The past fortnight has been a very significant one for the radical left in Europe. The most obvious reason for this is the defeat of the European consitution in France.
British coverage of the referendum has been a disgrace, especially on the BBC. The no camp has been consistently described as a “motley alliance” — one reporter even compared it to a coalition between the Socialist Workers Party and the Nazi BNP.
Let’s get the facts straight. Philippe de Villiers — the French counterpart of Tories John Redwood and Bill Cash — and the Nazi leader Jean Marie Le Pen were a sideshow in the referendum.
The decisive factor in the no victory was provided by the divisions that developed within the reformist left. First, key leaders of the Socialist Party, which is similar to Britain’s Labour Party, notably Laurent Fabius and Henri Emmanuelli, came out against the constitution.
Then activists in the biggest left trade union federation, the CGT, rebelled against their leadership by backing the no campaign.
An important role was played by the anti-capitalist movement in France, these days known as the altermondialistes. Attac, which campaigns against financial speculation, targeted the constitution from the start.
Leading figures in Attac such as Bernard Cassen and Jacques Nikonoff tended to do this in a one-sided way, counterposing campaigning against the constitution to opposing the occupation of Iraq. All the same, they deserve credit for their efforts.
The European Social Forum in London last October decided to make 19-20 March a weekend of action against neo-liberalism and war. This embraced the protests against the invasion of Iraq and a demonstration in Brussels. Tens of thousands of trade unionists and altermondialistes from France went to Brussels, outnumbering the Belgian participants. One of the key issues that brought them there was the Bolkenstein directive.
This measure by the free-market European Commission proposed to allow public services to be undercut by private firms employing workers on worse wages and conditions. The protests helped to force the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to get the directive watered down.
The referendum result was a victory for the left no campaign fighting on issues like this. A majority of Socialist Party supporters voted no, as did nearly four fifths of manual workers and two thirds of white collar workers.
And don’t let anyone kid you that this was a nationalist no. I remember being in Paris during the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, when the Communist Party’s no posters carried pictures of Hitler to evoke the menace of German domination. That was a nationalist campaign.
This time the Communist Party, which has made a turn towards the altermondialistes, initiated a European appeal explaining why a no vote would be good for Europe.
One of the immediate consequences of the referendum result will be a profound crisis for the French Socialist Party. Its leaders campaigned for a yes vote, but were repudiated by their rank and file.
This is a big opportunity for the radical left in France, and especially the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, to help draw substantial sections of the reformist left into a political realignment that breaks decisively with neo-liberalism.
This process has begun in Germany. In the state elections in North Rhine and Westphalia the new left party Wahlalternative won 2.2 percent of the vote. Oskar Lafontaine, former SPD chairman and ex-finance minister, has said that he will join the Wahlaternative if it forms a joint slate with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in the federal elections that will probably take place this autumn.
Between them the Wahlalternative and the PDS could probably break the 5 percent barrier required to win representation in the German parliament.
John Prescott famously said that the tectonic plates were moving in politics in Britain. The French and German votes show this is true right across Europe.