By Jim Wolfreys, reporting from Paris
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The left leads French revolt

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Tous ensemble! (All together!) was the cry that rang out in central Paris last Saturday at the end of a huge rally organised by the French left. The rally was part of the left’s campaign for a no vote in the referendum on the new European Union constitution.
Issue 1953
Young and old, black and white joined the rally and heard speakers like José Bové and Marie-George Buffet call for a social Europe (Pic: Guy Smallman)
Young and old, black and white joined the rally and heard speakers like José Bové and Marie-George Buffet call for a social Europe (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Tous ensemble! (All together!) was the cry that rang out in central Paris last Saturday at the end of a huge rally organised by the French left. The rally was part of the left’s campaign for a no vote in the referendum on the new European Union constitution.

Over 15,000 people came to hear speakers from across the left. As one of them, José Bové, said, “For the first time in ages the associations, political parties and trade unions of the left are united.” This Sunday there is a real chance that they could win.

For France’s mainstream political parties, it really wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The entire French establishment supports the proposed constitution. Over 70 percent of television and radio coverage of the referendum has been given over to those who favour a yes vote.

Their campaign has been seriously thrown off course. Yet the main opposition to the treaty has not come from the extreme right, but from a powerful grassroots movement that has shifted the debate to the left.

This movement is made up of Communists and the left of the Socialist party, revolutionaries, anti-globalisation activists and left wing Greens. Throughout the campaign public sector workers and school students have been fighting the right wing Raffarin government’s attempts to impose the logic of the market on French society.

The conclusion they have come to is that the constitution will make it easier for governments across Europe to do the same.

As Thierry, an activist in the independent SUD trade union, told Socialist Worker on Saturday, the strength of the campaign comes from its link with the movement against privatisation and other attacks — “If the no campaign is victorious it will put the idea in people’s heads that the neo-liberal machine can be stopped.”

The Socialist Party leadership supports the constitution. But faced with a choice between backing the pro-market establishment, or siding with a left that fights to defend public services, many of its supporters are joining the no campaign.

Léa, a Socialist Party member, believes the prospect of the no campaign winning is generating the same optimism as the Socialist election victory of 1981, when the left took power after 23 years of right wing rule. Back then, hopes of radical reform were soon dashed by the compromises the Socialists made with the market.

The no campaign is driven by the desire shared by millions to resist such compromises: “By supporting the constitution, the party leadership is cutting itself off not just from its own activist base but from the values of the left as a whole.”

“The constitution enshrines Raffarin’s neo-liberal policies,” Igor, of the Communist Youth, told Socialist Worker. “The shift among Socialist Party members, a majority of whom now favour the no vote, is a rejection of their leadership’s concessions to neo-liberalism. This makes everything possible.”

Polls have shown that opposition to the constitution is strongest among the young, workers and the unemployed. Support for it is highest among bosses. Aside from the extreme right, which opposes the constitution on racist and xenophobic grounds, left wing voters are the most likely to oppose it, while those most in favour are the supporters of the two main right wing parties.

Tens of thousands have played an active part in the left’s no campaign. Over 900 unity committees have been set up across France since the start of the campaign. During the last month the left has organised some of the biggest meetings for a generation.

New to politics

Huge rallies have been held on a regular basis in Paris, 5,000 heard speakers from the Trotskyist, Communist, Socialist, Green and anti-capitalist left in Toulouse, 3,000 met in Rouen, 1,200 in Dijon, and thousands more have attended other rallies held all over France. Every day dozens of meetings are organised nationally by the no campaign.

Laurent, a member of the Ligue Communiste Rèvolutionaire (LCR) in Paris, spoke to Socialist Worker about the unity committee in his area: “It has 50 regular activists and around 200 members in total.

“We meet every week in the local offices of the CGT union. After a political discussion about the campaign we discuss how to intervene that week. Over the past three months we have produced six or seven different leaflets and distributed 40,000 copies of them in the area.

“The committee is made up of the anti-neoliberal left in its entirety, but around a quarter of its members are new to politics. After 29 May we want to carry on organising.

“We’ll be on the streets on Sunday night if we win and our committee will meet on 30 May whatever the result.”

Laurent and his fellow committee members had one of the 30 or so stands at Saturday’s rally. On the stage speakers from across the anti-neoliberal left lambasted the new constitution.

Veteran feminist activist Gisèle Halimi argued that if the constitution was put to music, “it would be a hymn to money, the market and neo-liberalism—a machine to crush the weakest and the most vulnerable”.

Just the beginning

Women of her generation, she said, had fought long and hard for the right to have control over their bodies. Yet there was not a single word in this constitution about a woman’s right to choose, or about combating prostitution, rape or violence against women.

The left radical deputy Christiane Taubira ridiculed the constitution’s opposition to discrimination on the basis of gender, age, race… or wealth.

“Our lamentable representatives”, argued the Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, “thought that their authority and power would be enough to browbeat people into accepting their constitution. They didn’t bargain for this movement’s powerful internationalist argument against the idea that everything and everyone can be bought and sold.”

“Two hundred years ago,” José Bové told the crowd, “they brought down the Bastille, a royalist prison. Now we have the chance to tear down this neo-liberal prison.” He urged the unity committees to remain active if the no won.

Olivier Besancenot of the LCR called for a national meeting of all the committees and said, “Today is just the beginning. After 29 May our struggle continues.”

Speaking for the French Communist Party, Marie-George Buffet argued that the defeat of the constitution would raise the hopes of all those suffering at the hands of the market.

Millions of people will vote against the mainstream on Sunday. A no vote would be certain to end Raffarin’s premiership and would seriously undermine Jacques Chirac’s presidency.

The referendum has exposed the fault line running through European politics — millions of people reject their leaders’ acceptance of the market. Win or lose, those who built this campaign have dealt a powerful blow to the compromises French social democracy has made with neo-liberalism.

Some of its leaders will now try to reinvent themselves and to stifle the radicalism of the campaign. Whether they are able to do so is going to depend on the movement’s capacity to maintain its momentum.

Jim Wolfreys is the co-author of The Politics of Racism in France.

He will be speaking on Fascism: Past, Present and Future at Marxism 2005. Go to

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