THE HEADLINE news in France's regional elections was that there was a big swing away from the ruling right to the parties of the 'plural left'-the Socialists, Communists, and Greens. But, for the revolutionary left, the story was a different one.
The coalition of Lutte Ouvriere (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) won 4.95 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections the weekend before last. This was too low a vote for the slate to go into the second round last Sunday. It's important to get this in proportion. As a share of the national vote, 5 percent isn't bad for open revolutionaries.
But two years ago, in the first round of the last presidential elections, the far left candidates won 10 percent. Arlette Laguiller of LO and Olivier Besancenot of the LCR each won a higher share of the vote than the candidate of the Communist Party (PCF).
This was a historic result given how the PCF has dominated the organised working class in France since the 1930s. This time, however, the PCF won 7.6 percent of the vote. Yet France last May and June was swept by a massive strike wave against the government's attack on pensions. LCR and LO militants played a leading role in the strikes.
The reformist left seems to be benefiting from popular bitterness against the right. Of course, parliamentary elections aren't revolutionaries' natural terrain. Activists can lead mass movements but find themselves cut down to size on polling day.
Moreover, in April 2002 the official left were in government, implementing neo-liberal policies. The far left-and the Nazi National Front-were able to give a voice to the resulting disillusionment. But, once out of office, the Socialist Party and the PCF have been able to rebuild a degree of credibility. There is an important lesson here.
LO and, to a lesser extent, the LCR tend to portray the official left as no different from the right. They did not call on their voters to switch to the Socialists and Communists in the second round of the elections. This stance reflects a failure to recognise the enduring hold of reformism on the workers' movement.
Even a party as corrupt and discredited as the French Socialists can, by tacking left rhetorically, act as a vehicle for working class discontent. By putting the parties of the plural left in the same bag as the ruling right, LO and the LCR may have isolated themselves from voters traditionally loyal to the Communists or Socialists. Moreover, the far left campaign focused almost exclusively on economic issues and more particularly the high level of unemployment. Of course, unemployment is hugely important, but revolutionary candidates have to address political questions as well.
Opposition to corporate globalisation, imperialism, and war brought huge numbers of young people to the anti-capitalist festival at Larzac last August and the European Social Forum in Paris in November. There are also less positive issues.
President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, drove through, with the support of the plural left, the notorious law banning Muslim young women from wearing headscarves in state schools. Seethes Scandalously, LO has supported expelling Muslim school students for wearing headscarves. The LCR is split.
Chirac has used the issue to divide the far left and push them onto the defensive. As a result, they have cut themselves off from the largest Muslim population in Europe, which seethes with anger over official racism and the 'war on terrorism'.
I don't make these criticisms with any enthusiasm, for two reasons. First, some of them are also being made by a right wing minority within the LCR. They oppose building a revolutionary alternative to the official left. Instead of a slate with LO, this minority wanted to cosy up with fragments of the reformist parties.
Even before the first round had taken place, they started a media campaign calling on the LCR to support the plural left in the second round. There is a real danger that the Ligue will now implode into faction-fighting. Secondly, I can't avoid a feeling of 'There but for the grace of god go us.' In June Respect will face its own great test in the European and Greater London elections.
But to succeed we need to learn from others' successes-and failures. The main morals I draw from the French regional elections are not to underestimate reformism and not to duck the great political questions of the day.