The murder of an anti-fascist activist has galvanised the campaign to stop the Front National, but the strategy of the movement falls short of what is needed.
The death of Clement Meric at the hands of a Nazi thug on 5 June was a rude awakening to many in France. While attacks on Muslims, LGBT people and left wing activists have been numerous in recent years, they have remained a concern only for a limited number among the politically active.
Clement's murder, on the other hand, was front page news, attracted the sympathy of millions and spurred many to action. It has also put the spotlight back on the fascist nature of the Front National (FN). It is clear the FN has made headway in the past few years. Last year their candidate in the presidential election scored 17.9 percent, their best performance ever. Strong results are expected in the upcoming local and European elections.
Its long-standing strategy of "de-diabolisation" (ie the quest for "respectability" in mainstream political and media terms) has been helped by the transmission of the leadership of the party from the old Duce to his daughter Marine Le Pen. She has surrounded herself with a younger generation of lieutenants, who put a special emphasis on Islamophobia and a technocratic outlook rather than anti-Semitism and explicit references to racial inequality.
It is clear the party itself has not changed, as frequent cases of FN candidates being disciplined for racist outbursts testify. It is also clear the FN's high standing in the polls and in the media has encouraged the more explicitly Nazi groups who surround it and are linked to it in a myriad of ways.
Sadly, the left has not been up to the challenge. Especially since the advent of Marine Le Pen's leadership, the notion that, while the FN is reactionary, it is a "normal" political party has gained a lot of ground. This is true most of all in the ruling Socialist Party, but it also permeates the strategy of the Front de Gauche and has even contaminated part of the NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party).
What this means in practice has been best exemplified by the strategy of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Front de Gauche's candidate for the 2012 presidential elections.
While pointing out the FN as a special threat, Melenchon emphasised that the way to fight it was through debating with its representatives. While Front de Gauche rallies could attract tens of thousands of people in support of Melenchon's candidacy, it refused to mobilise in the street against the FN, preferring instead to insist on a televised debate between Melenchon and Marine Le Pen.
This resulted in making the fight against fascism seem to be mainly a clash between two individuals, and leaving activists to a passive role. In such a situation, it should be up to revolutionaries to take the lead. To its credit the NPA has called for demonstrations against the FN - in 2012, and again in Marseille this September. Yet two obstacles lie in the way of rebuilding a strong anti-fascist force.
The first is simply the very low ebb at which the anti-fascist movement has found itself. Before Clement's murder only small radical anti-fascist groups remained in activity, many of them with an anarchist orientation. At least they did fight, and so the NPA worked with them, but many questions have to be debated again in order to build a wide movement.
The second problem is to do with the NPA itself. There are a number of elements here. The NPA is in a weakened state after a split. It also suffers from its loose structures, which make it difficult to initiate and pursue any campaign in a cohesive and focused manner. There is also a degree of acceptance inside the NPA that the FN is to be fought mainly by ideological means, through counterposing our programme to theirs, and not through direct confrontation.
But the death of Clement Meric has made many reconsider, both on the wider left and in the NPA. Mobilisations since then have been sizable: several thousand marched on 23 June and again in Marseille on 14 September.
Local anti-fascist committees have sprouted in many places, with activists from the trade unions, the NPA, anarchist groups, the Front de Gauche and people from other backgrounds participating in local protests. This is still very far from what is needed to drive the Nazis back but it is an important step forward.
The recent movement by high school students against deportations of Roma students has shone a bright beacon of hope: although the demonstrations were aimed at the Socialist Party government, the old anti-FN slogan, "F stands for fascist, N stands for Nazi!" was also heard.
If the left organisations can connect with the anti-racist youth, if they can set out a clear orientation for standing against the Nazis in the streets, in the workplaces, in schools and universities, there is a strong potential for a powerful movement.
But we're not there yet and there is not a moment to lose.