Letter From France: French Trotskyist Traveling-Salesman Besancenot Touts Moth-Eaten Electoral Wares in New York

Olivier Besancenot, the telegenic poster child of the French pseudo-left New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) came to New York and spoke at the New School of Social Research in November 2011. He was asked by two persons who attended this meeting whether the NPA will call for a vote for the Socialist Party on the second round of the 2012 presidential and legislative elections in France.

He bluntly answered that his party will never do such a thing. Besancenot’s anwer was a plain lie, but a lie made possible by the awkward phrasing of the question. If he had been asked “Will the NPA abstain when faced with a Right or Far Right candidate at any presidential, legislative or municipal election in France?” then he would have been obliged to deliver the right answer: “No, we will always vote against the Right and the Far Right.” And as the Socialist Party belongs to the Left,[1] according to Besancenot, the NPA and most Trotskyists in France, it means not only they will vote for the Socialist Party, whether they like it or not, but also they will publicly announce it in a more or less hypocritical way.

Generally LO has the reputation of being more radical than the other French Trotskyist groups, because they often repeat that there is no difference between left and right governments, but what they wrote in July 1972 (urging for a common candidate of the three main Trotskyist groups) is still valid today: “…we are ready to vote for socialist or communist candidates who would defend a program corresponding to the principal current demands of the working class” (Lutte de classe).

This formula was, and is, sufficiently vague to justify any vote for the Socialist or Communist Party candidates if these parties put forward a demagogical program (like the Common Program of the Union of the Left signed in 1972, which was never applied when the Left was in power) including some nationalisations or a higher wage or a kind of French New Deal with some employment increase in the public sector.

Usually Trotskyist groups limit themselves to saying, “We must beat the right on the second round,” or, “We must beat the National Front on the second round” (this was the case in 2002 when Chirac, candidate of the Right wing, was facing Le Pen, leader of the National Front, on the second round of the presidential elections—only LO refused to call for a Chirac vote, and they paid a high price for it: for several months they were heavily criticized and boycotted for this position, including in their workplaces).

Even if it wanted to adopt a radical or abstentionist position for the next presidential (April 2012) and legislative (June 2012) elections, the NPA is not in a position to apply such a tactic. It has lost two-thirds of its dues-paying members. It has declined from 9,000 to 3,000 members, returning roughly to the same numbers as the LCR (the number of real activists is probably no more than 1000–1500 for each of three main Trotskyist groups in France. The NPA lost two-thirds of its members for three reasons:

  • some militants were outraged by the debate about the veil (a local section of the NPA in the Vaucluse region presented a candidate wearing a hijab for the regional elections, which was heavily criticized by NPA feminists and a small majority of the organization; at that time Besancenot declared that “a woman can wear the hijab and defend secularism and feminism” and that “a veiled woman is the proof of our integration in the [working class] districts”!;
  • others left the NPA because they naively believed they would win many posts as local or regional councilors in 2010;
  • still others left because they wanted an electoral alliance with the Front de Gauche, the Left Front, a coalition between the French Communist Party and the Parti de Gauche (the Left Party). (The latter is headed by a former… Trotskyist, ex-Socialist minister, a nationalist and authoritarian demagogue who succeeded, although the Left Party is much smaller than the CP, in forcing the Stalinist Party to support him and to abstain from presenting its own candidate). The model of the Left Party and of many people in the LCR and the NPA has been for years the German Die Linke (The Left)… So it’s not surprising that people leave the NPA for the Parti de Gauche, which is a bit bigger and offers more opportunities in terms of electoral positions and influence in traditional politics…

So the NPA is in a deep crisis; the new presidential candidate Philippe Poutou, a grey-haired Peugeot worker, is not as “charismatic” and “telegenic” as Besancenot, and the media, showing all their class prejudices, boycott him because they prefer the young “postman,” the ideal son-in-law with good looks, just as they boycott Nathalie Arthaud, spokeswoman for Lutte Ouvriere, because they prefer Arlette Laguiller, the LO candidate for…30 years.

As one can see, all these debates around Besancenot, Poutou, the NPA are centered only around electoral considerations, alliances with politicians, and relationships with the media. They have nothing to do with the increase in unemployment, poverty, misery, etc.

Groups like the NPA, POI (Parti Ouvrier International) or even LO are focused on the waged petty bourgeoisie, white collar workers of the public sector (and secondarily of the private sector) and skilled strata of the working class in the private sector (at least where there are still some factories of a significant size).

These “revolutionary” groups have nothing to offer to the mass of precarious, undocumented, unemployed workers, to the pensioners or to employees of small businesses. They have failed (until now, at least) to invent a specific propaganda and methods of organization for these layers of the working class. Trotskyists always argue and act as if the majority of the proletariat was concentrated in large companies and were stable workers influenced by large reformist or Stalinist organisations.

The influence of trade unions and left-wing parties is much weaker than in the “good old days” of Stalinist and social-democratic domination. Today, running for elections (organized almost every year in France as we have municipal, regional, legislative, presidential and European elections) leads “revolutionaries” to address and reach fewer and fewer workers. Young precarious workers and migrants don’t vote and the older workers tend either to abstain or vote for the right wing (around 50 percent of all workers). So revolutionary groups direct their propaganda more and more toward the waged petty-bourgeoisie, which still believes in the elections and votes for the SP, the CP and the Greens.

  1. [1] In a discussion with Jean-Luc Mélanchon, candidate of the Front de Gauche for the next Presidential elections, Besancenot said Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the leader of the “socio-liberal wing” of the Socialist Party. Trotskyists love these kinds of nuances which enable them to support the so-called “Left” of the Socialist Party… Those who want to understand better Besancenot and the NPA’s politics can read (in French) the debate between him and Segolene Royal (candidate of the SP in 2007). Readers interested in the Long March of French Trotskyists toward opportunism can also also read: LO, la LCR et les élections : la Longue Marche de l’opportunisme (1976-1988), (1), LO, la LCR et les élections : la Longue Marche de l’opportunisme (1976-1988), (2), LO, la LCR et les élections : la Longue Marche de l’opportunisme (1976-1988), (3). And more recently about municipal Trotskyism, Le trotskysme municipal.

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