consider unity a priority.

In the meantime, the NPA has continued to act as if it is the natural pole to which activists and voters to the left of the Socialist Party will gravitate. Each election since the founding of the NPA has suggested that this is not the case, while the ongoing departure of the Party’s own members and leaders suggests it will not likely be the case in the future.

No one can say for sure what the future holds for the NPA, but for now the hope and dynamism of the party seems to have all but disappeared.

Notes

1. Stanley, Jason (2011) “France: Battling over pensions,” Against the Current, #151 (March-April), available at: http://solidarity-us.org/current/node/3198.

2. Wolfreys, Jim (2005) “How France’s referendum caught fire,” International Socialism, No. 107, available at: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=121&issue=107.

January/February 2012, ATC 156

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