Interview with Gael Le Mignot of the Parti communiste français

The Parti communiste français or, for us impoverished monoglots, the French Communist Party, was founded in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and has seen many highs (the anti-fascist struggle) and lows (the decline in the 1990s).

PCF fete

Unlike most of the far left parties in the Anglo-sphere, the communist parties in the western Europe managed to grow and sustain mass support, counted in the millions.

Emerging from World War 2 as the central organisation behind the resistence, the French communists (PCF) reaped the benefits and won nearly 30% in the post war elections. However, it was excluded from power in 1947.

Below, we interview in a personal capacity, the PCF’s Gael Le Mignot on the current situation in France, the PCF and its role in the social struggle.

Emerging from WW II, the PCF was the leading socialist party for some decades and In the 1970s, along with the main western European Communist Parties, adopted eurocommunism in a bid to win power legally. In France, however, Mitterrand and the Socialist Party reaped the rewards instead. What happened?

In 1974, there was a programme commun between the Socialist Party (PS) and the PCF, very similar to the  “Unitad Popular” of Allende in  Chile. The objective was to get power, and “bring France  in the tracks of socialism”.  For that, the  PCF backed the  PS candidate,  Mitterrand, who  was more  likely to win. But  in 1974, we  lost the election, by a very thin  margin (49.1% against 50.9%), but we lost it.

In 1981, the PS didn’t continue on the programme commun. They became much less radical, and presented Miterrand on their own program. The PCF presented its own candidate,  Marchais who won 15%, with Miterrand receiving 25%. In the second round, Miterrand won.

From 1981  until 1983, it didn’t start too bad. Communists  were in the government, and significant progress was made on issues like retirement at 60, a 5th week of paid holidays, abolition of  death penalty, nationalisation of banks and industries, and so on.

But when international finance  started to attack the national currency, the Franc, and  to  leak capital,  Miterrand gave up this left-wing  policy, and  in order to stay in the European Monetary System,  he capitulated, announcing the tournant de  la rigueur (austerity  policy). Communists left the  government, and it was the end of the dream that started with the programme commun.

How did the fall of the USSR affect the PCF?

It affected it in several ways.  The most important one  is that many people thought that communism had failed,  so the PCF lost a lot in terms of image. It also affected the PCF financially, especially the PCF press (l’Humanité, l’Humanité Dimanche, la Terre, Pif Gadget,…).

A Soviet stamp commentating long-time PCF leader Maurice Thorez

A Soviet stamp commentating long-time PCF leader Maurice Thorez

What is the strength of the PCF in the unions? Which unions? Are many  union officials members? Or are they just sympathetic?

The PCF  has no official  links with unions,  but in practice, the links between  PCF and the  strongest unions  (CGT in  private sector,  FSU in education) are still strong, most members of the PCF are in CGT/FSU, and many of  the leaders of  those unions are  either member of the  PCF, or sympathetic to it. In the latest elections, the CGT said something which sounded very much  like “we won’t tell for whom you  should vote, but we recognize that the Left Front is defending the same positions than we do on minimal wages, retirement, …”.

What is the strength of the unions themselves?

It’s a  bit paradoxical. The unions are  relatively weak in term of membership,  unlike in  some other  countries where  joining a  union is almost automatic  when you work, it’s  a very voluntary  measure with no direct  consequence (even  if  you’re not  unionized,  you benefit  from collective bargain done by the unions in your name).

But the unions still have a lot  of power of mobilization,  as we could see  in  2003  against the  “CPE”,  or  in  2010 against  the  retirement reform.  Especially  in  some  sectors  (public  transports,  education, refineries)  they   have  the  ability  to  paralyze   the  country  in exceptional situations.

Sadly, this power  is being weakened by the more  and more frequent use of temporary working contracts, instead of permanent ones, in the public services. People working  with a temporary contract don’t  have the full legal protection of  CDI (or the even stronger  one of public servants), so they are often afraid to strike.

What infrastructure does the party have? How many members of parliament? Does it have much by the way of members, active branches, councillors bookshops, papers, Sympathetic intellectuals?

The red provinces mark the PCF's representation at a regional level

The red provinces mark where the PCF have representation at a regional level

We have a small group in each chamber of parliament, several  mayors of medium-sized cities, the presidency of two departements (of around 100) and  we  participate in  the  regional executive  (with  the PS at  the presidency) in a majority of regions.

There  are about  100 000  members (which  makes us  the third  party of France, after PS and UMP), and active branches in most cities.

The newspaper  l’Humanité (daily)  and ‘Humanité Dimanche (weekly) are not officially directly controlled by  the PCF, but the ties between the two are very strong, and the director of l’Humanité, Patrick Le Hyarric is a MEP of the PCF.

We do have a  lot of  power at municipal  level –  several medium-sized cities have PCF mayors, and we are in the  executive alongside with the PS in many others, including Paris.

The coming municipal elections will be a very delicate period, with a lot of difficulties:

1. The unpopularity of the current PS  government which will damage the whole left, us included, especially when we are allied with PS (which is, most of the time, required if either of us want to win the mayorship).

2. The  PS will to  conquer some  of the cities  that have a  PCF mayor, sometimes even risking to make the UMP win.

3. The internal differences between the Parti de Gauche and the PCF on how to tackle the “PS problem”.

4. The  european elections that will  come a few months  after, in which we’ll  have  to  directly confront  the  PS  (since  we have  a  totally different view on European questions).

The relations with the Hollande government are very tense. The PCF  is not in the government, and voted against the  budgets Yet, we do vote some laws (like the gay marriage) when they go in the right direction.

The  PS  has  an absolute  majority over the  lower  chamber (Assemblée Nationale), but not  in the upper chamber (Sénat). In  the Sénat, the PS needs  the votes of the  PCF to  pass any  bill. But  under  the French system, the  Senate cannot block  laws, it can  only delay them – after some rounds, if the Senate and  the Assembly don’t  agree, the Assembly can override the Senate.

This situation is  made ever more complicated with the coming municipal elections, in which  both the PS and the PCF need  the others to reelect their mayors, but in which the PS also wants to take cities from the PCF (and the  PCF to retake  some that the PS took in 2008), and at the same time, the PS is using  this election  to try to  bully the PCF  “if you don’t vote our budget, we won’t back your mayors”.

The Parti de Gauche (The Left Party) originates from a recent split in the Socialist Party. You co-operated with them at a national level in the Front Gauche (the Left Front) by presenting Mélenchon as your joint candidate. What are their theoretical differences with the PCF? Are there any prospects for a fusion between the two parties?

There are a few core differences  between the PG (Parti de Gauche) and the PCF, for example, the  PCF is pro-nuclear energy, while the  PG is against it. We solved that specific issue by  proposing the question to be decided by a referendum the Left Front ever takes power.

On strategy, there  is a  difference in  the relationship  with the PS. We both acknowledge that the PS is a social-liberal party, and we both oppose the current austerity policy.  But the PG is more frontal in their opposition to the PS, while the PCF is more trying to cooperate with it, to a point. Part of  this is because, at the local level (where the frontal opposition between PCF and PS on austerity isn’t very significant), the PCF and  PS  are  often allies, managing  cities, départements and  regions together, while  the PG, being a  much younger party, is not that much involved in the local politics.

I don’t think a fusion is likely in the short term. The PG initially was planning for one, on the model  of Die Linke, but the recent setbacks of Die Linke made this model much  less motivating, and most members of the PCF are  too attached to their  party and its  history (Front Populaire, Résitance and the CNR, …) to accept that.

Taking a longer view, does the PCF see socialism as being achievable in France or does it require a relatively simultaneous continental expression?

The PCF stated goal is to bring France to a post-capitalist society, but there is not much official position on how to do that in the long term. Most of  the official positions are about the short-term or medium-term: how  to re-found the Republic (6th  republic), and how  to solve  the current crisis in a way that  benefits to the working class. It’s more a “let’s handle the  economic emergency, re-found the Republic in a more democratic way, and then we’ll see”.

The overall feeling, as far as I  can say, is that, while there is a lot that can be done at  national level to improve things, actually building a socialist  society will have  to be done  at a larger scale, probably EU-wide.

How do you see that playing out: via a more centralised EU or an EU which takes the form of coalition of independent national states?

The  PCF opposes the current EU (it campaigned against the European Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty and before that against the Maastricht Treaty), but it doesn’t advocate the disbanding of EU and the return to national currency (the Franc).

It advocates disobeying the EU on the austerity and privatisation front  (considering  that  since the ictory of the NO at the 2005 referendum, EU  legitimacy to impose economic policies on the French people is gone). At the same time we support reforming the EU from inside, changing the role of  the ECB,  and promoting  EU-wide social  policies, like a  EU-wide minimal wage.

The PCF also is a founding  member of the European Left Party, trying to federate the really left-wing parties of Europe.

Does the  PCF espouse  a  legal  route   to  power,  through  elections?  Or  will  insurrection be necessary?

The PCF seeks  a legal route to power,  through elections, but considers social movements (strikes, protests, …)  to be required in parallel to that  road.  It  doesn’t   support  armed  struggle, but does support non-violent actions such as strikes, blocking   roads, occupying factories, etc.

How does  the party  see  the socialisation  of production  occurring? Violent and rapid expropriation? Via co-ops? Revolutionary Syndicalism? 

On the short-term programs (what we would do in the 5 years of a mandate if we take power), the plan is to take a number of measures in parallel:

1. Nationalisation  of important industries,  such as energy  (EDF, GDF, Suez, Total),  banks, or  any industrial sector  that requires  it (like Arcelor-Mittal).

2.  A legal right allowing workers to take control, as a cooperative, of any  company  or  factory that the owners  wants to close or outsource, and more generally,  a support  for cooperatives, for example through a public bank making low-interest loans to workers wanting to create or extend a cooperative.

3. A widely increased role for unions, through representatives elected by the  workers, on the management of companies. Actually, since the  stock owners/CEO have almost all the power, the short-term goal is to make, by law, a shared power between them and the unions.

4. A national economic plan, mostly focused on re-industrialising France and handling the energy conversion to non-CO2 energies.

The Front de Gauche talks about fortifying centres of resistance. What is  that and what is the reasoning behind it?

I’m not  sure exactly who said that in  which context, but the current strategy is to cooperate with  unions  to oppose  the austerity,  both locally on companies that are victims of downsizing/closing/outsourcing, and nation-wide against Hollande’s austerity measures.

The purpose is first to pressure the PS to limit the damages they’ll do, and then to make it clear in the public opinion that we oppose austerity and have different proposals.

Where  does  it  lead? Assuming  some centres  of resistance are fortified, what then?

In the short term, we can make the PS amend or cancel its projects, like their newly announced project to increase the retirement age. In the longer term, we hope to make the working class understand that we are the ones actually defending them, and not supporting austerity.

What is the internal life of the PCF like? Is there much intellectual discussion?

Well. just had a  congress a few months ago, which was  a very “alive” one, with a lot of constructive debate at all levels. Right now, there is a lot of  discussion going on about  the strategy to adopt  for the coming municipal elections.

What is the internal life of the Front de Gauche? How co-operative in practice are the PCF and the Left Party?

At the local level, there is a lot of cooperation. In protests, strikes, local  assemblies, etc.  The militants of each party see the others as comrades, the other party as a brother party.

At the national level, things are sometimes a bit tense, because of tactical differences, and because of  some rivalry between the two. But until now, at least, the tensions that exist are far below the level that would endanger the Left Front.

What are relations with the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA)?

More or less non-existent. We asked them a few times to join the Left Front and they always refused arguing that we would join the PS government. In fact we didn’t join Hollande’s government, but it didn’t seem to change their attitude at all. We basically ignore them nowadays. The NPA  is very weak anyway;  it had several  splits (Gauche Unitaire, Gauche Anticapitaliste, …) and they all joined the Left Front.

Any contact with Syriza? The Portuguese? Die Linke?

We  do have  strong ties  with the  other members  of the  PGE  and more broadly of  the GUE/NGL group in  the European Parliament. We also have ties with non-europeans, like with Latin American movements.

What is the Party’s attitude to nuclear power?

The PCF supports nuclear power, as a way to reduce CO2 emissions, and to assure France’s  energy independence. It supports a fully nationalized EDF (Électricté  de France) that will, alongside with Areva  (which is still 100% public owned) massively invest into R&D on both nuclear and non-nuclear  power. It supports the building of  EPRs,  and the  ITER research project.

The Parti de Gauche  is taking an anti-nuclear stance, mostly to try to get some of the Green vote and to capitalize on fear-mongering. That’s a major difference between the PCF and the PG, and we agreed to  solve it with a referendum.

Currently 80% of electricity of France is nuclear, and  it allows us to have relatively clean,  safe and cheap electricity, and  most French are aware of that. The last polls I saw gave 60% of popular support to nuclear energy,  so I do think the  PCF/pro-nuclear  would  win  such  a referendum. The recent decision of Japan to reopen nuclear plan, and the Germany handled  its abandoning  of nuclear power (through re-starting coal plants and allowing fraking) will probably reinforce our position too.

PCF Thorium

The PCF Central Committee vote in favour of thorium reactors.

Do the miserablist greens, to coin a term for backward looking environmentalists who advocate radical reductions in standard of living, ending nuclear power, large-scale decentralisation of industry etc, have a presence in the PCF?

In the PCF no, but in the PG they do, cf above. One of the main leaders of the PG, Martine Billard, is  a former member of the Greens, and while she does have sane and courageous positions on economical/social issues, she is very strongly influencing the anti-nuclear policies of PG.

In the last election, the Front de Gauche landed a lot of punches on le Pen and was the main opponent of the reactionary right. Yet many English speaking leftists were horrified by Mélenchon’s support for the anti-burka law. What is the PCF’s stance on the issue of state and religion and that law in particular?

The PCF  is strongly attached to secularism,  both for  ideological and historical reasons.  Ties between politics and religion are always very dangerous, and almost never help the working class.

The anti-burka law was the subject of heated debate inside the PCF, and while some of its members agree with Melenchon and the law, most did  oppose it, for two reasons :

1. We believe that secularism  is neutrality of state towards religion: the state doesn’t  finance religion, doesn’t give any  special status to religion, doesn’t make any special  rules for religions.  Not making any special rules applies both positively and negatively: the state shouldn’t allow something harmful because religions want it, but it shouldn’t either ban something  just because it’s religious. Public servants are forbidden to express their religious opinion during working time, because the state has to be neutral, but that  doesn’t extend to users of the public services  or common citizen, only to people invested by state authority.

2. We believe that in  the current context, that specifically targeting Islam is fuelling the  extreme right and the racists, and that this anti-Islam law (and the previous one banning the  hijab for students in public schools) are a form of colonial paternalism: “we’ll civilise  those savages”.

Does the PCF have support amongst the families of migrants?

The PCF does have significant support among the families of migrants, mostly  because of its  opposition to the Front National, its call to regularise “illegal immigrants”, and  its campaign for voting rights for immigrants.

But sadly, most families of migrants (those who have the right to vote, usually  children  of  immigrants,  and  the  few  who  acquired  French nationality) tend  to be distrustful  and apathetic towards  politics in general, and have low turnout at elections.

In previous decades, even the French right had a degree of independence from the USA, e.g. the Gaullist withdrawal from NATO command, attempts to build foreign reservers in the 1960s etc. In recent years, Sarkozy was keen to prostrate France before the US. Does this signal a decline in French power? if so, what is its cause? Declining economic power and if so where does that originate from?

The  decline in economic strength is a consequence of free-trade and free-market policies  taken in the last decades, combined with the constraints of European Union (the independent ECB forbidden to lend directly to member states, strong euro, etc).

I don’t think Sarkozy’s support for the US (and for returning to NATO’s command structure) is directly linked to the economical  problems, it’s much more a difference of personality and sensibilities between Chirac and Sarkozy. If Villepin had won the internal competition between Villepin and Sarkozy, the pro-US line wouldn’t have been chosen.

But indirectly, at the  psychological/ideological level, yes, there is a link: the whole propaganda of  the right to disband  social systems is that “we  can’t afford  it anymore”, which in turn creates a whole mentality of defeat and “France is declining”.

Does the PCF see the USA as a power in decline? What is the likely balance of power for the next 30 years?

The USA  will stay a major  power, but it is in decline, as can be seen by its loss of control of Latin America, as well as its growing internal discontent, both from the left (Occupy) and the right (Tea Party).

It’s very  hard to forecast the future  in 30 years, Marxism is just an embryo of psychohistory, not the full  thing ;). But we do foresee a more multipolar world, with the USA being  still a major power, but no longer a superpower  compared to  emerging powers like  China, Russia or Latin America.

The  EU  has  the  potential  to  be a  major  power,  but  its  current institutions and economic policies are making the future bleak for it.

The last 15 years has the rise of the left governments in Latin America and their escape from Washington’s orbit. What is the PCF’s take on this?

In  my  own opinion,  it’s  most  important  geopolitical event  of  the beginning of the 21st century.  The emancipation of Latin America, under left-wing  policies, the union  of Latin  America (Alba,  Unasur, Celac,…) as an independent power is a massive shift of geopolitics.

The recent death of “el Compañero Presidente” Hugo Chávez, while a very dramatic loss for Latin America and  the world, was also a clear show of the popularity  of Chávez, the strength  of the process  he started, the massive support this process has in  Latin America, and the power of  the Latin America union.  I don’t think ever in the past  were so many head of states present to  a  burial, nor so many countries decreed a national mourning.

About James O'Brien

History: Tried for Bakuninist deviationism, confessed his errors and was rehabilitated. Subsequently degenerated into Kautskyist Orthodoxy. Worse, is an Irish peasant.
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