France: Where the Left Still Understands the Meaning of Solidarity

by Brian Slocums on January 15, 2013

Much of the Western left is in political disarray over the situation in Syria—a few currents are still vigorously beating the anti-intervention drum, others are supporting the revolution but on the basis of questionable assessments of the situation, while yet others are just turning their attention elsewhere and ignoring Syria. But whatever their stance, very few left organisations have initiated or even participated in serious solidarity actions with the Syrian people.

trainThe honourable exception is the French left, which has embraced the cause of the Syrian revolution in a unique fashion. While there are plenty of conspiracy theorists and pro-Assad websites in France, they seem to be more the creatures of the far right than offshoots of the left. Virtually the entire French left, from the French Communist Party (PCF) to the main Trotskyist groups to the Greens, are very clear about what side they are on in Syria: that of the Syrian people’s democratic struggle against the Assad regime. Most remain opposed to Western military intervention but make this a very subordinate theme of their campaigns which focus on their solidarity with the revolution and on condemning the regime’s crimes.

For example, in December 2011 solidarity organisations put together a Train for the Freedom of Syria, a group of 300 advocates who traveled to Strasbourg to discuss the Syrian situation with various figures in the European Parliament. A statement in support of the trip was signed by 173 prominent intellectuals and cultural figures; the authors’ English translation, slightly modified, reads in part:

The Syrian people have been living a tragedy for 20 months. They dare to express—peacefully and en masse—their demands for freedom, democracy, and liberation from the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad. This same dictator has responded with the fury of revolvers, rifles, machine-guns, canons tanks, helicopters, war-planes, war-ships, in addition to cluster-bombs and knives, targeting men, women, and even children. The calculus of death surpasses 40,000. … Defending the right to life in Syria is a humanitarian duty and responsibility for each and every one of us. …

Each one of us should ask: ‘If I do not speak out, who will? If I do not speak out now, then when?’ … We must … address the authorities in France, in Europe, and the world, which until now have shown only faults and failures. Bashar Al Assad is brutalising Syria to an extreme while peaceful demonstrators uphold its civility. Assad and his clan have no legitimacy but continue with their repression, against which the Free Syrian Army represents the front line of defence.

The world is not doing even the minimum possible. The United Nations is mute, impotent, incapable of any effective humanitarian reaction. The Security Council confines itself to recording the inexcusable vetoes of Russia and China, who meanwhile contribute to the armament of Bashar Al Assad and his clan. …

France must commit itself—concretely and passionately—to stand alongside civil society, the social networks, local coordination committees in villages, and neighbourhoods. The Syrian people need food, medicine and medical equipment, school supplies, mattresses, and blankets for the fast-approaching winter and an assurance of protection.

France, Europe, and the world must make an effective response to the stirring of the jihadist scarecrow, so precious to Bashar Al Assad. The jihadist presence is still marginal in terms of numbers, but presents a real danger if the Syrian people are abandoned to fend for themselves. The best weapon against radical Islamism is the support and solidarity of all those who support the Syrian struggle for freedom in the face of a torturous regime.

More importantly, the French left has taken action in solidarity with the Syrian struggle, advancing concrete proposals for the provision of aid, as indicated by this Facebook page, which spotlights demonstrations held by solidarity organisations in six provincial cities. And Syrian solidarity featured at the great gathering of the French left, the PCF’s Fête de l’Humanité, held in September.

As elsewhere, the driving force behind the Syrian solidarity movement is the local Syrian community, in this case especially the informational Web site SouriaHouria (scroll down for English text). But unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere, these activists are not on their own but closely linked to the left, as the extensive list of solidarity actions on their site indicates: On average there are two Syrian solidarity events taking place across France each week, including demonstrations, meetings, and cultural events.

Solidarity with the Syrian revolution in France dates back almost to the beginning of the revolution. In July 2011, 10 prominent cultural figures associated with the Avignon Festival issued a declaration titled “Syria—Towards Freedom” and organised a mass solidarity meeting in Paris. One of the founding signatories of this declaration was former PCF senator Jack Ralite, who has remained an outspoken stalwart of the solidarity movement up to the present. They reissued their declaration a year later, observing that in the intervening year “the macabre balance sheet of repression has grown almost tenfold. At war with his own people, Bachar al-Assad knows no limits.”

On March 17, 2011, as part of a Global Day for Syria, demonstrations took place in Paris and several other cities, with the Paris demonstration attracting several thousand supporters. In April, the principal human rights organisations and the professional association of lawyers in Paris initiated the Vague Blanche pour Syrie (the White Wave for Syria), a coordinated series of demonstrations across France launched April 17, the anniversary of Syrian independence, with a demonstration led by the mayor of Paris. It was endorsed by 148 prominent cultural figures, including actors Juliet Binoche and Jane Birkin, musician Youssou Ndour, and filmmakers Costa Gavras and Jean-Luc Godard.

In September the principal anti-globalisation organisation in France, Initiatives Pour un Autre Monde (IPAM), called for the creation of a support collective for the Syrian people. This was endorsed by a broad spectrum of left organisations, including the PCF, the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), the trade union group Solidarity, and a number of North African organisations, including the important Mouvement du 20 Fevrier of Morocco.

While this activity is impressive, it has its limitations (which are to some extent those of the French left)—declarations and the formation of solidarity networks abound, but this has not led to sustained organisational activity, and the solidarity movement remains fragmented, with most public actions relatively small, embracing only a few hundred people. The programme of the movement has never been really thrashed out, leading to inconsistencies—it condemns Russian and China for blocking a Chapter 7 U.N. resolution but doesn’t seem to have thought about how one would be enforced if adopted; the movement vigorously pushes for humanitarian aid from France and the E.U., but isn’t clear about how the conditions for delivering that aid could be created.

However, the movement has spawned significant non-governmental aid work, especially in medical aid, including the first of a series of aid convoys directly to Syria. At the same time, some new political discussions are opening up—for example, the Greens in a recent document seemed to be talking about defining conditions for French military aid to the Free Syrian Aarmy (transparency, chanelling of weapons to democratic and non-sectarian groups).

But whatever the French left’s limitations, it is inspiring to see left forces that have not forgotten the centrality to socialist values of solidarity with the oppressed.


Brian Slocums is a retired social scientist and was a militant in the Canadian and British Trotskyist movement over many years. He is now politically unaffiliated but retains a firm commitment to socialist values, while accepting the need to rethink the means through which they can best be realized.

  • Ben Campbell

    To address the obvious issue – this post on Syria from Brian is unfortunately timed (certainly not his fault), given the recent French “intervention” in Mali, which has taken the attention of the French Left. I will post something on Mali later, but the general question for Brian (and anyone else) is how are these French groups/individuals mentioned responding to the situation in Mali?

    • Brian S.

      @Ben : I had the same feeling as I waited for this post to appear. A quick check indicates that most of the French far left (especially trotskyists) are strongly opposed to the intervention. See e.g. the statement of the Nouveau parti Anticapitaliste – http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2862
      I’m not clear about the other sections of the left, but there’s a good summary (in english) of some of their views on the eve of the intervention here: http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/mali-risks-of-french-intervention-for-melenchon-and-french-communists/
      For what’s its worth this is my off-the-cuff comment just posted on Daily Kos:
      “I don’t have enough info to take a firm position on the French intervention – there are arguments on both sides (although most of the French left-of-the-left seem to be sharply opposed). But the French have an appalling record in manipulating their former African possessions; and this is too institutionalised to have disappeared simply with a change of government. So I wouldn’t trust the French state for a moment in its operations in Africa. Whether Mali is another case where anti-imperialists have to bite the bullet and accept that it is just the least-worst of the real options, I don’t yet know.”
      There’s also some good comments and links on the Arabist website: http://www.arabist.net/
      Certainly welcome a discussion on the issues this raises.

  • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

    I wonder if the fact that the French left did a lot of heroic underground work against the Nazis has anything to do with their strong stance against Assad’s fascist regime?

    • Aaron Aarons

      Maybe the fact that much of the French left in the years immediately after World War II, while the PCF was in the French government, took an active part in supporting and/or facilitating French imperialist attacks against, at least, Algeria (Setif massacre, etc.) and Viet Nam has something to do with their support for French “human rights” imperialism today.

      And it should be remembered that Syria was a French colony for decades (until 1943) and that the French ruling class has a habit of dominating, or trying to dominate, its former colonies.

      • Ben Campbell

        Yes, Aaron is correct that the response of the French left to both Syria and Mali cannot be separated from the colonial history. Brian, is it a coincidence that the country whose left you’ve identified as showing “solidarity” with the Syrian people also happens to be the country which once laid claim to it? It would be nice to clarify this relation a little.

        • Brian S.

          @Ben and Aaron: re French left and colonial history. Well, there are many strands to this story. and my expertise here is limited. But a couple of points. Syria was not an historic colony of France: it was acquired by France in 1920 in the post WWI carve-up of the Ottoman empire and effectively held until 1946 (with some disruption during the war years). I think the main legacy of the French connection in Syria is the establishment of France as a centre of reference for the birth of Syrian-Lebanese nationalism (the key figures of the Baath party met in France as students) and for the modern Syrian intelligentsia, including current Syrian oppositionists. Burhan Ghalioun,, Haytham Manna and Suhair Atassi, have all chosen France as their place of exile, and for them and others like Michel Kilo, French is their second language.
          What this means is that there are stronger ties between Syrian oppositionists and France, than with any other country, this has naturally extended to the new generation as well, and has heightened awareness of Syria among the French left and intelligentsia.
          The other side of the coin is the strong tradition of anti-imperialism and solidarity with third world struggles in France. Aaron is right to point to the abysmal role of the PCF in the struggle for Algerian independance: but this was the dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist PCF of yesteryear which, if it were alive today, we can be pretty sure would be singing the praises of Bashar al-Asad; the modern PCF is a more pluralistic entity which is open to the influence of other ideas and currents – hence its position on Syria.
          And there is a very different tradition on the French left – that of Sartre and de Beauvoir; of the Jeanson network (the “suitcase carriers” who illegallly ferried money and papers for the FNL underground; the Fourth internationalists, metalworkers who travelled to Morocco to set up underground munitions factories, printers who forged documents and even currency for the FNL.
          Solidarity with the Syrian revolution is first and foremost in this tradition.

          • Aaron Aarons

            Actually, based on admittedly limited knowledge, I don’t have a very positive view of the Algerian FLN. The only support they deserved, IMO, is for whatever blows they directed against the French colonialist state, and not for whatever actions they took to gain and maintain hegemony over the independence struggle. There were socially revolutionary elements to that struggle, but they didn’t last very long after the peace treaty and French withdrawal.

      • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

        You conflate the Syrian revolution with French imperialism. Oops.

    • Aaron Aarons

      And “anti-fascism” has been a frequent excuse on the left, at least since June 22, 1941, for supporting one group of capitalist gangsters against another.

    • Brian S.

      @Binh. There is certainly a connection between the war time experience and the history of anti-imperialism in France. De Beauvoir in her comments on Algeria makes the experience of living under Nazi occupation a reference point;and many of the people who broke with the PCF and participated in the Jeanson Nework to support the FNL had fought in the resistance.

      http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/1960/jeanson.htm
      I the resistance tradition lives on in the French left not so much as a concrete reference point , but as a basic element of its historic DNA.

  • Dick Gregory

    “Others are supporting the revolution but on the basis of questionable assessments of the situation.”
    What is questionable about Simon Assaf’s assessment in the linked Socialist Worker article?

    • Brian S.

      @Dick Gregory: In my view, its overoptimistic about the relationship of forces between the opposition and the regime (less evident, perhaps, when Simon wrote it , but fairly clear now that we have a new regime offensive); it totally glosses over the emerging problem areas (rise of the salafist-jihadist groups; disputes within the FSA; conflicts with the kurdish communities); it whitewashes the National Coalition: “The new Syrian National Coalition represents a broad alliance of exiles, defectors, local revolutionary committees and the rebel brigades.” (formally true but in substance nonsense: its an entity engineered by the west and largely dominated by the Muslim brotherhood, with little influence inside the country). It tells us that “Over past few weeks tens of thousands of men have abandoned refugee camps in Jordan to join the growing rebel army in the south.” Simon is of Syrian origin, so he may have access to information that others do not, but no one else has reported this phenomenon, and it seems unlikely that it could have gone on unnoticed. All in all, it looks like a romanticised picture.
      I accept that this is written for a popular audience and is not a theoretical treatise, and I also accept that the SWP – especially when represented by Simon -has had its heart in the right place over Syria. Which which is why I merely qualified its analysis as “questionable” (meant in the literal sense – its open to question.)

  • Ben Campbell

    This new article is more evidence of French support. Here is a very rough google translate:

    Alterglobalists, support the struggle of the Syrian people

    The Arab revolutions have opened a century will be the popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes around the world.

    These popular movements which have as targets of injustice and inequality, oppression and contempt, corruption and clannishness, have deep roots that explain their massive, generational (youth everywhere played a prominent role) interfaith diversity of social classes involved, their duration, permanence.

    Avoid the trap of inter-ethnic civil war

    In Syria, for over a year and a half, despite the repression that are millions of peaceful protesters who have demanded reforms. On the internet you can watch tens of thousands of videos of demonstrations and repression filmed by thousands of activists.

    To explain the continuation of the scheme, some argue that retains a popular base and seek to minimize the proportion of the population which is opposite. Certainly, those in power has the support of a part of the community Alaouite. This regime has done everything to endanger it to ensure its support. However, despite the massacres committed by the militias of the regime, there was very little retaliation revolutionaries, they wanted to avoid the trap of civil war inter-ethnic and inter-religious power which seeks to attract them.

    No, the real reason for this criminal regime which is resistant operation clan closed and the military and economic support it receives from Russia and Iran. The army is under the control of the security services. Any attempt to escape or suspicious behavior means a summary execution.

    Regime gravedigger of the Palestinian struggle

    In addition, it is time to end the myth of Assad’s Syrian regime, support the struggle of the Palestinian people! Israel had little to complain about this plan: he destroyed the Palestinian military force in Lebanon and ensured peace on the border of Golan since 1973. In addition, a large portion of the 500,000 Palestinian refugees in camps in Syria now mobilizes alongside the Syrian revolutionary.

    As for forty years, whenever he was in trouble, the regime has denounced a conspiracy “imperialist Zionist reactionary Arab” and explained that during the war was the result of foreign interference. But this scheme since its inception has never endangered the interests of Western powers while building excellent relations with the Soviet Union and then Russia with Putin and concluding an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    The uprising of the Syrian people have not been imported or … by the Tunisian and Egyptian virus! In fact the popular movement, peaceful and accompanied by armed resistance, has plunged the global and regional powers, first in surprise at the length and the tenacity of its struggle and embarrassment.

    Nickname anti-imperialism

    It is surprising that political parties, movements, people claiming to be anti-imperialism, the struggle for social and democratic rights, also seem more embarrassed to the point of refuge in the “neither Assad or support the movement against the regime. ” It is appalling to note that leaders of states, parties, movements, claiming to have anti-imperialism “sorted” in the popular struggles just to support some or even all have rejected!

    It is shocking to hear some claiming an uncompromising anti-imperialism proclaim that these movements are the result of maneuvers to bring down regimes as “anti-imperialist” than Gaddafi and Assad, yet allies United States and European states and their peoples exploiters!

    It is amazing to hear some say that these uprisings are, in essence, that the instrument of a “conspiracy” organized somewhere between Washington and Riyadh to put the power of the pro-Western Islamists!

    Interference Westerners and monarchies?

    Finally, some admit that such a popular movement can not be reduced to a conspiracy from abroad but believe that the emergence of armed resistance (and its armed groups within particular radical Islamism) is immersed in Syria bloodshed, taking hostage the civilian population, exacerbating religious differences, thus making possible a peaceful solution. Therefore, they conclude that this armed resistance is due to the interference of Westerners and monarchies!

    Clearly, the major powers and regional powers have never lost interest in Syria. But this time the “foreign interference” did not precede but followed the development of the clashes, including triggering the system of internal war against his people, deliberately chosen option at the end of summer 2011.

    The failure of the uprising in Syria would be a disastrous signal to all the peoples of the region, including the struggle of the Palestinian people. It would also be for all the people of the world who are still under the yoke of dictatorships. Movements must demand that international solidarity, anti-imperialism, anti-globalization movement and progressive develop support and solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people, ie:

    support all initiatives to help all refugees and sending means humanitarian support to the democratic movement and popular in its diversity, support for free and independent media; support all initiatives of dialogue inter and refusal of ethnic and sectarian war, support the refusal by the Syrian resistance foreign guardianship.

    To the use of chemical weapons?

    But refuse any foreign tutelage (Iranian, Russian, Western and Gulf) does not deny the right and the means to defend themselves. Guardianship fight external means helping revolutionary Syrian able to defend independently. Since a few weeks the movement of resistance to the regime took a boost. It combines demonstrations of mass non-violent resistance and advanced armed fronts. Military bases have fallen and the movement is growing desertion, fighting now won the outskirts of Damascus, the system multiplies the militia raids and redoubled violence.

    Should not exclude qu’acculé, Bashar Assad using chemical weapons.

    So yes, the support for the struggle of the Syrian people is also accepting applications from organizations representing the popular uprising to provide weapons that allow him to oppose the bombing and invasion hinder tanks.

    Monique Crinon , feminist, head of international solidarity association, Dreano Bernard , head of international solidarity associations, Gilles Manceron historian, Frederick Farid Sarkis , a founding member of the Association Exit colonialism, Claude Szatan , militant association of international solidarity, Emmanuel Terray , anthropologist.

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