The 2017 elections were a political earthquake in France and the shock waves are now hitting the French communist party.
It’s 18 months since France was rocked by the crushing victory of pro-European Emmanuel Macron and his new political movement in the Presidential and legislative elections last year.
That victory delivered a body blow to the two established parties – the conservative Les Republicains and the Socialists – and, despite an ultimately poor result, cemented Marine Le Pen’s arch Euroskeptic, anti-immigration Front National, rebranded Rassemblement National (the National Rally), as a major political force. The only shimmer of hope was Jean Luc Melenchon, whose uncompromising anti-austerity message saw for the first time in decades a radical left force outflanking the Socialists in the Presidential poll.
Today, Macron’s star has thankfully fallen. The former investment banker, who stole votes from left and right on a false promise of a third way, is paying for his nakedly cut and slash pro-business, pro-rich agenda. He pledged a democratic revival, but France clearly doesn’t like to be ruled by an autocrat who imposes his will by decree and openly insults members of the public who express concern at his nasty policies. It’s little surprise that Macron’s ratings have fallen – faster than any previous president – and support within his government is crumbling, with three ministers quitting in as many months.
Yet neither Les Republicains – struggling to define themselves as distinct from Macron – nor the Socialists – paying for their distinctly unsocialist record in government and an late, unconvincing left turn – nor even Le Pen – fighting to maintain her personal credibility – have been able to capitalise on the President’s woes.
In contrast, Melenchon, ever on the campaign trail, now stands as the nation’s most popular leader. This should be cheering for anybody on the left, including communists who share many of the same policies and ideas. But it is not so.
The PCF have long played second fiddle on the left since Socialist Francois Mitterrand’s sorpasso in the early 1980s. Last year, for the second Presidential election in a row, the PCF went with the Melenchon ticket.
This was a controversial move among many communists who in 2016 delivered a thin majority of 54% for this approach (overturning a 55% vote against among activists at a party conference held just three weeks earlier). This was not without reason. Despite playing an important role in campaigning for former socialist minister and mostly bending over backwards for him, Melenchon announced his candidacy, programme and the creation of his party-cum-movement La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) without any prior discussion. Indeed, he’s been quite open about his contempt for the party and its leadership.
This weekend internal tensions over the party’s strategy of alliances and a real sense of drift, came to a head. For the first time ever, the leadership’s political line – to be debated and endorsed at the Congress in November – didn’t win the day.
MP André Chassaigne’s alternative proposals in his ‘Manifesto for a 21st Century Communist Party’, secured 42% of the 30,000 votes cast by party members, against 38% for the leadership’s ‘For a Communism of the 21st century’. For Chassaigne, the vote expresses a desire to ‘break with the downward spiral of effacement, and to start a new dynamic that will assure the PCF a place in the political landscape’.
There were two other ‘alternative’ texts competing against the leadership’s line – ‘Rebuild a Class-based Party’, and ‘For a Communist Spring’ that secured 8% and 11% respectively. The overall results suggest those in the party in favour of alliances with other left forces, including La France Insoumise, and those wanting a more autonomous role for the party, standing its own candidates and mobilising around a clearer line more focussed around core traditional work class issues, are finely balanced.
Either way, the failure to achieve a clear majority for the leadership line is a humiliating defeat for National secretary Pierre Laurent and the strategy he’s pursued over the past 8 years.
It was under his watch that for the first time the PCF did not field its own candidate at the Presidential elections. His predecessor Marie Buffet’s disastrous 2% showing in the 2007 poll – an historic low compared to Jacques Duclos’ 21% 1969 – was certainly a factor in the choice to accept Melenchon’s candidacy for the Elysée Palace and ally itself with his Left Party, comprising left Socialists, former troskyites and greens.
But while the 2012 legislative elections that followed the Presidential elections gave the party a lift (from 4.3% to 6.9%), the 2017 vote returned a pitiful 2.7%. (In the 1980s and late 1990s they had been polling around 10%). A steep fall in membership since 2008, from 78,000 to 50,000 today, has added to worries among the communist base, particularly as La France Insoumise claims to have half a million (it must be noted membership comes without a free).
This weekend, the leadership will commence what Laurent describes as an ‘immense debate’, ahead of the congress in Ivry-Sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, on 23-24 November. Either may be a moment when the leader bows out and his possible successor emerges: Fabien Roussel, the leader of the powerful Fédération du Nord, described by some as ‘warm’ and ‘debonnair’. But it is likely that the debate – perhaps leading to revised policies, from the environment to Europe – will take rather longer to clarify let alone gather majority support.
So where does this leave PCF-La France Insoumise relations? At a personal level there’s no love lost with Chassaigne, who stood against Melenchon for the leadership of the Left Front in 2012. As for Melenchon himself, having written a blog in September urging the communists to say au revoir to their leadership, one can assume he’ll be enjoying the show. Buoyed by an imminently expected left split from the socialists to create a pro-La France Insoumise party, he may be hoping for an infusion of communists into his movement too.
Melenchon’s hegemonic ambitions for the left may pay off. But it’s also possible a PCF, more sure of itself and its position, better leveraging its residual power locally and in the trade unions, will lead to more mutually respectful and so productive relations with La France Insoumise.
What’s for sure, with the government and other opposition parties in disarray, now seems a good time to mount a strong, unified and fighting response to reverse the disastrous political shock of 2017. However it is achieved.