Letter from France

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The victory of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy last year has led to disorientation for the mainstream left. But this can offer exciting possibilities for anti-capitalists, argues Denis Godard

Just a few weeks after Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as president last year, many on the radical left were interpreting the electoral results as a whole society moving to the right. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) leadership, meanwhile, started to talk about calling for a new anti-capitalist party in France. This initiative responded to both a necessity and an opportunity.

The "move to the right" theorists were right on one point. The election campaign and the period since have seen the whole establishment moving to the right.

Like last year, the government begins this new term on the offensive. It has planned to privatise postal services while cutting the number of workers in schools and hospitals. A new attack on civil liberties has been launched with the government's police database (called Edvige). It is designed to track people as young as 13 and record details such as the sexual orientation and health records of political candidates and trade unionists. Furthermore, the process of realignment with the US "war on terror" has been accelerated with the recent decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Yet Sarkozy and the government are much weaker than this picture suggests. Sarkozy was elected on the promise of improving people's purchasing power, but inflation and the economic crisis have led people to resent the "new rich" style of the Sarkozyst clique. A successful petition against the Edvige database has created open divisions within the government, forcing a rethink of the project. Then, after the death of ten French soldiers in Afghanistan, the government's foreign policy was openly questioned - 62 percent of the population want the troops to come home.

The central reason for these weaknesses is that after one year Sarkozy has not yet been able to break workers' resistance. The most symbolic example is the strike movement by "undocumented" workers who joined trade unions and occupied their workplaces to demand legal documents.

But to win some essential victories, the resistance is confronted by the question of leadership. The mainstream left has nearly collapsed as it is unable to articulate popular anger. The Socialist Party is paralysed by a leadership fight. The Communist Party is trying to build a new alliance with the Socialist Party, and the Greens decided to put themselves behind the pro-liberal and pro-war Daniel Cohn-Bendit for the next European elections. Meanwhile, the trade union leaderships are panicked by any movement they cannot control.

The NPA could be the focus for an alternative leadership in workplaces and neighbourhoods by regrouping rank and file activists from different struggles.

Some demonstrations were called on 20 September against the war in Afghanistan by a large alliance of forces. The relatively small demonstrations were dominated by radical left contingents. The NPA contingent was the only one to both support the large alliance and build the demonstration.

The alliance is already planning the mobilisation against the Nato summit next April. Regrouping the anti-imperialist, non-sectarian current, the NPA could become the engine to build a large anti-war movement in France over the coming months.

While Olivier Besancenot is now regularly polled as the best opponent to Sarkozy, 350 NPA local committees are organising activities and debates. Even if no significant national current outside the LCR has joined the process it is beginning to attract more and more activists and trade unionists. For the first time the radical left is starting to take root in the poor suburbs.

Membership cards have been produced in light of the decision to launch the new party. An estimated 10,000 people are involved in the NPA. But the number of cardholders at January's founding conference will give a measure of the strength of the new party. Having taken the initiative in this process, revolutionaries can play a key role. They will succeed if they find ways to work efficiently with other radical left activists to build an efficient pole of attraction while also convincing them through argument and common experience about revolutionary politics.