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Fall of the Berlin Wall - the French left

France's left-wing politics after the wall

by Marco Chown Oved

Article published on the 2009-11-02 Latest update 2009-11-06 11:28 TU

François Mitterrand(Photo: Gisèle Freund)

François Mitterrand
(Photo: Gisèle Freund)

The traditionally strong left-wing political parties in France were as surprised as everyone else by the fall of the wall. But as the Soviet bloc crumbled, so did their support. What happened to the French left, and how were its fortunes determined by events that happened far away to the east?

It’s autumn 1989. François Mitterrand is President, Michel Rocard is Prime Minister. The Louvre Pyramid has just been inaugurated and the left in France is as strong as ever. No one sees the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of Soviet Communism coming, but it is only weeks away.

Fast forward to 2009. Twenty years down the road, the conservatives have won three presidential elections in a row, France has just christened its fleet of next-generation nuclear submarines and the left is divided with its lowest levels of support in generations.

(Almost) no one saw global economic recession coming, but it's in full swing, and politicians from left and right are unsure whether or not things are going to get worse.

It’s tempting to say that the fortunes of the left were directly tied to the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the resulting general acceptance of free market ideology set the scene for the financial abuses that led to the current economic predicament. But this only tells part of the story.

Of course, losing the model of a non-capitalist economy took away the Communists' best argument: that another economic system was viable. While it wasn't a perfect model, they argued, it at least provided a counter example to the free market.

"Suddenly a sort of social and political model [broke] down. It was a historical rupture in the history of Europe,” said Jacques Fath, Director of International Relations at the French Communist Party (PCF) in his office in Paris.

The left-wing in France after the wall: 1

02/11/2009 by Marco Chown Oved

In the public mind the ideas of central economic planning and public ownership, which had gained authority from the 20s through the 70s, were discredited by the economic collapse of the Soviet bloc. “The end of the Soviet Union was the beginning of something else,” Fath says, asserting that a new type of communism could still be born out of the rubble of Soviet Union. “The idea of communism is still available – it’s a very strong idea – but the Soviet model is finished.”

That, however, is not the way things have turned out. The far-left in France - the PCF, the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and Worker's Struggle (LO) - have all seen their electoral fortunes sour in the years since.

“At that moment, the French Communist Party was a real strong force," said Alain Krivine, spokesperson for the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), the successor of the old LCR. “When everything collapsed, it was a terrible collapse in the consciousness of millions of people because all the dreams they had collapsed in a matter of months.”

The Communist Party was once a powerful political force in France. Having played a key role in the resistence during World War II, it surged to electoral successes following the war, participating in the provisional Liberation government from 1944-47 and commanding the highest support out of any party on the left untill it was surpassed by the Socialists in the 1980s.

But its decline started well before the fall of the Berlin wall. Card-carrying members left the party in droves when in 1981 it decided to join François Mitterrand's government, considered too bourgeois and centrist.

Though the PCF ran against Mitterrand in 1988, it had already been compromised. “The present situation of the Communist Party in France, which is now very weak you know - five per cent, six per cent, nothing to do with the 20–25 per cent [they used to have] - this is linked to two things," said Krivine, who was the LCR's presidential candidate in '69 and '74.

"The first is the collapse of Stalinism - and the wall of Berlin is one of the symbols of that - and the second thing is [the] participation of the left in the government with Francois Mitterrand. The addition of these two things - the end of the dream and the participation in a Socialist government - explains the historical collapse of the French Communist Party.”

The left-wing in France after the wall: 2

02/11/2009 by Marco Chown Oved

The collapse of the Soviet bloc put the finishing touches to a separate but connected process which had already started, spelling the beginning of the end for revolutionary party politics.

Yet the centre-left Socialist party remained a dominant force in French politics. This was part of a social democratic movement that swept across Europe (and North America) in the 1990s. These nominally left-wing parties won and held onto electoral success by moving to the right, at least where economic matters were concerned.

In the United States Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the massive NAFTA free-trade agreement. In the UK the New Labour Party dropped all reference to nationalizing the means of production from its party charter and in France the Socialist government privatised some of the country’s champions of the “mixed economy” including France Télécom, Air France, Aérospatiale (a precursor to EADS) and the Crédit Lyonnais bank (now LCL).

It was as if the collapse of the Soviet Union was utter victory for capitalism, and socialist economics were rapidly abandoned - even by socialists.

"With the economic globalisation of the world, today, to make the maximum profit, the bosses did not – like before – give any crumbs to reformist parties," Krivine says.

"Reformism, and I speak about Social Democracy of course, is possible and credible when you are able to make reforms. But with globalization, the social democrats are unable to make any reforms. It’s the collapse of the reformist model."

"Social democrats in Europe had the choice between losing everything, because they were unable to make any reforms, or to adapt totally to liberalism. And that’s what happened to nearly all social democratic parties in Europe – the phenomenon called social liberalism. Schroeder, Tony Blair, Zapatero – it’s a total adaptation to capitalism."

There was one exception in Europe, Krivine says, the French. "But it’s not because they refused to adapt, it’s linked to the relationship of [political] forces which still exist in France ... I would say that now there is a big change. [In the last two years] even the French Socialist Party is making social liberal changes – becoming closer to the German, Spanish and English social democrats.”

But the globalised economic expansion that fueled this political movement is now over. The global economic crisis has set in, and it is widely viewed to be the result of deregulation of financial markets. Unbridled speculative capitalism has, the argument goes, been let off its leash.

Nevertheless, there has been no marked movement back toward socialist ideas of government control, nationalisation and mixed economics, except for a timid turn towards the mixed economy in the form of government bailouts.

Contrary to what we might expect, the crisis hasn't benefited the left. France's far-left says it's because they showed themselves to be politically bankrupt by selling out in the '90s.

“We can explain the total disarray, which exists among left [leaning] people in a country like France, but I think the same thing [applies across] Europe because confronted [with] the historical crisis of capitalism, there is no credible alternative,” Krivine says.

“People are disgusted in a certain sense by capitalism due to the consequences of the crisis. But they are not attracted by any credible alternative on the left.”

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