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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Rompre avec le bi-partisme

by Roger Martelli

Now Is the Time to Break Through the Two-Party System

Translated Monday 7 April 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Roger Martelli, historian, member of the National Committee of the French Communist Party (PCF), proposes a few reflections on the last series of elections.
"Will the Left remain under the overwhelming influence of a "socialism" turned market-friendly, or will a new dynamic convergence in favour of radical changes impose itself, which might call the tune for the whole Left?"

The March local elections are now behind us. Have they brought the PCF’s decline to an end? The decline is no doubt more limited than at other elections, and above all, it is infinitely more limited than was feared a few months ago. But still, the erosion continues. We lose ten towns of 3,500 inhabitants and above, ten canton (district) councillors, and 1% of the vote in the canton elections. We achieve majority in Dieppe and Vierzon and lose Calais, Aubervilliers and Montreuil [1]. We conquer twenty towns with a total population of 300,000 inhabitants and lose thirty with a total population of 550,000.

Now the circumstances surrounding these elections are well worth considering: for the first time since 1995, the Right holds all the national powers and offices; and the Left gets its best results since 1977. When the Socialist Party (PS) takes about fifty towns of 20,000 inhabitants and above, we lose two. That we should yet again suffer losses, however limited, is not a wonderful, or even a reassuring achievement.

Against that, it is clear that despite this fall, the PCF locally remains a force that must be reckoned with. It governs towns with a three million total population. Its share of the vote is above 20% in more than two hundred cantons (the total number of renewable seats in this canton election was 1997). But that force is no longer spread countrywide as it was before. So what use is it? Must we resign ourselves to being a force with a strong local presence here and there and a marginal political influence nationwide? These are the first and foremost questions.

Now the present context (in which these questions must be asked) is quite specific. For the overall incontestable lesson of the March 2008 elections is that the two-party system is now even more deeply entrenched. Between the two of them, the Socialist Party(PS) and the right-wing Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) govern 75% of all towns of 15,000 inhabitants and above, and total 60% of canton seats against 40% in 2001. This is nothing new, but this time a decisive level has been reached on either side.

When the bipartisan logic becomes more deeply entrenched as is the case now, the choice for those on the Left is between two alternatives: either to be the dominant force’s willing auxiliary in exchange for a little share of the cake, or to opt out into marginal contestation and remain on the sidelines. In either case, it implies resigning oneself to the hegemony of a Socialist Party that is somehow going to move further to the centre.

It is certainly very difficult to break away from the two-party system. The misadventures of Bayrou since his “centrist” 2007 presidential candidacy are an eloquent proof of the difficulty, as was the failure of the “alternative” movement to put up a candidate in the same presidential election. Will the Left remain under the overwhelming influence of a “socialism” turned market-friendly, or will a new dynamic convergence in favour of radical changes impose itself, which might call the tune for the whole Left? Will social contestation be powerfully relayed by a force on the political scene or will the discontented have to resign themselves to choosing the lesser of two evils, as is the case in the Anglo-Saxon world? Cannot we have in France the counterpart of Die Linke, which is making headway in Germany?

It is a good thing to have councillors elected, and the more the better, because the population needs them, and because it can help shift the balance of forces in a favourable direction. But if the action of these councillors in local government is not propped up against a structured alternative political movement, its effect is bound to be limited. If the Left remains what it is, if the ambition to change society radically cannot make itself fully and distinctly heard, who can guarantee that come the next local election, the context will be as favourable for the Left? And who can then guarantee the durability of the strongholds on which our local presence rests?

On the Right as on the Left, any party that remains isolated beside a dominant party is sure to be hamstrung by the two-party system. It is no use being the third party in a system that takes only two. After the full 2007-8 electoral sequence [2], no one on the Left can say: "I am now strong enough to gather up all the potential and existing energies around me." We are a force, but a force that does not join forces with others will not be enough. In conjunction with many and diverse partners now scattered wide in society we must bolster up the synergy that alone can sustain a real political force. Not in order to be first among Lilliputians, but to work within the Left and the popular movement towards making the need for a radical transformation of society once more the ambition and goal of the majority.

But this we shall not achieve by simply “carrying on”, for merely “carrying on” would involve giving up what has been the best in the French communist tradition, namely the ambition or capacity radically to transform society coupled with a vocation for participating in large popular movements.

[1Aubervilliers and Montreuil have long been communist strongholds in the Paris "red suburb"; on March 16 they were taken over by the socialists and greens respectively thanks to a breach of the "Republican discipline" that has been at the heart of the electoral pact between left-wing parties: though the communist-led lists had come first in the first round, the socialist and green lists stayed on through the second round.

[2Starting from the presidential election in April 2007, through the legislative election that followed in May, to the recent municipal and canton elections.

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