Saturday, October 18, 2008

clouds giving way to sun

18 October

Even for someone accustomed to New England's fickle climate, the changeability of Parisian weather can be unsettling. You think you see the dawn mist dispersing into a clear sky, but then you go out without your umbrella, and sure enough it clouds over and starts to shower. If you wait it out, though, you may still get some sun in the afternoon.

My rather full day of politics was just like that. I spent four hours in a grueling session of the Paris NPA Coordinating committee, gleaning some exciting information, growing hungry and tired and a bit testy,then struggling to stay tuned as the meeting threatened to collapse into anomie. But after it thankfully adjourned on a note of agreement, I hopped on the métro, and just a few stations away, my ennui gave way to exhilaration as I joined this wonderful marche festive under the banner Bridges not Walls (Des ponts pas des murs), powered by an explosive drum corps you can barely begin to imagine from this little photo. (More on that in a minute.)

First, though, the meeting.  

We sat around a long table in the basement of La Brêche, Paris headquarters of the LCR, about 35 of us representing the 17 or 18 local NPA committees currently active in nearly all of the city's 20 arrondissements. For the first hour or more we went around the table and heard each local describe its various 'public outreach' initiatives. These spanned a broad range, from leafletting markets about the current crisis to forging alliances with other activist groups and movements to supporting individual undocumented workers threatened with expulsion. One group, the XXème, spent the last few weeks planning a big neighborhood party, starting with speeches from some party luminaries and then eating and dancing "into the morning." (I'd be there right now if I wasn't so tired.)

 Some issues are widely shared: almost every group is working with a coalition of left parties and unions--and mail carriers in their neighborhoods--to oppose current plans to privatize the French postal service. Many are creating public educational forums to discuss the financial crisis. Several work closely with immigrant support groups, but only the XIIIème had the honor to report that of the 29 undocumented workers it assisted through a cumbersome sort of amnesty program, all 29 received permanent working papers. This news was met with little nods and noises expressing admiration.

The actual status of these local committees is variable. Several just had their first meeting in the last week or two. Others have been meeting for six months, and have 50 or 60 active names on their distribution lists. In the aggregate, though, these party activists, with overlapping memberships in many activist groups, and cautious partnerships with other left parties and the Greens around select issues, are carrying the NPA message into all those little corners of the city where it is most likely to resonate. The enjeu, as they say, is whether they can bring some sizeable fraction of these partners into the party.

The second half of the meeting turned to some pressing organizational matters: the November 8/9 national NPA meeting (not a congress) of which the Paris groups are in the role of host; the status of the draft documents for that meeting and the sticky question of how open they are to amendment; and the procedures by which the Paris groups will meet on the issues they have    
agreed to research (public services, undocumented workers, urban housing). These are meaty topics, all important, but none especially suited to disposition by a committee of 35.  A notice I saw for a different meeting promised adjournment by 1 pm "for those comrades who need their aperos"; drinks all around would have helped this meeting a lot.

Of the two-plus hours of discussion that ensued, I will just point to several inter-related and quite interesting tensions surrounding the November 8/9 meeting. Recall that this is a party that doesn't exist yet, and will achieve critical mass only by making a clear break from its leninist antecedents in the LCR. Every organizational gesture is for this reason freighted with subtext, and the November 8/9 event is a big gesture. Is it more important to encourage the diversity of opinion by leaving major questions open in advance, or to show coherence and resolve to external observers? (Considerable attention will be paid to this non-congress by a political establishment that sees Besancenot and the NPA coming up fast in its rear-view mirror.) Will the key texts--the statuts, the principles, the 'orientations' (a draft I haven't seen yet)--be circulated at the meeting as drafts, or as finished documents? If drafts, how will they be amended? Can local committees have a say in those drafts before the meeting? For all the urgency of these questions, no definitive answers were readily available. At this stage of its fetal development the NPA is still an act of faith.

But let's get out of that meeting before we fall asleep, lose interest, or decide we hate each other.

Des ponts pas des murs was the most visible face of a 'Citizen Summit' organized by Association Emmaüs and a coalition of some 300 groups who support immigrants and their civil liberties. Its specific target was the European Union and its 'shameful directive' ("directive de la honte") authorizing member states to detain undocumented immigrants, deport their children, and so forth. Le Président Sarkozy, past the midpoint of his rotating term as European president and well-remembered for his shameful assaults on immigrant rights while Minister of the Interior, was clearly in the sights of the protesters as well. The whole event would be classed, I think, as part of that lively and multi-faceted movement here called Altermondialisme--not just an 'anti-globalization' movement as we know it but a host of initiatives in support of global equity. Thus an array of placards called for fair North-South trade as well as freer terms of immigration.

But the action was less in the signs than the body language. The corps of 30 or 40 drummers, nearly all women, dancing not marching to the polyrhythms they detonated, raising and lowering their arms in a synchronized ballet more African than European, seemed to be there to demonstrate the richness of world culture more than the short-sightedness of European policy. And the several thousands who were thus driven along from Bastille to République were a carnival crowd, despite their protest signs. For me, taking to the street just a few meters from where the French people seized the Bastille and launched a new epoch in human history, was no small thing. Mutatis mutandis, some such ferment was in evidence on the Boulevard Beaumarchais at that moment. 

The marche festive, technically unrelated to the NPA, was nonetheless mentioned numerous times in the flurry of NPA communiqués that flood my in-box, and there are clearly many altermondialistes participating in the NPA committees. Even before the financial crisis erupted, the gradual deterioration of France's social contract has given new life to a variety of activist movements. From the anti-libéraux (that is, anti-free-market capitalism) to the 'Non' campaign against the European constitution to the active daily support for undocumented workers and their families, there is vitality, purpose, and--yes, as I saw--joy in these movements. The great challenge for the NPA is to harness a sufficient measure of that energy.  We'll see.   

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At October 19, 2008 at 9:36 AM , Blogger David said...

I find your blog very interesting, keep on updating it, you have at least one regular reader.

Why are you (an American if I'm not wrong) following so closely the NPA's birth? That is quite intriguing for me.

And btw, the drum corps name is Muleketu, they're just awesome (their influences are more South American and Caribbean than African though), I contemplated joining them a couple of years ago (but lacked time, and probably drumming skills), for more info:

At October 19, 2008 at 12:42 PM , Blogger brent whelan said...

Several reasons: first (franchement) because it's a more interesting pastime than sitting in cafés and going to museums (though I do both with pleasure). But I also share NPA's assumption that capitalism as a system is increasingly destructive of all forms of social solidarity, and of the natural environment, now more than ever. As there is no serious countervailing political movement in the USA, I have hoped for years that a real democratic socialist alternative would arise in Europe. I'm here to see if perhaps the NPA will be that movement.

And thanks for being that one reader ...


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