Archive for the ‘French Left’ Category
In Reply: CGT Trade Unionists Face Violence Smears.
France prepares for day of strikes as nuclear workers join labour protests.
France faced an eighth day of industrial action on Thursday after workers at nuclear power stations voted to join protests against labour reforms. Blockades of fuel depots by angry unions have forced France to dip into its fuel reserves.
CGT energy and mining federation spokeswoman Marie-Claire Cailletaud said the strike action at nuclear plants will reduce power output, but that the reactors will not stop running.
“One cannot just turn off a nuclear plant, it is not like a thermal or hydro plant,” Cailletaud said.
The union said late Wednesday that 16 of France’s 19 nuclear stations had voted to join the strike, although CGT official Jean-Luc Daganaud said the effect on power supply would depend on how many workers decided to join the action.
Workers led by the powerful CGT union have blocked oil refineries across France over the past week in protest against planned changes to France’s cherished protective labour laws, leading to fuel shortages in parts of the country and long queues of cars at near-empty petrol stations.
The Ufip oil industry federation has confirmed that around a third of the country’s 12,000 petrol stations were running dry. France has also mobilised its emergency fuel stocks for the first time since 2010 but officials said there was no risk of a shortage.
The French media is full of reports that the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) is “using everything it’s got” in the dispute (Loi travail : « La CGT joue son va-tout »). Le Monde suggests that the leader of the left-wing federation, Phillipe Martinez, has taken on the role of the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ to the El Khomri law. (Le patron de la CGT se hisse au rang de chef de l’opposition à la loi travail.)
There are daily claims, from those hostile to the union federation, that the CGT are using the protests as a means of resolving their own – serious internal difficulties. These range from loss of membership (the result of long-term industrial decline) to the fall-out from the controversy over expenses paid to to their former leader, Thierry Lepaon
It is the case that the CGT faces a challenge from the ‘reformist’ union federation, the Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT). This morning on France Inter Véronique Descacq, secrétaire générale adjointe to the CFDT, claimed to have negotiated a deal which they can live with. She asserted that the reform embodies new workers’ rights (listen here).
Against this claim – essentially that the CGT is acting purely out of its own interests – L’Humanité has pointed to the unity between the trade unionists (with the CFDT excepted), from the corporatist and (partly) Trotskyist federation, Force Ouvrière , to the radical left SUD in protests and strikes against the Loi Travail (Une grande partie du personnel qui attendait l’unité syndicale va se mettre en grève).
What is at stake is not only moves to make working practices more ‘flexible’ to the bosses’ advantage. It is the shape of French collective bargaining (covering up to 98% of employees. The ‘reforms’ weaken them allowing local accords and which give employers the ability to go over the heads of unions by enterprise by enterprise referendums. The CFDT is equally acting in its own interests, with, it claims, strength in the these direct company negotiations it can by-pass the CGT which prefers to reach agreements by “branche”, that is by sector.
It would not, by contrast, be unfair to point out the CGT is using the industrial strength that it has – in the sectors cited in the France 24 report. (Loi Travail : pourquoi la CGT durcit le mouvement).
Why should it not do so?
As the conflict intensifies there is a concerted attempt to link the CGT not only with claims of intimidation against non-strikers, but also with acts of violence against its opponents which Descacq echoed. Those in the Parti Socialiste who have backed the ‘reform’ – despite opposition within their own ranks – have, it is claimed, been singled out.
31 of the Governing Parti Socialiste’s offices across the country have, since December, been the target of acts of vandalism. These have mostly been minor but on Monday their Grenoble HQ was sprayed with 12 bullet shots (le Monde).
It would be extremely rash to offer any kind of judgement about the probable outcome of this conflict.
Update: The leader of the CFDT has just declared that it would be “unacceptable” to drop the ‘reform’ as that would mean losing the “new rights” which it offers.
Critical Notes on ‘New Left Oppositions’. Susan Watkins. Editorial. New Left Review. Second Series No 98. March/April 2016.
“Respectful of NATO, anti-austerity, pro-public investment and (more guardedly) ownership, sceptical of ‘free trade’: as a first approximation, we might them new, small, weak social democracies.”
The Editorial of New Left Review (NLR – accessible here), devoted to “left oppositions”, and “new lefts” offers a sketch of the common background of some very diverse political phenomena. With a mixture of gloom and wishful thinking Watkins outlines the legacy of the late 90’s “late-90s alter-globo movements” “wrong-footed by the harsher international climate of the war on terror”. But, she then turns to how European anger at the handling of the economic crisis, the collapse of the centre-left, Third Way, parties, and a “blowback” against Western intervention, street protests, such as Spain’s Indignados have, she observes, been followed by the arrival of new forces on the electoral stage.
It is with little surprise that we learn that the NLR list of the contemporary ‘left oppositions’ includes Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership win in the Labour Party, the Spanish Podemos, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (PdG). The US is also affected, as Bernie Sanders’s strong challenge inside the Democratic Party indicates. More surprising is the inclusion of Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle, which Watkins admits, not everybody considers on the ‘left’. Events and elections, she continues, have not only brought these forces to prominence, in the ballot box, Parliaments and amongst citizens, they have given rise to new “national political projects”.
A common trait, the Editorial observes, of these political green shoots, is the rise of ‘charismatic’ leaders, from Pablo Iglesias, Corbyn, Mélenchon, to Grillo. Exactly what the ‘authority’ given by this ‘gift of grace’ is, and how these personalities carry it out, is not explored. Grillo is notoriously the entrepreneur of his own ‘post-modern’ far from immaterial party-business. Iglesias heads up, to his numerous critics, a vertical pyramid party-structure He indulges himself in ‘populist’ efforts to lead the people ‘beyond’ left and right.
Mélenchon: électron libre.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon won 11.10% in the 2012 first round of the French Presidential election. He leads a ‘party’, the Parti de gauche (PdG) founded in 2009 with other former members of the Parti Socialiste. It remains stuck in the mould of a Parti Socialiste ‘club’, a tendency (at its height well below 10,000 members) centred on a ‘chief’. Its inability to develop has been caused less by the absence of popular protests, the electoral system or “laïciste horror of the headscarf” thwarting its appeal to the ‘banlieue’, than his abrasive personality, which has created a crop of internal divisions to boot. Mélenchon, his many ill-wishers allege, has a vision of himself as a Man of Destiny, with populist and nationalist ambitions far beyond a “sovereign, alter-globalist, multi-polar defence force”.
Inside the Front de gauche (FdG), which allies the PdG with a number of left groups in an electoral bloc, it is not only the Communists of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF,138,000 members) but leftists from Ensemble (2,500), who have found it impossible to work with this électron libre (1). Sensing little support the leader of the PdG spurned the idea of presenting himself before the Front’s supporters and the wider left in ‘primaries’ to select a Presidential candidate. Mélenchon has effectively ditched the PdG for a supporters’ network. He is running for President in 2017 with an on-line based team, with some success in the opinion polls. Nevertheless this venture into political cyberspace has had considerably less of an echo in the Nuit Debout ‘mouvance’ (too heterogeneous to call a movement), which is showing signs of both intellectual renewal in a multiplicity of directions and splintering. The CGT led workers’ spearhead of the wider national campaign against the “El Khomri” labour laws and the wider weekly strikes and marches have largely passed Mélenchon by.
Labour’s leader is, by contrast, a Parliamentary chief with a tiny group of MP supporters, and a mass party with a democratic membership structure and large trade union input. If he won the leadership ballot by a landslide, in a campaign of public meetings which created a “dynamic of their own”, Momentum, Watkins solemnly informs us, is a “somewhat diluted version of the 1980s Labour left”, an “organised adversary” of the ‘Blairite faction, Progress. Few perhaps will recall a mass membership 1980s Labour Left, or of any comparable “parallel structure” to dilute from. Fewer still will remember the Labour Party since George Lansbury (Labour leader from 1932 – 35) headed by anybody who had anything resembling Corbyn’s background in the 1980s/1990s London Labour Left.
Corbyn, like Sanders, is, we learn, “squarely within the social-democratic tradition” – which fortunately covers everything from Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Jean Jaurès, to Harold Wilson. In short, the Editorial dispenses with the customary term, democratic socialism, by which a majority of Corbyn supporters, and Mélenchon’s, would identify in opposition to the compromised ideas that contributed to the policies of the Blair and Brown governments. Are there signs that instead after the ‘retreat from social democracy’ there may be a renewal in a very different directions taking place. Watkins calls the combination of anti-austerity programmes, and scepticism about free trade – not mentioning the defence of social and workers’ rights, the fights for a publicly owned public administration and services – and a failure to confront head-on NATO (on what, Syria?) “weak”.
We might then ask: what exactly is the ‘non-social democratic left’? If Grillo, instead of new forms of democratic socialism, is part of the answer, then what kind politics is that?
Readers will no doubt remain on tenterhooks waiting for the latest radical left model to emerge. In the interim the constraints, self-created or inherited, within which these lefts operate are ignored. Are the furiously hostile forces deployed against them, visible every moment in the British media to be ignored? Watkins casts cautious compromise to the winds. She smiles at Grillo’s no-nonsense Vaffanculo(s), scowls at the French Communists’ local electoral deals to retain control of their remaining municipal bastions (what is the threat of the Marine Le Pen or Nicolas Sarkozy to her?), soundly admonishes Corbyn for his “embrace of the discredited Blair-Brown Labour right” and offers Iglesias advice on a tactical abstention, allowing a possible future PSOE-Ciudadanos government coalition “a chance to demonstrate that it cannot work”.
As we have indicated Watkins offers the skimpiest, and often misleading, outline of the party structures and personalities which support the new left “projects” she attempts to grapple with. Oppositions equally fails to investigate the underlying problem thrown up by the more radical movements that appear to remain her benchmark. That is, their inability to develop more than general declarations within the ‘anti’ globalisation protest, that would make them more than a protest against the subsequent Western interventions and security clamp-downs. If Podemos may be able to show that the PSOE cannot work, what indicates that their alternative can? While we are waiting, the proliferation of an identity politics and culture of the ‘populist’ or sovereigntist right, which this Sunday came within a hair’s breath of winning the Austrian presidency, indicates the need for ideas and strategies capable of understanding and confronting nationalism and xenophobia now. (2)
Shocks and Turncoats.
It is on this issue that Oppositions is most wanting. The thought that calls a position on the EU referendum vote a “tactical” decision allows only a Leave or abstention as “left” options. The hope that a Leave vote would be a “salutary shock “ to the “trans-Atlantic oligopoly” and a Conservative Party in “disarray” is gratuitous irresponsibility. The nationalist and xenophobic Carnival of Reaction of the debates on the EU is paraded every-day. A Brexit win would bring not just Tory division but the politics of the most reactionary people in the country to power.
The Editorial is deeply insulting to the majority of the left, the democratic socialist left, who support staying in the EU not just out of self-protection against our most forthright and dangerous class and political enemies, but as an arena where common cause can be made with our comrades across the continent. That is, a place of hope and co-operation not of austerity and repression. To top it all, Oppositions attacks all of us through its words against the much-liked Owen Jones. The author of Chavs “turned his coat” for changing his mind, very publicly and very honestly explaining why, and backing Remain with the campaign Another Europe is Possible. The Editorial’s language in this instance is, not to mince words, despicable.
(1) Mélenchon candidat à la présidentielle : il tourne le dos à l’histoire de la gauche. Philippe Marlière. February 2016
(2) These two weaknesses were signalled by the critic of their French expressions, Phlippe Raynaud in L’extrême gauche plurielle. Tempus. 2006. Whatever one’s views on his generally hostile analysis, these points are if anything more relevant today than a decade ago.
French unions, students, and radical activists in groups such as Nuit Debout continue to campaign against the ‘Loi Khomri”.
The laws will undermine the ability of unions to reach collective agreements (although unions are weak and divided with only 8% members, over 98% of French companies operate within the framework of collective bargaining, compared with under 29%, 63.7% public sector, only 16.0% in the private sector, in the UK, (Here). The ‘reforms’ will encourage local negotiations, means to go over the head of unions, and other devices to weaken the collective system.
They will reduce hard won workers’ rights, getting rid of the ‘red tape’ that helps the system of Inspecteurs du Travil, enforce decent working conditions.
Contrary to the falsehood being broadcast by the UK ‘Lexit’ campaign the pressure for these changes comes from the French Employers’ organisation, the MEDEF, not Brussels or the European Commission.
As can be seen in this banner which links the government, from Hollande, Valls, and Macron, to the Bosses’ federation.
The action by the CGT is considerably more significant than the clashes between demonstrators and police which have been widely reported internationally.
Police fired tear gas in central Paris as an initially peaceful protest organised by unions and students was disrupted by a more radical fringe.
The labour reforms have sparked two months of protests on France’s streets, drawing 68,000 nationwide on Tuesday, authorities said, while organisers put the turnout at 220,000.
Withdraw, withdraw this law of the wealthy, it’s the law of the bosses,” was the message blasted from loudspeakers at the Paris march.
But Hollande said the battle against unemployment was not yet won and he placed the need to reform over his personal popularity, which remains at near-record lows a year ahead of a possible bid for re-election.
“I will not give way, because too many (previous) governments have backed down,” Hollande said in an hour-long interview with Europe 1 radio.
“I prefer that people have an image of a president who made reforms rather than a president who did nothing,” he said.
Police were quick to act as violence by masked youths broke out during the march in central Paris, kicking off another week of nationwide strikes and demonstrations against the package of reforms. Some 87 people were arrested.
Demonstrations were also reported in cities across the country from Marseille in the south to central Lyon and Lille in the north.
Lorry drivers blocked roads and ports in northern and western France, and there were clashes between protesters and police in the western cities of Nantes and Rennes, where thousands more took to the streets.
“We have been ignored, so we will work even harder to make our voices heard,” said Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, at the Paris rally.
The government argues the changes contained in the draft law will make France’s notoriously rigid labour market more flexible, but opponents say it will erode job security and do little to bring down the unemployment rate, stuck at 10 percent and nearly 25 percent for young people.
The labour reform, which would make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers, is likely the last major piece of legislation for Hollande, the least popular leader in modern French history who faces a re-election next May.
Boost for ‘Another Europe is Possible’ Remain Campaign: Varoufakis, McDonnell, Lucas and Clive Lewis Join.
Ex-Greek finance minister will help launch nationwide campaign alongside John McDonnell and Caroline Lucas
The former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis will join the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and Green party MP Caroline Lucas for the start of a tour to persuade leftwingers to vote to stay in the EU.
The senior figures from the political left are teaming up as part of the Another Europe is Possible campaign, in which they will make a progressive case for the UK to stay in.
The tour will start with an event in London with Varoufakis, who was severely critical of the EU’s dealings with Greece’s debts when he was finance minister but has recently warned that Brexit could plunge Europe into a 1930s-style depression.
Other rallies will involve trade unionists, as well as the Labour MP Clive Lewis, a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, at cities including Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester.
Lewis said: “This referendum will define relationship to the world for decades, and we will be joining together with progressives across Britain and Europe, not just to make the case that we are better off in Europe, but also to talk about the kind of society we need to build.
“Capital long ago fled national borders. In order to build a society which is fair for everyone, we need an international response to austerity and the financial crisis. That’s why we are campaigning on an unapologetically progressive platform – for social justice, the environment and freedom of movement.”.
This follows last week’s decision by the Fire Brigades Union,
National conference agrees to support campaign for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. But brilliant speech from General Secretary Matt Wrack rejects status quo Europe and calls for alternative
Delegates at FBU conference debated EU membership at length both in a fringe meeting on Wednesday and in a plenary debate today, but ultimately decided by some margin to remain and campaign for change with trade unionists across Europe.
Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary, gave a fiery speech, critical of the current EU but strongly in favour of staying in to defend workers’ rights and change the union from within.
In particular, Wrack passionately defended the free movement of workers, saying that problems such as unemployment and housing crisis were caused by banks and the failure of markets, and not by migrants.
Kieron Merrett, trade union officer for Another Europe Is Possible , who spoke at a conference fringe meeting the evening before the vote, said:
“It’s terrific to see one of Britain’s best organised trade unions back the workers’ case for ‘In’ with an explicit ‘stay in Europe to change Europe’ line. It was an excellent debate that we were delighted to participate in. But the message must now go out, not only to every firefighter, but also every trade unionist in the UK. There is only one way to vote in this referendum to defend the vital interests of working people. That’s to vote to remain inside the European Union.”
Supporters of leaving the Union are also holding a rally this week.
Lexit: London left leave rally WEDNESDAY
All London meeting this Wednesday 18 May – 7pm:
The Internationalist Case against the EU – Friends Meeting House (Small Hall) 173-177 Euston Road, NW1 2BJ.
Speakers: Philippe Cordat (CGT union confederation France), Brid Smith (TD (member of parliament for People Before Profit, Ireland), Quim Arrufat (international secretary of the left wing Catalan party CUP), Lindsey German (Counterfire), Argyri Erotokitou (Greek doctor and leading member of Antarsya, Alex Callinicos (Socialist Workers Party) and Rob Griffiths (Communist Party).
In the Morning Star today Alex Gordon Lexit convener on the Left Leave Campaign writes on the present conflicts about new labour laws in France.
French Trade Unions Fight EU Attacks on Workers’ Rights.
Startled by this link between the EU and the El Khomri Law?
It’s backed by the following extraordinary claim.
LAST week France’s Socialist government issued an emergency decree to weaken workers’ rights at the behest of the European Commission.
Last Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls imposed the hated “El Khomri” law — named after Minister of Labour Myriam El Khomri — using an emergency constitutional mechanism (Article 49.3) to prevent a debate or vote that his government would lose in the French parliament.
Gordon repeats this assertion,
President Hollande’s decision to invoke Article 49.3 of the constitution to comply with radical measures the European Commission demanded in November 2015 brutally exposes his own government’s weakness.
Article 49.3 of the Fifth Republic was designed to prevent repetition of the chronic instability that characterised France’s Fourth Republic (1946-58), which famously saw 22 governments come and go in a mere 12 years.
In other words, it’s French Sovereignty which is is being used to……obey Brussels.
Every single report indicates that the El Khomi law originates in the demands of the French employers’ organisation, the MEDEF (” le basculement idéologique dans lequel François Hollande et Manuel Valls, inspirés par le Medef. Liberation. Passim). The Communist Daily, L’Humanité noted the same in February, “le Medef est devenu extrêmement offensif pour remettre en cause le modèle social français, pour réclamer des baisses d’impôts et de cotisations sociales, pour exiger la remise en cause du droit du travail. S’appuyant sur son vaste réseau de médias et d’économistes, il prétend cogérer l’État en imposant la réduction de la protection sociale, le report de l’âge de la retraite, la baisse des dépenses publiques..).
This is the first I’ve heard of an involvement of the European Union in the El Khomri law.
But, you’ve guessed it, the news hounds of RT, Russia Today, have sniffed it out for the benefit of all, no doubt including the Morning Star,
Brussels, discrete Chief Conductor of the El Khomri law.
The author of the RT article, Pierre Lévy, is in charge of the journal Ruptures that claims to be, “progressiste et iconoclaste”. It is to say the least, a strange mixture of ‘communism’, anti-globalisation rhetoric, and French nationalism. In other words it’s a ‘sovereigntist’ project, an assertion of French nation against the European Union. (1)
Instead of this claptrap, for a serious account of the long-standing employer pressure to get red of labour law ‘red tape’ see the Blog de Gérard Filoche
Or this article by Filoche, an expert in French labour law, from his experience as an Inspecteur du travail: Un nouveau bouquet de lois sur le travail en janvier 2014.
Meanwhile in the UK a ‘sovereigntist’ connection runs through Alex Gordon’s ‘Lexit’ rally.
Amongst the speakers we note Philippe Cordat Cordat is “Secrétaire du Comité Régional de la Cgt Centre, that is a region of the French trade union federation, not the national CGT. He appears to have conflicts with the CGT union leadership – as outlined in this Front Syndical de Classe.
Cordat has strong opinions on the ‘super-national’ forces at work in the European Union.
The« idée européenne » a été historiquement portée par deux forces : la social-démocratie et le Vatican.”
The European ideal has historically been carried by two forces, social democracy and the Vatican. (Here)
Cordat also has views on the activities of the Socialist Party, the NPA and other far-left groups, as well as Freemasons and religious networks not to mention bosses’ influence inside his union ,
A bien y regarder la déferlante anti-communiste qui marque le débat public dans le pays depuis plus de quarante ans a conduit de nombreux syndicalistes à faire une fixation sur « la mainmise de Moscou » sur la CGT sans ouvrir les yeux sur les pratiques du PS, de la LCR devenu NPA, des autres structures de l’extrême-gauche des réseaux maçonniques et religieux, du patronat qui s’activent dans et autour la plus importante organisation syndicale française.
The successive waves of anti-Communism that have marked public debate in this country over the last 40 years, we can see, has led many trade unionists to be fixated by the ‘hand of Moscow’ in the CGT, without opening their eyes to the activities of the Socialist Party, the LCR which has become the NPA, and other far-left structures, Freemasons and religious networks, as well as the bosses, operating in and around the most important trade union body in France.
Réflexions d’un syndicaliste de la CGT Philippe Cordat. (2011)
These opinions form part of Cordat’s wider complaints against the the CGT’s own version of Another Europe is Possible (whose details are too similar to the UK campaign to need repeating).
He stated in 2012 (Front Syndical de Classe) that this strategy is completely wrong.
Elle ne remet en cause ni les fondements, ni même les principes pour lesquels l’UE agit en ce moment : effacement des souverainetés, remboursement des dettes au profit des marchés …
It does not question the foundations and the principles which drive the present EU: the iblteration of soveriegnties, the payment of debts to the profit of the markets…..
This emphasis on the importance of national sovereignty is shared by the Communist Party of Britain as one can see here: Why the EU is a negation of parliamentary sovereignty and democracy. argues Robert Griffiths.
It is to be wondered if the ‘revolutionary’ speakers at the Lexit meeting, from Counterfire and the SWP, not to mention Antarsya, or even the ‘municipalists’ of the Catalan CUP, share this sovereigntist vision.
Or indeed if they have the slightest concern about this project:
(1) Fondé par Pierre Lévy, ex-journaliste à L’Humanité, ex-militant du PCF et de la CGT Métallurgie1, BRN compte ainsi dans son équipeLaurent Dauré (UPR et Acrimed)2, Dominique Guillemin (UPR)3 et surtout Bruno Drweski, militant anti-impérialiste entretenant un réseau d’amitiés et d’alliances tant à gauche qu’à l’extrême droite4. Il est à noter que le directeur de la publication de BRN, Hervé Berbille, a participé ès qualité à une réunion de l’Action française à Bordeaux en 2005 visant à promouvoir le « non » au TCE, comme le relate le compte-rendu publié sur le site de l’organisation d’extrême droite5. Confussionnisme Info. “RUPTURES, NOUVEAU MENSUEL SOUVERAINISTE.”
This is perhaps the moment to reflect on the European admirers, and active supporters of the Cultural Revolution.
One of the best known was the Gauche prolétarienne (GP) which existed from 1968 to 1974. As Christophe Bourseiller has put it, “Of all the Maoist organizations after May 1968, the most important numerically as well as in cultural influence was without question the Gauche prolétarienne”.
The GP was formed in October 1968. After a split in the Union des jeunesses communists marxistes-léninistes (UJC(ml)), several members – including Olivier Rolin, Jean-Pierre Le Dantec, Jean-Claude Vernier, the brothers Tony and Benny Lévy, Jean Schiavo, Maurice Brover and Jean-Claude Zancarini – formed the new party. In 1969 the former student union leaders Alain Geismar and Serge July joined the group.
One of these figures, Olivier Rolin, was not only in the leadership but directed the military wing (branche militaire) of the group, la Nouvelle résistance populaire. The history of the NRP remains highly controversial.
After blowing hot for armed action, they blew cold and abandoned the path of force. A botched – or futile it depends on one’s viewpoint – kidnapping of Renault manager Robert Nogrette in response to the killing of Pierre Overney in 1972 ended in his release. They abandoned other plans for ‘military’ vengeance, which included a plan to murder a former Collaborator. Rolin is amongst those who lay claim to the belief that this was responsible for the absence in France of left-wing terrorism – until the 1980s Action Directe that it is.
The Gauche Prolétarienne dissolved in 1973.
Rolin subsequently became a novelist. His works include the well-received, Invention du Monde (1993), Port-Soudan (1994), described a “brilliantly crafted”, that is, a finely written but slight tale of an expatriate functionary and his return home with hard memories, the picaresque Un chasseur de lions (2008) which has been compared unfavourably to a Tintin album – meaning, I enjoyed it.
Tigre en papier (2oo2) is the most political of his books. It is a thinly veiled account of life in the GP written, as critics has described it, with the marks of a thriller and lubricious descriptions of women. One of the said critics, F. Frommer (À propos de Tigre en papier d’Olivier Rolin), observes that it is hard to classify – if not to follow. Is it a novel, a tale, fiction about one’s self, autobiography, souvenir, memoir (Roman/récit, autofiction/autobiographie, souvenir/mémoire. To say that the ‘Aristotelian unities’ are not followed would not count of a point against Tigre en Paper, if it were not, as indicated, presented at points in the form of an airport spine-chiller, decked out in the grandiose language, Rolin employs to describe the ideological loadstars of of dedicated ‘Maoist’ activists: « La théâtralité de la Révolution », « La haine de la beauté », « La sacralisation du malheur ». La Cause is the object of masochistic self-sacrifice. The pages are also studded, as Frommer remarks, with old brand names, old songs, old films, and, if you haven’t got the message, other period details, which struck me, such as a explanation of the importance of duplicators for 1970s leftists.
The principal value of the book is as an account of the GP, the ‘military wing’ chief, Martin (that is, Rolin…), his comrade, the ‘sublime’ Marie , and, above all, of its leader, Benny Lévy, known at the time as Pierre Victor. In Tigre he is Gédéon, who is known from its abbreviation, DG, as the Grand Dirigeant. This identity is at any rate the view of, amongst others, Philippe Lardinois, who uses the portrait as a hook in De Pierre Victor à Benny Levy, de Mao à Moïse ? (2008). He incarnated the ‘L’Organisation’ of the novel – though it remains to this day a mystery why. Or indeed exactly what happened in mind’s of the participants in the escapades of the ‘military wing’ in the narrative to make them turn from playing at being revolutionaries to other games. Tigre en papier’s title suggest that they were made of flimsy substance. No doubt, but they certainly tried to look terrifying….
To call the Victor character a sour-faced arrogant shit would be perhaps enough, except that he managed to wreck the lives of (fictionalised but clearly real) characters as well. The GP, like all Maoist groupuscules, and some Trotskyist organisations, sent their members, particularly intellectuals (outside their Leading Cadres, naturally) into factories to become ordinary workers, or, rather, to turn into militant leaders of the proletariat. These “établis” were expected to follow the commands of the Organisation. A tragic story of one such ruined life is probably the best passage in the book. It is the affecting story of a stunning (how could it be otherwise?) young woman, Cosette, svelte, almost an elfin (see previous observation on Rolin’s sexist language) separated by Party decision from her partner, who is himself placed under the guidance of a ‘prolo’. Workers figures in the novel, if at all, as lugubrious figurants, if not, in the case of a police informer, a sexually unpleasant rough. No doubt anxious to indict the puritanism of the GP there is an episode in which Martin rebuffs a male cadre’s advances, and finds unable to talk about it.
Tigre en papier outlines one striking feature of the whole Gauche Prolétarienne experience: despite a brief reference to the anti-totalitarian Victor Serge, the total absence of any critical balance-sheet of the Cultural Revolution that inspired the movement.
This is how the leader of the GP washed up after years of Talmudic studies,
Benny Lévy embraced Jewish Orthodoxy, and began to study in a yeshiva in Strasbourg. He finally immigrated to Israel in 1997, where he established the Institut d’études lévinassiennes in Jerusalem along with Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut, and learned with Rabbi Moshe Shapira. He died suddenly during the holiday of Sukkot in 2003.
(1) See also: Les Maoïstes. Christophe Bourseiller, Review and Reflections. Andrew Coates.
The book has been translated and received this notice (New York Times 2007):
PAPER TIGER. By Olivier Rolin. Translated by William Cloonan. (University of Nebraska, cloth, $40; paper, $17.95.) Martin, an aging French radical from the 60s, wonders where it all went and why. One night in 2000, when this rushing stream of a book is set, he broods out loud while driving around (and around and around) Paris with Marie, the 24-year-old daughter of his best friend from “the Cause.” Marie’s father died in an unexplained fall from a church tower 20 years earlier, and the excuse for Martin’s regurgitation of the past is to introduce Marie to her lost parent. At the same time, he is trying to understand his own father, a “colonialist soldier” killed carrying out “France’s civilizing mission” in Indochina. Through these histories, Rolin philosophizes about Big Ideas like aging, lost idealism and the weight of past wars on future generations. It sounds like heavy going, and it is. Rolin’s use of the second-person and the recurring shifts back and forth in time can be disorienting; but there are also treats that make the car ride worth taking, some serious (like Rolin’s observations — often pessimistic — about the human condition) and others delightfully comic (like the young revolutionaries’ many botched missions). When the journey to the end of the night is over, the impression left behind (at once comforting and disturbing) is that history will make a paper tiger of every high hope and feared foe alike, no matter how seemingly imperishable.
Interviewed on Channel Four News last night Bernard-Henri Lévy, French ‘public intellectual’ is the latest in a long list of figures to have their say on the Labour Party ‘anti-Semitism’ controversy.
He solemnly declared, “something is rotten in the state of the Labour Party”.
The former New Philosopher expressed horror that there was backing for Hamas and Hezbollah – not something, he opined, we see much of in France.
Yes but….Er… (2014)
While awaiting further ex-Cathedra pronouncements, and the pie-throwing actions of Noël Godin here are some things worth recalling about Lévy relevant to the debate about anti-Semitism and the left. For those who wish an overview of the man and his works this, Wikipedia, is a good place to start, although the French version is much, much, better.
Casual attitude Towards Facts.
Lévy’s the Testament de Dieu (1979) is a lengthy, one might without condescension call it a rambling, disjointed diatribe (I have read it believe me) , which argues for the centrality of the Law of Moses at the foundation of human rights.
It was amongst the first of his books to be riddled with errors.
Pierre Vidal-Naquet pointed out (the list is too long to reproduce) that Lévy put the birth of ‘original sin’ on the 7th Day of after the world was created. That is on the day of rest (Monsieur Bernard-Henri Lévy place au « 7e jour » (p. 238) de la création le péché originel. Il faut croire qu’Adam et Ève ont profité du repos du Seigneur ; mais cette précision surprendra les lecteurs de la Genèse ).
More recently, Lévy was publicly embarrassed when his essay De la guerre en philosophie (2010) cited the writings of French “philosopher” Jean-Baptiste Botul.Botul’s writings are actually well-known spoofs, and Botul himself is the purely fictional creation of a living French journalist and philosopher, Frédéric Pagès.
Polemics as History.
L’Idéologie française (1981) is a ‘reading’ of French political history that discovers the origins of its specific form of Fascism in a wide, to say the least, sources. For the author these included most of the founders of French socialism, from Revolutionary Republicans, Marxists, Mutualists to anarchists, the pre-Great War anti-Parliamentary left, blasted for the tiny group known as the le Cercle Proudhon, uniting radicla Monarchists and syndicalists, the 1930s neo-socialist, modernising social democrats, the ‘personalist’ Christian review Esprit (better known today for its ‘anti-totalitarianism’), intellectuals, Bergson was an impulse to racism, and, above all French Communism, as well as better known sources, notably those which were actually fascists, such as Action française, Charles Maurras and company. All of France, to the author, was riddled with anti-antisemitism.
In other words French fascism, and Pétain’s ‘national revolution’ were the product of just about everybody who wrote or was politically active in the inter-war years.
Informed readers will immediately recognise that the book draws on the, also controversial, histories of the origin of the French far-right national revolutionary current by Zeev Sternhell. Sternhell has read the original literature, although amongst many critiques cast doubt on his arguments and sources : Un fascisme imaginaire Jean Sévillia).
It is far from clear that Lévy had more than glanced at the writings he cites. A leaf through the book last night revealed him citing Georges Sorel’s La révolution dreyfusienne (1908). He describes it as a virulent anti-Dreyfusarde tract, hinting at anti-Semitism. In fact the short pamphlet was about the end of the conservative ‘republican aristocracy’ whose unity was shattered by the Affair. This had led to the the political triumph of a ‘social’ republican wing that, Sorel believed, was the occasion for the working class to secure its own autonomous interests.
That aside Lévy may have skimmed one section. Sorel has some harsh words for literary figures (he included Zola in this list) who value more the effect of their literary positions (parti pris) than the positions themselves. These stray lines, we may conjecture, might have seriously rankled Lévy.
The book was roundly criticised, when not laughed at. Amongst those writing hostile reviews figured left-wing firebrands Raymond Aron, Pierre Nora, Immanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and others too numerous to list.
This might be some time back, but we expect this talent for anti-Semitic spotting will be put to use in his interventions about the Labour Party.
Backing for Islamists.
During the 1980s and 90s Bernard-Henri Lévy was more than a literary supporter of the Afghan Islamists’ fight against the Communists and their Soviet backers. His most celebrated, by himself and no doubt others (including President Chirac) was his involvement with ‘Commander’ Massoud’s faction of the Mujaheddin (the depth and reality of that acquaintance remains contested).
Massoud became an enemy of the Taliban, but was far from a liberal: his call to arms began against the Communist PDPA, well before the Soviet intervention. No doubt a case could be made that he was a “good Islamist’, but he was part of that mouvance, as the name of his original group, Jamiat-i Islam, indicates. (see Quand les djihadistes étaient nos amis. BHL en Afghanistan ou « Tintin au Congo » ?). He was, for those who backed the Mujahideen, above all anti-Soviet. It would be interesting, nevertheless, to know if Lévy asked his friend about the group’s attitude towards Israel….
A comparison might be made with those ‘anti-imperialists’ who suddenly found a great deal of virtue in the Islamic ‘resistance’ to the American occupation of Afghanistan.
Bernard-Henri Lévy and Human Rights
This question is often asked: Why Does Everyone Hate Bernard-Henri Lévy? ( )
Whole books have been dedicated to criticising the man, his works and his actions (Le B.A. BA du BHL, Enquête sur le plus grand intellectuel français, de la journaliste Jade Lindgaard. Une imposture française, ouvrage des journalistes Nicolas Beau et Olivier Toscer 2006. Un nouveau théologien de Daniel Bensaïd, 2008.)
Bernard-Henri Lévy is in short, often a figure of fun. Many of those who enjoy French language polemical literature are keenly aware of the pitfalls of taking his language too seriously. Sometimes the ‘public intellectual’s’ views are more widely shared – he is opposed to the nationalist enthusiasm for ‘sovereigntism’; he can – sometimes – make stirring speeches against racialism. Sometimes they are not: the claim that religious dogma is the bedrock of human rights cannot be sustained.
People are entitled to be wary of somebody whose chief object is more often to impress than to convince. His occasional ability to rise above phrase-mongering does not translate well – a quick look at Sartre: The Philosopher of the 20th Century by Bernard–Henri Levy (Le siècle de Sartre, 2000) may put people off the French political and intellectual pamphleteering for life. The contorted syntax faithfully reproduces the original – which just about lumbers along in French. The florid expressions could serve as a template for a factory of purple patches.
The contrast between his clumsy, hammering, style and the lucid writings of other modern French political essayists – I cite a few I’ve read recently, all from different political sides, Alain Finkielkraut, Emmanuel Todd, Jean Birnbaum – is startling.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is also politically – a rhetorician who aspires to the court of power. Sarkozy indulged him; Hollande appears to keep him at a distance. To the wider public he is often out to make a case effectively, to convince us with a skilful show, and less positively, a person who trades in bombast.
That his words may, to evoke Sartre’s images, serve as a sword, as pistols, is, post-Libya, possibly true. That these are used in the service of justice is less than clear.
A principled politics of human rights does not involve backing for groups like the Mujahidin, or, more recently, unbridled enthusiasm for Western interventions everywhere, from Syria to Libya. It means supporting people, not states and certainly not posing as a political player in armed efforts to impose rights.
It is our hope that we are not about to endure another bout of Lévy’s histrionics, at the expense of the British Labour Party.