The contemporary French political scene is intensely contradictory, which is one of the reasons it so difficult to comprehend. Insisting on one or other aspect in isolation from the wider context inevitably leads activists and observers to slalom from euphoria to despair in the matter of days or weeks.
Two recent opinion polls sum up this complex and paradoxical reality. One, published in the newspaper Libération a month ago, reported that 63 percent of French people were “hostile to capitalism” and over 50 percent were “sympathetic to socialism”.
But a second poll a few days ago indicated that 73 percent of the population supported ultra?repressive emergency laws brought in by the government in the wake of the riots that swept the country last month.
Other facts could be juxtaposed to illustrate the same point. On the one hand, we have the uprisings in the suburbs — on the other, all recent strike actions have been failures.
On the one hand, the left has been strengthened by the EU referendum result and the right delegitimated — but on the other, Nicolas Sarkozy, the neo?liberal and authoritarian interior minister, has won the initiative and opposition to him is weak and divided.
The unions have suffered internal revolts in the current period, but their bureaucratic leaderships have not lost any of their capacity to undermine and derail rank and file activity.
The Trotskyist presidential candidates — Olivier Besancenot of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière — are two of the most popular political personalities in the country.
Nevertheless, the most likely scenario in the 2007 elections will be a head-to-head between Sarkozy and a right wing Socialist Party candidate, both offering similar anti-working class policies.
One could add more contradictions to this list. Most of the left won’t face up seriously to the problem of racism, but the racist right is discussing positive discrimination measures alongside deportations.
The vast majority of the French reject neo?liberalism, yet the consensus for it among the main political parties is stronger than ever. The gap between ordinary people and the political elites has never been so large — but the forces of the far left are not growing significantly and all the main currents have extremely shallow social roots, especially among black and “beur” (North African) youth.
Of course, these clashing tendencies mean that the political situation is fluid and volatile. That makes it is very difficult to keep one’s balance — which is why all the political forces are in crisis.
The fascist Front National is under severe internal strain, with an ageing leader and new rivals on the far right. The main bourgeois party of the right, the UMP, is torn by rivalries between the Sarkozy and Chirac camps.
On the left, the Socialist Party is now licking its wounds after a November congress that followed months of splits and recrimination. The Communist Party is criss-crossed by divisions between those who want to do a deal with the Socialists in order to save their 12,000 odd deputies, mayors and councillors and those who want at all costs to avoid a repetition of the disaster of the “plural left” experience, when the Communists formed an alliance with the Socialists and Greens.
The LCR is heading towards its next congress in January with no fewer than five internal platforms with different views about what it should be doing. And these cleavages do not just affect political parties — organisations such as Attac and the unions are being pulled into this maelstrom. Only Lutte Ouvrière, with its abstentionist posture of wooden stoicism seems hitherto immune—but for how much longer?
To this confused picture must be added the fact that many of the political actors are unwilling to or incapable of taking clear and principled positions.
For example, on the riots, only the LCR took an unambiguous stance (although this did not necessarily translate into practice). All of the rest of the left and far left were either equivocal or downright reactionary in their attitudes to the young rioters.
In these moving sands, there is an enormous temptation for political currents on all sides to ideologically “hedge their bets”.
This leads to all sorts of bizarre hybrid forms — fascists who oppose “American imperialism”, neo?liberalism with a social conscience, nationalist anti?globalisation, social liberalism, “republican” racism, class struggle orthodox communism, “movementist” electoralism, mixtures of Trotskyism and libertarianism with a dash of Che Guevara...
For the radical left, this context provides immense possibilities for intervening in an innovative and effective manner. Let us hope that we find the solutions soon.
Sebastian Budgen lives in Paris and is a member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire