People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 16

April 16, 2006

A Party Congress In Struggle

The Thirty Third Congress of the PCF


Suneet Chopra


THE 33rd Congress of the French Communist Party (PCF) was held between March 23 and 26, 2006 at Saint Denis on the northern outskirts of Paris. It was here that the last Congress of the party too was held between April 3 and 6, 2003 and Sitaram Yechury, who attended it on behalf of the CPI(M), noted how “the 32nd Congress met in the background of severe convulsions taking place in French politics. The recent presidential elections have shown that the right-wing neo-fascists have gained substantially. In order to defeat the neo-fascist forces, progressive sections of France, including the communists, had to rally behind the discredited socialist candidate.”


Today that political crisis has taken on a far broader social and political form with no less than 33 million out on strike all over the country on March 28, 2006, some 700,000 in Paris alone. This confrontation has its roots in the announcement by the French right-wing premier, de Villepin, of a First Employment Contract (CPE) on January 16 this year, without consultation even with his cabinet. This pernicious contract allows employers to hire and fire under 26-year olds at will without explanation in their first two years of employment. This will not only increase the insecurity of the young, it will make them helpless tools in the hands of unscrupulous employers, just as illegal immigrants are already subjected to in a country where the number of unemployed has reached 4.5 million, mostly the young. Also it will create a sharp division between workers with job security and those without it.


Of course, this tactic is one of the four pillars of the neo-liberal economic prescriptions that include globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation in the interest of capitalists and the erosion of the democratic rights of citizens, the majority of whom are either workers or petty bourgeois. In France, the people have realised what the true face of economic liberalisation is. It pretends to modernise institutions in the interests of the people while it is actually putting the clock back some 200 years in the interests of a handful of exploiters.


The ongoing piece-meal struggles of the French people are all part of the unrelenting war the French people are preparing for to defeat neo-liberal economic policies. On May 29, 2005 they refused to submit to the European constitution being thrust on them by European finance capital. In November 2005, the marginalised youth of the suburbs came out in revolt against police repression. On January 19, 2006 a number of student organisations organised a collective body to push back the CPE. The first big mobilisations occurred on February 7 with 300,000 students on the streets. On March 7, the figure of protestors swelled to 800,000. Two days later, the law was pushed through parliament on the basis of an “emergency procedure” with just one reading in both Assemblies.


Worse, the prime minister made it a prestige issue and said it would come into effect in a couple of weeks. With this, tempers have come to a boil and on March 18 one million came out on the streets. This was followed by mass protests on March 23 with over 150 arrests in Paris alone and 52 wounded, of whom 34 were policemen. The government still refused to relent and the legislation has received presidential assent although the president has recommended that the law should not be implemented and another law amending some of the provisions be promulgated. This has made things worse as people know they are right. In fact, 66 per cent of the population of France support the agitation and expect the government to retract the law.




The 33rd Congress of the PCF too was delayed till the late afternoon, with the national secretary for two terms since 2001, Marie George Buffet, declaring in her opening address to the 924 delegates, with foreign delegates from 50 countries, attending the Congress:


“We have just demonstrated like many others all over France. So you will understand that my first remarks are addressed to hundreds of thousands of school and university students and employees who in these last few weeks have locked horns with the government, showing courage and tenacity for the retraction, pure and simple, of this first employment contract (CPE). All of us together, university students, school leavers and employees, will win!” The first fruits of the victory were tasted with the retraction of part of the law by the French president over the head of his prime minister on April 10, 2006.


The perspective of the French Communist Party is not limited to one partial victory as the general secretary pointed out: “How can one not be seized of the essential features that express themselves in these mobilisations? In fact, our youth is rejecting a society where each individual is to be left on his own, alone, without any solidarity, and where each human being will be faced with the brutality of the system controlled by finance capital and the tenets of liberalisation daily. The mobilisation against the CPE legislation, like the mobilisation to reject the European constitution is a mobilisation marked by a search for a future. To these young people, to these employees, the Communist Party says today we have come together against the CPE legislation, let us forge ahead tomorrow to build a better future.”


To the delegates, she had this to say: “the mobilisation of the young calls for our audacity, our energy and our involvement! And during these three days we must reflect, debate and decide on the fulfilment of these wishes.” But she was also clear that this was no easy task as she reminded the delegates “since our last Congress much water has flowed under the bridges, many things have happened. Let us remember what we have passed through. Some rubbed their hands and proclaimed our coming demise. However, the path we have mapped out for ourselves has allowed us to show them that they were wrong and opened up fresh paths for our party and our ideas, and to be of use to our people. Certainly it was not journey without its problems, we came up against obstacles, we have been troubled, but we are still there, active and with a renewed energy.”


These are brave words. But the last year has been one of hope. The party membership that had fallen from some 800,000 in 1946 to close on 600,000 in 1980 and to a little over 134000 today has increased by 8000 since last year. The party paper, l’Humanite, that brought out some 450,000 copies daily in 1946 and that had come down to 46000 in 2002, has increased its circulation to 55629 in 2005. It is also to be noted that while the vote of the party has come down from 28.2 per cent in 1946 to 9.1 per cent in 1993 and to 4.9 per cent in 2002. Still, the party has a respectable electoral presence in the country. It has 22 members of parliament and 21 senators in the upper house, three members in the European Parliament, 2 presidents of General Councils, 174 regional councillors and 244 general councillors. It therefore still represents an important force, even if isolated and existing only in certain regions, capable of making its presence felt at the national level if correct tactics are pursued.




Not the least of the French Party’s problems is that it has been at the receiving end of cold war tactics. It has not only suffered from the hysterical propaganda against “Stalinism” in the post war period, it has further been the victim of the tailist political tactics of revisionism and of the onslaught against communism in Europe and the world that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The political solutions it has chosen to counter the ill effects of these trends had also isolated the party further. In 1979, it followed the Euro communist deviations of the time by dropping Marxism-Leninism and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from its programme. By its 28th   Congress, it had abandoned democratic centralism for the principle of “unity in diversity” which has now been phrased as a “popular union.” Under the new dispensation, the overthrow of capitalism too was “bypassed” by a strategy that would revise capitalism rather than replace it.


The ‘new orientation’ “resulted in a serious erosion of the French communist party’s support. Moreover, the party had decided to join the last socialist ministry in France (in which Marie George Buffet was herself a minister). This was a government that, while proceeding with the neo-liberal economic policies serving the interests of the European and global capital, also pursued a foreign policy that eventually led to support the US-led NATO strikes in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the PCF was seen as an appendage of socialist agenda, as a partner of social democracy which espouses the interests of the working class when in opposition and espouses the interests of the bourgeoisie when in power.” (Peoples Democracy, April 27, 2003.)


Buffet has underscored this in her opening address, stating: “During the last thirty years, three times the left was brought to power, three times it has shied away from really changing society and three times it slipped up.” To cope with this decades old problem, she pointed out how she had proposed ‘revolutionising the left’ in 2002. The process has begun: “With our forums, rooted in struggles in permanence, we have provoked a popular debate on the alternative.” Its proof, she noted, lay in the ‘no’ vote on the European constitution, which both the Socialist Party and the Greens were campaigning for. She was even more specific in pointing out that liberalisation would have to be fought determinedly as it “continues to impregnate a left party,” obviously referring to the socialists.


To achieve this end she has proposed a four-point strategy to unleash a popular dynamic movement against liberalisation. The first is to approach those people who had retreated from politics and had rejected leaders of established political parties. The second is the clarity of alternative proposals, their bold expression, credibility, their anti-liberalisation stance and their perspective of social transformation. The third is to play to win and to take a firm position for achieving an ambitious objective with the knowledge that the fruit would be harvested in the process of struggle. Finally, this involvement would lead to a process of a general reassembling of the masses without a priori decisions as to who embodies the capacity to unleash this process. It is the general involvement of ordinary men and women with all their differences, but in a dialogue and with a constructive programme. While the approach clearly reaches out to people coming out on the streets spontaneously, the class perspective of waging an ongoing class struggle till the end is significantly lacking. Still, the party base has responded to the immediacy of her call to action.


While the documents were being debated, the survey of some 45000 who voted for them indicated a 63.56 per cent support for Buffet’s line, 13.4 per cent for those seeking an independent identity and only 3.65 per cent for the orthodox led by Gremetz, but the final election of the national council saw Buffet acquiring 92.2 per cent of the vote for her panel while the alternative panel led by identity-seekers secured only 8.7 per cent. The call for immediately nominating a communist presidential candidate for the 2007 elections put up by the ‘orthodox’ section was also parried with a proposal put forward by Buffet: “We give a mandate to the National Council to convene a national conference to propose to the communists to take a decision, by the end of October at the latest, after seeing what we can do to achieve a leftward shift.”




She pointed out clearly: “The battle I want to fight is this. I do not want all struggles and hopes to be shattered by the right, nor do I want them betrayed by a left that has ignored them or marginalised by a left that is in a minority. I want them to be brought to power by a popular dynamism of our citizens, by a left that comes forward and is courageous. I want the right wing to be solidly beaten back as then the left will best know how to respond to popular aspirations.”


This caution of Buffet, who has been elected as the national secretary for the third time, is not misplaced. The record of the party’s presidential candidature has been bleak. In 1969 Jacques Duclos headed the left with 21.3 per cent of the vote, which was 15.3 per cent for Georges Marchais, in 1981, 6.8 per cent for Andre Lajoinie in 1988 and only 3.37 per cent for Robert Hue in the first round in 2002. The caution displayed by Buffet is noteworthy as the right wing premier of France, also with 2007 in mind, is doing all he can to present those opposing his policies as spoilt children, wreckers and anarchists to crush the movement.


Witnesses to the 150 arrests at the Invalides in Paris on the evening of March 23 tell an interesting tale. “The police have arrested many demonstrators they came across and not the wreckers,” says a foreign tourist. Another, a Frenchman, says: “I saw organised groups clash with the demonstrators and break the windshields without the police doing anything. Organised groups molested young people, journalists and burned cars. No one intervened.” A girl student recounted: “The whole thing was orchestrated: the wreckers were free to do what they did. It was done to discredit us and frighten us. It is a way of crushing the movement.”


Given the organised nature of the attack by the State on the French people in the interests of multinationals and finance capital and also the organised violence of the so-called wreckers, an organised Communist Party is a necessity. This is something that was liquidated by the mutation proposed in the party congress of 2000, leading to the abandonment of the aim of making a clean break with the capitalist system through class struggles and replacing it with socialism, based on the dictatorship of the proletrariat and proletarian party functioning on the principle of democratic centralism.




These ideas are still alive in the party and figure in the alternative texts released for discussion and voting on February 3 and 4, 2006. However, they are clearly not the dominant trend. Although the party recognises the contribution of Karl Marx and others after him as giving us a path to detach ourselves from the clutches of capitalism and to progress towards a society without exploitation and oppression, and although it states that the past experience of French communists and the Russian revolution of 1917 are both an inspiration and source of theoretical principles relevant to the present, the name of Lenin is significantly absent and negative references to Stalin and ‘Stalinism’ show us that the party has not been able to protect itself adequately from cold war ideas infiltrating into it.


Also, on the question of organisation, the party is in a state of flux. True, the setting up of cells at the work-place or in the locality is mentioned, but these cells function loosely in a network of workshops, general bodies and consolidations and the like, too diverse to do more than just unite scattered dissent as they have done in the recent past. This loose-knit structure has allowed them to build mass orgnisations, attract youth and women and integrate the marginalised populations of immigrant workers up to a point. And it has provided the party with a mechanism of resistance that it has used successfully against the European constitution and the hire and fire policy (CPE) of the present government. Also, it has given the present leadership the flexibility to face an alternative panel, defeat it and still integrate some named in it in the new national council.


To go beyond resistance, however, and ensure a revolutionary transformation of society, to replace the Fifth Republic with a sixth one of a very different character, will require not only a clear-cut class perspective but also the more time-tested weapons of organisation to achieve definite social, political and economic objectives without a doubt. One hopes this will happen as the experience of struggle asserts itself, and it is bound to, for a core of revolutionary consciousness exists in the party. But that will happen only when the present phase of resisting neo-liberal economic and political policies matures into a struggle to establish a State dominated by the working people as a defence of the people as a whole against the predatory onslaught of multinational corporations and finance capital. Till then the slogan of ‘Unite and Fight’ will do.