Divisions on the Left

Gaza: Serious Static on the Line in the French communist Party

Many French Communists are worried about what they see as the squeamishness of their party’s riposte since 7 October. And they also say that if a part of their leadership is adopting a low profile on solidarity with Gaza, it is mostly to prepare the membership for a change of line in the analysis of that conflict and the Party’s degree of solidarity. So, what is at stake here is anything but anodyne.

French Communist Party headquarters in Paris, 17 September 2016.
Wikimedia Commons

It’s a debate in which there are low blows, but it rarely passes through the invisible barrier separating internal debates from the public square. It is true enough that the French PC always appears to be on the forefront when it comes to solidarity with the Palestinians, as Fabien Roussel, its general secretary, reconfirms loud and clear for Orient XX1. Yet many grass-roots members and local officials, active for years in associations or twinning committees, deplore the fact that their party has maintained a ‘low profile’ since 7 October, as one elected official has put it.

Its refusal to put out a call to certain demonstrations has made a bad impression, produced a feeling of uncertainty or even suggested a change in line for a party which has always mobilised for Palestine, but which might now feel some indulgence for Israel. ‘By trying to please everybody, you wind up paddling backwards’, a former member of the political bureau observes bitterly. Another denounces ‘the chewing-gum intelligence’ of the present leadership.1 Thus, there is nothing serene about the present debate, no more than it is anodyne.

‘The leadership can have their vapours’

Communists have always preferred washing their dirty linen in private. ‘In 60 years in the PC, we always knew how to manage our disagreements politely,’ a former MP explains to me. ‘The rank and file commies are in the demos, the Party leadership can have their vapours, but that never prevents us from joining a protest,’ says another. Only Raphaëlle Primet, Paris city councillor and for many years in charge of Palestine for the Party’s National Council, makes her worries public. ‘I take issue with the way w are showing our commitment and taking part in the Paris demos.’ In an e-mail to Fabien Roussel on 29 October 2023, she evoked the ‘Comrades (who) feel orphaned, don’t know whether they should join a protest or not. Some are angry about the lack of initiatives, strong declarations, or actions. Some wonder about our positioning: do we still feel solidarity with the Palestinian people?’

‘Of course we do,’ Vincent Boulet answers. He’s the new person in charge of international issues, also elected in Paris. But he willingly admits that the Party refused to endorse certain demonstrations called by the National Collective for a Fair and Lasting Peace between Palestinians and Israelis (CNPJDPI)2 ‘when they involved a dangerous confusion between support for Hamas and the Palestinian right to resist.’

Raphaëlle Primet develops her argument, she is of the opinion that Vincent Boulet and another party official, Christian Piquet, both members of the National Executive Committee (the new name for the Politcal bureau) ‘are working towards a change in the Party’s position’ with a ‘wrong-headed understanding of what’s going on out there.’ For many years a Trotskyst and a permanent party worker for the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR), Christian Piquet, 72 years old, joined the French CP in 2015, after having taken part in the Front de Gauche and headed the Gauche unitaire (GU). During his long political career, he was one of the mainstays of the above-mentioned Collectif National (CNPJDPI), which is still the chief coordinating platform for mobilisations in favour of Palestine. Today Piquet has it in for the Collective on account of its alleged sympathies for Hamas.

As the person in charge of intellectual activities and personalities for the Party leadership, Piquet invited Caroline Fourest and other members of the Printemps républicain to Party headquarters in January of 2022 for a commemoration of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, an invitation which angered many comrades.3 He is said to be a close adviser to Fabien Roussel, and that as former editor-in-chief of LCR’s Rouge, he is even thought to have his sights on supplanting Fabien Gay, the very popular senator from the working-class department of the Seine-Denis, as editor of L’Humanité, the Party paper.’He’s still on the picket on that front,’ a Party worker jokes.

‘Searching for a kind of normalisation’

Many Party members who have been in touch with Christian Piquet over the last few years consider him above reproach on the issues close to his heart since his stint with Hashomer Hatzair, a left-wing Zionist youth movement developed in France and Belgium in the fifties. In Israel, Hashomer Hatzaïr formed the backbone of several kibbutzim, as well as parties like Mapam, very influential in the early fifties, or Meretz. But today the comrades are wondering about his change of course. ‘On the left, as concerns Israel-Palestine, Piquet is doing the opposite of Jadot4, as Raphaëlle Primet sums it up. Meaning: the one takes a big step towards Israel, the other towards Palestine. Other Parry members, wishing to remain anonymous, prefer to speak of “flippancy”, or even “lack of interest” rather than an outright change of line. A former Party dignitary spells it out:

‘The mass of CP members haven’t changed, they are still very active in the solidarity movement. But a little group of leaders are in search of a kind of normalisation, how or with whom is not very clear.’

Another former high-level Party official waxes indignant that National Secretary Fabien Rousssel should have applauded the president of the National Assembly when she advocated unconditional support for Israel: ‘That reminded me of Robert Hue5 supporting Bush in 2001’. He also feels that the insistence on calling Hamas a ‘terrorist’ movement after 7 October attested mostly to ‘their fury against Jean-Luc Mélenchon and their determination to distance themselves from hm’. He, like other Party cadres who spoke to me, felt that Mélenchon ‘had been rather impeccable’. But he deplores the ‘rarety of in-house debates. Our Party is terribly legitimist, which often makes us blind and a bit naïve.’

Public disagreements over Isaeli apartheid

However, these debates were made public by Christian Piquet himself, when another Communist MP, Jean-Paul Lecoq tabled a resolution in the National Assembly, condemning Israel’s apartheid. Pro-Israel MPs let out cries of outrage, and so did Christian Piquet, who attacked that resolution in public even though it was signed and voted by Fabien Roussel and most of the MPs of the Gauche démocrate and républicaine, the group to which the CP belongs. Denouncing a ‘grave political fault’, Piquet claims in his blog to be ‘disgusted’ by sentences in the text of the resolution. He refuses to let ‘Israel be identified unqualifiedly with South Africa in the years of apartheid.’ He believes that the situation in Israel ‘consequently has nothing to do with the domination of the white South African minority over the Black majority – and this even though the nationalism promoted by those at the summit of the State has come to know a calamitous excess.’

Despite the hostile reactions, Christian Piquet persisted in his refusal by opposing another resolution tabled – and adopted this time – at the 39th Congress of the French PC in Marseille in April 2023. ‘At the congress, he created a kind of schism by attacking Jean-Paul Lecoq. Stung to the quick, Lecoq didn’t take it lying down. Piquet’s very conventional arguments were all shot down, and the resolution was voted by the congress’, one observer reports. Like Lecoq’s resolution in the National Assembly, this one condemned’ ‘an apartheid regime by the State of Israel pursuant to its colonial policies against the Palestinian people, both in the territories which it occupies (the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza) and on the territory of Israel itself. ’ And indeed, not only on the occupied territories as Fabien Roussel specifies in the interview he gave us.

This said, another delegate added that while both Roussel and Piquet are both ‘in tune with the Party’s major revisions on subjects like secularism or lifestyles’, on Israel-Palestine, it’s more complicated. The legitimist reflex but also the commitment of the grass-roots activists and L’Humanité too, all weigh in favour of the Party’s historical positions as defended by Fabien Roussel in our interview. He is obviously not taken in by the debate smouldering inside the Party. ‘Roussel is afraid of a return of the divisions that marked the Robert Hue period, not with the same actors, of course,’ is the comment of a one-time member of the political bureau. He is also afraid, and more than anything else, of the Party’s marginalisation, unable to draw more than 2.28% of the vote at the last presidential election.

Silencing dissonant voices

‘Christian Piquet is taking up more space in the Party than Fabien Roussel would like, even if the broad range of his national-Republican positions is not to the latter’s distaste,’ another Party official explains. ‘Actually, Roussel is mostly afraid of Igor Zamichei, the Party’s national coordinator, whose political positions are very close to Piquet’s’ he continues.

‘On Israel-Palestine, their goal is to resist the influence of other parties or groups within the Collective: le Nouveau Parti anti-capitaliste (NPA)6, la France insoumise, les indigénistes (sic)’.7 There is certainly an in-depth debate that needs to be held to determine the Party’s exact line, and for the moment it has not taken place. ‘But it would have to be something besides all this jabbering on the social networks, because many comrades have got a lot of things all wrong,’ a major elected official deplores.

What’s most important for now is to ‘silence dissonant voices’ as a female MP puts it. Vincent Boulet explains to me that he ‘doesn’t agree with those who claim the French PC is turning its back on the Palestinians. The question is what are the political prospects for peace?’ In his opinion, the reason why people don’t turn out for Palestine ‘is probably because there’s a need for a broader and more open framework to express the demand for what we believe.’ A way of saying that the present National Collective has outlived its usefulness. Many blame the emphasis placed since 7 October on ‘Hamas terrorism’, so named in a report to the CP’s National Council on 18 November 2023, and blame its careful avoidance of the word ‘apartheid’ as well which so displeases Piquet.

‘There’s a debate on the ground between the terms “apartheid regime” and “apartheid policy”, Vincent Boulet explains to me. The logic of “a pox on both your houses”, which Piquet seems to want to be the PC’s new doctrine, also seems to be at work in that text, where Hamas and Israel “have two populations caught in the trap of fanaticism and a reactionary theocratic aspiration” and represent two “political enemies”.

As for Picquet, he displays a certain “zen attitude” towards his detractors. In a long phone conversation, he unfolds his argumentation on Hamas, with its “terror-oriented project, adding that ‘it is important not to confuse the Palestinian cause with the tenants of a totalitarian project which threatens the whole region with war’, at the same time expressing his worries over a ‘new Nakba which would be a crime against humanity’. And he theorises the” pox on both your houses’: ‘We are dealing with two societies which hate one another,’ he says, which many regard as a form of absolution for Israel. And he adds:

‘We won’t be drawn into approving terrorism, like la France insoumise and certain activists who support Palestine. We refuse to mobilise people based on anything but fundamental values. I’ll go on demonstrating in Toulouse where I live, but never alongside groups claiming that Hamas is a force of resistance.’

However, his divergences don’t stop there. For example, Piquet tells me he doesn’t like the slogan ‘Palestine will win out!’ which ‘delegitimises’ the existence of the state of Israel. For him ‘The State of Israel is not a perfect democratic state, but it has foundations which set it apart from the countries around it.’ It remains to draw up the list of these and analyse it to avoid making the classical credo of left-wing Zionism an umpteenth fig leaf for insensitivity towards the Palestinians who, because of the occupation, the apartheid, the blockade, the war, do not even have the right to dream of a democracy. Even an imperfect one…

1Many Communist Party officials or former officials chose to converse with me off the record. This has recently become a nasty habit with the journalistic and political classes in France.

2Le Collectif national pour une Paix juste et durable entre Palestiniens et Israéliens assembles some fifty associations, trades unions and political parties, coordinating acts of solidarity and demonstrations.

3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The ‘Republican Spring’ is a self-styled left-wing racist group, exploiting the modern-day Islamophobic revision of the 1905 separation of Church and State. Caroline Fourest is one of its most active and notorious members.

4TRANSLATOR’S NOTE Dominique Jadot is a Green MP, EELV’s presidential candidate in several elections.

5TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Reformist General Secretary from 1994 to 2001

6TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The new name of the old Trotskyite Parti, la Ligue communiste révolutionaire.

7TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The speaker refers to the Parti des indigènes de la République, a party claiming to represent France’s ‘coloured’ population.