Skip to main content

Tumultuous Times for the Left in Europe

With the left coalition NUPES rapidly disintegrating in France and the formation of a new party led by Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany, it’s been a dramatic recent period for Europe’s progressive forces.

Jean-Luc Melenchon of France Insoumise (left); Sahra Wagenknecht formerly of Die Linke (centre); and the French Communist Party’s Fabien Roussel (right),

Last weekend saw big upsets on the left in France and Germany. The economic crisis that goes with Europe’s submission to the US strategy of tension with Russia — with its openly proclaimed objective of limiting Chinese influence — expresses itself in a political crisis that has inevitably drawn in the left.

In France the political status of Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National (RN) is enhanced, with a poll conducted last month that revealed her as the second-most popular politician in the country.

The poll, commissioned by Liberation, showed RN at 20 per cent, ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s party Renaissance on 15 per cent, with the left alliance, NUPES, led by Jean Luc Melenchon on 14 per cent. The remnants of Gaullism in Les Republicains were at 13 per cent.

But now NUPES is falling apart.

The French Communist Party (PCF) has concluded that NUPES is at an impasse and has called for the opening of “a new page in the coming together of the left and ecologists.” The objective is to constitute a “new popular front” capable of being in the majority.

Among the factors leading up to the division was the reinstatement in the parliamentary group of La France Insoumise (LFI), the biggest component of NUPES, of the deputy Adrien Quatennens, an ally of LFI leader Melenchon, despite his conviction for domestic violence and against the opposition of of many, including feminist deputies.

In the labour movement the LFI in general and Melenchon in particular are criticised for the disrespect they displayed towards the unions during the powerful pensions protests which earlier this year so dramatically weakened President Macron’s standing.

More immediately Melenchon’s tone-deaf take on the urban violence which followed the death of teenager Nahel Merzouk — shot by a police officer during a traffic stop — has caused an open breach.

It was serious rioting. Two died; unknown numbers of civilians were injured, as were over 800 police; 1,000 buildings were damaged and over 5,000 vehicles were torched, with total damage at an estimated €650 million.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

To the protesting youth Melenchon limited his advice to counselling not to “touch schools, libraries and gymnasiums,” characterised as “our common property.”

In the judgement of the PCF, this stance failed to connect with the growing sense that people living in working-class neighbourhoods were those most affected by the violence.

Underlying this was a clear sense that Melenchon had failed to understand the dangers of allowing the right to own the alarm at breaches in the “republican order.”

In distinction to the call for tranquillity that was the common position of other parties, Melenchon counterposed a call for “justice,” arguing that the police were at fault and that it was the poor that were rioting.

This dichotomy exposed a clear fault line in dominant narratives around race in French society in which an official blindness to monitoring discrimination is dressed up in so-called republican values — to which an important section of the left subscribes.

Equally at fault was Melenchon’s failure to grasp the popular mood allied to his political reflex to search out division.

These tensions were heightened over recent days by divisions over the Hamas military assault on the Israeli border settlements.

Melenchon’s failure to characterise the Hamas action as terrorism resulted in Green leader Marine Tondelier arguing that he had “removed all credibility from the left coalition,” while Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure called for a “break with the Melenchon method.”

In an argument with with Fabien Roussel, Melenchon compared the PCF leader to Jacques Doriot, a pre-war PCF renegade who led a fascist formation.

In a posting Melenchon said: “History repeats itself, there is a Doriot in Roussel.”

This calculated insult was designed to precipitate division and proved enough for the PCF to quit the disintegrating alliance.

The NUPES project is not quite in ruins, but the PCF summarised the situation: “All this prevents us from meeting the challenges. This prevents us from being as strong as the left could be regarding social combat. This prevents us from fighting effectively against the far right by trivialising Nazism. And it prevents us from building the rallies we need to demand peace in the Middle East. This is why we are calling for a new gathering on the left that is broader, clearer, and more useful to our common struggles.”

A different dynamic is at work in Germany where the growth of the right-wing Alliance for Germany (AfD) threatens to breach the cordon sanitaire around the far right.

Sahra Wagenknecht, former Bundestag leader of Die Linke (the Left), and nine deputies have broken away from the party.

Die Linke is the political formation that brought together East Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialism with left-wing social democrats in the West and rose to become the third-biggest party in Germany before entering a sharp decline.

Capitalising on Wagenknecht’s great personal popularity in Germany — 20 per cent say they would consider voting for a party led by her — the new formation is called the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance — for Reason and Fairness (In German: Bundnis Sahra Wagenknecht/BSW — fur Vernunft und Gerechtigkeit).

With this temporary name the new initiative aims to formally found the party in January. Three former GDR lander where the new party estimates it has a real opportunity to make an impact are due to hold regional elections in 2024. In addition, the calculation is that the 2024 EU parliamentary elections offer a good opportunity.

The war in Ukraine has brought some of the divisions to a head. BSW’s members say they no longer see any place for their political positions in Die Linke.

Referring to the massive February 2023 “Uprising for Peace” rally organised on Wagenknecht’s initiative, they say: “Tens of thousands gathered in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Although and precisely because around half of the population rejects the government’s military course, the country’s entire political establishment resisted and defamed the rally.

“Instead of supporting us in this dispute, the Left party leadership stood shoulder to shoulder with the other parties: they accused the initiators of the rally of being ‘open to the right’ and were thus the keyword for accusations against us.”

Alongside a clear anti-imperialist and anti-war stance, the strategic orientation of the new project is to shape a clear class challenge the growth of the right-wing AfD, which has grown particularly in the former GDR lander.

Its opponents, both in the government parties and in Die Linke itself, characterise the new formation as left-wing on economic questions and “conservative” on social questions.

It is true that it takes a detailed class position on the main economic and social questions and is highly critical of what it described as Die Linke’s focus on identity over class, but its position on immigration is more nuanced than its opponents claim.

Set in the context of “an innovative economy with fair competition,” it argues that action should be taken against growing inequality and a reliable welfare state should be created.

The group’s chair Amira Mohamed Ali said: “Immigration is an enrichment if the infrastructure is not overwhelmed.”

“In terms of foreign policy,” she said, “one follows the tradition of Willy Brandt and Mikhail Gorbachev.”

In dealing with the inner-party conflicts the new organisation said in a statement addressed to its former comrades: “We have repeatedly argued that the wrong priorities and lack of focus on social justice and peace are diluting the party’s profile. We have repeatedly warned that the focus on urban, young, activist milieus is driving away our traditional voters. We have repeatedly tried to halt the party’s decline by changing its political course. We weren’t successful with that — and as a result the party had less and less success with voters.

“The history of Die Linke since the European elections in 2019 is the history of political failure. The respective party leadership and the officials supporting them at the state level were determined not to discuss this failure critically under any circumstances.

“No responsibility was taken for this, nor were any substantive consequences drawn from it. Rather, those who were critical of the party leadership’s course were identified as culprits for the results and were increasingly marginalised.”

In essence neither of these developments are due to either of the personalities involved. In the case of Melenchon, a former member of the ferociously anti-communist Lambertiste Trotskyists, his political approach is notoriously confrontational.

The PCF describes him as “hegemonic,” the Socialist Party says that where once he was a factor for unity he is now the source of division.

Wagenknecht is a brilliant leader with a real connection to millions of voters, but the source of division in Die Linke was not her personality (although the resentment and envy was palpable) but in Die Linke’s drift away from its working-class orientation and the alienation of its base, particularly in the lander of the former socialist Germany.

At the root of Europe’s present economic and political trauma, and especially the German economic crisis, is the failure of the European elite to resist the drive by US capital to frustrate any challenge to its global position.

For social democracy — competing to manage the system — the crisis is destroying their electoral base.

What distinguishes the Wagenknecht initiative is a willingness to challenge the basis of foreign policy and war while making a direct claim for working-class support on a class basis.