The year 2006 was a crucial one for social struggles and the radical left in France. Social mobilisations reached a peak when millions of students took to the streets last spring and forced the right wing government to withdraw the CPE, its labour neoliberal reform law.
This victory confirmed the extent to which the majority of the population reject neoliberal policies.
The victory of the “no” vote in the 2005 referendum on the European Union (EU) constitution, shortly followed by the riots of the banlieues (deprived urban zones), had already shown that France was the weak link in Europe.
France is the country in which neoliberalism is most strongly challenged by mobilisations from below and by the rise of a militant left.
But a big gap exists between the possibilities opened up by the struggles and the state of the radical left.
With just four months before the crucial 2007 presidential elections, fragmentation prevails with three candidates competing to the left of the Socialist Party.
This fragmentation is widely perceived as a failure. It will certainly help the Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal capture the left vote.
The two candidates of the Trotskyist left – Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvriere (LO) and Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) – won over 10 percent of the vote in the 2002 presidential elections.
The years since have been marked by waves of social unrest and electoral setbacks for the right and the mainstream parties.
The most crucial event was the referendum on the proposed EU constitution in spring 2005. A united front of all the left forces defeated this neoliberal project.
There was a regrouping of forces from almost all the components of the left and a magnificent campaign run by a network of committees.
The defeat shook the political elites across Europe and sparked enthusiasm among the anti-capitalist left.
But this unity proved short-lived. The two main forces of the regroupment, the Communist Party and the LCR, bear the responsibility for this.
The Communists tried to manipulate the No committees to impose its leader Marie-George Buffet as “the unity candidate of the anti-liberal left”.
In order to maintain the possibility of an alliance with the Socialist Party, it gave ambiguous interpretations of the draft programme of the committees.
Facing strong resistance, including from a substantial number of its own activists, the Communists announced Buffet’s candidature.
The LCR adopted a passive attitude to this process. It gave the impression that it had already chosen to stand Besancenot. As a consequence it abstained from the battle for a unity candidate.
The leadership opted for an “observer” status in the national board of the committees – from which it formally pulled out of last December.
This made the Communist Party’s manoeuvering easier, isolating the LCR from possible allies and grassroot activists. It made it impossible for it to appear as an alternative option once Buffet’s candidature was announced.
This fragmentation will allow Royal to easily beat the left. Indeed, the rise of Royal has been the other unexpected political event of the year.
She appears as a “new face” in the ageing, and overwhelmingly male, landscape of French politics and enjoys massive support from the media and the establishment.
Royal talks about a sharp realignment of the Socialist Party towards a “law and order” agenda, combining standard neoliberal recipes with authoritarian populist overtones. She is also a supporter of the US. This overall mix is close to the Blairite mantra.
The differences with the candidate of the right, Nicolas Sarkozy, currently minister of home affairs, seem limited. Sarkozy is more aggressive than Royal, proclaiming the need for a “break” with what remains of France’s “social model” and an “independent” foreign policy.
But the overall similarities of their campaigns will present an opportunity for a genuine left force, a scenario which appeared quite likely after the 2005 referendum.
The rightwards movement of the political scene will give new legitimacy to the far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is expected to perform very well.
But history shows us that France is also the country of unpredictable developments and sudden reversals of the tide.
Stathis Kouvelakis is on the editorial board of the Contretemps journal