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France's New Anticapitalist Party: strengths and weaknesses

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Published in Workers Power 339
The New Anticapitalist Party in France has been the focus of attention for many on the left across Europe. Dave Stockton argues that it has major strengths compared with the timid and reformist "united lefts" and left parties that have arisen in Britain and Europe over the past ten years.

Workers Power believes that the opening up of a process of unity in action and programmatic debate at a local and national level, with the clear goal of creating a working class party that is anticapitalist, would be an enormous step forward in Britain as it has been in France. But in the end whether it can fulfil its potential depends on what sort of programme it finally adopts and how it puts it into practice. The weakness and ambiguity of the NPA's strategy for power - and its opportunist approach to elections - will need to be overcome.

In France the New Anticapitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste NPA) has drawn together over 10,000 militants. In this Winter and Spring's upsurge of struggles - several days of mass strike action called by the unions, the NPA was in the forefront of the demonstrations, on the picket lines, and in the factory, school and university occupations.

Their presence was so great that one of the more right wing union leaders, Francois Chereque, of the CFDT, angrily complained of their activity on the picket lines and at the occupied factories. To this the NPA's most well known leader, Olivier Besancenot, a 35 years old postal worker, replied pugnaciously; "you had better get used to it - you're going to see a lot more of us".

The NPA was founded last February after a year long process of debate and discussion at a local as well as a national level. The background to the party's formation was clearly waves of resistance to the right wing government attacks. These include the banlieues uprising of youth largely from the families of immigrants in November 2005. They were fighting back against police racism, mass unemployment and social exclusion.

Then came the school and university occupations in February-March 2006 against the CPE (a cheap expendable work contract for youth). Earlier this year another mighty wave of struggles erupted. On 29 January, 2.5 million, and on March 19, over 3 million workers struck.

At a number of workplaces faced with closures, workers occupied them sometimes kidnapping their bosses.

The French "overseas department" of Guadeloupe was paralysed by a general strike for 40 days. Olivier Besancenot went to Guadeloupe to express the NPA's solidarity and led a demonstration in support of the strike in France. The NPA's leaflet carried the headline "Guadeloupe shows the way forward". Besancenot spelled out what that meant:

"24 hour strikes and demonstrations will not be enough to make the government and the bosses give in. To stop the sackings, raise wages and lower prices, only an all out general strike will enable us to achieve our objectives." He also called for "a new May '68".

The NPA's founding congress adopted a document - Founding Principles of the New Anticapitalist Party which is not as yet a complete programme but points in that direction. This contains a large number of bold anticapitalist measures and demands that open the road to a transition to socialism and contrast sharply other left unity projects across Europe, specifically Die Linke (The Left) in Germany which sticks firmly to a reformist programme- i.e., solely demands which are realisable under capitalism.

It counterposes to capitalist "nationalisation" the expropriation of all the dominant sectors of the capitalist class:

"This programme insists on the social appropriation of the produce of labour by the expropriation without compensation of the major capitalist groups beginning with those of CAC 40 and essential sectors and services under the control of the wage earners and the population."

The "CAC 40" are the top 40 companies on the French stock exchange: Alstom, Alcatel, BNP Paribas, Carrefour, Michelin, GDF-Suez, Peugeot-Citroen, Renault, Vivendi. etc.

When it comes to the demands of the programme the NPA it rejects the idea of their limitation to those "possible" within capitalism.

"We fight for an emergency programme responding to immediate needs, which challenges capitalist ownership of the means of production, attacks capital and profits, increases wages, pensions, minimum incomes and meet the needs of the population."

This emergency programme, in fact, contains a considerable number of transitional demands, that is, ones which challenge the rights of capitalist property, establish workers' control over production and point to the need for a general takeover of the capitalist economy and the replacement of its state with one based on organs of workers' struggle.

It unequivocally sides with countries or national independence movements that are resisting French imperialism:

"The anticapitalists of an imperialist country must before everything struggle against their national capitalists, their own imperialist state and their army. (...) And wherever the French army (or that of other imperialist countries) is present, we support the popular resistance and the military defeat of the imperialist armies."

No electoral road
Moreover it explicitly rejects the idea of an electoral road to socialism and reformism:

"It is not possible to put the state and existing institutions at the service of political and social transformation. These agencies, totally dedicated to defending the interests of the bourgeoisie, must be overthrown in order to establish new institutions at the service and under the control of workers and the population."

Instead it insists that:

"Class domination cannot be eliminated along the road of reforms ... It will require a social revolution to destroy capitalism, (it) will require a formidable popular mobilisation of the people that can create new forms of power that will give an anticapitalist government the means to carry out its policy."

On the question of the trade unions, the Fundamental Principles argues that the NPA fights for: "A trade unionism whose dual purpose is the defence of immediate and everyday demands but also the struggle for a transformation of society as a whole independently of parties and the State"

It goes on to advocate:

"Democracy in trade unions and in the struggles, self-organisation. We champion sovereign general assemblies, the creation of strike committees, coordinations for the democratic representation of workers in struggle with elected revocable representatives."

However the NPA's Principles as they approach the question of government - of power - becomes more and more evasive. They talk about "shifting the balance of forces" in favour of the workers. As we have seen Olivier Besancenot has repeatedly called for an all out general strike. But in the revolutionary situation, which would be created by a general strike, no lasting equilibrium can be expected.

The continuing ambiguity of the NPA is revealed even more in the fact that when it came to the European elections it stood on a programme which was devoid of the transitional demands embodied in the Principles. Indeed it's programme was not so different to that of its reformist rivals the Parti de Gauche and the Communist Party (PCF). The temptation - which the French and indeed the international left always yield to when it comes to election manifestos - is to offer only a programme of reforms. For the NPA this did not lead to any major breakthrough.

In fact in the June elections to the European Parliament, the NPA with 4.9 per cent was outdistanced by the PdG-PCF bloc which scored 6.3 per cent, giving them five seats to the NPA's nil. In fact the NPA should clarify that it sees elections as opportunities to present its programme, its overall strategy to the working class and to raise the key slogans for the struggles of workers, youth, the unemployed and the immigrant communities.

Already it is embroiled in negotiations for an electoral agreement with the PCF and the PDG, though to the indignation of the these parties, and of the right wing within the NPA itself, on 29 September the party's executive insisted that any such block be based on anticapitalist measures and rejection of governing coalitions with the Socialist Party. In fact it is impossible that thorough reformists like these parties will adopt measure that really challenge capitalism, just as it is impossible that they should renounce entering regional administrations if they are given the opportunity. The NPA should stand on its own programme - a completed anticapitalist programme of transitional demands.

This should pose the workers taking power as the necessary climax of a strategy starting from the present defensive struggle - "we will not pay for their crisis" - from the demonstrations against mass unemployment the NPA is supporting this autumn. The aim must be to create in these battles mass democratic councils of action (coordinations) to unite every front of the struggle. With such bodies there can indeed be a general strike which the union leaders will not be able to sabotage: a general strike which initiates a real struggle for power.

The NPA must declare openly and in advance that its goal is to erect on the ruins of bosses state - through the smashing of the present government and its police and armed forces - a workers' government based on the workers' democratic organisations of struggle. This is what the NPA's programme of action needs to say.

Of course, many interruptions and halts are possible along this road, given the conservative leadership of the unions and the size of the reformist parties, but a party which describes itself as revolutionary and anticapitalist of itself, as the NPA does, needs to be unambiguous on its total strategy. The NPA must clarify this position in the months ahead. The left wing forces within the NPA who support this consistently revolutionary strategy need to unite and fight in the party for such a development.