Whatever the result of the first round of this month's presidential election in France, the poll is certain to confirm the crisis of mainstream politics.
Although the current president, Jacques Chirac, and prime minister Lionel Jospin will probably contest the second round stand-off on 5 May, the election has so far been notable for two things. The first is the general indifference which has greeted the contest between the two frontrunners. Polls have shown that a clear majority of voters see no difference in policy between the Gaullist right winger Chirac and the Socialist Jospin, whose party governs as part of the 'plural left' coalition. The second major feature of the campaign has been the support for candidates from beyond the mainstream, from the fascist Le Pen, who continues to pick up support, to the maverick Republican nationalist Jean-Louis Chévènement. The Trotskyist candidate Arlette Laguiller is also set to do well.
On the eve of the 21 April first round, Laguiller, a leading member of Lutte Ouvrière (LO), is on course to win more votes than each of Jospin's coalition partners, the Greens and the French Communist Party (PCF). This will represent a watershed for the revolutionary left. For much of the postwar period the PCF was France's single biggest party. Despite its historic decline over the past two decades the party has nevertheless retained a sizeable membership, significant influence within the main trade union federation, the CGT, and the potential to provide socialist governments with a bridge to strikes and protest movements. Under the leadership of Robert Hue, however, the party has chosen to reinforce its credentials as a respectable partner in a government pursuing an agenda of privatisation and deregulation. The absence of a significant force to the left of the PCF is one reason why Hue has survived this far. The LO vote could therefore both end his career and open up the possibility of a reconfiguration of the left.
Is such a reconfiguration really on the cards? Much will depend on the attitude of LO to the vote. In 1995 Laguiller won 1.6 million votes (over 5 percent). This was one indication of growing resentment at the neoliberal policies of left and right wing governments which eventually led to big public sector strikes in the winter of that year. These set off an ongoing wave of militancy which has produced protests against redundancies, unemployment and racism, and seen trade union contingents marching alongside anti-capitalist groups at major demonstrations in Millau and Nice. Laguiller's emergence as a national figure has helped the organisation to capitalise, at least in electoral terms, on this mood.
LO's successful joint slate with the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in the 1999 European elections sent the first Trotskyist deputies to the European Parliament. Although LO's decision to reject a joint campaign with the LCR in this year's presidential and forthcoming parliamentary elections is sure to limit the far left's potential, Laguiller's campaign, focusing on calls to ban redundancies and to make public the details of the bank accounts of major firms and their directors, has tapped into anger at the treatment of workers by companies like Moulinex, Danone and Marks & Spencer. Meetings in towns affected by job cuts, such as Nancy, Caen and Reims, have been drawing up to 1,000 people.
A real possibility exists for the far left to become a significant political force in France. Despite its electoral achievements, LO is aware that it possesses only limited resources. This is one reason why it has chosen to prioritise building in the workplace, often at the expense of other activities such as attempting to combat the rise of Le Pen or organising opposition to imperialist interventions in the Balkans or Afghanistan. Routine and discipline have undoubtedly helped put the organisation in the position it finds itself in now. But the LO vote is above all an expression of the widespread backlash against neoliberalism expressed in the winter 1995 strikes, and sustained by the mutually reinforcing protests of organised labour and the anti-capitalist movement.
Hundreds of thousands of people are prepared to identify with LO's presidential candidate without sharing all of the organisation's ideas. Across Europe revolutionaries are beginning to engage with those who are disillusioned with mainstream socialist and communist parties, but who still hold to the belief that change can come about through the reform of established institutions. Many such people protested on the streets of Genoa and Nice and Millau. LO has so far chosen not to attend any of these protests, arguing that they are organised by groups opposed to neoliberal policies rather than capitalism itself. Sometimes, however, situations are thrown up which require organisations to take risks, break with the past, and enter into both debate and activity with a wider audience. These are the circumstances facing the French left today. A decision to seize the opportunity they present could have a major impact on the left internationally.