Anicet le Pors is a French communist party politician who served as a member of the French Senate from 1977 to 1981, and Minister of Civil Service and Reforms from 1981 to 1984.
An Interview with Anicet le Pors
Maya Adereth: Tell us about your early political development.
Anicet le Pors: I was born into a family from the north of Finistère, known as "the land of the priests." It’s a region that has lived under the influence of Catholic Church for centuries. My parents emigrated to Paris in 1929, and I was born in 1931 in the 13th arrondissement. My early political involvements were deeply influenced by Catholicism; my first trade-union membership was at the CFTC (French Confederation of Christian Workers), and I subscribed to several magazines in the tradition of liberation theology. I became an engineer for the National Meteorology Institute and later joined the French Navy for which I served in Morocco for five years. I then came back to Paris and worked as a weather forecaster specializing in aerology (the study of the upper layers of the atmosphere). At the same time, I joined the CGT, which in 1955 was the largest trade union in the country. In 1958 I joined the Communist Party, the day after Parliament endorsed the Gaullist Constitution of 1958. I did so in defiance, against the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.
My night shift at the Meteo left me enough free time to go to school during the day. I got a PhD in Economics just as Giscard d'Estaing set up a Forecasting Division at the Ministry of Finance. I shifted from weather forecasting to economic forecasting, which is somewhat unique, and worked as a forecaster from 1965 to 1977. I changed my profession precisely as the Left was ascending to power. At that time the Communist Party came up with an ideological innovation headed by Professor Paul Boccara called State Monopoly Capitalism (Capitalisme Monopoliste d’État “CME”), which was a revival of Lenin’s idea of the integration of the state with monopolized capital. According to this theory, this integration is what enables capitalism to stave off the falling rate of profit. It was described at the time as over-accumulation-devaluation of capital.
This was an important ideological breakthrough in the mid-1960s which found its full expression in the 1970s. I was a well regarded economist in the Ministry of Finance and active in the Economic Section of the Central Committee of the French Communist Party. But these qualities made me "unusable" until the Communist Party had me elected Senator in 1977 in Hauts-de-Seine. Thereafter Georges Marchais asked me to work on his speeches directly with a view toward the 1981 presidential election. I sat on the Central Committee from ‘79 to ‘81, working with Georges Marchais and Charles Fiterman. The Left won the elections of 81 at the price of an internal rebalancing of the comparative political weights of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. That is how François Mitterrand finally got elected—by weakening the Communist Party. Despite the unfavorable circumstances we carried on, we worked a lot on the Programme Commun of 1972, but there were tensions between the parties that were not easily resolved. The results of the 1981 presidential election were very contradictory: we were weakened at the very time when we were called to power. Those were the circumstances of the time.
With François Mitterrand in office, we had a smaller presence in the government than we were entitled to. We should have had 6 ministers, but we only got 4: Charles Fiterman, myself, Jack Ralite for Health and Marcel Rigout for Vocational Training. The euphoria lasted less than a year because in the same period of time Thatcher was elected in 1979, Reagan in 1980 and Helmut Kohl in 1982, meaning that the major developed capitalist countries had elected people with unquestionable liberal options that cut across all the social democratic ambiguities that had existed before. That political context made the election of François Mitterrand seem all the more abnormal, since he was accessing power at the moment neoliberalism was taking hold. 36,000 jobs were created in the Public Service upon his election, but there was a freeze on the wages of civil servants as early as June of 1982. Why? Because foreign trade was declining and the deficit was worsening. As the situation developed, François Mitterrand felt inclined to do away with the Union of the Left strategy and rally to the path first drawn by Thatcher, then by Reagan and then by Helmut Kohl. In May 83 he renounced the structural transformations supported by the Union of the Left. For example, I had redrafted the whole General Statute of Civil Servants, but the corresponding laws only came into force in 83, 84 and 86, so that it took no less than five years to pass some of the earliest laws. I passed the laws against Mitterrand’s advice, who predicted they would be overturned very quickly. 37 years later the statute is still in place. The French transition to neoliberalism is quite interesting since we wanted to challenge the political developments of the time. But the will of the powerful prevailed.
MA: What were the political divisions like within the Communist Party?
AP: The economic section of the Communist Party was run by four people. There was Boccara, the main ideologue, he was a very thunderous man, very expansive, and an academic. Then there was Philippe Herzog, a “Polytechnicien”, also a Doctor in economics. There was Claude Quin, an academic who was very involved in the cooperative movement, and then there was myself, an economist in the Forecasting Department. We had frequent clashes due to individual tempers. At one point, they led me to resign from the Economic Section. And, in order to put the pieces back together, Georges Marchais asked Charles Fiterman to take over as head of the Economic Section. Charles Fiterman saw things more clearly. Boccara had a lot of qualities, but let's just say he was quite intolerant, dictatorial, and prone to rage when I tried to humour him. But conflicts were rooted in fundamental differences. I was in favor of state monopoly capitalism, but I thought it was too mechanistic and wanted to introduce philosophy, sociology, and law into the theory. Boccara was reluctant to accept it. As for Philippe Herzog, he was not of the militant type. He didn't know much about social movements, and he ended up completely on the Right.
The tensions within the party were between a small orthodox group linked to the Soviet Union who strongly opposed the Union of the Left. The main issue in the 1970s was nationalizations. I was in charge of the "Nationalizations and Industrial Policy" department and it's true that we overplayed the issue of nationalizations. We argued that nationalizations, provided they reached a significant threshold, would allow us to structurally change our economic system. The Socialists, opportunists that they often are, adopted our views and took them further, arguing that they would be “life-changing.” I had a friend who was having marital difficulties who was convinced that if the left came to power, her marriage would be fixed. This was the degree of people’s belief.
My slogan was, "Where there is property, there is power." And that is the primary idea which motivates me to date. But at the time, we thought of public property as having mythical capacity. We thought it would change everything. But the Socialists only agreed to nationalize because they saw it as a condition of preserving the Union of the Left. They were ideologically overpowered. Internally, the debate was around the scale and the industries. The socialists were against, for example, nationalizing the banks and financial sector completely. They thought it was enough to nationalize 51%—just enough to give us the majority. But we insisted on 100%. It may have been utopian, but that was our position. And given the internal discussions, I was surprised with how far Mitterrand ultimately went.
Why didn’t it work out? Two reasons. By the spring of 1983, the goal of a voluntarist industrial policy had become irrelevant. We were inevitably dependent on the market. Secondly, workers, were not actively fighting for these issues. The Auroux laws were passed in 1982, but it was only four years later that they were enforced. By that time the economy was already liberalized, and there was little room for them to act. This was also the case with the Public Sector Democratization Act, which was only enforced in 1983. So by the time the leverage and tools for mobilization became available, it was too late. At no time were workers called upon to mobilize in support of social transformation.
The conflict between the communist and socialist parties intensified after 1983. That year I spoke to a leader of the CGT at a funeral at Père-Lachaise and warned him that if Delors stops indexing wages to prices, as Brussels had instructed him to do, we will no longer be able to negotiate salaries in the public service. He told me, “Right now, we cannot choose you and discard Delors."
This only worsened in June of 1984. I invited Georges Marchais and his wife for lunch, and we both agreed that we couldn’t stay in a government that was increasingly shifting right. We resolved to leave in the fall, when the budget was being discussed. We didn’t foresee that Alain Savary, the Minister of Education, would resign on July 12th. The next day, I was on an airplane with Pierre Mauroy flying to Lille. Since Savary left, he told me, he would leave too in order to “fall to the left.” Mauroy resigned on the 17th, and Marchais and I were forced to leave the government on the 19th. But even within the party, things were getting complicated. As I mentioned, there was a small group who were very loyal to the Soviet Union. Most people within the party weren’t sure whether they should stay or leave. Once we left, many people were extremely disappointed with the fracturing of the left. There was growing discontent in workplaces over wage de-indexation, but at the same time there was a feeling of defeat around the failure of the Union of the Left.
MA: It sounds like you feel that the left was objectively constrained; in other words, that there wasn’t really a way out.
AP: Yes. We were faced with a capitalism that was so financially internationalized that we had no leverage to change the course of things. If you combine the influence of the US, UK, and Germany, there is not much France can do. Ignoring these very real constraints is not doing politics, it is practicing a religion.
MA: Maybe we can go back to the history of the party, particularly in 1968. What was the relationship like between the student movement and the labor movement? How did those conflicts play out in the party’s policy positions?
AP: Until 1968, the Communist Party was influential both in the labor movement, and among intellectuals. For the latter, the theory of state monopoly capitalism gave us a lot of intellectual capital. I remember getting a drink with Georges Séguy and Georges Marchais right before the adoption of the Programme Commun, and Marchais informing us that the CGT had just recruited its 3,000,000th member. Today the figure is less than 300,000. So we had a lot of hope, but we were also distrustful of the Socialists (due to their position on the Algerian War and the Suez Affair, among other things) at the same time as we sought a union with them. The events of '68 bear the mark of these contradictions. We participated in the events at the same time as we witnessed meetings between Mitterrand and Mendès-France and understood that we were screwed. I remember once going to a meeting at the Place du Colonel Fabien and seeing the head of the Economic Section tearing up piles of paper, so as not to leave a trace in case the Gaullists retaliated.
There was also a cultural shift with the emergence of the so called bohemian bourgeoisie, who pushed the boundaries of morality, sexuality, and so on. The Communists didn’t identify with that. Culturally, we were rigid: when you got married, you got married. You never bought your house, you always rented. If you bought a car, it was from Renault, because it was the national company.
When the Algerian war ended in 1962, there was room to move past some of the tensions. We published a book called Changing Course, in which we argued that we were not headed towards a revolution, but we should strongly break with the current system. That is where we first proposed the Programme Commun. Then the Socialists read our book and published one identical to ours titled Changing Life. Eventually this led us to sign the Programme Commun in 1972. In the beginning, it worked very well. We agreed on the basis of the Programme. But as things developed it became clear that the Socialists were the main beneficiaries of the Union and we were weakened electorally.
MA: What was the relationship like between the CGT and the Communist Party, and how did it change?
AP: When the Secretary-General of the CGT replied to me: We can't choose between Finance Minister Delors and you, that the answer to the question. When CGT members first saw Mitterrand arrive, they trusted him. But the number of CGT militants was declining, and we were declining electorally (though Marchais denied it). There was a Professor of Law at Sciences-Po, named Georges Lavaud, who argued that the Communist Party had two functions: publically as a tribune for the people, and behind closed doors as an occupant in places of power. In an article titled “Whats the use of the Communist Party?” I argued that there was also a theoretical function. I also demonstrated a very clear decline in the Party’s three functions. The first time we were in government, between ‘44-47, we controlled 30% of cities larger than 9,000 inhabitants, CGT was practially the only trade union, and we had all of the greatest intellectuals. The second time we were in government was ‘81-84, the one we are concerned with. By this point we were largely a failure; electorally we fell from 26% in 1946 to 15% in 81, nearly all the intellectuals were gone, but we remained a stronger tribune than the socialists. Our three functions were undoubtedly degraded, but they persisted. By 97-2002, the plural left, we totally collapsed in terms of numbers. We lost positions of power, and intellectually we ceased to play any kind of role. Things haven’t improved since then. The question used to be: What is the use of the Communist Party? Now the question is: Does it even exist?
MA: What role did the collapse of the Soviet Union play in the collapse of the French Communist Party?
AP: At the time, we thought the least likely thing was the collapse of the Soviet Union. And yet that’s exactly what happened. But we had already lost so much by that time. Nevertheless, I stand by the 20th century. I say that it was a Promethean century: we believed that with Marxism, we could become the masters of our destiny. But what was the result? Common ownership was reduced to statism and bureaucracy. None of these take away from the initial desire for emancipation. Prometheus takes the light and fire of the sun and gives them to men, encouraging them to live differently. But Prometheus dies chained to a rock, eaten away by the eagles. Prometheus failed, but he remains our reference. That's why I don't mourn the 20th century. In 2010 I wrote a book titled “In Defense of Failure.” We undertook a great experiment, and now is the time to ask “what has happened” and “what can we do about it?” That is how I see my role today.
MA: If you can take a moment to reflect on this time period. What have been your greatest ideological transformations?
AP: I left the Communist Party in a weird way. I resigned from the Central Committee in '93 and left the Party in '94. At the 27th Congress in December of 1990, I made a speech in which I asked for three things: the renunciation of democratic centralism, the end of lengthy speeches at the beginning of the congress, and an end to the vote on the Report of the Political Bureau prior to its revisions. This created a commotion. But one year later, Georges Marchais announced the end of Democratic Centralism. It meant I had at least a first satisfaction. Secondly, he announced that we would no longer vote on the Report of the Political Bureau to the Central Committee, second satisfaction. And thirdly, he decided that he would no longer make a long opening speech but merely an introduction speech. So they met my demands. But do you know that famous phrase from Visconti’s The Leopard: Change everything so that nothing changes? That is how I felt. I resigned in June because of Georges Marchais rather authoritarian book, Démocratie. On the one hand they said that they were abandoning Democratic Centralism and on the other hand they formalized it in the most advanced way they had ever done.
Today, there is no one that I can call an adversary in the Communist Party. When I’m invited to meetings by the FSU, the CGT, Force Ouvrière or the Communist Party, I accept. There aren’t many strong political views left. My new book is called The Trace. In it I argue that we need to collectively recognize that there will never be a paradise. We must not make concessions on our principles in order to win. We need to put forward a coherent approach that represents our values. In the words of Goethe, the goal is the path.
MA: What hope do we have of rebuilding the left today?
AP: Sadly, I think our situation today is far worse than it was when we were in government. We are headed for a great catastrophe. And I don’t think the next municipal elections will bring us the solution. It is only through major upheavals that we can generate new situations. Not through continuity, but through rupture. That is a very Marxist thing to say!
To young generations today, I ask, what are you bringing forward? My generation lived through the second world war, the cold war, decolonization May 68, and so on. Only events forge identities. My impression is that young people today are not enthusiastic about unemployment and pensions. And then there are what I call “surrogate ideologies,” which adopt leftist positions but rob them of their economic and class dimension. Green capitalism, some forms of feminism, and so on. But I begin my book by saying that in ten or twenty years, we will find that our time was the most interesting one in history. That’s because from a historical angle, a society that is dying always gives birth to a new one. We can try to understand what this new one will be like, but we are constrained because we only have the tools of our time. We will look back and think it was obvious, but right now we can’t see it.