Making Modest Demands

Dear UTA,

Thank you for your thoughtful and analytical journal. UTA does a great service, especially by inviting people to share experiences of struggle across oceans. In this vein, I offer some constructive criticism about your interview with David McNally (UTA 8). Specifically, I caution against McNally’s praise for the newly established Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France. Regrettably, it is an exaggeration to describe the NPA as “a major new coalition of the radical left [which] played an important public role” in “general strikes and mass demonstrations against neoliberal responses to the crisis” (53).

French activism is easily put on a pedestal. It is undeniably impressive when French unions rapidly mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, and testament to their well-established logistical networks and deep pockets. But we shouldn’t compare North America’s perpetual renaissance of ad-hoc groups with France’s activism, which is funneled into established groups co-opted into the mainstream political system.

The NPA is a case-in-point of this cooptation. It is a rebranded Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) christened during a joint dissolution/foundational conference in February 2009. The LCR started in 1969 as an overtly Trotskyist revolutionary party and a breakaway from the Communist Party of France. But it gradually adopted electoral politics, initially by graduating its leaders into an overtly electoral party – the Socialists – and eventually running its own candidates. The new NPA might have a “far-left” analysis, but it remains committed to the existing electoral system. Accordingly, their major demands in recent EU elections were laughably modest: minimum wage increases, reduction of pesticide use, and the banning of lay-offs.

Before the transition to the NPA, community councils were established to rewrite the party’s platform from the bottom up. Unfortunately, this loudly trumpeted exercise was largely cosmetic. The final platform closely resembles the old LCR’s, indicating the lack of a genuine consultative process.

To make matters worse, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party is using the NPA to divide the left-wing vote and secure Sarkozy’s reelection in 2012. Taking a tactical lesson from Socialist predecessor President François Mitterrand, who in the 1980s and 1990s divided the right by discretely encouraging the extremist right-wing Front National party, Sarkozy is using the “extreme left” to divide Socialist support. And since the NPA’s electoralism prevents alliance with other parties, it is virtually guaranteed to be a spoiler for any alternative to Sarkozy. Unfortunately, by praising the NPA, McNally is unwittingly campaigning for Sarkozy.

There are, of course, effective radical grassroots groups in France that deserve recognition. La Comité Invisible has produced two works of mandatory reading for radicals across Europe. The samizdat booklet Appel (which isn’t signed Comité Invisible, but is assumed to have been written by them) is a scathing critique of contemporary consumerist society that incorporates ecological, feminist, and anarchist perspectives. They build on Appel in their second work, L’insurrection qui vient, a call to arms that famously suggests sabotaging the TGV high-speed rail lines to bring French society to a standstill. When someone realized this suggestion, the French police state apparatus arrested ten people and held five of them, including the accused leader Julien Coupat and his partner Yldune Levy, in police custody for months without charge on a terrorism provision. Even conservatives cried foul.

The state’s primary evidence against Coupat and Levy – the presumption that they were the authors of L’insurrection – is denied by the accused and the publishing house that released the book. In an interview with Le Monde newspaper from his jail cell, Coupat refused to plead guilty and deemed the state’s heavy handedness an act of desperation. The arrests provoked great interest in the Comité Invisible. Both texts are available at bloom0101.org.

Jeudi Noir is another effective radical group. They bring different exploited populations into a common front to fight the ideas war in the mainstream media and the physical war on the streets. They organize squats in central Paris for students, undocumented immigrants, and the working poor. Their high-publicity events bring the group’s radical critique of private property into the public realm, their undeclared squats serve the pressing needs of hundreds of people, and their text-message-tree communication schemes mobilize hundreds within hours to physically prevent evictions.

The NPA will fly a couple of flags at these eviction preventions and will write about the exploitation of undocumented immigrants, but it remains more interested in piggy-backing other groups’ ideas and actions than doing authentically radical organizing.

Reid Rothschild
Paris, France