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Ian Birchall & Phil Spencer

France: No Left Turn

(April 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 1, April 1978, pp. 7–8, 10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

French workers face another five years of right-wing rule after the legislative elections on 12 March. In the first round of the elections, on 12 March, the Left narrowly led with just under half the popular vote. But in the second round the ruling right-wing majority romped home.

This dramatic turn around was partly a result of the rigged electoral system, which converted the right’s one per cent voting lead in the second round into a 90-seat majority. The revolutionary daily paper Rouge calculated that a left-wing MP needed 69,230 votes to be elected, while a right-winger needed only 52,345 to win.

The elections are also a defeat for the Union of the Left formed by the Communist and Socialist parties in 1972. The trade union leaders refused to defend jobs and living standards in the hope of a left-wing victory at the polls. They will now face heavy pressure from their rank and file to organise a real fight-back. Many militants are looking ahead to the ‘third round’ – the trade union struggle against wage cuts and unemployment.

IAN BIRCHALL and PHIL SPENCER give the background to the defeat and the struggles that will follow.

* * *

Organisations of the French left


CGT: Confédération Genérale du Travail (General Confederation of Labour)

CFDT: Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour)

FO: Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Strength)

Parties, etc.

PSU: Parti Socialiste Unifie (Unified Socialist Party)

CIR: Convention des Institutions Republicaines (Convention of Republican Institutions)

CERES: Centre d’Études, de Recherches et d’Éducation Socialistes (Centre for Socialist Study, Research and Education)

LCR: Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist League)

LO: Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle)

OCT: Organisation Communiste des Travailleurs (Communist Organisation of Workers)

CCA: Comités Communistes pour l’Autogestion (Communist Committees for Self-Management)

PCR: Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Communist Party)

CC: Combat Communiste (Communist Fight)

PCF: Parti Communiste Française (French Communist Party)

PS: Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party)

* * *

Union of the Left

The day after the Common Programme was signed by the Communist and Socialist Parties in 1972, François Mitterrand told a Congress of the Socialist International in Vienna:

‘Our fundamental objective role is to rebuild a great Socialist Party on the ground occupied by the CP itself – to demonstrate that of the 5,000,000 Communist voters 3,000,000 can vote Socialist.’

Though Mitterrand’s ambition has not yet been achieved, the Socialist Party is several per cent ahead of the Communist Party – a startling change from the early 1970s. It is important to understand the relation between the bases of the two parties in order to understand the continuing rivalry between them.

Though the CP has not held governmental office since 1947, it has maintained a mass base, and is an overwhelmingly proletarian party. At its 1976 Congress it had 491,000 members and the figure must now be well over half a million.

Of these, industrial workers make up 60 per cent of the total, and white-collar workers another 18 per cent. The Party has some eight thousand workplace cells. Its real base lies in its organisation in the CGT and in heavy industry.

It is important to remember that union power in the factories involves extensive influence. For example, the factory committee at Renault Billancourt has over two hundred salaried employees. This is a powerful lever of influence in the hands of whichever union controls. The CP also has a massive base in local government, with 1,400 mayors and 21,000 local councillors.


But though the CP built its base in the long years of political isolation in the 1950s and 1960s it has renewed its membership considerably. At its most recent national conference, 58 per cent of the delegates joined the Party since May 1968. This shows the Party’s continuing ability to grow; it also shows that a large part of the membership must have joined the CP knowing it not to be revolutionary. Another sign of the increasingly social-democratic nature of the party is the fact that the daily sales of the CP paper L’Humanité is around 160,000, local dailies perhaps amount to as many again, but there are still many members who do not buy, let alone sell, the Party organ.

The Socialist Party is in effect a creation of the 1970s. The old Socialist Party of Guy Mollett, discredited by such crimes as the 1956 Suez invasion, support of torture in Algeria, etc. etc. was a parliamentary rump, as was shown by Gaston Defferre’s derisory result in the 1969 Presidential election.

But in 1971 the old Socialist Party merged with the CIR (Mitterrand’s organisation), and began to present itself as something quite new. The fact that Mitterrand himself had never been in the old Socialist Party was a great help.

The SP is less monolithic than the CP, and therefore more able to be all things to all persons. Its success depends upon being able to expand into three areas simultaneously: the CP’s traditional working class base; middle class sections who distrust the CP; and the post-1968 political left whom the CP would regard as ‘ultra-left’.


Starting with 80,000 members in 1971, the SP had more or less doubled the number four years later. The SP has a relatively low percentage of industrial workers in its membership, perhaps between 5 and 10 per cent.

Its activists are predominantly white-collar and supervisory workers, and teachers. But the SP has worked hard to extend its trade union influence; in 1971 it had only 54 workplace groups; by 1976 it had over 700. But in terms of voters the SP’s working class penetration has equalled the CP’s.

An opinion poll of March 1976 showed that 36 per cent of industrial workers would vote Socialist and only 34 per cent Communist. Perhaps more alarming for the CP was the fact that in the age group 25-34, the SP was getting 38 per cent of voters, as against 25 per cent for the CP.

At the same time the SP is able to appeal to the new salary earning middle class in a way that the CP would not be able to. Indeed, the SP has been able to get the support of some layers of management and employers.

Last year some CFDT militants were disciplined for having allegedly produced a poster which showed a boss sitting on a worker’s shoulders, and captioned ‘Like your boss, join the SP’.

Thirdly, the SP is less monolithic than the CP even if is not more democratic. It therefore finds it easier to co-opt leftists and ex-leftists.

Many of its activists have been won from the PSU, which following 1968 had a leftist reputation. Michel Rocard, a skilful demagogue who was for several years in the leadership of the PSU, is now in the SP’s top ranks, and is widely tipped as Mitterrand’s successor.

Many SP activists belong to the organised left faction known as the CERES. The CERES – in many ways like the Tribune left in Britain – plays Mitterrand’s game neatly, by giving the SP a left face, but always lining up with the leadership when there are real difficulties.

The rapid rise of the Socialist Party provoked the bitter row which split the Union of the Left last September.

Under the leadership of Georges Marchais, the Communist Party has in recent years been trying to shed its Stalinist past and present itself as a moderate, reformist party. The difficulty was that the Socialists have, as we have seen, proved to be more successful at this game than the CP.


So last autumn Marchais performed an abrupt about turn. He demanded a renegotiation of the Common Programme, in particular to extend the list of nationalisations proposed by the left in 1972.

Mitterrand rejected this proposal and the Union of the Left split, entering the first round of the elections without any agreement to support each other in the crucial run-off on 19 March.

Behind the split lay the Communists’ fear of a repeat of 1947. At the end of the Second World War a coalition government was formed including both the Communists and the Socialists. The CP launched a ‘battle for production’ to prop up French capitalism.

Maurice Thorez, the general secretary of the PCF, told striking carworkers and miners: ‘We must all work harder, for the nation’. But once the Communists had done their job and contained working-class militancy, their socialist coalition partners turned on them and booted them out of the government.

The CP is only now emerging again from the political wilderness and is desperate to prevent another fiasco like 1947.

* * *

Revolutionary Left

May 1968 established the revolutionary left as part of the French political spectrum. Both in electoral terms, and in the context of the general ideological debate, revolutionary organisations are taken more seriously than they are in Britain.

Since 1968, the line-up on the revolutionary left has changed. The Maoists are less important now than they were in the early seventies, though one group, the PCR, produces a not unreadable daily paper. Various other Maoist splinters exist, and at least one has called for a vote for the right-wing parties as a blow against ‘social imperialism’.

Of the Trotskyist groups the most significant are the LCR (French section of the Fourth International), and Lutte Ouvrière.

Numerically the LCR is probably biggest. At its 1977 Congress it had 2,600 members, with another four or five thousand organised sympathisers. However, despite efforts, it has still not wholly broken out of the student milieu in which it made its first gains ten years ago.

Statistics presented to the 1977 Congress showed only 13 per cent of the members were industrial workers, against 22 per cent of students and 20 per cent teachers. 56 per cent of the members were under the age of 26.

Lutte Ouvrière has a much more solid proletarian base, giving far more priority to systematic work in the major factories. The price of this is a rigid organisation which restricts entry to those willing to accept the toughest definition of a revolutionary cadre.

Side by side with this workerist routinism, LO engages in what is often imaginative propaganda work, for example its successful fêtes held each year at Whitsuntide. The highly successful campaign of Arlette Laguiller for the Presidency in 1974 (winning nearly 600,000 votes) seems to have led to an excessive degree of importance being attached to electoral work, as well as a miniature ‘personality cult’ of Arlette herself.


The paradox is that LO’s organisational approach makes it virtually impossible to use such propaganda campaigns as a means of building the organisation.

Somewhere between Trotskyism and Maoism lies the OCT, which originated from a split in the LCR, under the influence of the ideas of the Italian group Avanguardia Operaia, and subsequently expanded by various splinters from the PSU. The OCT in some ways avoids the weaknesses of both the LCR and LO, through its orientation to what is called the ‘workers’ and popular left’, i.e. the broad layer open to revolutionary ideas.

This should lead the OCT to a rank and file perspective; unfortunately it all too often drifts towards populism or spontaneism. At its worst this can mean irrelevances like the attempt to build a mass campaign against direct elections to the European Parliament.

Despite continuing splits to left and right, the PSU still exists, but its ambiguous attitude towards the Union of the Left probably disqualifies it from any serious intervention. Many other smaller groups exist; for instance Combat Communiste, which broke from Lutte Ouvrière on the basis of its ‘state capitalist’ analysis of Russia.


CC has a very clear analysis of the limits of the Left Union; while its size disqualifies it from any immediate impact, its ideas may be of some influence.

The LCR and OCT, together with a ‘pro-self-management’ tendency which split from the PSU called the CCA, are running a joint electoral platform. LO, which last year joined LCR and OCT in the municipal campaign, has refused to join, arguing that the platform does not clearly enough point to the limits of the Left Union.

While LO are probably right to see a rightist danger, especially in the LCR’s strategy of united front with the reformists, the LO platform stops short at saying that workers must fight their own battles, but without indicating the organisational or political means required.

But the most serious criticism of the whole revolutionary left is that over the last couple of years it has debated its strategy rather than taking any initiatives. No revolutionary group, for example, has made any serious attempt to organise the large numbers, of young unemployed in France.

In the post-electoral period, whatever the result, it will be the revolutionary left’s capacity to take initiatives that will determine whether it has any chance of winning a section of workers from the grip of reformism. There are, unfortunately, good reasons for doubting the potential of all the existing groups to do this.

For this reason the period after March 1978 may well see the beginning of a period of splits and regroupment.

* * *

The Trade Unions

If a Left Government in France is to succeed in reforming French capitalism without provoking a working-class upsurge, then the role of the trade union bureaucracy will be crucial. In some form or other, the Left Government will need a ‘social contract’.

However, for organisational and ideological reasons, such a ‘social contract’ will necessarily take a rather different form from the British experience.

The French trade union movement is deeply divided. The two major federations are the CGT and the CFDT. (Force Ouvrière, created in 1947 by American money and manipulation, is becoming less and less important; and there are a number of other splinters).

One result of the division is the relatively low level of union membership, probably around 20-25 per cent of the labour force. But the unions can often get support from non-unionised workers for specific actions like one-day stoppages. The French unions receive financial subsidies from the state.

It is a tradition of French trade unionism going back to the first years of the century that the unions are not affiliated to political parties, and that parties do not organise politically in the unions.

For example, Georges Seguy, general secretary of the CGT, was recently widely attacked for publicly calling for electoral support for the Communist Party, even though he made clear that he was not doing so in his official union capacity.

This apolitical attitude has two sides to it. On the one hand, the absence of formal ties means that the ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude of Labour Party trade unionists is less widespread. It will be far easier to argue that the unions should stay independent of the state.

Yet at the same time the apolitical status of the unions is used time and again by the bureaucrats to ban any attempt at the organisation of political tendencies inside the unions, making the task of revolutionaries, and even of militants seeking some form of rank and file organisation far harder.

The CGT remains the largest federation, with probably over two million members, and its main strength in the traditional sectors of French, industry. Since the end of World War Two it has been under the effective political control of the French Communist Party.

The internal regime has been bureaucratic to the core, and dissidents, especially members of revolutionary organisations, have been regularly expelled. This still happens today, although is some places the balance of forces is no longer favourable to the bureaucracy.

In some recent factory elections, the CGT has been losing ground to the CFDT, though it still keeps its absolute predominance. The CFDT originated at the end of the First World War as a Catholic union, but since 1964 has had no formal Christian links.


In 1968 it acquired a reputation as being to the left of the CGT (largely because, being smaller, it could take up demagogic left positions without having to bear the responsibility). It has subsequently grown faster than the CGT, and now has over a million members.

While formally unpolitical, its leadership has developed close links with the Socialist Party, and the Socialists clearly see it as an important counterweight to the CP’s control of the CGT.

In the early seventies the CFDT has a reputation for being more open and democratic than the CGT, but over the last couple of years there has been a witchhunt of leftists in the union, accused of being ‘cuckoos’ in the union’s nest.

Since, the defeat of the post office strike in late 1974, both CGT and CFDT have largely played the role of restraining struggle, with the unspoken aim of stressing their responsibility and moderation in the pre-election period.

Where they do launch actions, they are generally token one-day stoppages, with no more than a publicity value – and increasingly demoralising the membership.

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