Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey to the United States in 1831 is one of the most famous journeys in the history of political thought. As he recorded in “Democracy in America,” he found a flourishing and stable society characterized by an “equality of conditions” (among white Americans) and the pursuit of “self-interest well understood.” This was Tocqueville’s only visit to the U.S.; he watched the country’s slide into civil war from a distance. America, he wrote in 1856, had come to disappoint all the “friends of democratic liberty.”
Yet Tocqueville continued to travel until his death in 1859, visiting England, Ireland, Italy and Germany. The country that preoccupied him from the late 1830s onward was Algeria, France’s most important African colony, which he visited in 1841 and 1846. Tocqueville’s writings about Algeria are the most controversial part of his legacy.
French military involvement in Algeria began in 1830, and from the outset, some critics opposed the attempt to create an overseas French Empire. Starting in 1839, resistance from the indigenous Arab and Berber population led France to respond with brutal suppression, embarking on a policy of full territorial conquest and intensive colonial settlement.
Tocqueville was attracted by the possibilities of a French presence in North Africa. As early as 1837, he wrote that he had no doubt France would “be able to raise a great monument to our country’s glory on the African coast.” He wanted to see the country for himself and prepared meticulously for his first visit to Algeria in 1841, accompanied by his travelling companion in America, Gustave de Beaumont.
“As in the U.S., Tocqueville was a tireless investigator in Algeria.”
As in the U.S., Tocqueville was a tireless investigator, travelling far and wide, interviewing as many people as he could, always taking extensive notes. But in contrast to America, what he saw in Algeria was far from pleasing to him. Beneath the beauty of the scenery and the exoticism of the surroundings—the city of Algiers, he told his father, was like something from one of the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights”—Tocqueville perceived a military regime that acted with obvious contempt not only for the Arab population but also for the French settlers. He also saw that the worst excesses of French governmental centralization had been imported into Algeria.
These initial observations informed Tocqueville’s later recommendations on French policy. To create a populous and flourishing colony in Algeria, he argued, French settlers should enjoy the same rights and legal protections as the citizens of mainland France. The exercise of arbitrary government and the excessive power of the military had to be ended.
Much less liberal and conciliatory in tone were Tocqueville’s remarks on how the indigenous population was to be treated. He argued that France had to complete the process of colonization as quickly as possible. He wrote that he had often heard complaints about the French in Algeria—that “we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women and children.” These, he countered, were “unfortunate necessities,” and to which any colonial power “is obliged to submit.”
“I believe,” he continued, “that the right of war authorizes us to lay waste to the country and that we must do it either by destroying crops during the harvest season, or by making those rapid incursions known as razzias, the purpose of which is to seize men or herds of animals.” European settlement and military repression had to go hand in hand.
In later years, and especially after his second visit to Algeria, Tocqueville showed greater concern for the well-being of the Arab population. War alone, he recognized, would not be sufficient to consolidate French conquest. For pragmatic reasons, the colonial administration needed to establish a community of interests between the indigenous population and the settlers. “Civilized peoples often oppress and dispirit barbarous peoples by their mere contact,” Tocqueville wrote, pointing to the U.S. as an example: “The Europeans in North America ended by pushing the Indians off their territory.” Here was a history of conquest that the French should not seek to repeat.
“Despite seeing firsthand the repression and violence entailed in France’s project, Tocqueville did not lessen his support. ”
Still, despite seeing firsthand the repression and violence entailed in France’s project, Tocqueville did not lessen his support for the creation of a French Algeria. The judgment he displayed as attentive and observant commentator on America deserted him in Africa. Why?
Three reasons stand out. First, Tocqueville felt the sense of national humiliation visited upon France after the fall of Napoleon. To become a great power again, France needed an empire. Second, he believed that, if properly managed, Algerian colonization could benefit France’s own population and economy, by turning the unemployed and idle into patriotic and productive settlers. Lastly, while Tocqueville did not endorse a theory of racial superiority, like many of his contemporaries he believed that European civilization was superior to the Muslim civilization he studied in the Quran and witnessed on his travels. French rule would be enlightened rule, and all Algerians, including the indigenous population, would ultimately benefit from it.
In fact, France’s Algerian colony was maintained only at enormous financial cost, and the hope that French settlers would gradually replace the Arab and Berber population was never to be realized. Although Algeria was annexed to France in 1848, military resistance to French rule continued into the first decade of the 20th century. Violent conflict returned in 1954, when Algerian nationalists launched a rebellion against French rule, leading to a brutal war in which thousands died.
The colonial project that Tocqueville supported in the 1830s finally came to an end in 1962, when Algeria achieved independence, leading thousands of French settlers to flee back to France. Tocqueville may have been prescient about democracy in America, but like many other Europeans he misjudged both the ease of establishing a colonial empire and the benefits that would follow.
Mr. Jennings is Professor of Political Theory at King’s College London. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America,” published by Harvard University Press.
As French workers intensify their fight against President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular plan to raise the nation’s retirement age from 62 to 64, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
A poll released Wednesday shows that reactionary lawmaker Marine Le Pen—leader of the far-right National Rally party, the largest opposition force in Parliament—would beat Macron by a margin of 55% to 45% in a head-to-head rematch. The neoliberal incumbent defeated Le Pen in a runoff election last April, but the openly xenophobic and Islamophobic challenger has gained significant ground since their first matchup in 2017.
The new survey was conducted after Macron advanced his planned retirement age hike through executive order on March 16. The president bypassed the National Assembly once it became clear that his legislative proposal did not have enough support to pass France’s lower house.
“We’re in the middle of a social crisis, a democratic crisis.”
Macron’s blatantly anti-democratic move provoked an uproar. The labor movement had already been staging weekly nationwide strikes and peaceful marches since mid-January. But the president’s decision to circumvent a vote last month has brought more people to the streets, with heightened participation from high school and university students, some of whom have set up barricades on campus.
Progressive lawmakers and union leaders have urged the working class to keep up the pressure, portraying the left’s struggle against Macron’s pension attack as a struggle for democracy in France.
“Either trade unions win this, or it will be the far right,” Fabien Villedieu, a representative of a railway trade union, told France Info radio on Thursday. “If you sicken people—and that is what’s happening—the danger is the arrival of the far right.”
Laurent Berger, head of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, told RTL radio that “we’re still asking for the reform to be revoked.”
“We’re in the middle of a social crisis, a democratic crisis,” he added.
Macron has so far refused to withdraw his proposed pension overhaul, which includes raising the minimum eligible retirement age and increasing the number of years one must work to qualify for full benefits. France’s constitutional council is evaluating the legality of the government’s plans and is set to issue a decision next Friday.
The constitutional council, which has the power to strike out some or even all of the legislation, will assess the pension changes based on a strict interpretation of the law. Constitutional experts say the council is unlikely to strike the legislation down fully.
The government is playing for time, hoping protests and strikes will fizzle out. Unions want to show that the protest movement still has momentum, whatever the council’s decision.
Hundreds of thousands of people have continued to rally across France in recent weeks. The government has responded with an increasingly repressive crackdown.
An 11th round of strikes on Thursday caused further disruption to schools, public transit, and energy production. In addition, clashes broke out “between demonstrators and police on the edges of protests in cities including Lyon, Nantes, and Paris,” The Guardian reported.
Workers’ anger is palpable and mounting.
“In the capital, protesters briefly set fire to the awning of the Left Bank brasserie La Rotonde, well known for hosting Macron’s controversial evening of celebrations when he led the first-round vote in the 2017 presidential election,” The Guardian noted.
Meanwhile, rat catchers threw dead vermin at city hall.
u201cParis has been without trash pickup for weeks. Chaos and garbage everywhere. And rats: lots of rats.nnNow the rat catchers joined the protest against the Pension Reform, and threw the dead vermin in front of the charming Hotel de Ville, Paris City Hall.nnud83dudd25ud83dudd25ud83dudd25u201d
Also on Thursday, striking workers “forced their way into the building that houses BlackRock’s office in Paris Thursday, taking their protest against the government’s pension reforms to the world’s biggest money manager,” CNNreported. “About 100 people, including representatives of several labor unions, were on the ground floor of the building for about 10 minutes, chanting anti-reform slogans. BlackRock’s office is located on the third floor.”
Jerome Schmitt, a spokesperson for the French labor confederation SUD, told reporters: “The meaning of this action is quite simple. We went to the headquarters of BlackRock to tell them: the money of workers, for our pensions, they are taking it.”
BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with a nearly $9 trillion portfolio, has not been involved in Macron’s assault on France’s public pension system. But workers targeted the financial institution due to its role in overseeing the private pension funds that they may be forced to rely on.
“The government wants to throw away pensions, it wants to force people to fund their own retirement with private pension funds,” one teacher toldReuters. “But what we know is that only the rich will be able to benefit from such a setup.”
u201cStriking workers storm BlackRocku2019s Paris office to protest the corporate giantu2019s role in privatizing workersu2019 pensions.nnJerome Schmitt, a union spokesperson, said, u201cThe meaning of this action is quite simple. We went to the headquarters of BlackRock to tell them: the money ofu2026u201d
— More Perfect Union (@More Perfect Union) 1680789576
Le Pen, for her part, “has kept a low profile, hoping to increase her support among low-income workers, many of whom began their careers earlier and will be more greatly affected by the pension changes,” The Guardian reported.
Earlier this week, left-wing luminaries alarmed by France’s escalating repression of pension defenders as well as environmentalists campaigning against water privatization signed a Progressive International petition.
“We stand with the French people in the face of violent crackdowns on popular protest and the criminalization of dissent by Emmanuel Macron’s government,” it states. “The extreme violence of the police and the criminalization by the interior minister are clearly aimed at suppressing the movement against the pension cuts. This is an unacceptable attack on the democratic freedoms and human rights of French citizens.”
France is currently in flames. Millions have been taking to the streets to protest against the government’s anti-democratic measure to raise the retirement age. Across the Rhine, Germany — where there tend to be far fewer strikes — is also set to experience a historic strike.
Starting on Monday at midnight and lasting for 24 hours, hundreds of thousands of workers will be on strike. This is set to be the biggest strike in Germany in more than 30 years. It represents a convergence of different struggles in progress.
On the one hand, the railway workers’ union EVG (not the same as the train drivers’ union GDL) is demanding a 12 percent raise for their members. Three decades after a partial privatization, the state-owned railway company Deutsche Bahn is in permanent crisis, with workers desperately holding together a system that has been hollowed out by under investment. The participation is going to be so high that management announced the cancellation of all trains in the country.
On the other hand, the service sector union ver.di is negotiating a contract for public-sector workers. The TVöD contract covers 2.5 million employees of federal and city governments — in all kinds of workplaces, from hospitals to daycare centers to government offices — and the union is demanding 10.5 percent more money for everyone. The governments are only offering raises of 5 percent — which, since it’s below the inflation rate, would mean across-the-board wage cuts.
Other strikes are taking place now as well. Just last week, thousands of Berlin teachers were on strike for two days demanding smaller classes. Before that was a massive strike at the privatized German postal service. There, the ver.di bureaucracy announced a terrible compromise at the last second — a “raise” below the inflation rate, so a de facto wage cut — even though 86 percent of union members had voted to strike for as long as necessary until the full demands were won. This is a warning that the union bureaucrats are not to be trusted.
Faced with the “Mega Strike” on Monday, the capitalists’ representatives are attacking the right to strike, crying that the population “is being taken hostage” by unions. But the situation is the exact opposite: the only hostage-takers are the bosses. They threaten millions of working-class people: if you don’t keep working, for ever-lower wages, you’ll be thrown out on the street. But in the strikes, we see that workers are rejecting this blackmail. They are showing who is keeping the economy running: by simply folding their arms, they are able to bring everything to a standstill.
Different governments in Germany — whether they are led by social democrats, conservatives, greens, or even “The Left” — are all claiming that there is not enough money for wage increases to match inflation. But these same parties had no problem providing €100 billion for the military. At the same time, German corporations are making record profits. These capitalist politicians tell working people to “tighten their belts” to support the war effort — but they would never even dream of touching corporate profits.
On Monday, buses, trams, and subways in different German cities will stand still. Higher wages for workers in public transport companies are essential to recruiting new workers and overcoming the desperate shortages of personnel. And that is in turn essential for reducing carbon emissions in the transport sector. This is therefore also a climate strike. That’s why Fridays for Future and other climate activists have declared their support for it. The German government, which includes the so-called Green Party, is only interested in building freeways and subsidizing the car industry.
Unlike in France, it is unusual in Germany for different strikes to take place on the same day like this. Germany has one main union confederation, the DGB, with almost six million members. Yet the affiliated unions are involved in constant bureaucratic wrangling and almost never work together. Even during the “Mega-Strike” in Berlin, for example, the EVG and ver.di are planning to march separately.
The “mega-strike” is thus a result of huge pressure from below in Germany’s large but largely passive unions. Inflation has made it essential for workers to fight for wage increases. At the same time, workers in France are showing that fighting can get results, inspiring their class siblings across the border. But there is another important lesson from Paris: a one-day strike will not be enough. The “Mega Strike” deserves full support — and can only be a start for a real struggle to make the capitalists pay for their crisis.
Police gear up for march of hundreds of thousands in Paris as anger grows over president’s ‘arrogance’
Emmanuel Macron was expected to feel the full force of French anger on Thursday as protesters gathered across the country to demonstrate their opposition to the pension age being raised from 62 to 64.
Even before the president’s centrist government pushed the fiercely contested legislation through parliament using a constitutional measure that avoided a vote a week ago, record numbers of workers had taken to the streets.
On this day in 1871, the Paris Commune began its brief history before a conservative government drowned it in blood. While it lasted, the Commune sketched out a new way to run a major city based on democracy and the public good, not private profiteering.
National guardsmen pose in front of an artillery barricade in the Place Vendome, during the civil war between the Third Republic and the Paris Commune, following the Franco-Prussian War. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
The Paris Commune ended in mass violence with the slaughter of thousands of Communards on the barricades and the burning of much of the city. This final struggle forged the Commune as an iconic event in the history of socialism and the collective memory of popular struggle.
Yet it is now only vaguely remembered that before the Commune’s demise, the people of Paris had set about reconstructing authority and governance in the city along unprecedentedly revolutionary lines, grounded in the popular euphoria surrounding the central government’s retreat from Paris on March 18, 1871.
Despite near-constant threats to the Commune’s existence from the rival government occupying Versailles, the audacious common folk of Paris imagined and began to constitute a new city and a new politics of their own design. Time, as it turned out, was short.
Birth of the Commune
The surrender of Napoleon III to the Prussian army on the outskirts of Paris in early September 1870 had set the stage. A provisional government faced little choice but to mobilize the population in defense of Paris and other major cities.
The Paris Commune ended in mass violence with the slaughter of thousands of Communards on the barricades and the burning of much of the city.
Into this political space a broadly republican popular movement leapt forward to provide organization for resistance and to claim the right to self-governance. This meant enhancing the National Guard, organized in neighborhood-based units and only minimally under a central leadership already badly discredited by the military debacle of the previous weeks.
Encircled by the Prussian army, Parisians endured months of privation unequally distributed along class lines. At the same time, cut off from outside political and military support, Parisians invested local government, reinforced by the National Guard, with greater authority, through the “localization of activity.”
That strategy included the formation of cooperatives, local political clubs, and secularized public schools. November municipal elections brought a significant augmentation of the Left’s influence, though well short of a dominating presence except in a handful of arrondissements.
The advent of the Commune came only in the aftermath of a succession of events that profoundly altered the political stakes for a besieged Paris. First came the signing of an armistice on January 28, 1871, between the provisional national government ensconced outside the city at Versailles and the Prussians.
The terms of the armistice proved humiliating and included the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, a substantial indemnity payment, and a brief symbolic march of Prussian troops through the heart of Paris. A newly emboldened, broadly republican movement in which the Left’s influence had grown dramatically seized the role of defending the “fatherland” by asserting Paris’s autonomy.
The months of resistance and hunger set the stage not only for national resistance but for a civil war. On the one hand stood the Communards, and on the other, a discredited national government barricaded with its middle-class supporters at Versailles and in the rural areas adjacent to Paris.
The government’s failure to recapture cannons that were under the control of the Central Committee of the Parisian National Guard crystalized an already polarized politics. The central government added fuel to the fire by rescinding the Commune’s moratoriums on the sale of goods in government pawnshops and reinstituting the payment of rents and other bills that had accrued during the siege.
The First Order of Business
For an all-too-brief period, before being overtaken by brutal and ultimately cataclysmic suppression at the hands of central government troops under the command of Adolphe Thiers, the Paris Commune provided a unique setting for new forms of local governance to crystalize and challenge the traditions of urban bourgeois hegemony.
The Paris Commune provided a unique setting for new forms of local governance to crystalize and challenge the traditions of urban bourgeois hegemony.
Following the final withdrawal of the central government in March, the Commune issued a succession of declarations outlining in broad principles what was already being carried out to varying degrees in the streets and arrondissements. The first order of business was to establish viable democratic polities and governing procedures in the spirit of the Proudhonist vision of local associationism, which had deep roots among Parisian working people.
Municipal elections on March 26 produced a new governing council for the self-declared Commune of Paris. While attacking bureaucratic control by setting maximum salaries of officials and breaking lines of authority from the central government, the Commune also limited the claims of landlords and creditors, affirmed “municipal liberties,” and circumscribed religious authority.
The communal vision came somewhat more sharply into focus with the famous April 19 Declaration, even as the prospects for all-out civil war deepened. A month of political contention and two municipal elections had set the stage for a programmatic statement of far-reaching scope. The former mayors and deputies had shown their class colors and largely retreated to the protective embrace of Adolphe Thiers’s Versailles government-in-waiting.
The Declaration of April 19 was vague at key points, and its aspirations were ultimately overwhelmed by the imperative to defend militarily the fragile social and political space within which the Commune defined itself. Nonetheless, it delineated the outlines of an alternative social order. This was to be a city within a federation of similarly constituted cities.
Such a locally constituted republic would forge an alternative unity of French citizens. Through the free exercise of liberties within self-governing municipalities, cities would claim democratic control of their own budgets and administration. They would expand municipal services, create a whole new set of institutions ranging from public schools to cooperative workshops, and while not directly attacking property, would “universalize power and property,” as circumstances might dictate.
Their vision was prescriptive, open-ended, and optimistic about the promise of municipal self-government. Future generations of municipal socialists would draw inspiration from that promise and the project of “social regeneration.” More importantly, the experience of governing in those early days suggested more powerfully than prescriptive declarations the tangible meaning of the municipal social republic envisioned.
Though piecemeal and incomplete, the Commune took some concrete steps to implement this vision both before and after the declaration. Some initiatives had been rooted in communal resistance to monarchist authority over the years immediately preceding the Commune.
Ironically, the bourgeois transformation of Paris created conditions that promoted a diverse new citywide working class.
The massive reconstruction of Paris at the hands of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann during the prior two decades took on legendary status, thanks in part to his own self-promotion. The construction of wide boulevards less susceptible to barricading and the destruction of many old, central working-class neighborhoods created a new urban landscape into which the rapidly expanding population of Paris flowed with unpredictable consequences.
That expanded population included large numbers of construction workers and stonemasons, some of whom had long been part of regular seasonal migrations to Paris from other parts of the country, like the Creuse. Their slow displacement from the central boarding houses and hiring fairs of the Place de Grève accompanied more permanent settlement in the new working-class neighborhoods on the periphery.
Whether by reputation for chronic contention with authorities or because of the new solidarities in their adopted neighborhoods, the stonemasons and other building workers were overrepresented among the arrested and deported Communards following the final street battles in late May.
Systematic studies by Jacques Rougerie, Manuel Castells, and others confirm that this “urban revolution” was not driven by a new proletariat but rather, as Rougerie termed it, “an intermediate working class” which included building workers, traditional artisans, and a significant component of shopkeepers, clerks, and professionals. As Castells put it:
They were the people of a great city in the process of mutation, and the citizens of a Republic in quest of its institutions.
David Harvey has shown that the “Haussmannization” of Paris in the years after 1848 produced urban space more starkly organized on class lines that set the stage for the upheaval of 1871.
Ironically, the bourgeois transformation of Paris created conditions that promoted a diverse new citywide working class infused with the scent of a broader internationalism that potentially challenged the bourgeoisie’s “superior command of space.” And that challenge, as Roger Gould has argued, grew precisely out of the neighborhood solidarities of these new “urban villages” that encompassed a new class.
Harvey and others have enumerated workers’ urban initiatives in the Commune that reflected their own claims over the control of Parisian space. The organization of municipal workshops for women; the encouragement given to producer and consumer cooperatives; the suspension of the night work in the bakeries; and the moratorium on rent payments, debt collections, and the sale of items from the municipal pawnshop at Mont-de-Piété reflected the sore points that had bothered working-class Paris for years.
In some cases, during the days immediately following March 18, as Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray recounted, “former subordinate employés” assumed new responsibilities, as happened for instance in the postal service. They had to improvise with limited resources in the face of sabotage by departing higher officials.
The Commune’s brutal denouement has, in some respects, obscured the innovative, localist social and political reforms that it briefly instituted and that it passed on to social democratic reformers who, in the 1890s and beyond, sought to craft a municipal socialism shorn of the revolutionary aspirations and the risks that were all-too-brutally embodied in the crushing of the Commune.
Interpreting the Commune
Memory of the Commune lingered for decades, not only in the nightmares of the bourgeoisie and their reformist allies but among social democrats who, like their Communard forbearers, saw in the city the opportunity to address the immediate grievances workers continued to face and to dream of an alternative social and political order they might constitute in cities.
Contestation over the memory and meaning of the Commune unfolded most vigorously among socialists themselves.
The paradox of brutal defeat in defense of what increasingly came to seem the utopian promise of municipal revolution was not lost on subsequent commentators. Contestation over the memory and meaning of the Commune unfolded most vigorously among socialists themselves.
Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France in its earliest editions provided almost instant history of the events in Paris as they unfolded. Drawing on what limited sources he could find — newspaper accounts, smuggled letters, and occasional firsthand reports — Marx cobbled together a report to the General Council of the First International delivered in late May 1871 just days after the final massacre of Communards. Marx’s agenda was multilayered, and each layer subsequently fed into the memory and constructed meaning of the Commune.
First, he sought to assert the proletarian character of the revolt, though he would subsequently revise that assessment. Second, and perhaps most basically, he defended the nobility of the Communards’ revolt and sacrifice, seeing it as a watershed event in the promulgation of socialism, though its immediate consequences were clearly more ambiguous.
Third, he stressed the state-dismantling and state-building features of the Commune in ways that implicitly challenged the anarchists’ celebration of what they asserted was its nation-state–destroying character. Subsequently, he would belittle the moderation and “feel-good” measures undertaken by the Commune in the days and weeks following its initial creation.
A further subtext in the responses of Marx, Engels, Karl Kautsky, Vladimir Lenin, and other Marxists was the continuing ideological war with Proudhonist associational influences, which, in their view, had been all-too-manifest in the Commune. Its emphases on localism, decentralized democracy, and producerist cooperative economy were seen as harbingers of a different socialist order, one that subsequently would continue to animate the practical reform programs of municipal socialists.
The horrific scenes of the Commune’s suppression between May 21 and 28 provided ample material for the elevation of those events to legend. Estimates of those slaughtered in battle or by execution ranged from seventeen thousand to forty thousand. Nearly fifty thousand were arrested, many sent into exile as far away as the French colony of New Caledonia in the South Seas.
The horrific scenes of the Commune’s suppression between May 21 and 28 provided ample material for the elevation of those events to legend.
Subsequent observers would continue over the next decade and more to attempt to make sense of the stirring events in Paris or, in the case of anti-Communard bourgeois commentators, to contest or efface its memory. In France, socialist politics became a tangled web in which the Commune served as a touchstone for both “possibilist” and “impossibilist” factions.
Paul Brousse, who served a “political apprenticeship” as an anarchist, came to believe in the revolutionary promise cities held, despite the failure of the Paris Commune. He advocated “le Socialisme Pratique” wherein “meaningful socialist measures could be achieved on the local level prior to revolution at the centre.”
The key was a shift in tactical thinking away from violence toward politics. Others drew parallel conclusions, albeit in different contexts. Mary Putnam, an American living in Paris as the events of May 1871 unfolded, enjoyed close ties to a family sympathetic to the Commune and believed the events she witnessed signified a legitimate defense of “municipal rights.”
The Commune continued to be honored as a moment of socialist martyrdom, and anniversaries and other symbolic occasions provided opportunities to affirm the sacrifices of the Communards on behalf of socialism. International commemoration of the Commune and particularly the date of March 18 became, in the words of Georges Haupt, “an idea, a profession of faith, and a confirmation of a historical future, of the inevitable victory of the proletarian revolution.”
But even as commemoration of the Commune became a fixture of socialist rhetoric and iconography, so did the debates over its meaning intensify. The relevance of the Commune to the ongoing project of socialist transformation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected the deep polarization within the movement itself.
American socialist Phillips Russell, visiting Paris in May 1914, on what turned out to be the eve of the Great War, joined a procession of “thirty, perhaps forty thousand . . . working men and women, and children too,” in commemoration of the Commune. The huge crowd grew suddenly silent as it approached a wall in the Père Lachaise cemetery.
This was the spot where, as Russell recalled, “the workingmen and women, who took charge of Paris forty-three years ago and ran it peacefully and well,” had been mowed down by the army of Thiers, “their bodies piling in heaps against the wall.” Deeply impressed by the commemoration, in the face of a massive police presence, Russell “learned that the spirit of the Commune still lives in the hearts of its working people.”
BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, likes investment-grade credit more than stocks as it sees ‘a new market regime with higher volatility taking shape,’ according to a note from strategists at the firm’s investment institute.
The second round of France’s legislative elections on June 19 were destined to be a shock that would weaken President Emmanuel Macron, but the final results exceed the worst expectations — they are cataclysmic. The government has lost its absolute majority by a wide margin, winning only an estimated 238 of the 577 total seats. This will force Macron to govern as a minority, leaving him no choice but to rely on the Right. It opens a period of deep political instability.
The NUPES coalition (the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale, which includes La France Insoumise, the Greens, and remnants from the Socialist and Communist Parties) won enough seats to become the leading opposition force. But that result is a far cry from the demagogic electoral objectives of its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who just last Friday promised again, nonsensically, that he would be prime minister. (The strategy was to win a majority in the National Assembly with the belief that doing so would somehow force Macron to select the social-democratic populist leader as his prime minister).
As in the first round, the level of abstention — which reached 54 percent despite the campaign to mobilize voters that the NUPES has been waging since the presidential election in April — show just how difficult it was for Mélenchon’s coalition with bourgeois parties like the Socialists and the Greens to win over workers and youth. Nearly three-quarters of young people did not vote in the legislative elections.
In response to the NUPES, the Far Right is making breakthroughs and working to constitute itself as the second-largest opposition to the government. The National Rally (RN) party of Marine Le Pen may end up with another 10 deputies, following its historic result in the first round of the legislative elections. Le Pen’s party is capitalizing on the deep hatred of Macronism, but also on the inability of the NUPES to convince important sectors of the working classes that are seduced by the RN’s message.
These results point to an extremely unstable five-year period during which Macron’s capacity to govern will be severely tested. In the midst of a reactionary war in Ukraine and with the French presence in Africa in crisis, this situation will further weaken the position of French imperialism — a pillar of the European Union — on the international scene.
In a crisis speech, current prime minister Elisabeth Borne called for building a “majority of action,” betting on the possibility of agreements with the Right. These could be more difficult to forge than she thinks and, in what might be the best case, force Macron to govern more to the right than he wants.
The pandemic has temporarily put on hold what had been ongoing momentum toward uninterrupted class struggle between 2016 and 2020. This political instability, though, especially in an international context marked by sharpening geopolitical tensions, a deepening economic crisis, and recessionary tendencies, could quickly lead to major social explosions. In such a situation, the self-described “parliamentary guerrillas” advocated by the NUPES will be powerless. Further, the very sustainability of this coalition could be quickly put to the test — with Fabien Roussel of the French Communist Party already beginning to distance himself from it in remarks on Sunday evening.
The focus on winning reforms through elections remains at the heart of everything the institutional Left proposes. The urgent alternative is to prepare to fight on the terrain of the class struggle, seeking to seize the opportunities that will open up in the current political crisis. To do so, we need a revolutionary Left that goes on the offensive, and that can intervene in the coming struggles and build a front of resistance against Macron and the Far Right.
Ahead of April’s presidential election, France’s left is badly divided. But calls for unity behind a milquetoast centrist threaten only to deepen the Left’s split with its historic working-class base.
French Socialist Party member and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo photographed in 2016. She is currently running for president of France. (A.Schneider83 / Wikimedia Commons)
The campaign for April’s French presidential election is already polarizing around the “culture war.” The flood of anti-immigrant messaging isn’t just coming from the far right or even President Emmanuel Macron’s administration, but also many of France’s leading capitalists — not least billionaire tycoon Vincent Bolloré, owner of the Fox-like CNews.
The situation ahead of this spring’s vote thus looks perilous. There is every likelihood that the runoff will again set the neoliberal (and increasingly conservative-hued) Macron against a candidate of the hard or far right. Logically enough, fear is spreading in left-wing circles, which by current polling seem hard-pressed to mount a strong challenge in April’s contest.
One expression of this fear is the plea for unity among the various left-wing candidates, none of whom currently polls much above 10 percent. While Jean-Luc Mélenchon generally stands out as the top-ranked left-wing candidate, there are a slew of alternatives, from the more liberal (such as Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, of the Socialist Party, and the Green Yannick Jadot) as well as the French Communist Party’s (PCF) Fabien Roussel, former Socialist minister Arnaud Montebourg, and three Trotskyist candidates (Philippe Poutou, Nathalie Arnaud, and Anasse Kazib). François Hollande’s former justice minister Christiane Taubira also looks increasingly likely to throw her hat into the ring.
Faced with such fragmentation — with at least eight candidates dividing barely 25 percent of the national vote — finding a joint candidate may sound like a plausible solution. With just three months before France heads to the polls, surely something must be done to bring together the divided family of the Left? On this account, the main obstacle to progress is various rival candidates’ petty defense of their own importance.
But the proposals for unity, as currently formulated, not only look unworkable (especially given the reticence of several major runners to take part) but in many ways promise to deepen the Left’s woes — not saving its blushes but rather guaranteeing that it will have no impact on the 2022 contest. The causes of these divisions run much deeper than candidates’ egos, owing as they do to a decades-long separation between the neoliberalized left and the working class. Calls for a “left-wing primary” cobbling together the existing small parties’ remaining activist core are hardly a recipe for reversing this process.
The instrument generally expected to achieve this unity on the left is the online platform primairepopulaire.fr — a small organization built by a group of activists, with a leadership on a professionalized NGO model. Reflecting the appeal of calls for a primary among some liberal-left circles, it has collected nearly 300,000 signatures backing its approach.
Its plan had seemed to gain traction last month, thanks to unexpected support from Paris mayor Hidalgo. Candidate for the once-mighty Socialist Party (from the 1970s to the 2010s one of France’s two dominant forces), her flopped campaign launch and sub-five-percent polling numbers soon made her into a partisan of the primary call. Yet, this week, she announced she wouldn’t stand unless the Greens’ Jadot did so, too — admitting that this was off the table “for the moment.” With both the Green and Socialist candidates backing out for now, on Friday center-left figures exasperated by the lack of progress launched a hunger strike to demand that a joint candidate be found.
Primairepopulaire.fr does at least have a procedure in mind if the candidates agree to take part. First, there is to be a preselection of sponsored candidates, with a list to be announced on January 15. Then, a vote on January 27 to 30 will select a candidate via “majority judgement” (i.e., whoever secures the highest median score among primary voters).
This plan also sets out at least some notion of overcoming political differences on the Left — if not a very convincing one. The idea is that the winner of the primary will undertake to promote the spirit of “le Socle Commun” (a document apparently establishing “the Common Ground” of the Left, as determined by the platform’s organizers) and thus “rally together” the array of left-wing and progressive forces.
With at least eight candidates dividing barely 25 percent of the vote between them, the idea of a common candidate sounds plausible.
With this last point, we touch on the fundamental problem. Not only would the eventual winner only have to commit to a little-binding call to “promote the spirit of the Common Ground,” but this “Common Ground” is itself highly vague. Apart from a few measures (socializing the debts of farmers who switch to organic, the rejection of free trade treaties that defy the Paris climate agreements, gender parity on company boards, and the abandonment of unemployment insurance reforms), no issue is addressed in precise terms.
Instead, the Common Ground proposes unspecific calls for a “solidarity income from age 18” and “increasing health professionals’ incomes”. Most important, it speaks of “some form of reduction of working hours (differing according to candidates: the four-day or 32-hour week, more paid vacations, or retirement at 60).” Thus, while Macron has waged a major offensive against pensions — prompting a major social revolt that saw this plan suspended at the beginning of the pandemic — this question appears only in parenthesis, as one of so many possible ideas.
In reality, even this minimal basis is in dispute: While Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (LFI) backs full pensions from age sixty, Hidalgo wants to “protect” retirement at age sixty-two, i.e., at a level that right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy introduced only a decade ago. Meanwhile, the Greens’ program does not speak of returning to full retirement at age sixty for all, but only of the possibility of it for those doing especially arduous jobs.
Yet more striking is the silence on two other fundamental questions. The first is the European Union, an essential factor in the implementation of any major policy. But the word “Europe” does not appear in the document — still less so the question of the existing European institutions or treaties. This is no accident: the Left has been split on this issue since the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005.
The second question is racism or Islamophobia, which this Common Ground does not even mention, even though it is the main vector of the cultural wars waged by the bourgeois bloc (in its liberal, conservative, and fascist variants). This is hardly insignificant: We already saw the Socialist Party and its candidate refuse to participate in the November 2019 demonstration against Islamophobia after an armed attack on a mosque, while repeatedly attacking “Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s ambiguities” over “Islamism” because of his defense of Muslims and participation in this same march. Hidalgo, Roussel, and Jadot each participated in a police unions’ demonstration in front of the National Assembly with far-right slogans calling for the submission of the judicial system to the police, whereas Mélenchon and the far-left candidates denounced this initiative.
The Soft Left’s Record
So, it would appear that the “Common Ground” will not provide for an even basic unity of purpose. But any chance of this intra-left vote choosing a joint candidate are also put into serious doubt by what already happened in 2017. Back then, in a Socialist Party primary light on programmatic detail, Benoît Hamon won by taking a line critical of the outgoing Hollande presidency. Yet far from then leading a united campaign, he was systematically abused and betrayed by the party’s most prominent figures, many of whom rallied behind Macron’s rival candidacy.
The last Socialist Party government did not just ‘betray’ supporters by breaking promises but actively organized regressive, anti-working class measures.
This also demands a certain vigilance regarding the profile adopted by the Socialist Party since 2017, which is certainly not well-placed to win back the millions of working-class voters it has alienated in recent years. Undeniably, Hollande’s presidency deepened divisions in party ranks. But in his five years as president, he did not just “betray” supporters by breaking promises but actively organized regressive, anti-working class measures such as the adoption of the “Loi Travail” and various other attacks on labor rights. While, in the National Assembly since 2017, the Socialist Party has generally opposed the decisions of the Macron-aligned majority, it has not rejected the Hollande experience.
This leads to surreal situations — for instance, Marylise Lebranchu, a former civil service minister who maintained a wage freeze under Hollande, accusing Macron of wanting to introduce neoliberalism to French soil. Even aside from party right-wingers who joined Macron, all the historic elements of the Socialist left have also abandoned the party (including Hamon); after launching her campaign, Hidalgo expressed her gratitude to Hollande and his interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who organized the repression of many demonstrations.
There is no chance the soft left would support an anti-austerity campaign that even contemplated disobeying the EU, or consequentially fight against Islamophobia.
It might be argued that such a weakened Socialist Party, whatever its faults, is no longer strong enough to influence the direction the Left is headed. This would be to underestimate the capacity for nuisance of a party of local elected officials — so numerous in Hidalgo’s staff — marking continuity with the Hollande era. There is, simply put, no chance that such figures would support an anti-austerity campaign that even contemplated disobeying the EU, or consequentially fight against Islamophobia.
Despite a notable exodus of cadres to Macron, with several even becoming ministers, the Greens (Europe Ecology — the Greens, Europe Écologie Les Verts — EELV), a minority partner at the beginning of François Hollande’s mandate, have been less hit by voter disaffection than the Socialist Party. Last year, the Greens organized a primary that saw the narrow victory of the moderate Yannick Jadot over his competitor Sandrine Rousseau, who has a more left-wing profile. Unlike the Socialists, they are not similarly marked by right-wing personalities who have organized austerity in France and promote culture-war discourses.
Nevertheless, in addition to the cautious, moderate image pursued by their candidate Jadot, the Greens’ main divergence with LFI (and even the Communist PCF) concerns the European Union. Respect for the European treaties is a core credo for the party. In its electoral program, each mention of changing European norms is accompanied by the words “within the framework of the treaties.” Nowhere do the Greens reckon with the possibility that a minimally ambitious social policy (including their own proposals) could contradict the EU treaties, despite the austerian straitjacket the latter have time and again imposed on left-wing administrations. Contrary to this approach, LFI defends the possibility that it would disobey these treaties as soon as they contradict social reforms approved by the French population. It seems hard to imagine a joint campaign that skims over such a fundamental divide.
Imagine a left-wing primary picked Mélenchon. He would be confronted every week by supposed allies insisting that they ‘cannot identify’ with his remarks.
Faced with these divergences, the latest candidate to come along — former justice minister Christiane Taubira — has simply chosen not to talk about a program, preferring to evoke a “conception of France” made up of platitudes. Taubira does enjoy a certain sympathy on the Left, both as an embodiment of one of the few positive measures of the Hollande era — marriage for all — and a target of the far right, especially since she is a black woman. She wishes to capitalize on this, her oratorical abilities, and her literary culture to rally a “moderate”-left electorate sensitive to symbols while advancing no specific left-wing measures, even as someone who has four years’ governmental experience.
As for the three Trotskyist candidates, these are above all what are, in France, called “testimonial” candidacies to assert a party’s name and identity — often voicing necessary demands and providing particular satisfaction when they attack the various bourgeois candidates head-on in face-to-face debates.
Neither these political divisions, nor the current turmoil surrounding the primary proposal itself, imply that all forms of unity can be ruled out in advance. In particular, it seems artificial for the PCF and France Insoumise to run rival candidates, after they both supported Mélenchon in both 2012 and 2017. Differences on ecological issues (particularly nuclear power, which the PCF unlike France Insoumise supports) should not be insurmountable, given that they existed during previous campaigns. However, Roussel became PCF secretary essentially on the promise of asserting the party’s identity in national politics — all in service of its higher goal of reelecting its MPs and protecting its remaining local fortresses.
In addition, experiences in local elections have shown that, under certain conditions, unity was a (necessary but not sufficient) condition for victory. One key example came during the 2020 municipal elections in the country’s second-largest city, won by the broad-left Printemps Marseillais coalition. But however we analyze Printemps Marseillais’s record in office, this coalition was built on an explicit common program developed in advance, not a simple contest of personalities claiming to be of the Left.
Indeed, this question of what comes after the primary is all decisive. Let’s imagine a left-wing primary picked Mélenchon. He would be confronted every week by supposed left-wing allies insisting that they “cannot identify” with his remarks (on pensions, on the European Union, on Islamophobia, and so on) and must therefore withdraw their support. The effect would surely be destabilizing and demoralizing. It’s also not just a hypothesis but what actually happened to Hamon in 2017, after he won the primary of a party whose leaders opposed him.
Faced with growing right-wing hegemony, the call for a “unity candidate” in the run-up to this April’s presidential contest sounds like a “trick” that can paper over the differences between the different groups claiming to be on the Left. Yet these are fundamental differences: whether or not to support economic “liberalization,” whether or not to accept the existing EU treaties, and whether it matters to fight against Islamophobia. This isn’t just a problem for a future government, but also for any hope of a campaign in which the Left can mount a combative offensive against the current neoliberal quagmire.
Riot officers fire teargas and charge protesters in one incident after fireworks launched at their lines
The French government’s attempts to calm growing public fury over new legislation deemed a danger to civil liberties was challenged with a new wave of protests across the country on Saturday.
A largely peaceful march against the contested global security law and police violence in Paris degenerated after hooded and black-clad casseurs – smashers – disrupted the demonstration for the second weekend in a row. Clusters of hooded youths set fire to vehicles, smashed shop windows and hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with water cannons and tear gas.