By Asad Ismi
Last February , the New Anti-Capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA) was founded in Paris with 10,000 members represented by 650 delegates. Almost overnight, the NPA drew 6% of the French electoral vote and its leader, Olivier Besancenot, a 35-year-old postal worker, became the second most popular left-wing politician in France after Ségolène Royal, the former head of the Socialist Party which is the official opposition. About 45% of the French electorate votes for leftist parties, and Besancenot has a 60% approval rating among French voters across the political spectrum.
Such remarkable and instant popularity for a revolutionary socialist party in the heart of imperialist Europe stems from the crippling economic crisis in France and widespread public dissatisfaction with Nicolas Sarkozy, the country’s right-wing President, and his neoliberal policies. Plant closures and rapidly rising unemployment have led to increasing worker militancy and massive general strikes.
The NPA’s attraction can also be explained by public disenchantment with the Socialist Party (which Sarkozy defeated) and its frequent compromises with neoliberalism. All these factors have created significant public support for revolutionary change in France, which has made the NPA popular.
I interviewed Richard Wagman, a founding member of the NPA, when he visited Toronto in August. Wagman is a Canadian from Ontario who has lived in France for the last 20 years. This article is partly based on the interview and a speech he gave at the University of Toronto.
“We are definitely a revolutionary party,” Wagman said. “I think that’s unquestionable. If you control the economy, you control the world. If you don’t control the economy, you don’t control anything. We want to create a socialist society in which the major means of production, distribution and exchange will be under public ownership and workers’ control, so that a planned economy can function on the basis of the needs of the majority. Both the state structure and the economic structure must be under workers’ control.
“In terms of our current platform, the NPA wants full employment, an end to layoffs, the nationalization of heavy industry and banks, the strengthening of public services, and ecological measures that promote sustainable development. The NPA is very much part of the French labour movement. Our members are workers, most of whom are unionized. We’re present in all major trade union federations, and many NPA activists have been behind recent strikes and involved in social resistance against government rollbacks and reactionary policies.”
The NPA’s revolution is a global one. The party condemns capitalism’s exploitation of the Global South and its wars to plunder Southern natural resources. The NPA sides with Southern countries and national independence movements that are resisting imperialism by France and other capitalist states. The party’s Founding Principles state: “Thus the anti-capitalists of an imperialist country must before everything struggle against their national capitalists, their own imperialist state, and their army. It is in this sense that we support the expropriation by the workers and the people of the country concerned of the French companies who exploit the workers and the resources of the oppressed countries. And wherever the French army (or that of other imperialist countries) is present, we support the popular resistance and the military defeat of the imperialist armies.”
The NPA not only supports revolutions in the South, but also acknowledges the inspiration it has received from the success of the Latin American Revolution led by Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba. Besancenot is an admirer of Che Guevara and regularly extols him.
The NPA’s creation provides political focus for rising worker militancy in France, which is a reaction to the economic crisis gripping the country and to Sarkozy’s neoliberal policies. These policies include privatization measures in health and education sectors, wage freezes, an extension of the work week, and government bailouts for rich bankers. The contracting French economy threw 217,000 people out of work in 2008, an 11.4% increase over 2007. In January 2009 alone, French unemployment rose by 90,000 people to about 2.2 million, “the highest one-month rise since records began.” Another 330,000 jobs were slated for elimination between January and June 2009. The official unemployment rate is expected to reach 9.8% by the end of 2009 and rise to 10.6% in 2010.
Alain Krivine, an NPA leader, explains: “The new party [has been] launched during a period of deep crisis in capitalism. Its main aim is to give a political and organizational expression to this mood of rebellion and defiance.” On January 29, 2.5 million workers launched a one-day general strike with an enormous number of protestors marching in 200 towns and cities across France. This was the biggest general strike in France since 1995. All eight national trade union federations participated. On March 19, more than three million workers struck, with 350,000 marching in Paris alone. Opinion polls showed that 78% of the French people approved of the strikes. Simultaneously, Sarkozy’s approval ratings sank to 36%, their lowest since he was elected in 2006.
Says Wagman, “The level of participation in the general strikes was indicative of the popular anger against degrading working conditions and high unemployment.” The NPA called for an indefinite general strike as opposed to the one-day strikes called by the union federations.
Along with the strikes there has been a wave of militant direct actions, factory occupations, work stoppages, and blockades by workers all over the country. Wagman explains: “On July 14, laid-off workers at the New Fabris auto spare parts factory in the industrial town of Châtellerault threatened to blow up their plant with dynamite [unless they were given $41,000 each in severance pay]. The workers won their demand. On March 31, workers at Caterpillar, the manufacturer of bulldozers, kidnapped four executives in the company’s Grenoble office. They were protesting the abolition of 600 jobs out of a total of 2,500. In a mustard factory in Dijon, where 244 jobs were threatened, the workers staged armed action and demanded 45,000 Euros (about CDN$69,000) compensation each, along with time off from work to look for new jobs. They got their demands. The employer was only offering them a pittance before they placed sticks of dynamite around the factory.”
For Wagman, “These examples show the high level of tensions in France and the extent to which workers’ struggles can go. The NPA supports these struggles,” he adds. “We consider these worker actions legitimate forms of class struggle and support the workers and their demands. We want their demands to be satisfied by the employers. We did not denounce these actions, as all the other parties did.”
Gail Sliman and Stephane Rozes of the French polling firms BVA and CSA, respectively, both consider the situation in France to be “explosive” due to “a perception that ordinary people were paying for the errors of the rich and that Sarkozy was helping the wrong people.” Both pollsters say that “chaos could ensue.” As Sliman puts it, “The forest is very, very dry, and it would only take one spark to start a fire.”
“The time is ripe to create a broad workers’ movement on an anti-capitalist basis,” says Wagman. “The people are ready for it. But the leaders of the existing Left organizations were not ready for it, so we just bypassed them and called upon the people.” One-third of the membership of the NPA is composed of former members of the Communist Revolutionary League (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, LCR), a Trotskyist organization now dissolved. Most of the other two-thirds of NPA members are not affiliated with any party. “They are the unorganized who for the first time have joined a political party with a clear socialist, anti-capitalist orientation, but without any former partisan affiliation,” says Wagman. The NPA does not define itself as Trotskyist.
There are five left-wing and five right-wing parties in the French National Assembly that rule in coalitions. The country’s proportional representational (PR) political system facilitates seats in the National Assembly for small parties, unlike the case in Canada. In this way PR helps create a more democratic and progressive political structure. Until the 1980s, the French Communist Party got 30% of the electoral vote and was the largest left-wing party. Under President Francois Mitterand, the Socialist Party took over domination of the Left.
Both the Communists and the Socialists were status quo parties that ruled the country in coalition with each other and by supporting right-wing governments and their neoliberal policies. Partly due to such compromises, Communist support has been reduced to less than 2% of the electorate today. The Socialists seem to have no answer to Sarkozy’s policies and are paralyzed by infighting.
Both of these parties also have little appeal among young voters. As Andrew Hussey explains in The New Statesman, “Most young people are cynical about and bored by both parties.” Hussey quotes Jocelyne, a Senegalese girl from the Paris suburb of Montreuil at a demonstration. “Who cares?” says Jocelyne, “It’s the same old faces – Ségolène [Royal] and her pals. They don’t care about us. They don’t know us.”
More than 40% of young people in France favour the NPA. “Frédéric” (not his real name), who studies at the Sciences Po, an elite social sciences university in Paris, told Hussey why he supports the NPA: “The NPA understand this generation better than anyone else,” he said. “They know that our degrees are worthless, that we have all been ripped off by capitalism, that we will never have proper jobs, that there is no future. They promise a different way, a real alternative. The NPA is a cultural revolution. They are not afraid to challenge the basic principles of our society. That’s why they are exciting: they promise something real that we can make happen.”
As Omar Slaouti, the NPA’s 42-year-old electoral candidate for the Île de France region, explained to Hussey, “What I find positive is that all of the energies, all of the anger in French society, are now flowing in the right direction, towards real change. We are not scared of the word ‘revolution’ – that’s why young people love us. We are not afraid to say it. It’s the same in Greece, in Guadeloupe – every one of the young generation can see that capitalism has failed and they are young enough to believe in an alternative.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, October 2009
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent and has written extensively on France, Greece and Spain.