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International Socialism, Autumn 1986


Jacques Fournier

The parliamentary road ... to capitalism

The Socialist Party and the left in France 1981–86


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 33, Autumn 1986, pp. 89–110.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For revolutionaries a study of the experience of the French left in power is invaluable. This should be just as much the case today as it was when Mitterrand won the presidential election on 10 May 1981, with success in the parliamentary elections coming a month later.

In 1981 the French left became a universal reference point for all the European reformist parties – for the Labour Party (including its left wing) in Britain, but also for social democrats in Spain, Greece and even Italy.

There was also an outburst of enthusiasm among working people in France. Twenty-three years with the right in power, seven years of putting up with Giscard, had been enough. On the very evening of the election victory, two hundred thousand people gathered in the Place de la Concorde in Paris for a late-night meeting and concert. The next day, in offices and workshops all over the country people celebrated with champagne. Bosses and foremen shut their mouths and kept their heads down. There was a flight of capital, the most stupid bosses were already screaming about bankruptcy and chaos, while the French ‘man in the street’ was already talking about the socialist Gulag.

What was the actual programme of the Socialist left and of the Socialist-Communist government, and what did they in fact do? What was the effect of the new government on the working class? Why was no force to the left of the Socialist and Communist Parties able to offer an alternative? These are questions that revolutionaries have to answer, for certainly noone from the established left, in France or in Europe, is going to draw up a balance-sheet.

Left Keynesianism

The central component of the Socialist strategy was to bring about economic revival in France by means of raising consumption and by increased state intervention in the economy through the nationalisation of a large number of banks and insurance companies as well as of large industrial groups which had a virtual monopoly in their sector of the economy. An increase in wages and welfare payments (family allowances, minimum old age pensions, payments to the disabled, housing benefits etc) was supposed to lead the French population to consume more and as a result the home market would expand. Intervention by nationalised firms due to an ambitious state budgetary policy would ensure economic revival in good conditions. It was hoped that French industry could be modernised and that at the same time the living standards of the working masses would be improved.

The logical extension of this economic programme was supposed to find expression in a series of measures of so-called political and economic democracy.

In the political field the Socialists were committed to the abolition of the State Security Court, an emergency body regarded with contempt by all left-wing activists, which had been established by Peyrefitte, the Justice Minister of the previous government. They also promised to abolish the death penalty, to introduce proportional representation (replacing the previous system of majority voting which had allowed successive right-wing governments to be elected since the days of de Gaulle without much fear of suffering electoral defeat) and to give immigrant workers the right to vote in municipal elections (after three years’ residence). Finally, while declaring their loyalty to the aim of French military defence and the protection of its colonies and spheres of influence, the Socialists pledged to reduce military service from one year to six months.

The working week was eventually to be reduced to thirty-five hours without loss of wages, the number of weeks paid holiday was to rise from four to five per year, and the option of retirement at sixty was to be introduced. Above all the Socialists promised that workers would henceforth be able to participate in the management of firms thanks to the establishment of workshop committees and to the possibility of electing union directors on to the boards of nationalised industries. One of the measures presented as being central by the Socialists was an increase in decentralisation, a term which indicated the attribution of increased powers to regional, departmental and municipal councils. [1]

Once the Socialists and Communists were in power measures for economic revival were attempted. The SMIC (salaire minimum interprofessionel de croissance – a kind of guaranteed minimum wage) rose by ten percent. Other increases followed so that between June 1981 and March 1983 the nominal value of the SMIC rose by 38 percent. Family allowances were increased by 25 percent in July 1981 and raised again, in February 1982, by 25 percent for families with two children. On 1 December housing benefit was increased by 50 percent. The minimum old age pension was increased by 62 percent over two years. Additional measures were taken to increase the purchasing power of families, which led to a noticeable increase in income for the worst-off households in 1981 and 1982. In particular the SMIC increased significantly. With the relative decline in salaries of managerial and supervisory staff which came about subsequently, there was a tendency for income differentials within firms to decrease.

The planned nationalisations were carried out in 1981 and 1982. They were quite substantial compared to the programmes of any other social democratic or labour parties which had any chance of winning power. Nine major industrial companies, including steel and data-processing, as well as thirty-nine banks and the finance companies of Paris and the Netherlands and Suez were involved. The state thus gained the ability to control key sectors of the French economy, by financing as well as by direct intervention into planning and management.

In 1981, the increase in household income did not lead to as high a degree of economic revival as had been expected. In 1982 and 1983 it was above all public investment and budgetary policy which served the same end. But the state of grace and the euphoria it produced lasted no more than one year. As early as June 1982 the government resorted to a (second) devaluation of the franc, this time accompanied by a wage and price freeze – in practice it was primarily wages that were frozen. What had happened?

The myth crumbles

The Socialists and Communists had always claimed, from the time when the Common Programme was first signed, that the only way out of the crisis was to bring about an increase in consumption supported by state intervention. Thus they not only had a reformist view of the political means to be used, but they also saw the solution to the capitalist crisis in narrowly national terms.

As they came closer to power, the concrete problems of managing capitalism led them to moderate their proposals. From the beginning of the Mauroy government in 1981, there were voices raised even within the Socialist camp calling for measures that would be more favourable to the employers and demanding smaller increases in wages and social benefits. Delors, the Economics Minister (who had already been an economic adviser under Pompidou) was one of these.

But overall in 1981 these worries tended to be forgotten because all the economic forecasts by French and international bodies expected that 1982 would see an intensification of the upturn in the world economy which had begun to appear in 1981. The Socialists, and also other people such as bosses’ magazines like L’Expansion, expected that growth, thanks to economic revival, would be greater for France than for its main economic rivals. The dream of the social democrats, and of the CP who had joined them, was of an expanding national capitalism leading to more and more ambitious reforms which would end up by changing the very nature of the system.

Reality was not so rosy as the dream. In the OECD countries 1982 was not a year of economic growth, but of stagnation. Their GNP fell by 0.5 percent, instead of rising by 2 percent as had been predicted. World trade stagnated when a growth of 4 to 6 percent had been expected. Finally, the dollar rose in relation to the franc, reaching a rate of 7 francs to the dollar by the end of 1982 when a rate of around 5.5 had been expected. Thus the French economy found itself burdened with higher charges in its foreign trade and exposed to greater competitive pressures because of the greater difficulty of breaking into a stagnating world market.

This was not the only problem. France is one of the main exporters, the third per head of population among the industrialised countries. Its economy is very sensitive to the fluctuations of world trade, and so the stagnation of world trade led to sharp reductions in foreign exchange. With inflation in 1981 and 1982 being higher than in Japan, the USA, Britain or Germany, the loss of competitiveness by French products was all the more significant. The trade deficit with the main industrialised countries, above all with Germany, got rapidly deeper.

The growth of consumption in France resulting from the economic revival worked mainly to the advantage of imported goods. This was particularly clear in the case of cars. The demand for cars grew by 12 percent, but that for foreign cars grew much more quickly – by 22 percent. In 1982 the foreign trade balance reached the record deficit of a hundred billion francs.

And this was not all. Speculation against the franc led to a flight of capital. The exchange reserves of the Bank of France had been slowly falling since February 1981. They were cut by about a billion dollars a day during the week of May 18–22. 43 billion francs had evaporated between the end of February and the end of May; then, after a pause, the equivalent of another eighteen billion francs was lost during August and September.

The government could not resist these economic and monetary pressures for long. A first readjustment of monetary values within the European Monetary System took place in October 1981. But it was not enough. The budget deficit too got deeper, doubling between 1981 and 1982, and again between 1982 and 1983. France had to resort to massive loans. [2] Foreign debt reached 451 billion francs on 31 December 1983 (compared with 123 billion in 1980,188 in 1981 and 296 in 1982). Forecasts showed that interest charges would reach a dangerous peak in 1988-90. Internal debt was also rising very rapidly to reach 1,200 billion francs.

The ‘dirty work’

All these economic pressures, added to political pressure from the right and the decline in the left vote in the parliamentary by-elections of January 1982 led to a sharp turn in the policies of the Socialist-Communist government. The second devaluation in June 1982 was accompanied by a freeze on prices, but above all on wages for the whole year, and a plan to save ten billion francs on Social Security. These measures had the clear aim of controlling and reducing household consumption, cutting the deficit and transferring more money to companies and to the employers. They were followed in March 1983 by more extreme measures which confirmed the total commitment of the left-wing government to an austerity policy just like that of other European governments.

The main burden of the new charges fell on workers and their families, with an increase of one percent in tax on all incomes to finance the Social Security, austerity measures affecting health spending, the restriction of wage rises to the predicted level of inflation, the bringing forward of price increases (8 percent) for public services etc. But above all this plan led to the restructuring of major industrial sectors like steel, chemicals and later the car industry, with tens of thousands of sackings thrown in for good measure. Unemployment rose considerably, only superficially alleviated by the various plans for short-term employment for young people (the equivalent of the British YOPS). Household consumption fell by 0.5 percent in 1983, then by 0.4 percent in 1984. The purchasing power of public sector workers was further cut by 1.4, then 1.2, then 0.5 percent in the years 1982, 1983 and 1984.

The government had promised a significant increase in incomes and a reduction of inequality. In 1983–84 Delors, then Fabius, succeeded in smashing the index-linking of wages to inflation. Following the example of what had been done in the public sector, private employers no longer increased wages above the level of predicted inflation, except in the case of individual promotions on the basis of ‘merit’, etc.

The government had promised a reduction of the working week to 35 hours, without loss of pay. The 39-hour week, paid as for 40 hours, was won in 1982 only under the pressure of a wave of strikes. Since then it has been flexibility that the government has favoured, with the possibility of making people work up to eighty additional hours annually, and also on Saturdays and Sundays. Part-time and temporary work has expanded since 1981. A survey of employment by the Ministry of Labour states that: ‘for every thousand wage-earners at work in 1984, there were 193.7 workers taken on during the year (212 in 1983), of which only 54.5 were taken on on a permanent basis (73 in 1983) and 113.1 were on fixed-term contracts (106 in 1983). [3]

There have been three phases in the social policy of the left government. The first lasted from 1981 to June 1982. During this phase it deducted a little more tax from large fortunes and at the same time created jobs in the public sector (about 150,000 in 1981–82). Some very modest reforms were achieved.

The second phase ran from 1982 to March 1983; now the government was reducing household consumption and dropping the creation of public sector jobs in favour of cutting staffing levels without direct sackings. This was the period of ‘employment-solidarity’ contracts, and of the introduction of early retirement.

The last phase, embarked on already in 1983, but declared openly with the change of government when Fabius (an ambitious graduate of the École nationale d’administration) became prime minister, was marked by restructuring and massive waves of sackings.

The left government certainly achieved some (very timid) reforms in favour of the working masses and intermediate strata at the beginning of its period in power. But from the beginning they were accompanied by lavish presents to the employers. The nationalisations were compensated at a cost – according to official figures – of 38 billion francs. (Currently we see certain former bosses of nationalised companies who, thanks to the new sums of capital they had pocketed, are now ready to buy back the nationalised industries for which privatisation is envisaged). The various measures ‘in favour of employment’ were accompanied more or less systematically, from 1981–82 onwards, by substantial exemptions from costs for employers.

The left government tried to revive the French economy in order to achieve its reforms. When that failed, it reverted to managerial orthodoxy and rolled up its sleeves to do the ‘dirty work’ (as Fabius accurately described his own government’s achievements during this period).

This turn-round by the government was not simply the adoption of a more effective strategy, which would have had a neutral effect on a social level. The government also succeeded in extirpating all traces of the spirit of struggle and protest with which the left had been, at least to some extent, identified before the electoral victory of 1981.

The class struggle under the left

The left did not come to power on the base of a major upsurge in struggle. [4] On the contrary, 1981 was the year with the lowest level of combativity – measured in strike days – since 1968.

The contrast with what happened in 1936 was enormous. Then the formation of the Blum government at the beginning of June coincided with the outbreak and spread of the general strike.

However, there was a limited increase in strikes after the left came to power. Between the end of the summer holidays in 1981 (September–October) and the wage-freeze of June 1982, the number of localised conflicts [5] increased by 50 percent, and the number of strike-days rose to reach the average level of the 1977–80 period (but well below that of 1974–78).

This increase derived from three areas: medium-sized firms where the struggles were essentially about wages; conflicts to ensure that wage rates made up for the shorter working week; strikes in the car industry about wages and union rights.

The common feature of these areas of struggle is that they did not bring the workers into direct conflict with the government, but rather seemed to accompany and assist its action in some way. The government, for instance, issued a decree stating that the legal working week would be 39 hours starting on 1 February 1982, as well as extending to everyone the fifth week of paid holidays. The decree did not lay down that wage rates should be increased to make up for the shorter week, and the bosses grasped this opportunity to call into question a whole series of gains made by workers – seniority, length of paid holidays, etc.

This attack by the bosses sparked off a wave of localised strikes to such an extent that the level of struggle rose to that of 1974. [6] Mitterrand rapidly announced that the shorter week must be accompanied by the full maintenance of wages, in order to stop the wave of strikes. The employers had to give in. The victory won by workers in most cases was not achieved by means of a coordinated struggle, and at no time did they call the government into question, even though the management of nationalised firms often had the same attitude as private employers.

The case of struggles in the car industry is a special one. The strike at Citroen – a firm known for its brutal methods – was started essentially on the question of the right to an independent union. The government wanted a recognised negotiating body which could damp down the powder keg at Citroen, limit the abuses in the company and deal with conflicts in a ‘modern’ manner. The CGT bureaucracy was happy to offer its services on condition that it could establish itself in the company.

But, unlike the other areas of conflict in 1981–82, the car industry involved an important sector of the working class which had embarked on a ‘generalised’ struggle, and moreover the only offensive struggle. In this sense the aims of the strike, though limited to begin with, had a wider practical importance.

When the government froze wages in June 1982, strikes declined noticeably in most other sectors. Immigrant workers at Citroen and Talbot, on the other hand, had gained self-confidence, and were largely impervious to appeals to respect the ‘state of grace’ since they were sure of being in the right. The car industry was one of the few areas of militancy until 1983–84.

This combativity was revealed again when the wage-freeze came to an end. Between January and April 1983 strikes spread in the car industry to Fiat, Chausson-Gennevilliers, Citroen and Renault-Flins, essentially for the demand of a flat-rate increase of 300 francs, while the government was advocating strict limits to wage increases. But the impetus of the movement was broken. The municipal elections were getting near. The right was conducting a racist campaign. The government picked this up with the comments of prime minister Mauroy, who alleged that the workers in the car industry were being manipulated by ‘religious extremists’.

The potential for struggle remained significant until broken by the national and local leadership of the CGT. They did not want a generalisation of the struggle which might have been embarrassing for the Communist ministers who shared with the whole government responsibility for the wage freeze, etc. [7] They put on the pressure to convince successive shifts of semi-skilled workers to resume work.

This attitude anticipated the strike-breaking role played by the local CGT bureaucrats during the Talbot conflict in 1984. There had been one partial defeat after another. Above all, the leadership in which the workers had had most confidence, that of the CGT, had led the movement into confusion, offered no perspective, and was now trying, by displaying great moderation, to convince the management of the company to accept it as a negotiating partner. The management announced the sacking of thousands of workers at Talbot. Workshop B3 was the most militant; it was also the most threatened. A very bitter strike with occupation was launched, led by the CFDT union branch, the leader of which had sympathies with the revolutionary left. But only workshop B3 (3,500 workers out of 14,000 in the firm) was on all-out strike. The press campaign, the block on solidarity organised by the CGT leadership, but also by the CFDT leaders despite their militant face, ensured the defeat of the semi-skilled workers of Talbot.

This defeat in isolation marked the reversal of the balance of forces in a crucial sector and gave the green light for the government and the employers to go on to the offensive.

The workers at Renault-Flins also suffered a defeat shortly afterwards and Besse, a boss who had acquired his experience in the USA, replaced Hanon, considered to be not sufficiently aggressive; Besse announced the loss of twenty thousand jobs by the end of 1986 – straight sackings or job losses disguised by non-replacement and the encouragement to immigrant workers to return home, etc.

This defeat was as serious as that in the steel industry in 1979. Then the thousands of sackings announced provoked a massive revolt. Demonstrations by tens of thousands of workers, by twelve thousand children took place. In Lorraine the population went so far as to occupy the local television transmitters in order to issue a call to struggle. But the union leaderships directed workers towards actions that were spectacular rather than effective and capable of mobilising, and as a result the lack of perspectives demoralised the most militant and led to defeat. When the government offered tens of thousands of francs to those who were willing to give up their jobs, it was the militants who were the first to take the money. When, in 1983, twelve thousand sackings were announced by the left government, working-class reaction was weak, except in a few small pockets of resistance, such as Trith St Leger.

The same thing happened in the car industry. Since the defeat at Talbot the number of those returning to their homelands can be counted in tens of thousands for immigrant workers as a whole, and by tens per day for the car industry.

Following the departure of the Communist ministers from the government after the European elections in 1984, the CGT bureaucracy adopted an attitude which appeared more militant; but by now many sectors of workers had been overcome by demoralisation. And many workers were well aware that what the CGT bureaucracy wanted to do was to restore its reputation which had been tarnished by its collaboration with the Socialist-Communist government, a collaboration scarcely concealed by the ambiguous language it used. Such workers were confirmed in this opinion by the ultra-leftism of the CP and the CGT leadership at SKF, where municipal commandos made up of CP militants totally substituted themselves for the workers in the factory to carry out a pitched battle with the CRS riot police.

For all that the CGT has not been wholly discredited in workers’ eyes. The majority of struggles in 1984 and 1985 were launched by CGT sections. The CGT was behind two-thirds of strikes and three-quarters of strike-days – on its own or in the context of an inter-union body. [8]

Supported by the union bureaucracies (except by the CGT after the CP ministers left the government) the left government has succeeded in seriously reducing the militancy of the working class, cutting down on generalised struggles and offering more room for manoeuvre to the employers.

The government strengthened the weight of the union bureaucracy by creating positions of worker directors on the boards of nationalised companies and by encouraging the formation of ‘quality circles’ and ‘expression committees’ which orient union militants towards negotiation with the employers and improving the profitability of the company.

The left government has succeeded in achieving a very significant result; in March 1986 the level of militancy was at its lowest since 1946 while the level of share prices increased by over 41 percent in 1985. This was the argument tirelessly repeated by Fabius to convince the employers that he could put the economy back on its feet. A whole programme in itself.

All this does not mean that the working class had been crushed. Disputes like those in French railways (December 1985) or Paris Transport (January 1986) show that a powerful potential for struggle still exists in some sectors. In both cases the strike began over a question unconnected with wages; there was an attempt to put the blame for accidents on drivers. In both cases the action was originally intended to be limited to certain services. And in both cases the dispute spread with surprising rapidity, leading to complete standstill in the industry within a day, as a result of which the management and the government retreated.

Nonetheless the drift to the right has been clearly marked on the one hand by the electoral decline of the Communist Party, the party with the deepest roots in the working class, and on the other above all by the emergence of a national organisation with fascist tendencies, the Front National.

The breakthrough by the extreme right

Furthermore, nothing has shown so clearly the impotence and indeed the corruption of the governmental left as this breakthrough by the extreme right.

Le Pen, and his organisation, the Front National, which are getting so much attention nowadays, were marginal in 1981. The Front National had been founded in 1972 by a well-known fascist organisation Ordre Nouveau (New Order), as a cover to attract more voters in the 1973 parliamentary elections and to form a large party of the French extreme right. The leaders of this organisation expressed their aim as follows: ‘The success of this policy requires that we should not appear in the eyes of the public to be the main component, even if such is the reality.’ [9] Le Pen’s role was to serve as a guarantee of the new organisation’s link with the past. His ambition provoked a split and the old members of Ordre Nouveau formed the PFN which enjoyed better fortunes, among other things by giving support to both Giscard d’Estaing and to the Gaullists, and receiving from both these parties not inconsiderable financial subsidies.

In 1981 the Front National was very weak and virtually moribund. It could not even get together the number of signatures necessary to run a candidate for the presidency and in the parliamentary elections it got on average no more than 0.5 percent of the vote. [10]

It needed no more than two years of the left in power for these fascists to make an electoral breakthrough, and within three years they reached a national average of 11 percent.

Several factors help to explain this. First of all the left’s electoral victory provoked a reaction in the opposite direction, thus feeding all the political currents on the right. Above all, the traditional right became more radical in its propaganda, taking up the themes of law and order, liberalism and immigration, and using a high degree of demagogy, certainly out of anger at having lost jobs in government, but also in the hope of getting them back as quickly as possible.

But at this time the traditional right had lost credibility. For it had been the dispute between Chirac and Giscard and the manoeuvres between the two main parties which had cleared the way for the victory of Mitterrand and the left. The crisis of the mainstream right was still at its height and that is why the extreme right was able to take a proportionately much greater advantage of the situation. On the level of ideas the ground was occupied by a whole series of clubs which constituted a meeting-point between the traditional parties and the organised extreme right. The Club de l’Horloge (Clock Club) is the most famous for its role in theorising and popularising anti-immigrant campaigns, all-out liberalism and the idea that all alliances on the right are justified in the struggle against the ‘Socialist-Communist enemy’.

The Front National had the most consistent reactionary ideas because it had a good start. Unlike Chirac it had never considered giving the vote to immigrant workers in local elections or anything of that sort. Already in 1982, in a few areas, the extreme right got good electoral results. But in overall terms it remained very marginal. The Front National made its major breakthrough with the election for the council at Dreux, a working-class suburb where many immigrant workers live, and with the municipal elections throughout France in March 1983. At Dreux, an alliance with the local Gaullists allowed J.-P. Stirbois, a long-standing fascist activist, to take control of the town hall.

In the first instance the Front National’s tactic has been to present a democratic face, and to avoid at all costs confrontations and physical attacks on immigrant workers and strikers. Le Pen had spent too much time isolated in a political ghetto to miss the opportunity of trying to win as much influence as possible first of all through electoral channels. He says he is an anti-racist and takes legal action against those who say the opposite. He claims simply to want the immigrants ‘to go back where they came from’ and not to want France to become a ‘dustbin’ or a ‘brothel’. [11]

But his organisation is in fact built up of hardened neo-fascists. The General Secretary of the organisation prior to Stirbois, F. Dupras, was a leader of the GNR (Revolutionary Nationalist Groups), which were neo-nazi groups. Romain Marie is a leader of the Christian Solidarity Committee, a hard-line Catholic organisation which contains many supporters of Petain and says it prefers the Nazis to the Communists. These are only a few significant examples; there is much more that could be said. [12]

But it was not only the right which encouraged racism and made things easier for the Front National. The left in government and the Socialist leaders, especially those who felt themselves most threatened, acted in a similar way. In 1982 it was the prime minister himself, Pierre Mauroy, who declared that semi-skilled workers on strike at Talbot were being manipulated by ayatollahs, thus echoing a right-wing campaign which claimed there was a ‘plot aiming to destroy the nation’s industry’. When Gaston Defferre (whose recent death was a piece of good news) felt he was likely to be defeated in the 1983 municipal elections he entered into negotiations with the extreme right-wingers on the Marseille Securité list and raised the stakes in anti-immigrant language by having a poster plastered over the walls of Marseilles reading: ‘The right – twenty years of illegal immigration. With the left, at last firm control whose effects can be felt.’ A little later it was the new prime minister Fabius who stated on television that the Front National was raising genuine problems. G. Dufoix, the former mayor of Dreux, who had declared that she wanted to fight against the rise of fascism, boasted in a debate in the National Assembly about immigration that decisions had been made to send twelve thousand immigrants back to the frontier.

In practice, it was not only the reaction against the left which helped the growth of the FN. It was also the government itself, which took the most discriminatory measures with regard to immigrants. There were too many to list here.

The peak of cynicism was reached when the Socialist government introduced proportional representation. It did not do so out of concern for democracy – far from it. The aim was to try and divide the right, for it might have needed to ally with the Front National to form a workable majority. In practice this manoeuvre will have helped only the Front National, without upsetting the right too much, since the right has simply adopted many of the FN’s policies.

But there was resistance to all these developments. Where did it come from and why did it not succeed?

The shadowy alternative

In the case of the struggle against the rise of fascism there were reactions even inside the Socialist Party. The most anti-racist elements succeeded in getting the government to produce an antiracist pamphlet. The Minister responsible for immigrants printed more than a million copies of a pamphlet called Living Together – Immigrants in Our Midst. But the March 1983 elections were approaching and it didn’t look as if the results would be favourable to the left in power. So the pamphlet was never published…

A more serious reaction arose at the end of 1984 and in 1985 with the growth of the association ‘SOS RACISME’, and its famous badge of a hand labelled ‘Don’t Touch My Mate’. But SOS, most of whose leaders and apparatus came from the Socialist Party, did not try to organise young people to directly oppose the organised racists and the Front National in particular. The leadership was more concerned to set up a movement which was respectable and could take advantage of financial and material aid from the government and not embarrass it too much. For example, massive counter-demonstrations against Front National meetings would have been such an embarrassment.

The result can be seen. Even if the distribution of a million anti-racist badges and SOS’s campaigns made Le Pen and his organisation retreat a little, they are still substantially intact, despite the enormous resources deployed against them.

But in more general terms the experience of austerity imposed by a left government has not produced any lasting or even perceptible reaction in the Socialist Party. The CERES (Centre for Socialist Studies, Research and Education) might have seemed to offer the basis for a left-wing response. At its foundation it had taken on the task of radicalising the Socialist Party and of moving it closer to the Communist Party which it believed needed to be destalinised. It put forward the idea of ‘autogestion’ (workers’ self-management) and argued that what a government could do from above must be supported by a movement from below. In 1970 it even compared itself to the Gauche Revolutionnaire (Revolutionary Left, led by Marceau Pivert) which had developed towards the extreme left and taken up revolutionary positions within the Socialist Party in the 1935–36 period. [13]

In an interview with the political magazine Hebdo in July 1970, Chevenement, the main leader of CERES, stated that the Socialist Party was the main obstacle to socialism in France and that it was probably going to break up.

In 1975 the CERES was advocating that the left must break with the mechanisms of capitalism in its first days in power, and called for the main points of the party’s programme to be carried out in the first hundred days.

What a difference from the CERES of today! Or rather the former CERES, for just after the elections on 16 March Chevenement dissolved CERES to replace it by a club called Socialism and Republic, which has the virtue of being more attractive for those members of the bourgeoisie who might be interested in an ex-Minister of Education who was congratulated by a right-wing paper, Le Figaro, for his good work while in office.

What happened to CERES? Already just after Mitterrand’s victory, the CERES had announced that it was not socialism which was on the agenda. Chevenement, who over the years had become more and more oriented to productivity, was appointed Minister of Industry, in which position, despite disagreements which broke out more or less openly with Delors’ austerity plans, he was able to develop in his own way. After a year in power, Chevenement was putting forward the Japanese model, stressing the need for productivity and trying to make an alliance with the most nationalist wing of the bourgeoisie in the economic field.

While Chevenement was in government, CERES had kept silent. No criticism of any consistent nature had been directed at the government and its policies except in terms of what sort of economic strategy should be adopted in the future. When Chevenement was sacked after the appointment of Delors, the CERES activists were finally satisfied. But the taste for power rapidly brought their leader back into the government, this time to the Ministry of Education. The government gave him the job of capitulating to the supporters of private education in 1984. From this point on Chevenement moved very rapidly to the right. He founded a club called ‘the modern republic’ with which he attempted to build a bridge towards the progressive bourgeoisie. We owe it to Chevenement that from now on children will have to sing the very progressive Marseillaise!

What a long way he has come since he was claiming the heritage of Pivert! CERES wanted to change things from above with support from below. But that is not how things are changed. There is certainly a link between CERES’s positions before the left came to power and those it now holds: in particular the nationalism it has always displayed. But there is also a whole series of betrayals and capitulations which resulted from wanting to transform a Socialist Party that could not be reformed. This lesson could certainly be useful to many people in the Labour Party today.

The crisis of the far left

It was from the far left that a response could have been expected, an alternative to the left government. After all, in 1981 France had what was probably the biggest far left in the whole of Europe and all its main component organisations claimed to stand for Trotskyism and the socialist revolution.

But appearances were deceptive. Instead of enabling the revolutionaries to attract thousands of workers and young people who had believed in a reformist solution, the five years the left was in power in fact produced one of the most serious crises of the far left in France. Why?

The answer lies in two factors: on the one hand a failure to assess realistically the relation of forces between the classes and the nature of the period; on the other, the use of opportunist devices towards the left in order to win a mass audience in a short time.

Take for example the PCI (International Communist Party – the ‘Lambertists’). For a long time this organisation has been guilty of dubious organisational practices (expulsions of leaders on pretexts worthy of Stalinist or social-democratic bureaucrats) and of opportunism towards French social democracy. Before 1981 it devoted the best part of its efforts to trying to get the left candidates to agree on withdrawal in support of the best placed candidate in order to ensure victory against Giscard. It presented this struggle as the central theme for revolutionary intervention. In practice, this made it appear to be no more than an external body supporting the Socialist Party.

For some years after the Socialist victory the PCI campaigned on the slogan: ‘CP, SP, break with the right, respect your mandate’. While claiming to be putting the Socialist Party on the spot, the PCI in fact was simply basing its demands on constitutional rights and the SP’s previous programme, instead of putting forward a revolutionary alternative to social-democratic ideas. This ‘tactic’ was accompanied by partial and unprincipled entrism in the SP. Around 1984 it launched the MPPT (Movement for a Workers’ Party) which was to lead to the establishment of a political grouping which would provide an alternative to the traditional left with over ten thousand members.

But the growing opportunism of the PCI leadership made it unable to achieve this aim. In 1982, for example, on the occasion of Reagan’s visit to Paris, the far left had organised a demonstration. The SP put pressure on the far left organisations to call it off. Members of the SP leadership went so far as to telephone the leaderships of the far left organisations.

In the last few days the PCI capitulated. It dissociated itself from the demonstration and even denounced the organisers on the grounds that they were playing into the hands of the autonomists. In the student union (UNEF-IO), the PCI lined up with the SP against members of the LCR, in order to keep a firm grip on the leadership of the student movement.

The opportunism went much further, but in the end it did not enable the PCI to take off. More than two years ago it experienced its first split under the left government (or rather an expulsion, for the PCI does not allow splits). One of the original leaders of the organisation, Stephane Just, was expelled with more than a hundred supporters for having refused to vote for the expulsion of a member who would not vote in favour of the leadership’s political report.

But what was probably the most serious split in the whole history of the PCI took place last April, when seven of the forty members of the central committee and several hundred members left (including all the leaders of the UNEF-IO and those who controlled the student fund MNEF). This was a breakaway to the right of the PCI and not to its left. Those who left are considering entering the Socialist Party in order, they say, to form a revolutionary tendency.

This new split puts an end to the PCI leadership’s hopes of forming a mass party to the left of the SP and leaves this organisation in a state of deep crisis. While it is at present difficult to say what will become of the PCI, it clearly doesn’t have a bright future ahead of it. The most flourishing organisation of 1981 is today the one in deepest crisis.

The case of the LCR (French section of the Fourth International) is comparable, though it is important to recall that it has not capitulated to the pressure of social democracy in power. But it has been under pressure and suffered damage. The LCR also devoted its main efforts from 1980 to 1981 to trying to get an agreement on automatic withdrawal from the left candidates. It saw the defeat of Giscard as the key which could open up the situation. With an unequalled lack of realism, it foresaw, at its 1981 Congress, a period of pre-revolutionary confrontation in the short term. [14]

Between 1981 and 1983 the LCR put forward the slogans: ‘CP, SP, break with the capitalists’ and ‘CP, SP, break with the bourgeoisie’. The logic of this position led it to claim that by taking over the institutions of the Fifth Republic the reformist parties had the power to get out of the capitalist crisis. This represented a dangerous slide towards reformist ideas.

The first defeats of the working class and the signs of demoralisation (falling union membership, lower level of struggle, rise of the right) forced the LCR to recognise in 1983–84 that the period was by nature a defensive one.

But the members were not ready to face this situation. Throughout the previous decade they had been educated to believe they were living in a situation where a rise in working-class struggle was to be expected in the short term. And the leadership had not learnt to fight openly and publicly against its own mistakes and the illusions and false hopes of its members.

The leadership discovered a new formula – the building of an alternative, bringing together all those who are ‘on the left of the left’. Such a tactic towards centrist organisations or a milieu to the left of the reformist parties might have been correct if the objective situation had been pushing them to the left and on condition that the LCR polemicised openly with these currents at the same time as drawing them into practical activity. But this was not how things were. The milieu was drifting to the right and the LCR was trying to win it over by playing down its own ideas.

Obviously, for some of the members of the LCR, building an alternative meant at last establishing a force which was resolutely independent of the reformist left. But the organisation went so far as to attempt an alliance with the Greens, who not only have no political weight in France, but also have a gut hostility to revolutionaries and to the working-class movement.

‘The alliance for an alternative’ led the LCR to give priority to its efforts to have an electoral presence in 1986. The watering-down of its positions went much further than in previous periods. The alliance was supposed to involve groups such as the Federation of the Alternative Left (FGA), which was questioning the very existence of the working class; the PAC (Party for a Communist Alternative – formerly the Maoist PCML), which called for a democratisation of the institutions of the Fifth Republic; [15] or the PSU which, after the elections of 16 March was considering whether to dissolve itself.

On the electoral level too the ‘Alternative’ pursued by the LCR was a disaster since the lists presented or supported by the LCR got on average 0.28 per cent of the votes whereas it had obtained an average of 0.78 per cent (already a very weak score) in 1981. (Lutte Ouvriere got a national average of 1.21 per cent.)

In the anti-racist movement too the LCR performed badly. When the Front National broke through in 1983, the LCR was not prepared to respond. It had spent its time putting pressure on the leaderships of the reformist parties and had not built a force capable of opposing the FN on the ground. For several weeks the LCR appealed for an anti-racist United Front on the front page of its paper. In vain. No significant organisation replied favourably.

The rise of SOS-RACISME was a reaction to the absence of opposition to racism. But the leadership was provided by Socialist Party humanists who wanted to create a sort of anti-racist lobby.

Once again the LCR jumped in head first. It was correct to get involved in a movement which was enthusing tens of thousands of young people. But it was also necessary to criticise the humanism of the leadership and draw these young people into effective action.

The members of the LCR adapted to the dominant ideas in the movement. Their main slogan was the right for immigrants to vote, together with a general campaign on rights. What will the LCR do now that it has still not built a force capable of opposing the racists in the workplaces and the communities? A difficult question ...

Today the LCR is a much weaker organisation which has suffered a drain of militants who have left as individuals or in small groups to join the Socialist Party or the FGA, or who have simply dropped out. It is not on the point of disappearing (and we have no wish that it should do so), but it does seem that its problems are only beginning.

Lutte Ouvrière has remained the organisation which is least compromised by the experience of the left government. Its hardness towards the left leaders before and after 1981, its insistence that they should not be trusted, has drawn towards it the most resolute elements, especially among young people. LO has strengthened itself politically, and has succeeded in rejuvenating its periphery as well as a part of its membership. In fact it is the only one of the main organisations on the far left which is succeeding in recruiting young people at present.

It is probable that LO is now the largest far left organisation. In any case it has more chance of growing in the short and medium term than the PCI or the LCR.

But this is not the only effect the left government has had on LO.

LO’s tradition is one of radical abstract propagandism. It could always be expected to give a more or less correct appreciation of the situation, followed by a formal denunciation of the reformist leaders and a call to struggle. There was no hope that it would tell us how to struggle.

LO has grown on the basis of two main areas of activity. On the one hand it has a local presence with regular workplace bulletins (in about 200 workplaces at present); on the other hand it has a national presence on the occasion of elections and of its annual fete which it wants to be comparable to that of the CP. It practically never makes any attempt to intervene in strikes from the outside, or in movements that grow up outside the workplaces. The former is described as ‘revolutionary tourism’ and the latter as ‘adaptation to the petty bourgeoisie’.

In a period of downturn, made worse by the fact of the left government, this position has led LO into an ever more dangerous abstentionism. To confine oneself to activity in one’s own workplace, when often there is a strike there only once every two or even five years, leads to passivity. As a result it has failed to grasp some important opportunities for intervening in disputes: Citroen 1982 and 1983, Talbot 1984, the Post Office and the Carmaux miners in March 1983. LO put forward an argument which has clearly become a pretext for inactivity – namely that revolutionaries will not prove themselves until they can lead strikes and set up strike committees. Who could disagree with such an aim? But LO fails to say what we should do while waiting for this state of affairs.

In practice this abstentionism and passivity have been best illustrated in the anti-racist movement. In the begining LO refused to organise or participate in counter-demonstrations or even to make anti-racist and anti-fascist propaganda, on the grounds that it would ‘be making publicity for Le Pen’. After the extreme right’s election results in 1984 and the assaults on leftist militants – including two LO members – by fascist thugs, it changed its tune. But now it ran a moralising campaign on the lines of ‘racism is like nationalism; it’s dangerous and it’s idiotic’.

Even worse. LO insisted – correctly – that the anti-racist struggle should be carried on in the workplaces, but concluded from this that nothing could be done on the outside. As a result LO helped to leave the field free to the humanist ideas of the leadership of SOS-RACISME, although it does criticise them. Thus for the mass assembly at the Place de la Concorde in June 1985 and the demonstration in December, LO participated in the stewarding (which was correct) but made no public intervention of any sort. Workerism became an excuse for failing to attempt the necessary struggle to introduce ideas of revolutionary struggle into the anti-racist movement.

Abstentionism, and the fatalism which goes with it, necessarily ends up by leading to concessions on the level of ideas. We have recently seen some very significant examples of this.

In a poster campaign during the elections, LO picked up some of the CP’s traditional arguments about the crisis, presenting the bourgeoisie as speculators and parasites, and seeing the solution in state control of the economy. Some of the slogans used on posters will make this clear: ‘Firms have to live but the workers have to as well’; ‘Firms have to live, but let’s cut the bosses’ share’; ‘If the state controlled the incomes of the rich as well as it does those of the poor, they would find money to invest and to create jobs’. And finally this one: ‘Capital is escaping; let’s retrieve it’.

LO has used certain arguments in its propaganda which were scarcely to be expected in view of the firmness of its tone towards the official left – in particular the idea that a left government could have solved the crisis. For instance:

They haven’t spent anything on modernising industry ...

But yes, it would have been possible to make the rich pay. If we had had a courageous government, not one which prepared to retreat by relying on the old fogeys of the Council of State or the Senate. Yes, it would have been possible to make the rich pay, to control the capital which was going out of the country, and force them to invest it usefully. And there would have been more jobs.

But the government didn’t follow these policies. [16]

But this rightward drift by LO, comparable to that of the LCR, is not yet seen as such by more than a few individuals within the organisation, because of the left-wing language it uses. For the moment LO is holding together well. But this situation will not last for ever.

This brings us to the conclusions which revolutionaries have to draw.


A balance-sheet of the left in power in France can lead us to draw four basic lessons.

  1. It is now proven, not only that the parliamentary road to socialism is a dead-end, but also that very moderate reformism is increasingly an impossibility. The French reformists had had twenty- three years in opposition to polish their weapons. It took them scarcely one year to repudiate all their timid ideas and the hopes of their rank and file.

    With the economic crisis and the narrowing of the room for manoeuvre of the ruling class, each new reformist government is weaker than the last. The difference from the economic policy of right-wing governments is only a question of degree, not of nature.
  2. The essential lesson is a political one. The problem is not whether this government does better or worse than the right on the economic level. It is above all the fact that it is in a better position, because of its links with the labour movement, to demoralise the working class – obviously given that there is no alternative within the working class.

    The mild euphoria which follows left-wing election victories is liable to turn rapidly into a right-wing rout if the most militant workers have not absorbed a healthy distrust of the left government. They must be prepared for this ceaselessly and in advance.

    This is all the more necessary since the ties between the reformist parties and the labour movement seem to be becoming more tenuous. The experience of the Labour government in Britain, and Labour’s return to opposition in 1979 led to the emergence of a left reformist current in the Labour Party. There is nothing comparable in the French Socialist Party. Its leaders are all competing as to who can put on the most respectable face.

    We are moving towards the social democracy of Bernstein and Noske, not that of Marceau Pivert and Bevan.
  3. The extreme right can grow very rapidly in a situation where a left government is demoralising workers, and where the right is divided following its electoral defeat and is adopting a more radical language. The social terrain is much more fertile for the extreme right than it was ten years ago – with higher unemployment, the economic and social insecurity of everyday life, etc. Revolutionaries must not be disarmed in face of this development. They must prepare in advance.
  4. The building of a revolutionary party with real influence is the central task to which we must apply ourselves from this point onwards. This party must put up the banner of distrust and of a revolutionary alternative from the very moment a left government takes office.

    The conditions for struggle may become very difficult if a left government succeeds in demoralising the working class. But the experience of reformism in power all helps to clear the political ground and to reduce the influence of organisations which act as smoke-screens between revolutionaries and reformists.

Strikes under a left government provide enormous opportunitieswhich must be grasped. The revolutionary organisation must beidentified with clarity, but also with struggle – we must notfollow the bad example of Lutte Ouvrière. Especially inBritain, this may decide whether the revolutionary organisation isable to grow seriously in numbers and influence, or whether it willremain confined to the sidelines. We need an organisation of trainedand hardened militants which will react immediately to opportunities.

If the supporters of Kinnock, Tony Benn or even Derek Hattoninvite you to put your hopes in the advent of a Labour government,none of you can say that there are not sufficient arguments to putagainst them – you only have to look at ‘socialist’France!


1. Socialist Party manifesto of 24 January 1981; extracts published in Supplement aux Dossiers et Documents du Monde, May 1981, p. 67.

2. Cf. La Gauche face à la crise, Muet de Fonteneau, Presse de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, p. 326. Many of the figures cited in this article are taken from this work.

3. Employment survey by the French Ministry of Labour, 1985.

4. See articles by Jacques Kergoat: Les grèves ouvrières depuis le 10 mai, Critique Communiste 13, November 1982; Records à la baisse, Le Monde, 4 March 1986. See also Le Mouvement ouvrier français 1968–82, Éditions Ouvrières, 1984.

5. The Ministry of Labour statistics distinguish between localised conflicts involving a single workplace, and generalised conflicts which concern an occupational group, or national and cross-industrial disputes

6. Source: Le Monde, 4 March 1986.

7. See the very interesting, although essentially descriptive pamphlet published by Lutte Ouvrière in May 1983: Citroen: un an de luttes, p. 24.

8. Jacques Kergoat, art. cit., Le Monde, 4 March 1986.

9. Quoted in the book by Joseph Lorieu, Karl Criton and Serge Dumont, Le Système Le Pen, Editions EPO, 1985, p. 94.

10. J.-P. Stirbois, who was not in the Front National at the time, even got more than 10 per cent at Dreux in the European elections in 1979.

11. These are Le Pen’s words. In 1983 Stirbois also said: ‘Immigrants from across the Mediterranean, get back to your mud-huts.’ Quoted by Lorieu etc., op. cit., p. 180. See also E. Plenel and A. Rollat, L’Effet Le Pen, La Decouverté/Le Monde, 1984, and A Rollat, Les Hommes de l’extrême-droite, Calmann-Levy, 1985.

12. Cf. Les Hommes de l’extrême-droite.

13. Jacques Kergoat, Le Parti Socialiste de la Commune à nos jours, Le Sycomore, 1983, pp. 339–340, 343.

14. See The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and the Mitterrand Government, in International Socialism 2 : 21, Autumn 1983, p. 117.

15. See the 1985 Conference document of the PCML: Make concrete a hope and a strength for 1986 and the post-election period, pp. 6–7.

16. Lutte Ouvrière, No. 925, 22 February 1986, p. 7, my emphasis. On the next page J.-J. Franquier returns to the same theme and drives the point home:

‘It was not the ideas of the left which failed! The government, whether today or when the Communist Party was still in it, never tried to put these ideas into practice ...

‘Yes, it would have been possible to stop inflation, not by attacking wages, but by attacking the speculators. Yes, it would have been possible to reduce unemployment by making the factories run without respecting the law of maximisation of profit ...

‘But that was never tried.’

Lutte Ouvrière is thus presenting left Keynesian ideas as valid and up to date. Moreover, this will remind many of us of the earlier claims by the LCR that it was possible, from above and through the state machine, to control and transform the system. Lutte Ouvrière is not so far left as all that!

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