Dec. 28 — Many Yellow Vests say it over and over again: They have no leaders, and they don’t want them. Spontaneity has its virtues, and its charms, certainly, but also its limits and its illusions — carrying the most terrible dangers. Contemporary history has shown this time and again, from the German Spartakist Revolution of 1918-19 to the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” in 2011.
If any popular uprising is to lead to concrete social progress, what it needs — in addition to the energy, determination and courage of the people — is unity, coordinated by a partisan fighting organization with a political program.
However, the least we can say is that in today’s France, during a generalized rebellion, the divisions among progressive forces are extreme and sustained by the often more personal than political quarrels among its leaders. This is a tragic division of the French left, which completely weakens it. Adding to that paradox is that this situation exists at the very moment when a popular consensus is building to reject not only neoliberal policies, but also President Emmanuel Macron himself.
The leader best placed in the internal battle on the left is probably Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the current head of France Unbowed (France Insoumise). Mélenchon had a significant accomplishment when he won nearly 20 percent of the votes cast in the first round of the presidential elections in April 2017. That was barely four points less than Macron, the candidate who was allowed to move into the presidential Elysée Palace.
The Communist Party, despite some tenacious dissension, chose to rally to Mélenchon’s flag. In fact, he only lacked votes of his “old friends” to come in first. These were, ironically, the Socialists on the one hand (whose candidate Benoît Hamon obtained 6 percent of the vote), and the Trotskyists — Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière who got 1 percent and Philippe Poutou of the New Anti-Capitalist Party who got 0.6 percent.
With this electoral defeat swallowed and painfully digested, Mélenchon was quick to seize the opportunity provided by the emergence of the Yellow Vests mobilization. It is true that he had a great need to regain his popularity, seriously tainted by a series of legal charges related in particular to his campaign accounts, which the corporate media enjoyed publicizing. Also an internal struggle affected the leadership of his own movement, causing the resignation of several lieutenants. As a result, after some hesitation, as early as November he posted on social networks his support for the Yellow Vests and his intention to march among them — but “discreetly.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s political role has been, in recent years, eminently positive for the collective French left. And even beyond. His real talents as a public speaker have brought crowds together, re-inspired them, set them in motion, given them hope and instilled in them once again the idea that progressive change for the country is not only necessary, but above all possible.
Correctly, and better than anybody else, he has formulated, systematized and radicalized criticism of “the system.” Finally, he has talked again about internationalism, especially with regard to struggles in Latin America. In these particularly difficult times, it is fortunate for the French left that a politician like him has been around.
However, do not forget that Jean-Luc Mélenchon for more than 32 years was a member — general counselor, senator, minister! — of a Socialist Party that betrayed absolutely everything that could be betrayed regarding the hopes of leftist people. Moreover, his deeds chained the country to an ultracapitalist European Union — hidebound, pro-NATO, anti-democratic and hell-bent to destroy national sovereignty and the remaining social gains of the working class.
The exaggerated anti-communism of some of his close collaborators reminds us that for a time he was active in the International Communist Organization, a Trotskyist shock group that gave France such “remarkable” men as a Lionel Jospin — a Socialist Prime Minister who privatized as much as the right had done before him — or a Jean-Christophe Cambadélis — the ex-right arm of the “lamentable” Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
As he himself likes to repeat, Mélenchon’s model remains François Mitterrand — former president of the republic (1981-95) who was decorated in his youth with a special award from Marshal Pétain, head of the Vichy puppet regime under German occupation during World War II. Mitterrand is remembered as the one who introduced neoliberal conservatism in France, on a par with Margaret Thatcher in Britain or Ronald Reagan in the U.S.
This “unpleasant chore” of neoliberalism was implemented from 1983 onward by Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, a “socialist.” When he became minister of foreign affairs 30 years later, Fabius agitated to go to war against Syria! And it is “comrade Fabius” who Mélenchon chose to support as the Socialist Party candidate in the 2007 presidential elections.
We understand that there is very little risk of seeing Mélenchon as the head of France Unbowed leading a possible break with capitalism. He is the politician who in 1992 called for a “yes” vote on the Maastricht Treaty, establishing the European Union, because he thought he saw it as “the beginning of a citizens’ Europe.” You can make some mistakes in life, but if you do it almost all the time, it sticks.
French Communist Party and others
As the heir to a long history of heroic anti-fascist and anti-colonialist resistance, the French Communist Party (PCF) retains a significant militant rank and file and still manages, to the best of its ability, several municipalities with popular and complicated sociological profiles.
But the erosion of its current leadership, which is largely reformist and whose strategy is narrowly restricted to the electoral arena, has led the PCF on the most flattened and dull path, tailing the social democrats and replacing class struggle with the “struggle for posts.”
Once “at the vanguard of the proletariat,” the PCF is now under the control of leaders without convictions. They follow the lead of social democrats who are themselves completely rudderless and who have become, for the most part, the worst neoliberals.
The myriad of tiny parties that are authentically communist and that revolve around the PCF — and against its leadership — are torn between being “for” or “against” Yellow Vests. In other words, their various positions on the ongoing mobilizations go unnoticed.
The leaders of the Trotskyist parties — singularly numerous in France — are for their part surrounded by rivalries and sectarianism that border on ridicule, dividing them deeply and distancing them ever further from the prospect of any political responsibility, even local. Not to mention their lack of internationalist positions.
What about the environmentalists? Led by fervent neoliberals, grossly masked (such as Nicolas Hulot, who was Macron’s minister until September 2018, or the unspeakable Daniel Cohn-Bendit), they still have not understood that the most fundamental cause of the devastation suffered by the environment is found in the capitalist system itself. Do they need more time?
Finally, the leaders of anarchist movements remain locked in the contradictions between useful activism (during the occupation movements last spring, in particular) and an extraordinarily confused, if not counterproductive, program of action.
The people who are the foundations of these various progressive forces are therefore, so to speak, left to their own devices. And invited by their respective leadership to maintain mistrust between all of them — even hate. Of course this is totally absurd and suicidal.
This sad observation is all the more terrible because entire sections of the impoverished French population are no longer represented by any of these left-wing organizations.
The ‘new poor’
For instance, the “new poor,” as they are called, are immensely numerous, hit by unemployment and precariousness. They are small family farmers crippled with debt, isolated, desperate; young people in the suburbs, idle, ghettoized, abandoned by everyone except the police, drug traffickers and the rich Salafists [reactionary promoters of sectarian conflict]. This has happened even though these young people are most probably the safest bulwark against racism in the country and had already risen up during the 2005-07 rebellions.
Also among the new poor are immigrant families, left on the margins of society; homeless, without a roof or a right; “untouchables,” dehumanized; wandering ghosts, with faces distorted by the poverty we could see everywhere, if anyone looked.
And many others still. Are these a lumpenproletariat? These are above all the millions of French people whose lives have been sacrificed on the altar of modern capitalism.
How could the leaders of our left parties give up fighting also for them? What happened in our ranks to convince us to give up so much?
Faced with the lamentable spectacle offered by this fragmented, nebulous left, the French bourgeoisie has adopted a velvet-glove approach, at least for the time being.
The right — and the far right
The bourgeois right has certainly imploded. The component that we will call “centrist” — in the French case today, the Socialist Party — has sold its soul for more than three decades (including the presidency of Mitterrand) by converting to the dogmas of neoliberalism and aligning itself in a combat position behind NATO’s armies.
As for the other component of the right, which we call “traditional” — currently represented by the Republicans — it has liquidated (with Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency) its old interventionist and nationalist ideals to wallow at the feet of globalized high finance and U.S. warrior hegemony.
From the inevitable decay of these two distorted components — the “false left” that was President François Hollande’s Socialist Party and the “new right” of Sarkozy — with their interchangeable world views and programs, their synthesis logically emerged: the “Macron fiction.” That is, the ideal of the impossible bourgeois renewal.
The extreme right has always been the guard dog of capitalism. Every bourgeois ruling class in power nourishes this bull mastiff with xenophobia, harsh criticism, and keeps it firmly on a leash.
Will Macron be forced to release that dog against the French people in revolt when the time comes? The capitalist class did this elsewhere a thousand times in the 20th century.
The French left and the Yellow Vests
The dark picture of the French left that is being drawn here will not win clicks of friendship, smileys and thumbs up. No doubt about it.
Unfortunately, this view is also likely to be shared by a number of Yellow Vests, as well as by the distressed cohort of comrades who, out of disgust or exhaustion, have stopped being militants and instead have blended into the invisibility of the approximately 50 percent of the French people who prefer to abstain from voting in elections.
This inventory is not intended to offend, let alone demoralize. It should instead remind us of the need to overcome divisions and unite progressives in the service of people who are struggling and showing the way. It aims to understand the rage that is driving people today and the reasons for their rejection of parties of the left.
The inadequacies of the progressive forces alone, however obvious they may be, cannot explain, of course, the underlying reasons for the French rebellion — far from it. A complete change of system is required.
On the left, however, few people say it very clearly: An exit from destructive capitalism is what is needed.
Under these conditions, it is not surprising that Yellow Vests — and large parts of the union rank and file with them — struggle alone. They mistrust even left-wing politicians.
Left-wing forces have no program to exit from capitalism — or even from the euro! No surprise then that the demands of the Yellow Vests are heterogeneous. They go in all directions: lower all taxes, but restore the wealth tax; lower employer charges, increase state financial assistance to companies, but develop the welfare state; upgrade pensions, but standardize the different pension systems (as the government wants!); remove the Senate — as if the problem were [only] there! — but count blank votes in elections.
Also, create assemblies of citizens deciding laws by direct democracy, but allow referendums of citizens’ initiatives; increase salaries, but what about those of senior executives and leaders?; increase social spending, but reduce assistance; adopt a real policy to protect the environment, but abandon the carbon tax; reduce gas and electricity prices, but without nationalizing the energy sectors; abolish bank charges, but leave the dictatorial power of finance intact; regain national sovereignty, but remain in the European Union; etc., etc.
This perfect mess is mocked by the “experts” of the bourgeoisie, who have fun pointing out the too many blatant contradictions. What is important is elsewhere.
A point of no return seems to have been reached. Common sense has emerged from the dungeon where it was held in chains.
A people in Yellow Vests has risen; a liberated, democratic and extremely healthy slogan is invading television sets, demanding that the rules of the game be changed. Finally.
In 1789, the equally obvious scattering of the demands formulated in the “grievance books” by the peasants and sans-culottes — the people who produced the French Revolution — did not in any way contribute to curbing its inevitability.
Because in this anger that is rising and spreading all over France, here and there we are discussing … revolution. On blocked traffic circles, on picket lines, on social networks, it is indeed revolution that we are talking about.
We are certainly a long way from that goal. Without sincere leaders of great stature, without an organized party, without a consistent program — and without theory, we should add — the great opening night of the revolution is certainly not tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the popular tabloids marvel at the exquisite taste of “the first lady,” Brigitte [Marie-Claude Trogneux-Macron], including her Louis Vuitton dresses, trendy hairstyles and generous Presidential Palace receptions that make everyone “happy.”
It seems like we’re returning to the time of Queen Marie-Antoinette who — at the sight of the Parisian masses in front of the Palace of Versailles who were shouting that there was no bread left — yelled, “Let them eat cake!”
Herrera is a Marxist economist, a researcher at the Centre national de la Recherche scientifique (CNRS), who works at the Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, Paris. WW staff translated this article.