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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: 2012 : audace ou prudence, la gauche devra trancher

by Interview conducted by Sebastian 
 Crepel and Max Staat

2012: Courage or Prudence. It’s up to the Left to decide

Translated Sunday 20 February 2011, by Kristina Wischenkamper and reviewed by Derek Hanson

Face to Face: Marie-George Buffet and Jean-Marie Le Guen

Is the Left’s diversity a danger or an advantage for the presidential elections?
Fifteen months ahead of the presidential elections, Marie-George Buffet, MP (PCF), initiator of the Left Front, and Jean-Marie Le Guen, MP (PS), ally of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, put forward their views on the preconditions for a real leftist alternative to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.

In the 2012 presidential election, does the presence of several candidates on the Left run the risk, as some claim, of creating a new April 21, or on the contrary is it a precondition for the Left winning?

Jean-Marie Le Guen. The Left has to heed this plurality. Our shared history is marked by a refusal to recognize it and, subsequently, the contributions of each of its components. The Left is constructed, of course, by social realities, but also result from the battle of ideas. We should recognize its diversity and hope for its unity. This is fundamental for the upcoming presidential election. In the twentieth century socialist and communist currents were tempted to exclude one another from Left field. We have to throw off this rejection of pluralism and unity.

Marie-George Buffet. It’s not only a historical issue. It’s also a different vision of the changes that are necessary. For example, at a European level, we see the difference in the approach of social democratic forces and that of the Left of social transformation. Whenever 21 April 2002 is mentioned, the emphasis is on the dispersion of candidates on the Left. But Lionel Jospin’s score is also a mark of the electorate’s disappointment with the existing leftist government. It was a protest vote. Today, what is missing from the Left is a political debate with citizens about a possible alternative. The objective of the Left Front is to meet this dual requirement of rallying and constructing this alternative.

Isn’t talking about the risk of another 21 April 2002 just another way of avoiding this debate on the Left and imposing a candidate upon everyone?

Jean-Marie Le Guen. April 21 was the defeat of the entire Left. That defeat was paid for by the people the Left was fighting for. It’s fair to say that the Socialists have not been equal to the fight, but the other candidates on the Left haven’t been able to rally the electorate around them either. Today I’m not sure any more, no matter the anger and desire for change that exists, that the Left represents the majority in the country. Sure there is a rejection of Sarkozy. But the social/political dynamic is not as strong as we would hope for. What’s more, there is a real reality, that of a National Front vote arising from the conditions of political struggle. There are diverging approaches on the Left with the left of the Left; the difficulty is knowing whether we will repeat past mistakes of making enemies of our neighbours on the Left, or whether, each Left, keeps its own direction, asking the electorate to decide by its vote.

How can this diversity be used to rally the Left to beat Nicolas Sarkozy?

Marie-George Buffet. There is a real rejection of Sarkozy and his attacks upon social and democratic rights, and the presumed, almost vulgar, complicity between power and money. To win, the Left must give hope back to those who no longer believe in the power of the vote or are even tempted by extreme votes, by making proposals that address the crisis in France and Europe. For example: mastering credits to promote employment, giving a new role to the European Central Bank, moving towards a new republic in France ... We have fifteen months to debate with the French people. The Left Front is not "Left of the Left" or "Another Left". I instigated the Front to open a way for all leftist forces and citizens, to build an alternative. Let’s get together and talk, and people will see there’s something new on the Left, will make this their choice in the first round, and gaining in confidence, in the second round will unite to defeat the right.

Jean-Marie Le Guen. There will be no common candidate. It is a reality that can perhaps be useful for the entire Left. At a time when the government is trying to demobilize the most disadvantaged in society, it is important that a movement like ours, but yours also, takes up the challenge to show them that there is hope. That’s a good use of the diversity of the Left. However, we must know whether in the end unity––which must remain our guiding star––is the objective. Also, we need to make sure that certain political tendencies, that have already passed through the labour movement, and namely populism, do not reappear. That way lies defeat.

Marie-George Buffet. My goal is not to "give voice to the diversity" of the Left. My goal with the Left Front is to embody propositions to overcome the liberal trend. In 2005, we did not agree with the EU constitutional treaty. We put the issues into the public realm and the electorate decided. The "no" vote was predominant, equally so amongst the electorate of the PS. That’s what I want to do with the Left Front. We’re not addressing ourselves only to the most disadvantaged but to the entire population. Also I don’t confuse populism with radicalism. Faced with the politics of power, there is a need for a real and radical rupture. That’s not populism, but a Left that assumes its responsibilities.

There has been criticism of the measures imposed by the IMF on the people of Greece and Portugal, and of its managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn on his position concerning the extension of the retirement age...

Jean-Marie Le Guen. I am available anytime you like for a debate about Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the IMF. However, two things: that the people concerned in Europe, Greeks, Irish, are protesting, that’s normal. But is it the IMF that’s advocating austerity policies? The answer is no. For the IMF, the problem in Europe is growth and employment. These are the criteria proposed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Before him, it was not the same policy and in the meantime there has been the economic crisis. Beyond that, is the position of Dominique Strauss-Kahn or the PS to take it or leave it? Absolutely not.

But aren’t 
 strong disagreements with other forces of the Left?

Jean-Marie Le Guen. Yes. Take pensions. The PS texts are clear about extending the contribution period. Even if some wanted to put a different spin on it, the position of the PS is that there will be no return to retirement at sixty. The Left Front’s position is different. I can understand that.

But it’s not only the Left Front, the social movement also demands a return to retirement at sixty ...

Jean-Marie Le Guen. That’s not the message I got from the social movement. At the end of the movement, Annick Coupé, spokesperson for Solidarity, wasn’t saying "back to retirement at 60" but was talking rather about arduous, long careers. The labour movement brought to the reform a vision that is more social, one of solidarity. It is this movement that won, not the radical one which fought to maintain the previous pension scheme. And when I talk about populism, I don’t equate it with radicalism. The word "populism" has been taken up by one component of the Left Front: Jean-Luc Melenchon. A few years ago, his radicalism of mixing up the red and the green was positive. Since he’s moved off in a different and more problematic direction, it’s not doing him any favours in the opinion polls. I accept radicality, personally it’s what I aspire to, but I don’t confuse radicalism with populism.

Marie-George Buffet. The debate about Dominique Strauss-Kahn doesn’t really interest me. I prefer to discuss the proposals brought by the PS. Moreover, one can always sympathize with those who protest. That’s not the issue, but rather the responses brought by the governments of these countries. However, they only hurt the people and are ineffective. Other solutions are needed. This is the debate we should be having. And I have to say, I didn’t get the same message from the social movement on pensions. What I heard being voiced was a refusal to call into question the very notion of rights, that were made to seem outdated. Throughout the movement, I felt there was a progression. Initially, the arguments on longevity, empty coffers ... made people uncomfortable. Over time, the idea that other means of financing were available to guarantee retirement at sixty years, without an extension in the number of years paid up began to gain ground. The law proposed by the PCF parliamentarians and the Left Party in this respect played an important role. The pension issue is a good example of the necessity of debate on the Left to find alternatives for change. Will the Left repeal the law on retirement age at sixty-two and will it put in place other means of funding as we proposed? What new advances can be made in terms of social democracy when, today, the government refuses any negotiation? What new rights can be won for employees, through unions, businesses? If the Left Front facilitates this confrontation of ideas and elicits clarification from the Left on the solutions available to resolve people’s problems, then men and women of the Left will mobilize to respond, will make their choices with lucidity and will vote.

Isn’t the real risk run by the Left that it will fail to truly break away from liberal ideas and thus disappoint?

Jean-Marie Le Guen. I don’t think so. We’ve been in a liberal cycle for thirty years now, to which new issues such as ecology and demography have been added. In consequence we need to steer a precautionary course through the economic and social, even psychological domains, to provide protection to the French from elements of radicalism. I do not believe in radical measures, especially when such measures would not be carrying us forward to a new world, but taking us backwards to the post-war boom. A certain nostalgia is very tempting to a faction of the Left. It’s an ability to combine caution with radicalism that can make the Left win through. Let’s stop telling fairy tales. The Left isn’t Father Christmas.

Marie-George Buffet. The question isn’t about being nostalgic or not. The question is what is today’s reality? For me, the response comes from an enlargement of rights, access to education, training, social protection, employment, etc.. In France and in Europe we need new public services, overhauled and expanded into new areas of general interest. We must ask the question what are other ways of using the wealth created by labour. This is not looking back, it’s an audacious looking forward to meeting needs. That’s a fundamental change. You say it will be difficult. Of course. Faced with the liberal institutions and ethos in Europe, we have to create the conditions for a permanent popular movement to promote those necessary reforms.

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