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France’s New Anticapitalist Party’s congress fails to solve its crisis

The New Anticapitalist Party (founded in 2009) at first seemed a beacon of hope to the left, not just in France but also across Europe. Marc Lasalle looks at why the dream has faded.

Olivier Besancenot was in 2002 and again in 2007 the charismatic young presidential candidate of the Ligue communiste revolutionnaire (LCR), when he received 1.3 million and 1.2 million votes (4.25 per cent) respectively. He was widely recognised as an expression of the militancy of the struggles of workers and youth against Nicolas Sarkozy’s neoliberal reforms.

So when Besancenot announced the project of launching a new party on a broad anticapitalist basis, the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA), there was a rapid influx of members, many young and new to politics, bringing its membership to just above 9,000.

Yet delegates to this years NPA congress had to face the fact that its official membership has now fallen to 2,500. This is roughly the size of the old LCR, the organisation that launched the NPA and which had formally dissolved itself on its foundation.

The congress report attempts an official optimism, claiming that 
it represented “a new and decisive stage in the work of refounding and reconstructing our party.” But hardly anyone believes such head-in-the-sand stuff. The official balance sheet likewise tries to make objective factors the cause for the decline, in particular, the defeat of the 2010 movement against pension reforms.

In fact it is an expression of a severe internal crisis. It exposes the linked phenomena of the NPA’s blocked programmatic development and its organisational structure of permanent warring public factions, which will not observe any discipline, even on the electoral terrain.

Some on the left claim that the NPA’s foundation marked an abandonment of Trotskyism. This is not true. It inherited all these problems from the LCR, which had long before abandoned Trotskyism as the basis for building a revolutionary party, for a mélange of Guevarism, libertarianism, Gramscianism and whatever else. Indeed the NPA’s foundation was something of left turn for the LCR.

Before this the LCR had long held the perspective of building a party intermediate between what it regarded as revolutionary politics and the left reformism of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the left wing of the Socialist Party (PS). Prior to launching the NPA, it had been seeking organisational unity with these forces.

The NPA’s formation was thus a tactical shift to the left, but not a strategic one. Nevertheless, a powerful right wing in the old LCR, led by Christian Piquet, resisted it, eager for organic unity with the PCF and the left-PS firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The system of permanent public factions, reproduced inside the NPA from the LCR’s own structures, allowed Piquet’s faction to continue to resist and even try to sabotage the NPA project. Meanwhile, the LCR majority, who became the dominant force in the NPA’s leadership, had little idea of where it was going.

Its most positive step was to launch a party-wide debate on the party’s programme. But it quickly abandoned this, reverting to the old LCR’s traditional tactical oscillations: between tail-ending the regular and spontaneous movements of French workers and youth, and standing in election campaigns on a standard left reformist platform.

In the latter case, it was to run into the question posed by Piquet’s wing: why would it not unite in election campaigns with the PCF and Mélenchon’s Left Party (Parti de Gauche or PdG), who between them had formed a Left Front (Front de Gauche or FdG)?

In its first years, the NPA attracted whole new layers of activists from a wide variety of backgrounds: militant trade unionists, youth, greens, feminists, and even anarchists. Militants from smaller Trotskyist groups joined it, too. However, it failed to win them to a clear common strategic orientation for fighting capitalism; that is, to a coherent programme. Nor did it gain any agreement on the tactics necessary to bring down the Sarkozy government. And as we have noted, its electoral tactics were incoherent.

In the autumn of 2010, during a wave of strikes and youth mobilisations against pension reforms, NPA militants plunged into the fray, and correctly advocated a general strike. However, when the union leaders backed down in the face of Sarkozy’s legal threats, the NPA did not come forward as a centre of resistance to the sell out, or even unequivocally denounce it. They simply “moved on” to the next set of elections.

But by now, Mélenchon’s political star was rising, and NPA members began to leave the party when they realised that, far from making a major electoral breakthrough, it was actually being squeezed by the dynamic Mélenchon. If electoral success is what you are after, and if you believe a left reformist platform is good enough, then why not go for the real thing rather than a “revolutionary” imitation?

The old LCR rightists, who had opposed the NPA’s foundation, kept up a public barrage of criticism inside it. In particular, they attacked the NPA majority’s insistence on a complete break with the PS as a precondition for any electoral bloc with the FdG. They recognised that this is, in effect, an impossible demand, because the PCF in particular depends on electoral deals with the PS to defend its seats in regional and local councils (and the generous state funding that comes with them).

When the NPA chose car worker militant Philippe Poutou as its 2012 Presidential candidate the, sections of the ex-LCR right announced they would not campaign for him, while some announced that they would support Mélenchon. The party did nothing to discipline them, and Poutou’s campaign was constantly raked by withering fire from the NPA right accusing him of sectarianism. No wonder he gained only 1.15 per cent of the vote, as against Mélenchon’s 11.1 per cent.

Last year, the rightist tendency in the NPA, the Gauche anticapitaliste (Anticapitalist Left or GA), having achieved 23 per cent of the delegates at an NPA conference in July, finally decided to quit the party. They left with around 300 members to join with the former LCR rightists around Christian Piquet inside the FdG.

Those in Britain who regard “pluralism”, “heterogeneity” and permanent public factions as the royal road to success, and who regard the NPA as the model for this, should ponder on these experiences. Unfortunately, many of them will probably draw the conclusion: “in for a penny, in for a pound”. Maybe the NPA was just too independent, and not quite pluralistic enough? Maybe it should have liquidated itself into the FdG? At the very least, they might think, it should have supported Mélenchon. How this would have prevented current or potential NPA militants from gravitating to the FdG is a mystery.

There are in fact two left tendencies or platforms within the NPA. The largest by far is Platform Y (previously Platform 2 or P2), which gained 31 percent of the delegates at the second congress, and which Philippe Poutou is a member of. Its politics are very much those of the former members of the Lutte Ouvriere (LO) group who joined the NPA on its foundation. After the GA decamped, and with mounting differences inside the NPA leadership majority – some wanted to eat humble pie and seek a rapprochement with Mélenchon, and others wanted to tough it out – it seemed that Platform Y could win the NPA’s leadership.

Two factors prevented this. The sheer loss of members, about half in a few years, was one. The other factor was the mounting differences within Platform Y. It was from the start a heterogeneous bloc, the two largest elements in it being the leadership of the LCR’s former youth organisation, the Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire (JCR), and LO’s former Etincelle (Spark) faction, which originally emerged as a faction inside LO in the 1990s.

While Platform Y correctly criticised the leadership’s obsession with elections, they failed to create a platform with a clear strategy for the party. Their approach to programme is similar to that of LO: economistic and prone towards tailing trade union struggles.

The furthest left of the NPA’s factions is Platform Z. Composed of the Fraction Trotskiste – Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire (FT-CCR) and the Tendance Claire, Platform Z more than doubled its vote to 9 per cent of the delegates, a real achievement.

The weakness of their politics is that they have no united font policy towards the PS, and therefore no way of breaking French workers from reformism. And their approach to the NPA’s development is negative. Regarding its foundation as an abandonment of “Trotskyism”, they cannot see how to struggle for a revolutionary programme within it.

While most of the NPA platforms agree on a turn outwards towards workers’ struggles, these are developing under a reformist PS-led government, where the union leaders, as usual, are holding back and sabotaging struggles to protect the government. Nevertheless, PS President François Hollande is tearing up his promises of a “change” from austerity towards an expansionary economic policy, and workers’ anger is beginning to rise in response.

Thus the task of creating a class-wide militant movement against austerity involves having to apply the united front tactic towards all varieties of reformist workers willing to engage in a common struggle. If the NPA can be won to doing this, if it can overcome its factionalism, and if it is willing to debate a strategic revolutionary programme, then it can recover some of its lost ground. If not, then it faces a bleak future.

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