Thursday, September 27, 2012

‘The struggle is class . . . against class’


- Ceci n’est pas La matraque des profs contre la hausse

Strike or no strike, the struggle continues’



The following is my translation of a feature article in the Autumn 2012 issue of a 16-page tabloid produced by Profs contre la hausse (Profs against the fee hike), the group of university and college professors that helped to mobilize support for the striking students in Quebec’s “printemps érable,” or maple spring. The newpaper bears the evocative masthead “Ceci n’est pas La Matraque des profs contre la hausse,” the matraque, or police truncheon, referring of course to the brutal repression of student demonstrators by the cops.

During the strike this spring, a statement (“We are all students”) issued by Profs contre la hausse was signed by more than 2,000 professors.[1] The current issue of the profs’ newspaper, which is subtitled “The spring continues,” states on its front page: “We present this newspaper to the students, who, through their unprecedented mobilization, were able to revitalize the Quebec political landscape. Their powerful speeches and their creative opposition to the bards of austerity and the ‘fair share’ inspire us in our own practices of political freedom.”

Richard Fidler

* * *

The political economy behind this year’s student struggle and the increase in Quebec tuition fees

by Eric Pineault, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM)

The spring student strike is quite probably the inaugural act of a new period of social conflict in Quebec, analogous to the struggles that are traversing the other societies beset by the similar exhaustion of a neoliberal political economy. After three decades of relative “civil peace” (1982 to 2012) and neoliberal bracketing of conflicts, Quebec could be entering an era of political and cultural awakening in which it is once again possible to hope for a fundamental transformation of economic and social relations. Such changes do not occur without arousing strong resistance, and the social offensives needed to drive them forward must be equally combative.

It was precisely based on such analyses that the ASSÉ, then the CLASSE,[2] prepared the big strike of 2012. It was necessary, from the outset, to link the fight against the increase to a more comprehensive challenge to the neoliberal state model, in particular the so-called “cultural revolution” of fee-based public services, a regressive tax system and privatization of the common heritage of the Québécois and aboriginal peoples. So for the CLASSE, at least, it was not simply a fight against the fee hike — which, to be sure, would have soon unraveled in a negotiated increase. Rather, it was a social struggle for free education and for a decommodification of the university system.

The so-called “radicalism” of the CLASSE is derived, as the expression suggests, from the fact that the analysis framing its strike action went to the root of the problem and grasped it in its totality: the fee increase and the commodity and corporate drift of the university system are products of a neoliberal political economy that is imposed on all aspects of Quebec society. This political economy is not an invention of Jean Charest’s Liberals; they systematized and adapted a more general model applied pretty well everywhere in North America, some key aspects having been installed by the PQ in the socio-economic summits following the 1995 referendum.

image The former Conservative turned nationalist Lucien Bouchard passed the torch of austerity and competitive deregulation to the former Conservative turned Liberal Jean Charest who, at first, simply developed in complete coherence what was already implicit in Bouchard’s zero-deficit policy, then accelerated and generalized the establishment of the neoliberal model in Quebec. These developments followed a long period, between 1982 and 1995, of exhaustion of the social model established in the traces of the Quiet Revolution. The Quebec model of neoliberalism was also prepared through the construction at the federal level of its neoliberal macro-economic framework: free-trade agreement, conversion of unemployment insurance into “employment insurance,” a disinflationary monetary policy, financial deregulation, lower taxes and the fight against the deficit they provoked.

It can be said that the crisis of 2008 marked the end of this ascendancy of neoliberalism, both here and elsewhere in North America and Europe, for it was the crisis of the economic model it had spawned. Since then we have been caught in a trap that combines economic stagnation with austerity. There is nothing in the policies responding to this crisis that eases this tendency to stagnation. The elite has apparently turned its back on the growth on which, in theory, the viability of advanced capitalism rests.

Such is the political economy context of the coming social conflicts in Quebec: an anaemic economy, most incomes stagnating, and a state caught in the vice-like grip of an austerity that generates further stagnation, with greater austerity in response. This context is not peculiar to Quebec; the essential sources of this stagnation trap lie elsewhere, in the United States and Europe, and by opening up our economy we have made ourselves dependent on economic cycles over which we have no influence. The Plan Nord can only accentuate this dependency. In this context, what are the possible sequels to the social movement of the spring of 2012?

One way of thinking about the last three decades of neoliberal hegemony is to see them as thirty years of a one-sided “class struggle,” and one way of making sense of what began in the spring of 2012 is to understand it as the end of this one-sidedness. The class struggle is now working both ways. How can we understand neoliberalism as a one-sided class struggle? To understand that, a small detour through history is necessary. For the greater part of the 20th century, the political economy regime was characterized by a certain compromise between capital and labour, between big corporations and employees. The profits of the first rested on the consumption of the second, and firms were constrained to share their productivity gains with the workers so that the latter could (over)consume massively what was (over)produced massively. That was the major lesson learned during the crisis of the 1930s, a crisis of overproduction, underconsumption and under-investment.

From 1939 to 1980 in North America and Western Europe, real wages of the majority progressed from year to year, while everywhere the share of the wealth going to the most well-off (the highest 1% of incomes) decreased year by year, from the ceiling of 1930 to the floor of 1980. It was not through kindness or necessarily by far-sightedness that the capitalists were led to share the proceeds of economic growth. On the contrary, it was essentially thanks to the strength of the trade-union movement, the pressure exerted on the state by a mobilized citizenry, the presence in the political arena of left-wing parties, and the counter-model constituted by the so-called “communist” countries that the welfare state, and a form of partially socialized capitalism, developed.

Quebec’s Quiet Revolution arrived toward the end of this period, and constituted for us a sort of catching-up with an historical trajectory that was much longer elsewhere. Within a few years, Quebec acquired a modern social state and a progressive labour law; nationalized some major sectors of its economy; created the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement, the public university and college networks, and the health care system; made working conditions in the public sector a lever for raising conditions in the private sector; and, finally, equipped itself with the tools to develop its natural resources under its own control. Added to all this, a progressive tax system that took more from the well-off than from the majority, and that tapped into profits almost as much as wages, gradually but ineluctably reduced the power of the business elites and big corporations in the society and the economy.

Neoliberal policies are a struggle by the elites to reconquer the economic and political power they lost to the workers, whom they have managed to fragment into a multiplicity of groups, each forced onto the defensive, each attempting to preserve some acquisition that guarantees its dignity. The great secret of neoliberalism is that what we understand as the dismantling of some part of the social state, the privatization of some public service, the imposition of market competition in some sector, the deregulation of this or that is in fact a vast transfer of resources, wealth and power from “the commons” to the hands of the elite and their big corporations. That has been the true nature of the one-sided class warfare waged by the elite against society, for some thirty years.

That warfare could continue uninterrupted for as long as it held the promise that this was the only way to guarantee economic growth that would eventually allow the workers to increase their living standards. After the crisis of 2008, belief in the need for austerity helped to extend this context of one-sided struggle. But with the spring of 2012, the veil was lifted and the elite appeared for what it is: a class of “appropriators” who live and enrich themselves by transforming our collective heritage into their individual wealth and into assets for the big corporations. The future of the universities did not escape this logic, and the fee increase was an essential tool in this strategy of incorporation of the university. By challenging the increase in the name of free tuition, the movement altered the context. The struggle is now being waged by both sides. It is possible to think of a post-neoliberalism, and to go about constructing it. Over and beyond the electoral pause, a new era of change and social debate is opening before us.

[1] For an English translation, see “Massive demonstrations support Quebec students striking against fee hikes”; the statement is appended to the article.

[2] Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante – Association for student union solidarity (ASSÉ); Coalition large de l’ASSÉ – Broad coalition of the ASSÉ (CLASSE).

Monday, September 24, 2012

Quebec nationalist leader critiques PQ’s anti-immigrant ‘charter of exclusion’


As I mentioned in my report on the Quebec election, among the issues championed by the Parti québécois was that of strengthening Quebecois identity, focused around the PQ demand for a charte de laïcité or Charter of Secularism that would effectively exclude women wearing the Muslim hijab or scarf from employment in government or public services. PQ leader Pauline Marois drove the point home by parachuting a notorious Islamophobe as the party’s candidate in the riding of Trois-Rivières. Djemila Benhabib was defeated, but not before this provocative action had been widely publicized.

Now a powerful voice has been raised within Quebec nationalist ranks in protest against the PQ position. In a major op-ed article in the September 22 issue of the Montréal daily Le Devoir, Jean Dorion explained why the PQ’s position on “secularism” had convinced him not to support the party in this election. Dorion is a former MP of the Bloc québécois, a former official in PQ governments and former president of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montréal. The SSJB is an historic Quebec institution, founded by leaders of the Patriote movement in the years leading up to the 1837 revolt against British colonialism and today is a leading secular voice in the broader nationalist and sovereigntist movement.

It is to be hoped that Dorion’s statement, which I have translated below, will open up a much-needed debate within sovereigntist ranks on such issues as what is meant by secularism, the difference between state neutrality toward religion and freedom of religious belief, and the related questions of the role of immigration and the challenge of finding ways to welcome and integrate oppressed and visible minorities within Quebec society.

There is much confusion on these questions, and it extends through much of the left as well. An example is the record of the left party, Québec solidaire. At its November 2009 program convention, QS adopted what it termed a “model of secularism” that, among other things, defended the right of “state agents” (i.e. employees and officials) to wear insignia of their religious beliefs, if any — a position that would oppose the PQ’s proposed charter with its imposed dress codes. (For a full report, see “Quebec left debates strategy for independence.”)

In a follow-up article in Le Devoir, published January 18, 2010, QS co-leaders Françoise David and Amir Khadir defined the party’s position on the wearing of “ostentatious” signs of personal religious belief as “neither obligation nor prohibition”: that is, no one should be required to wear such signs nor should they be prohibited from doing so if they so wished. The article strongly defended individual freedom of conscience and the need to protect it from state intrusion.

However, since then QS leaders have backtracked somewhat on the party’s adopted positions. Early this year Khadir and David gave critical support to the Charest government’s Bill 94, which would deny government-funded health care, education and child care services to all whose clothing prevents disclosure of their face, and would bar them from government and public-service employment. The bill patently targets a tiny number of Muslim women who wear niqabs or burqas.

And when some Sikhs sought to appear before a parliamentary committee to express their opposition to Bill 94, Amir Khadir added his vote on a PQ motion, supported by the other parties, to exclude them from the National Assembly because they were wearing their ceremonial dagger, the kirpan, even though it could hardly be termed a “weapon” as alleged.

Although the PQ campaigned prominently around narrow exclusionary identity issues, the QS platform in this election did not address them. It did not reiterate the party’s formal position in support of freedom of religious belief, although it did advocate affirmative action to promote the employment of immigrant women and visible and ethnic minorities in the public service.

Here, then, is Jean’s Dorion’s explanation of why he chose not to vote for the PQ and to vote instead for another party in this election.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Charter of secularism – When a separatist separates

The polls announced a PQ government and we have one. At least, my electoral turn-about cannot be treated as opportunistic; for the first time since the PQ existed, I did not vote for this party.

I was torn by this break. It will lose me some friends, disappoint some sincere militants, be misinterpreted. I did not reveal it prior to the election; it would have been seen as treachery instead of an opportunity for reflection. No, I am not the Guy Bertrand[1] of modern times. And I refuse in advance any invitation to come and relax at Sagard.[2] But a time comes when a decision must be taken.

I simply cannot come to the defense of the PQ’s Charte de la laïcité, a bogus project that if pursued will divide a society that is already too divided. It will make the independence of Quebec even more difficult by alienating us from liberal public opinion in the rest of the continent, the only sectors otherwise likely to respect our choice. And it will devastate for a long time our relationship with the greatest Francophone immigration Quebec has ever experienced — a milieu, even yesterday, relatively open to our aspirations. The PQ had four Muslim candidates in 2007, none this year. The chickens do not vote for Colonel Sanders.

Screen for intolerance

And we do not need any such charter! Apart from some minor adjustments, Quebec is already a secular society, as a result of measures taken by the Quiet Revolution, crowned by the deconfessionalization of the school system.[3] Bravo to the people who called for this — I was one of them — and to Pauline Marois who got it written into the law and the constitution.

Alas, when a political personality can boast of success in one area, she seems incapable of letting go, in the belief that “more of the same” [in English] will be even more pleasing. The secularization Part II project of the PQ would concord with Karl Marx’s saying that History repeats itself, the second time as farce.

What indeed are we to say about a party that votes to maintain a crucifix in the National Assembly but at the same time advocates a prohibition on working in the public and parapublic sectors for ordinary citizens who, in their personal capacity, wear a religious sign such as the Muslim scarf or the Jewish kippa? The crucifix does not prevent me from sleeping, but secularism as a screen for intolerance does.

I tried for four years to convince many PQ MNAs to avoid this trap. The final response to my discreet representations and to those of others was the parachuting of Ms. Djemila Benhabib into Trois-Rivières, an augury of a secularism locked twice-over.

I have read the books of this woman of a single cause. She has suffered much and seems very sincere to me. I would say as much of Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, the scourge of crime. Unfortunately, having suffered and having accounts to settle does not necessarily make someone the most judicious counsellor. The Senator’s remedies against crime (more repression than prevention) would increase criminality. The PQ’s discriminatory Charter, unparalleled in North America, would play into the hands of the Islamic extremists, who must be hoping for its adoption with baited breath.

Compatibility of views

I will always defend the right of anyone to criticize any institution, including religions. But the choice of a candidate by a party is not a matter of right but of relevance. I have known and appreciated quite a few Muslims, Sikhs and Jews; I was the government’s liaison agent with these communities. Ms. Benhabib’s parachute candidacy in Trois-Rivières is as great a misstep for the PQ in the Muslim community as the choice of Stéphane Dion as leader of the federal Liberals was for that party in French Quebec. In both cases, a party became infatuated with a member of a minority not because of that person’s efforts to increase understanding of the minority, but solely because of the compatibility of his or her views with the phobias of the majority.

I do not personally know each of the 200,000 Muslims in Quebec, but all those I do know, practicing or not, saw the parachuting of the author of Ma vie à contre-Coran [My life against the Koran] as a provocation. How would Christians react (practitioners or even those non-practitioners who want a crucifix in the National Assembly) to the candidacy of a person whose proudest merit was a book entitled My life against the Gospel? In my opinion, those responsible for this choice do not display the judgment and sensitivity required by a project as complex and demanding as the accession of Quebec to sovereignty. Like Maurice Duplessis, who also built part of his electoral career on the back of a religious minority (the Jehovah’s Witnesses), they are more interested in their re-election than in the future of Quebec as a society.

Is France a model?

Some seemingly respectable arguments are invoked against the presence in the public services of women wearing the scarf. That, it is claimed, is how they will be “liberated,” as if a job and salary were not the primary guarantors of their freedom. But the most obvious reason is the fear of what is alien, as the contradiction over the crucifix illustrates.

The second most important reason is probably, among some baby-boomers, an inverted legacy of a Quebec now gone: the obsessive hostility toward religions and scorn for their adherents. This hostility, this contempt will yield no good in a Quebec in which diversity is increasing. The stigmatization of believers is unlikely to create any empathy among and towards immigrants who, in their majority, attach great importance to their religion — Christian, Muslim, or other.

The model to be imitated, it appears, would be France, a country I passionately love, but not to the point of folly. Since the Second World War France has held the western world’s championship for its electorate’s support to an openly xenophobic party, if we consider both the scope and duration of that support. In France, looking like someone from North Africa will often have the police asking you for “Your papers!” every day — as reports none other than Djemila Benhabib in Ma vie à contre-Coran (p. 190).

And what about the angry young people from the immigrant communities who set fire to hundreds of cars each year on the night of July 14 [Bastille Day]; do we see such things in Montréal on the 24th of June [the Fête nationale], in Toronto on Canada Day, in New York on July 4?

Annoying the rest of the continent

Quebec is in America. Some of us are beginning to discover, with surprise, how much a secularism of exclusion shocks the prevailing ethic in the United States, as in Canada. On July 4, 2009, President Obama denounced the prohibition of the hijab in the West; he was criticized very little for that in his country. In Canada, three turban-wearing Sikhs, elected in majority non-Sikh ridings, sat in the House of Commons when I was there myself, without anyone taking offense. One of them is now a minister.

In Quebec, with the Charter planned by the PQ, he could not even be a clerk in a government liquor store. The countries of Protestant origins value freedom of conscience. In the United States, secularism means strict separation of Church from State, not a prohibition on the expression of beliefs.

Of course, we can choose to annoy all the rest of the continent, I have often done so myself on the language, but it is still necessary that the issue be worth the trouble. If we multiply the cases, we allow our adversaries to link them together in order to paint Quebec as a fortress of intolerance in all respects.

Charter of exclusion

Treating Québécois as racists is unfair, agreed: a recent poll showed we are more open to immigration than Ontarians. But when it comes to accusations of intolerance toward religious minorities, a good way to refute them, or to discredit those who make them, would be not to show ourselves as worse than our neighbours in this area.

There are Jews and Muslims everywhere in the United States and Canada, countries that have some sixty state or provincial legislatures with comparable powers, overall, to those of our National Assembly. Name me a single one of these legislatures or, in recent times, a major party that has proposed a charter of exclusion like the one advocated by the PQ. Halal and Kosher rites are practices in all these states and provinces. Name me one of their legislatures or a major party that has recently made such a song and dance over this (complete with a news conference!) as the PQ did in the National Assembly last March.[4]

Could it be that all these other legislatures, without exception, are controlled by “useful idiots” in the service of the Islamists? Might it not be, instead, that our insecurity and our religious antecedents sometimes inspire in us reflexes that are excessive, unfair and counter-productive? Of course, some will see in the singularity of our conduct some (further) proof of our intellectual and moral superiority. Chauvinism is the contrary of patriotism: instead of encouraging the nation to improve, we exalt its errors; and that generally ends up badly.

I have therefore left it to those who dream of living some day in the only corner of North America in which a mother could be deprived of a livelihood for wearing a Muslim scarf the responsibility of their project. I remain an independentist, a radical defender of French.

It was necessary to vote and I chose Option nationale (ON). This party had the good idea, in its platform, to advocate the secularism of public institutions, not the forced secularization of each of their employees. I know many of these militants, young people for the most part. They would not make that kind of mistake.

[Note by Le Devoir] Jean Dorion. A sociologist, the author has been a political attaché of Immigration Minister Jacques Couture, chief of staff of minister Gérald Godin, liaison officer with the cultural communities, president of the SSJB de Montréal, delegate general of Quebec in Tokyo and MP for the Bloc québécois.

[1] Guy Bertrand is a Quebec City lawyer, once a fervent sovereigntist (he even ran for the PQ leadership), who became an equally fervent federalist in the 1990s, and sometime later reverted to sovereigntism.

[2] A town in Charlevoix region containing the sumptuous residence of the very well-connected billionaire Paul Desmarais. It is frequented by the who’s who of the Quebec and international Francophone elite.

[3] In 1997, the addition of s. 93A to the Constitution Act, 1867 made possible the abolition of denominational school boards in Quebec and the reorganization of Quebec's school boards on the basis of language. Marois was the PQ minister of Education who piloted this constitutional amendment from Quebec’s side.

[4] André Simard, a PQ member of the National Assembly, with the support of his colleagues, campaigned in March against halal ritual slaughter practices, claiming (against all evidence) they were becoming the norm rather than the exception in Quebec.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Major victory for Quebec students, environmental activists

Their demonstrations have shaken Quebec in recent months, and yesterday students and environmentalists won major victories.

At her first news conference as premier, Pauline Marois announced that her Parti Québécois government had cancelled the university tuition fees increase imposed by the Charest Liberal government, and would repeal the repressive provisions of Law 12 (formerly Bill 78) Charest had imposed in his efforts to smash the province’s massive student strike. Among other things, this will remove the restrictions on public demonstrations and the threat of decertification of student associations.

In addition, Marois has ordered the closing of Gentilly-2, Quebec’s only nuclear reactor, while promising funding to promote economic diversification to offset job losses resulting from the shutdown. And she will proceed with her promise to cancel a $58 million government loan to reopen the Jeffrey Mine, Quebec’s last asbestos mining operation.

The new Natural Resources minister, Martine Ouellet, followed up by announcing an end to shale gas exploration and development in Quebec. “I do not see the day when there will be technologies that will allow their safe development,” she said. Residents of dozens of Quebec communities have been mobilizing against shale gas. As of March, there were 31 wells already drilled, and 18 had been fracked. The shale gas industry, which has spent some $200 million to date in Quebec, had plans to dig up to 600 wells a year by 2015.

A former president of Eau Secours!, a water protection group, Ouellet is one of three new ministers with strong environmentalist credentials, the others being Environment minister Daniel Breton, a co-founder of the Parti Vert, the Green party, and his deputy Scott McKay, a former Montréal city councillor and one-time leader of the Greens.

Student leaders were jubilant at the cancellation of the tuition fees increase. “Bravo to the striking students,” tweeted Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the former co-spokesman for the CLASSE, the most militant of the student groups that led the unprecedented four-month student strike in Quebec’s “printemps érable.”

“It’s a total victory!” said Martine Desjardins, president of the FEUQ, the university students’ federation. “Sept. 20 will be etched in the annals of history in Quebec,” tweeted the FECQ, the college students’ federation. The students also welcomed Marois’ announcement that her government would maintain the $39 million boost to financial assistance introduced by the Liberals to offset their tuition increase.

The PQ government is committed to holding a summit on education as early as this fall to debate and propose new arrangements for funding higher education in Quebec. Marois says she will be defending her party’s proposal to index tuition fee increases, which she says amounts to a freeze on current levels. The CLASSE pledged that it will continue to fight for free tuition, as did Québec solidaire.

Marois also announced cancellation of the $200 per person health tax imposed by Charest, which would have brought almost a billion dollars into the government coffers. The loss of this user fee will be made up by a tax increase on incomes over $130,000 a year and a 25 percentage point decrease in the capital gains exemption, she said.

Marois also confirmed her determination to bring in a balanced budget by 2014, which means that these popular decisions will no doubt be followed by major cutbacks in spending in other areas, yet unspecified.

However, it was a good day for the new Parti Québécois government. Predictably, it was met by cynical reactions in the capitalist media. Typical were the editors of the Montreal Gazette, who expressed the hope that the right-wing opposition parties would come up with what they described, in a mixture of hope and prediction, as “a persuasive alternative to what might probably be the shambles of PQ governance.”[1]

In a more sombre vein, Le Devoir’s environment columnist Louis-Gilles Francoeur drew attention to the powerful business interests who will be quick to campaign against even modest efforts that threaten their profits.

“The lobbies that profit from the lack of rules governing wetlands, for example, have already claimed the head of Thomas Mulcair, then Environment minister.[2] The review of [Charest’s] Plan Nord and the changes that will be made by minister Ouellet — to whom we owe some caustic analyses of the proposed overhaul of the Mining Act — will no doubt provoke a groundswell of protest from the major investors... for whom the green economy is still an irritant and not a potential.

“Then we will see whether minister Breton took his dreams for reality when he declared that the greens were now in power....”

[1] Later changed in on-line versions to “what may likely be,” etc.

[2] Mulcair was Charest’s Environment minister, who quit and later joined the federal New Democrats, whom he now leads. (Francoeur’s column is locked to non-subscribers.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Massive demonstration of up to two million for independence in Catalonia

Catalonia independence

La Vanguardia, Barcelona

While in Europe this summer, my partner Cristina and I spent a week in Barcelona, a vibrant and historic city, the second largest in Spain and the capital of Catalonia, the largest and one of the most industrialized of the 17 autonomous regions in the Spanish state. We were surprised at the omnipresence of the Catalan language, the first (and sometimes only) language of signs and the day-to-day language of much of the population — about one third of Barcelona, according to statistics, but more prevalent in the rest of Catalonia.

Catalan is certainly a distinct language; to my untutored ear it seemed as different from Castilian (Spanish) as is Portuguese. It also has obvious resemblances to French, all of these languages being rooted in the Occitan or Gallo-Romance groups of languages.

The recent history of the Catalan language and national consciousness is one of remarkable resilience. The language was banned from schools and government ministries under Franco, who in the early years of his dictatorial regime actively repressed its expression in public. In Franco’s time all signage and business correspondence were in Castillian. Since Franco, however, affirmative legislation (inspired in part, we were told, by Quebec’s Law 101, the Charter of the French Language) has ensured that Catalan is now the language of politics, education, and much of the media.[1]

In the following article, my friend Dick Nichols — who, along with his Catalan partner Montserrat, hosted us for a wonderful evening in Barcelona — reports on the amazing demonstration for independence of up to two million Catalans on September 11, their national day. And he provides an extremely informative account of the background to this event and the rise of pro-autonomy and pro-independence feeling in Catalonia. Dick appends to his article a helpful glossary of Catalan nationalist organizations. Republished with permission from Links, International journal of socialist renewal.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Farewell Spain? Catalan independence march sends shockwave

By Dick Nichols, Barcelona

September 17, 2012 – On September 11, the Catalan National Day, politics in the Spanish state suffered a massive shock: up to 2 million people (more than 25% of the population of Catalonia) marched through the streets of Barcelona shouting one word, “independència”. It was a day when countless Catalans discovered that others felt the way they did—it’s time to drop Spain for a state of our own.

Who were they? And why is support for an independent Catalonia—from 1990 to 2008 as low as 15% of the population in some polls—now running at around 50%?

This was a very different Diada (Catalan National Day, remembering the 1714 fall of a besieged Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession). Besides the usual morning ceremonies involving cultural acts before political, business and social dignitaries, an evening march behind the banner “Catalonia, A New European State” was organised by two new nationalist networks, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI).

The signs that the march would be huge were clear before the day. Around 1200 coaches had to be booked to bring people to Barcelona from the regions and on one rail line special trains had to be limited because the system had run out of carriages.

Catalan politicians who don’t support independence—like Josep Duran Lleida, leader of the Catalan conservative nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) fraction in the national Spanish parliament—decided at the last moment that they had to be seen at a demonstration opposed to their politics. Nine cabinet members of the CiU government in Catalonia said they would be attending “in a personal capacity”.

Key Catalan state institutions were directed to help organise and publicise the event. This was one protest that notorious police minister, Felip Puig, jailer of unionists and basher-in-chief of indignados, would actually help to build. It would also get live coverage on Catalan state TV’s Channel 3. When the day was over the Catalan police would be defending an attendance figure of 1.5 million (as against the 600,000 figure of the central Spanish government representative in Barcelona).

The Catalan government’s motive was to use the march as a demonstration of support for its proposed “fiscal pact” with the national government of the Popular Party’s (PP) Mariano Rajoy. Supported by all Catalan parliamentary parties with the exception of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) and the Popular Party of Catalonia (PPC), the fiscal pact would give the region similar financial powers to those enjoyed by the Basque Country (Euskadi) and Navarra—to levy taxes and then decide what proportion should be forwarded to the Spanish state.

This would enable Catalonia to reverse a situation where, according to Catalan government calculations, the region loses €16 billion a year to “Madrid” and the 16 other autonomous communities (states) into which Spain is divided.

On the day

Attendance on the day exceeded all expectations and planning capacity. This was the largest march in Catalan history—bigger than the 1977 march for Catalan autonomy, the 2000 march against the murder of PSC leader Ernest Lluch by Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) and the 2003 protests against the Iraq War. It was also bigger than the million-plus 2010 protest against the ruling of the Spanish Constitutional Court that sections of the 2006 Catalan Statute of Autonomy were unconstitutional.

Central Barcelona froze solid as a march supposed to take two-and-a-half hours to reach its destination outside parliament house lasted more than five hours. Such was the crush that the delegation that was to present the demands of the demonstration had to be whisked to parliament house ahead of the march to meet parliamentary representatives (and Channel 3’s program schedule). Mobile phone networks collapsed completely.

The demonstration was all Catalonia coming to town. Entire families, from faced-painted toddlers to grandparents waited patiently as “castlers” castled, folk bands played and “giants” moved among the crowd. When the march finally began families from towns and villages from the remote Pyrenees and with accents odd to Barcelona ears marched behind their placards: “Sant Pere de Riudebitlles says independence now!”; “Llambilles says: Premier Mas, lead or leave!”

There were delegations from the historic Catalan Lands beyond present-day Catalonia—Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the eastern, Catalan-speaking, strip of Aragon and the Rosellon area of France (annexed in 1659). Delegations from the Basque Country waved red, white and green national flags in solidarity.

Social sectors and institutions rushed to identify with the cause. The Barcelona Football Club announced on the day that the strip of its B team would henceforward be the yellow and red stripes of the senyera, the official flag. On the march there were “Police for Independence”, “Firefighters for Independence”, “Pensioners for Independence”, and “Teachers for Independence”.

The Barcelona Stock Exchange building, prime candidate for physical attack at any protest, draped itself in a protective five-story estelada (the Catalan independentist flag which, inspired by Cuba’s, adds a blue white-starred triangle to the stripes of the senyera).

At the other end of the spectrum, the main union confederations, the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union of Labour (UGT), demanded “fewer cuts and more self-government”, while an anarchist collective carried a huge banner that read “Catalans, your main enemy is at home—CiU and La Caixa”, a reference to the country’s political and economic establishment (the Catalan La Caixa is one of Spain’s biggest banks).

However, the overwhelming message of the demonstration was for independence. Hardly any other slogan—certainly not for the fiscal pact—had a chance against the incessant chant of “in-de-pen-dèn-cia”. The only competitor was “Whoever doesn’t jump is a Spaniard!”—especially popular among the hundreds of thousands of young people present.

The feeling that it is high time to leave the suffocating Spanish State was overwhelming and reflected in placards in other languages, including Castilian (Spanish)—“Spain, your robbery is genocide”, “Your hatred is our good-bye”, “Farewell, Spain”, “Catalonia is not Spain” and “Yes we Cat!”.

The clear predominance of estelades over senyeres floating above the march reinforced the independence message. But what sort of independence? While the blue-triangled estelada predominated, the yellow-and-red esteldada—designed in the 1960s by the Socialist Party of National Liberation (PSAN) and variously interpreted as the flag of the entire Catalan Lands or as the symbol of an independent socialist Catalonia—was also massively present.

Then there was the singing—of the national anthem, "The reapers", and of classics of the Catalan protest movement against the Franco dictatorship, like "The stake" and "What do these people want?" Catalan singer-songwriter and composer of "The stake", national idol Lluis Llach, a former PSAN member, was among the lead marchers.

With half the demonstration still to enter Ciutadella Park in front of parliament, the final act of the day began. In 20 different languages non-Catalan residents of Catalonia expressed their support for the country’s right to self-determination. The most moving moment came when one speaker read (in Spanish translation) the "Ode to Spain" of Catalan poet Joan Maragall, a powerful denunciation of the slaughter of Catalan sailors in the 1898 Spanish-Cuban war and ending with the words “Spain, farewell!”.

The act concluded with a mass showing of green cards for independence, infusing a green tinge into the sea of yellow and red. When one Catalan hero, former Barcelona trainer Pep Guardiola, showed his green card by video link from New York, the park went beserk.

And all the time this was happening, separate demonstrations under the slogan “Neither Fiscal Pact Nor Social Pact” were organised in five major centres by various left and revolutionary independentist organisations. According to one of these, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), they drew between 25,000 and 30,000.


The huge protest happened because of the past three years of social aggression and maiming of Catalan national rights. Matters have reached this point because:

  • In 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Court supported important aspects of the PP appeal against the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, passed by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments and ratified by referendum in Catalonia (albeit with a very high abstention rate of 51%). The message of that decision was that even the weak 2006 statute was too much for Spanish centralist forces.
  • Both the PSOE and the PP when in government nationally refused to agree to a serious reworking of the system for financing the autonomous communities. Catalonia has suffered under this arrangement with its per capita income dropping from fifth to ninth of the 17 autonomous communities after the share-out. When the post-2008 economic crisis arrived Catalonia, a centre of the real estate bubble, was among the hardest-hit of the autonomous communities.
  • Since the May 2011 elections to the autonomous communities and the return of the PP to government nationally, the Spanish-centralist war on Catalan culture and language has intensified, with the PP government of the Balearic Islands reintroducing Castilian as a language of school instruction on an equal footing with Catalan, the PP government in Aragon redefining the Catalan spoken in that community’s eastern strip as “Eastern Aragonese”, and the PPC launching a court case to have Castilian made an equal language of instruction with Catalan in Catalonia itself.
  • Since 2009 the intense rise in social struggle in Catalonia has fed into the rise of left nationalist forces, in particular the CUP, which had over 100 councillors elected in the May 2011 local government poll. Previously, Catalan Solidarity for Independence (SI), a coalition of small nationalist groups, had won five seats in the 2010 elections to the 135-seat Catalan parliament. In March 2012, the 16th Congress of Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the major party within CiU, adopted the goal of forming a Catalan state.

The rise was also due to disillusionment with the tripartite coalition government of the PSC, Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens--United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), which had governed the region between 2003 and 2010. The tripartit introduced many reforms into Catalonia, especially in health, education, child care and training, but its budget increasingly depended on tax revenue generated by the soon-to-collapse real-estate bubble, with the deficit widening rapidly after 2009.

CiU opposition to the tripartit was mainly in a nationalist vein. That government’s shortcomings were supposedly due to the influence of the “Spanish” parties PSC and ICV (i.e., Catalan affiliates of all-Spanish organisations) and of the capitulation of the ERC to them. This despite CiU’s much worse record of dirty dealing with Madrid.

When CiU was returned to government in 2010 and began its program of cutbacks in health, education and welfare and tax breaks for the rich (agreed with the PPC), the only tactic left for deflecting rising popular anger was to blame Madrid and to try to spook the Rajoy government into accepting a new fiscal deal.

When Catalan premier Artur Mas was forced in late August into a humiliating application for a €5 billion loan from the new Spanish bailout fund, the pressure to blame Madrid just increased, especially as CiU had been falling in the polls because of its austerity attacks (from 38.4% at the 2010 Catalan elections to under 30%--the main winners have been ICV-EUiA and ERC).

Yet, while CiU is the main political expression of Catalan independence sentiment and is trying to manipulate it to its advantage, it would be a serious mistake to see it mainly as a product of that party’s electoral needs. The sentiment for independence has grown, especially among the younger generations, because increasing numbers simply see no alternative road out of the Spanish mess. The feeling is: “Let’s get our own house, then we can fix it up.”

This situation is also a reflection of the ambiguities and divisions over the right to national self-determination within the all-Spanish left beyond the PSOE, exclusively stressing the all-Spanish social struggle against the austerity of the Rajoy government. Eloquent has been the silence (to date) of the national United Left (IU) web site on the Barcelona demonstration.

Organising the movement

The new rise in pro-independence sentiment became increasingly organised from late 2009. In September that year the local council of Arenys de Munt, where left nationalism has been strong and where the CUP now holds the mayoralty, asked its citizens to vote on the question “Do you agree that the Catalan nation should take the form of constitutional state, independent, democratic and social, and integrated into the European Union?” 96% said yes. By December 169 of Catalunya’s 947 municipalities had organised similar consultations, with a similar result.

The initiative of Arenys de Munt lay at the beginning of the two forces that organised this year’s Diada protest—the ANC, founded in March this year and the AMI, founded in December 2011, to which a majority of local councils (532) are now affiliated. Their broad form has allowed Catalan nationalists of different backgrounds who had often been involved in bitter disputes in the past to collaborate on clear and concrete objectives, spreading the network of municipalities for independence and building the 2012 Diada as a step along the road to a national consultation on independence for Catalonia.

In March, the AMI executive adopted the goal of reaching a coverage of 60% of the Catalan population in the councils affiliated to it as the threshold for demanding a referendum of the Catalan government.

The AMC is the activist network of the movement, with 9000 members and 15,000 sympathisers recruited in half a year, now grouped in 300 local assemblies. According to ANC president Carme Forcadell, “The local assemblies are the important thing. They include party members, but what counts is working for independence.”

In June, the AMC and AMI came together to plan their “march to independence”, beginning with the Diada demonstration. A manifesto was agreed stating that if the CiU government called early elections with independence as the central issue and if the resulting parliament committed to a plebiscite on self-determination under international guarantees then the Mas government “could count on our unconditional support”.

In addition, “if the Catalan people vote in favour, or if the Spanish State prevents the free exercise of this right, the elected deputies would have to proclaim national independence and constitute the sovereign Catalan state.”

Clearly, the purpose of the statement was to reduce the Mas government’s wriggle room as much as possible.

Support for independence

The 532 councils affiliated to the AMI cover around 32% of the population of Catalonia (see This reflects the fact that support for independence is strongest in the smaller towns and villages and is weakest in the biggest cities, especially Barcelona. Of the three other regional capitals, Tarragona, Lleida and Girona, only the last is affiliated to the AMI. No council in Catalonia´s most populous shire, the Barcelonés with a population of over two million, belongs to AMI.

This geographical spread of support for independence correlates closely to the power base of CiU, whose mayors and councilors enjoy a clear majority on AMI leadership bodies. Only one town of more than 50,000 not governed by CiU (Cerdanyola de Vallés where the PSC rules in alliance with ICV) belongs to the AMI.

Yet, despite this CiU organisational predominance a June poll by the Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies stated that 70% of independence supporters described themselves as left or centre left.

The reality behind the statistics is that the Catalan nationalist movement is a socially very mixed movement, stronger among small business and the middle classes, but with real support among workers, students and people on welfare. Independence is certainly not the preferred road of Catalan big capital, which actually favours the CiU trying to increase its weight within all-Spanish politics (by demanding positions in the national cabinet, for example). The Catalan 1%, working feverishly behind the scenes, prays for some fiscal pact deal that leaves its access to Spanish markets and collaboration with Spanish capital as undisturbed as possible.

The working class in Catalonia is split. Support is lowest among immigrants from the rest of Spain, concentrated since the 1960s in heavy industry and construction. A March 2010 TV3 survey showed support for Catalan independence at 19% among residents of Catalonia born elsewhere in Spain, an attitude often driven by a healthy hatred of the Catalan employing class.

In the same survey support for independence from immigrants from “the rest of the world” stood at 40%.

This reality is reflected in the spread of support among voters for the parliamentary parties. In June, a poll by the Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies showed that support for independence was a majority among ERC voters (95.7%), CiU voters (64.5%), and ICV-EUiA voters (53.2%). But only 29% of PSC and 8% of PPC voters supported independence.


The outpouring on September 11 took place with polls showing around 50% prepared to vote for independence, 20% against, and 30% undecided or not voting. It is the background to an event that has forced all political forces in Spain and Catalonia into a rapid rebooting of positions.

Mas had no choice but quickly to place himself at the head of the movement. After meeting ANC leaders on Friday, September 14, he told Spanish commercial radio that, even if a fiscal pact was achieved, Catalonia would still be walking the pathway to independence if its people so desired.

No end of manoeuvring can be expected from Mas, Duran Lleida and other CiU politicins, who have spent a lifetime doing deals with the Spanish right in all its forms, usually along the lines of crumbs for Catalonia in return for their support for regressive social and anti-worker policy nationally.

The most recent example was CiU enthusiastic support for the Rajoy government’s “labour reform”, the most brutal attack on worker and union rights since the end of the Franco dictatorship. Mas and Co. have also boastfully taken the lead in implementing austerity. In this, as in so much, the line is that Catalonia just so much more efficient than the rest. “We are the Germans of Spain”, was one of Mas’s more recent pearls.

But September 11 and the huge boost it has given to independence sentiment has sharply narrowed Mas’s room for manoeuvre for the time being. Also, within CiU the pressure is on the Catalan premier to stay true to the independence cause, especially from the Pujol dynasty of father Jordi (premier of Catalonia from 1980 to 2003) and son Oriel (CiU president, presently being investigated for involvement in a party funding scandal).

In the next session of the Catalan parliament Mas will face calls from ERC and SI to organise a referendum on independence (illegal under the Spanish constitution), as all nationalist forces engage in the race for the independence vote. Against Mas’ preference for terms like “autonomous Catalan state structures” ERC parliamentarians like Alfred Bosch joke “Come on Artur, it’s not hard to say—in-de-pen-den-ci-a.”

The nationalist movement is already implementing its next tactic, led again by Arenys de Munt, of declaring its municipalities zones liberated from the application of the Spanish constitution.

The reaction from the Spanish right has been according to the old scripts. PPC president Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, hitherto loyal ally of Mas on austerity and social policy, is now describing the premier as “Catalonia’s Ibarretxe”, a reference to the former Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) premier of Euskadi, whose 2005 and 2008 attempts to organise referenda in that region were voted down in the Spanish parliament and then outlawed by the Constitutional Court.

Sanchez-Camacho wrote in the September 12 La Razón: “Without doubt a large number of people took part in yesterday’s demonstration, but it is equally certain that a much larger number of Catalans did not and do not share the separatist goal…We cannot allow the CiU government to convince anyone that independentism is a majority option…We do not want the radicalisation of these last days to lead us to social, economic and institutional breakdown.”

Dolores de Cospedal, The PP’s national secretary general and premier of Castilla-La Mancha, paints Catalan independence as a road out of the euro and the European Union and into an irrelevance. The hint is that the Catalans should not be allowed to wreck their future and that of Spain.

Provocative Madrid PP premier Esperanza Aguirre has given a speech in which she stated that the Catalans and Basques were obviously unhappy with Sapin’s system of autonomous communities, in her mind an argument in for a return to a more centralised and “efficient” Spanish state structure. What Aguirre thinks should “be done about” the Basques and Catalans was left unsaid.

Spanish centralism’s other political voices, the Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD) and, within Catalonia, Citizens (Cs) have gone out of their way in boosting the politics of fear—an independent Catalonia would make its non-Catalan residents second-class citizens and victims of Catalan chauvinist discrimination.

For the Socialist Workers Party of Spain (PSOE) and its affiliate the PSC (whose leadership did not take part in the march but whose “Catalanist” minority did) the answer is assertion of a “new federalism” against the centralising tendencies of Rajoy and Co.

At the same time the Spanish centralism of the PSOE mainstream—which only grudgingly accepted Zapatero’s Statute of Autonomy deal with the tripartit in 2006—has been on display in a stream of speeches and articles about national independence being a “nineteenth century concept” and stressing the supposed high cost to an independent Catalunya of accessing water and energy.

The problem for the PSOE—indeed for all all-Spanish political forces—is that after 30 years of life within Spain, the federalist alternative in Catalonia has exhausted practically all attraction, especially among young people. Brought up within the half-way Catalan institutions allowed under the system of autonomous communities, their instincts lead them to prefer an independent Catalonia under CiU than more decades of pseudo-negotiations and low-intensity warfare with Spain.

Reconstituting Spain?


At its 6th national congress in May the Catalan affiliate of IU, EUiA, adopted a perspective of refounding the left in Catalonia on the basis of the struggle for social and environmental justice and Catalonia’s right to self-determination. The EUiA resolution envisages the broadest possible front of independentists, autonomists and federalists, linking social and national struggles together in a bloc to make the exercise of Catalonia’s right to self-determination politically unstoppable.

After September 11, EuiA said: “The days of betting on an obsolete institutional framework into which Catalonia doesn’t fit are long past. EuiA puts its money on the development of a plurinational federalism where the right to decide is recognised ... one in which the Spanish state meets the challenge of understanding and listening to the national sentiment of the peoples that make it up.”

But maybe the outraged national sentiment of Catalonia today makes even this progressive position obsolete. There is a very slim chance that this might change after the October 21 elections in Galicia and the Basque Country, where the left Basque nationalists of EH Bildu have a good chance of emerging as the leading party and the new Galician formation ANOVA (“the Galician Syriza”) could make a strong showing. More likely, however, is that reactions from Madrid to such an advance for left nationalism would only strengthen the Catalan desire to close the door on Spain.

The original Comintern perspective for Spain and Portugal was of a socialist confederation of Iberia, a perspective that still makes a lot of sense. However, in today’s world, in which support for the socialist alternative is much weaker and important parts of the Spanish left still don’t really embrace the right of self-determination, the path to such a future more feasibly lies through an independent and socially progressive Catalonia and Euskadi leading the way in the demolition of the Spanish “prison of nations”.

The situation is challenging for EUiA. Already the United Left in the Basque Country (Esker Batua) has fragmented and will probably lose parliamentary representation. Sections of the EUiA base are suspicious and fearful of right-wing Catalan nationalism, did not attend the September 11 demonstration, and also point out—correctly—that having Catalonia as a new state in Europe will by itself solve little or nothing of the country’s social, economic and environmental problems.

On the other hand, if EUiA loses the connection and hearing it has among the younger generation of Catalans who yearn for independence it would lose its own future.

To end on a lighter note, some issues that before September 11 were the stuff of conversation in bars have become more pressing:

1. Would an independent Catalonia have an army? Artur Mas, knowing the intense anti-war and anti-militarist sentiment of the Catalans, has already said no.

2. How would an independent Catalonia “enter Europe”? An EU spokesperson said it would first have to “leave” and then ask for permission to join the European Union. Two days later a correction was issued: Catalonia could enter Europe if Spain and Catalonia agreed that it could.

3. In an independent Catalonia in what football league would Barcelona play? Would games against the beloved enemy Real Madrid come to an end? Would fans just have to get used to the best club in the world thrashing Sabadell 8-1 in a new Catalan League? Barcelona Football Club president Sandro Rosell has rushed to assure the nation that he was “sure” that Barcelona would continue to play in the Spanish league—like Monaco in the French league.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012, issue of Green Left Weekly.]


Appendix: Catalan nationalist organisations

Parliamentary parties

Convergence and Union (CiU). The ruling right-nationalist party in Catalonia, composed of the majority Democratic Convergence for Catalonia (CDC) and the Christian democrat Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC).

Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Founded in 1931 through the fusion of Catalan State (leader Francesc Maciá), the Catalan Republican Party (leader Lluis Companys) and other smaller forces. Maciá was the elected as the first leader of a Catalan state on the basis of the 1932 Statute of Autonomy, negotiated with the Spanish parliament. On Maciá’s death in 1933, Companys replaced him, to be executed at the end of the Spanish Civil War by the Francoists.

Catalan Solidarity for Independence (SI).Formed to promote the immediate move to Catalan independence. SI is a seven-party coaltion made up of Solidarity for Independence, the Catalan Republican Party, The Greens-Green Alternative, the Socialist Party of National Liberation, Catalonia Nation Independence, Action Catalonia and the Catalan Sovereignty Bloc.

Left nationalists

Forward—Socialist Organisation of National Liberation (Endavant-OSAN).Founded in 2000. Endavant’s goals are independence and socialism, with the fight conducted against national, social and patriarchal oppression. Slogan: “Without economic sovereignty there is no true independence”:

Movement for the Defence of the Land (MDT). Pan-Catalanist revolutionary independence movement with long history going back to PSAN.

Maulets. Youth movement associated with MDT. “Maulets” was a satirical name given to the supporters of Archduke Charles, ally of Catalonia in the War of the Spanish Succession.Coordinating Committee of Youth Assemblies of the Independentist Left(CAJEI). Coordinating body of local collectives of revolutionary independentist youth.

Arran. New (2012) organisation of revolutionary Catalanist youth, fusion of Maulets, CAJEI and local groups.

Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). The electoral voice of revolutionary Catalan independentism. Supported by above organisations. A municipally based network made up of local assemblies.

Right nationalists

Platform for Catalonia (PxC). Xenophobic, islamophobic and racist, with neo-Nazi elements. Has 60 councillors and a recent poll in La Razón shows it entering the Catalan parliament.

[1] Developments in Catalonia have understandably attracted considerable interest in Quebec. Two books that include extensive discussion of Catalonia, comparing it with other national minorities in Europe such as Scotland, are Christian Rioux, Voyages à l’intérieur des petites nations (Montréal: Boréal, 2000), and Michael Keating, Les défis du nationalisme moderne: Québec, Catalogne, Écosse (Montréal: PUM, 1997), a translation of Nations Against the State: The New Politics of Nationalism in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland (London: Macmillan Press, 1996).

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Quebec socialists analyze election results

Early analyses of the September 4 Quebec election results included the following comment by Pierre Beaudet, an editor of Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme and member of Québec solidaire. Also of note is an article by QS member Pierre Mouterde, a collaborator of the on-line journal Presse-toi à gauche!, published in English translation here.

* * *

A sober balance sheet

by Pierre Beaudet

It will take a few days, if not weeks, to dissect the results of the September 4 election. First off, I think the left has to be candid in its balance sheet. Meanwhile, here are a few observations that touch on a number of questions that need to be discussed in depth.

The ‘incident’

  • The attempted assassination of Pauline Marois[1] has aroused much emotion, and rightly so. The media were quick to present it as an act of madness and to lay full responsibility for the killing on a deranged individual, which the suspect appears to be (for now).
  • However, they remain silent about the hate campaign raging against the Parti Québécois, the idea of sovereignty and the referendum, in the media of English Canada, especially in the gutter press (Quebecor Sun), but also in the usually less sulphurous media such as the CBC. This hate campaign slips easily into a more or less subtle racism aimed at “loud-mouth” Québécois, “always complaining and living off handouts from Canada,” etc.
  • Emerging at the margin or the far right of this discourse are the more or less visible social networks where actual calls for murder can be heard. Fertile ground for this kind of desperado action. Reason enough for us to inquire into the broader sources of the incident, which does not mean engaging in any kind of conspiracy theory.

The victory of the right

  • The Quebec right was the solid winner in the election. The combined vote of close to 60% for the PLQ and CAQ is an unequivocal indication. Of course, the voters were led to cast their ballots for these formations for all kinds of reasons. The PLQ and CAQ are not identical. But they are right-wing parties and uncompromising opponents of any progressive change in Quebec. Both parties are shameless in their message:

o It is necessary to restore a balanced government budget and repay the debt, which means passing off the bill on the popular classes.

o It is necessary to privatize and dismantle entire sections of the public sector inherited from the Quiet Revolution.

o It is necessary to weaken the unions strategically, by any and all means.

o It is necessary to accept the fiscal and monetary policies determined largely by Ottawa, and step up the “neoliberal reforms.”

o It is necessary to remain within the Canadian confederation.

  • A majority of the population voted for that, and that means something. To be sure, we have to take into account the fact that a major part of the electorate was motivated by the fear spread by the media and the right-wing formations. A technical but important consideration: the “undecided” in the polls are for the most part people who vote on the right but do not say so, which falsifies the polls.
  • The “traditional” right (the PLQ) is completely dominant in the electoral choices of the Anglophone and Allophone minorities. This is not new, but it was conceivable that in the circumstances (the scandals surrounding the Charest government) this support would have weakened. But for now this reality seems to be a permanent fixture, so powerful is the fear of the possibility of Quebec sovereignty in this 20% of the population. To which must be added another significant percentage (largely composed of Francophones over the age of 55) who likewise reject any perspective of change.
  • François Legault lost his bet, but the CAQ will remain. First, there is the old populist (ADQ) base, which is relatively solid and might stand at somewhere between 15 and 20%. Then there will be Legault’s efforts to rely on the coming problems of the PLQ (foreseeable in the continuation of the Charbonneau Commission) to nibble at the edges of the PLQ. However, it is possible that Legault’s project will get lost in internal bickering since it is, overall, a disparate coalition of the right but with subsisting fractures (the “far” right, some “soft nationalists,” etc.).
  • Last but not least, the federal state (the only “real” state in Canada) can be happy with the way things are going. The guarantor of “Canada Inc.” and “Quebec Inc.,” this state knows that with the PLQ it has a “safe investment” solidly anchored in the machinery of state and class in Canada. Furthermore, the state now has a “Plan B” with the CAQ, which constitutes an insurance policy in some ways. The situation in Quebec allows Harper to continue with his conservative revolution.

The PQ

  • This “bitter victory,” as Le Devoir columnist Michel David puts it, represents the worst of scenarios for the PQ. Its electoral base will not allow it to confront the PLQ and the CAQ other than on secondary issues. The PQ did not progress one iota from the outset of the campaign. It is a minority force in Montréal and Quebec City, the two urban centres containing more than 60% of Quebec’s population.
  • With all due respect to [newly elected PQ MNA] Jean-François Lisée, the PQ government will be bound hand and foot. It is practically impossible to imagine that on some substantial questions the PLQ or CAQ can support the government, even if, for differing reasons, neither party is hankering for a quick return to an election. They will have wide latitude to block the legislative agenda and to call the PQ’s bluff on many major issues. It was different when Harper was in a minority government situation, between 2006 and 2011, since on many major issues the Liberal opposition’s policy coincided with Harper’s. That is not the case now in Quebec.
  • In more than half of the ridings [electoral divisions] won by the PQ, it was due to the division of the vote between the PLQ and the CAQ, and not to an increase in its own vote. Despite the confusion produced by Quebec’s undemocratic voting system, neither the PQ nor any other party can reach the critical mass if it remains at 33% support.
  • In a dozen or so ridings, it was the reverse process, and the PQ lost because the vote was divided with Québec solidaire and Option nationale. In this context, it can be said that Marois’ refusal to negotiate with the “small” parties worsened the defeat.
  • For Quebec Inc., the PQ remains an implacable enemy. The rulers, all tendencies combined, think it must be eradicated. This reality leads to the end of the dream of Jacques Parizeau, who tried to convince at least some section of Quebec Inc. to come on board the sovereigntist project.

The left

  • The left saved face with the election of Amir Khadir and Françoise David, plus the performance of such candidates as Manon Massé, Serge Roy and Andres Fonticella. Its vote is up (to 6%, an increase of 2.2% from the previous election), which probably means that more than 225,000 people voted QS.[2] That is significant. If we add that the campaign was conducted in almost all of Quebec’s ridings, with thousands of members involved and a campaign infrastructure far superior to what existed previously, it is clear that the party made some progress.
  • However, the result is below expectations; we were hoping for 8% and more than two elected members. Retroactively, we note that these expectations were partly exaggerated, based on “internal polling” done a bit too quickly and not taking into account the “undecided” (most of whom vote on the right).
  • Françoise’s victory is the result of her performance in the leaders’ debate, rather than the emergence of QS as a coherent and credible political project. This victory is encouraging, to be sure, but its political significance is reduced by the fact that it largely depends on a media effect that generally works against the left (fortunately, there are exceptions).
  • Other rather negative realities: The left vote does not go beyond the centre of Montréal, into the regions (even where there is a progressive trade-union tradition, as in Abitibi or the North Shore of the St. Lawrence). Nor is it significant in the non-Francophone communities, although it may be somewhat in Laurier-Dorion thanks to the hard work of QS candidate Andres Fonticella. Moreover, a major part of the electorate that is sympathetic to the left accepted the PQ argument for the “strategic vote.”
  • The popular organizations and trade unions stood aside from the campaign (with a few exceptions such as the Montréal Central Council of the CSN and some union locals), and were content to denounce Charest. The students were more explicit, although the CLASSE adopted a relatively abstentionist discourse, taking refuge in the paradigm of “non-partisanship.” That thousands of popular organizations pretty well everywhere in the world see nothing wrong in supporting left parties (on the contrary) does not seem to have altered this mind-set in Quebec. This is a huge obstacle.

To be continued

  • The various components of the popular movement will soon be drawing up their balance sheet (or balance sheets), and this will enable us to get a much clearer picture. It will be necessary to work hard at identifying what could have been done in the last campaign. This may be a more urgent question than it appears, for there is a strong risk that we will soon be back in an election campaign!
  • Perhaps the most important thing is to begin to build a strategy in the new context of the minority PQ government. I think it is important to avoid having the right wing and its numerous house intellectuals monopolize the debate. We might think of ways to help our two QS elected members to develop some tools for “speaking forcefully” in Québec. We must use as much space as possible to get a hearing, which is quite a challenge in the context of our “Berlusconi-ized” media and the omnipresence of the Right.
  • Some themes that might be explored:

o How can the left develop deeper roots in the regions and among the immigrant communities?

o What is to be done about the “religion” of non-partisanship that prevails in the mass movements, blocking the debate on the need to link popular struggles and the political battle?

o On what bases can we dialogue with the PQ, especially in the framework of the National Assembly? What are the proposals that might destabilize the (right-wing) majority?

o Should the left envisage intervening on the municipal level, where a major part of the Right is installed?

September 5, 2012

Translated by Richard Fidler from Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme.

[1] The PQ leader’s election night victory speech to a hall packed with supporters was interrrupted when a masked man wearing a bathrobe and armed with an automatic rifle, attempting to enter the hall, killed a technician who intercepted him and seriously wounded another before his gun jammed. As he was led away by police, the man shouted in French “The English are waking up!” This armed intrusion by Richard Henry Bain, as he is now identifed, caused consternation among many in Quebec while in English Canada some media commentators incredibly tried to blame the incident on Marois for “jingoistic tribal politics” — referring to her focus on Francophone identity issues, which they demagogically linked to “hate” language. See “Questions surround attack against Pauline Marois.”

[2] Quebec’s chief electoral officer now reports 263,233 votes for Québec solidaire, 6.03% of those voting.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Quebec’s election – an initial balance sheet


The results of the September 4 general election in Quebec produce mixed reactions among supporters of all the major parties.

The pro-sovereignty Parti Québécois becomes the government, and PQ leader Pauline Marois the first woman premier, but with only a minority of seats (54) in the 125-seat National Assembly and thus vulnerable to parliamentary defeat by the right-wing and federalist Liberals (PLQ) and Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ).

The PQ won more than half of its seats thanks to the division of the vote between the PLQ and the CAQ. The PQ share of the popular vote did not increase during the five-week campaign. To obtain only 32% support running against one of the most unpopular governments in recent Quebec history, in the wake of the massive student upsurge of the “printemps érable,” is hardly a ringing endorsement.

The PQ will be unable to enact most of the major promises it made in order to attract votes or placate its more militant members. However, Marois was quick to tell student leaders that she will remove the Liberals’ tuition fee increase by order-in-council, and will repeal the repressive Law 12 (formerly Bill 78) that effectively banned spontaneous demonstrations and threatened student associations with decertification — depending on agreement by the Liberals, who sponsored the law, or the CAQ, which voted for it!

The Liberals, while chastened by the defeat of their government and the personal defeat of Premier Jean Charest in Sherbrooke followed by his resignation, can congratulate themselves on winning 50 seats and 31% of the popular vote, just 1% behind the PQ and 3 or 4 points above their standing in pre-election polling. As usual, the PLQ retains its solid federalist base, especially in the 30 or so ridings with significant Anglophone and Allophone (immigrant) populations.

The CAQ, a new right-wing party, won 27% of the votes but elected only 19 members under the undemocratic first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system. Few of its star candidates were elected. Founded by a former PQ cabinet minister François Legault and business magnate Charles Sirois, the CAQ had absorbed the populist neoliberal third party Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) and campaigned against sovereignty in the hope of replacing the Liberals as the hegemonic federalist party. Although it failed in this attempt, the CAQ retains its relatively solid adéquiste base and can look for future gains against the Liberals as new revelations of the Charest government’s corrupt practices emerge in the Charbonneau Commission hearings, soon to resume.

Overall, the Quebec right scored a solid victory, the PLQ and CAQ winning close to 60% of the vote. Despite minor differences, both parties stand for rebalancing the budget and paying off the debt at the expense of working people; privatizing and dismantling public sector institutions and programs inherited from the Quiet Revolution; weakening the unions; and keeping Quebec firmly within the Canadian state and subject to neoliberal fiscal and monetary policies largely determined by Ottawa. As Pierre Beaudet notes in Presse-toi-à gauche, Ottawa can be pleased with the election result; in addition to its reliable agent the PLQ it now has the CAQ as a “Plan B” party of federalist alternance to the Liberals if required. And this, with a voter participation rate of almost 75%, the highest turnout since 1998.

Québec solidaire, the left-wing pro-independence party, managed to elect co-leader Françoise David in Montréal’s Gouin riding (electoral constituency), where she handily defeated a sitting PQ member, and to re-elect QS’s other co-leader Amir Khadir in neighbouring Mercier. The party’s 124 candidates — half of them women — increased its share of the province-wide vote to 6.03% (263,233) from its 3.78% (122,618) in the previous election, in 2008. This score was well below the 9 or 10% it was getting in some pre-election polling, although in another three Montréal ridings QS scored well above 20% of the vote, and in a dozen or so other ridings more than 10%.

However, this left vote is concentrated in central Montréal and not in the regions. Moreover, with the partial exception of Laurier-Dorion, where QS candidate Andres Fonticella scored 23.34%, QS support is weak in the non-Francophone communities. As discussed below, there was little evidence in the campaign that QS has established solid roots among the social movements, which for the most part either persisted in non-partisan abstention from elections or oriented opportunistically toward the PQ as the sovereigntist party best positioned to defeat the Liberals. But the QS campaign attracted thousands of new recruits; party membership now stands at 13,000, twice the number a year ago.

A fifth party, the pro-sovereignty Option nationale (ON), formed during the last year by former PQ MNA Jean-Martin Aussant, fielded 120 candidates but won only 1.9% of the vote and failed to elect Aussant or any other candidate.[1] However, it boasts 5,000 members, the majority of them under the age of 35. Both QS and ON have recruited heavily from the student upsurge this spring.

PQ crisis stalled – but for how long?

Only a few months ago the Parti Québécois was struggling to surmount the existential crisis that was tearing it apart in the wake of the crushing defeat of the Bloc Québécois in the May 2011 federal election. A half-dozen PQ MNAs had defected from the party, and others were publicly speculating whether it had a future. The party’s membership was declining, especially among youth.

Since her election as leader in 2008, Marois had been courting the ADQ electorate around a neoliberal approach consistent with the party’s orientation since the 1980s, when it embraced free trade with the United States and later the “zero deficit” strategy. Marois refused to commit to any schedule for holding another referendum on sovereignty, promising instead to seek “winning conditions” through “sovereigntist governance,” a gradualist tactic of pursuing exclusive Quebec jurisdiction over matters of language, culture and international representation in the hope that eventually popular frustration at Ottawa’s resistance would open the way to a referendum victory.

But early this year Marois, in an attempt to shore up morale within the party, agreed to shift the PQ toward a range of positions focused on reinforcing Québécois Francophone identity, and even adopted a proposal from some party militants to allow a “referendum on popular initiative” (RIP) on sovereignty if 15% of the electorate signed a petition to that effect. And to reinforce the identity message, she parachuted a notorious Islamophobe, Djemila Benjabib, into Trois-Rivières, the riding once held throughout 32 years by Quebec’s infamous conservative nationalist premier Maurice Duplessis.[2] (Benjabib was narrowly defeated by the sitting Liberal on September 4.)

Marois also attempted to appeal to the striking students in Quebec’s “printemps érable.” In the National Assembly she and all the PQ MNAs had sported the students’ red felt square (the carré rouge) on their lapels, to the immense irritation of Charest and his ministers. She promised to reverse the government’s tuition fee hike if elected, and to repeal Law 12. And she recruited a student leader, Léo Bureau-Blouin, the former president of the CEGEP (college) students’ association, as a PQ candidate. (He was elected.)

During the campaign, however, Marois made it clear that she adamantly opposed a key demand of many if not most of the striking students: free tuition. She played down the PQ promise to limit attendance at English-language CEGEPs to native English speakers (a proposal that Bureau-Blouin admitted was deeply unpopular among many Francophone students). And she declared that her government would not be bound by any RIP calling for a referendum on sovereignty. However, she stuck to her well-trodden identity issues, such as restricting Quebec citizenship to those with reasonable fluency in French (a position criticized by First Nations leaders), and adoption of a charter on laïceté (secularism) that, among other things, would ban the wearing of religious insignia such as the Muslim hijab or scarf by government and public services employees — with an exception for those who choose to wear a small Christian crucifix!

In fact, the PQ’s focus on exclusionary identity issues is the complement to the party’s neoliberalism and its reluctance to mount a fundamental challenge to the federal state, the mainstay of Canadian capitalism. Québec solidaire was founded by socialists, progressive activists and left-wing sovereigntists precisely in order to create an alternative to the PQ that could challenge neoliberalism in both the streets and the ballot boxes around a program that projects an inclusive “open secularism” and is “resolutely of the left, feminist, ecologist, altermondialiste, pacifist, democratic and sovereigntist.”[3]

PQ campaigns against Québec solidaire

A major concern of the PQ in this election was to prevent Québec solidaire from siphoning votes on its left flank, especially in Francophone working-class ridings on Montréal island where sovereigntist sympathies are highest. The PQ ran some of its strongest candidates against leading QS candidates. In Mercier, it sought to defeat Amir Khadir by nominating Jean Poirier, former president of the machinists union local fighting the closure of AVEOS, a company that handled Air Canada’s aircraft maintenance. In Sainte Marie-Saint Jacques the PQ ran Daniel Breton, a leading environmental activist and founder of the Parti Vert, the Green party. (Breton was elected, but Manon Massé of QS came second with more than 25% of the vote.) In Rosemont Jean-François Lisée, a well-known journalist and former adviser to Jacques Parizeau, ran successfully against François Saillant, a social housing advocate and prominent QS activist. Thus the PQ posed a major obstacle to Québec solidaire in this campaign — on top of the to-be-expected hostility of the Quebec mass media, which is basically monopolized by two big families of oligarchs, the Desmarais and Péladeaus.[4]

A particularly virulent campaign was waged against QS by the leaders of a small but influential group of péquistes, the Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec libre (SPQ Libre). Its leaders, Pierre Dubuc and Marc Laviolette, published article after article in Dubuc’s L’aut’journal and occasionally in the daily Le Devoir questioning QS’s legitimacy as a sovereigntist party. And just in case this charge lacked credibility — as it does — they argued that if QS (and Option nationale) did support sovereignty they should be supporting the PQ and not fighting to replace it.

The appeal to close ranks behind the PQ had broad appeal, however, to many sovereignty supporters, aware that it was the only sovereigntist party with the resources and potential support — and status as the long-standing party of alternance — to dislodge the Liberals. An initial response to this pressure by QS co-leaders Khadir and David, published in the June 14 edition of Le Devoir, reflected the position taken by a QS convention in April 2011, which had rejected proposals for alliances with the PQ and Parti Vert following an extensive debate on the question[5] — a debate prompted by the fact that the undemocratic first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which results in the election of any candidate winning a plurality in a multi-candidate contest, discriminates against smaller parties. The QS co-spokespersons explained why QS did not view the PQ as a party of progressive social change, noting for example that it had taken Marois 11 weeks during the student upsurge to even come up with a party policy on tuition fee increases. And they pointed to the procapitalist record of PQ governments in the past. Québec solidaire, they proclaimed, stood for solidarity with the students then mobilizing in the streets and all those who supported them, and offered the perspective of another kind of government in the interests of the vast majority:

“The meaning to be given to the political awakening and social metamorphosis that is under way lies, in our opinion, in a massive rejection of a system controlled by a minority that never stops enriching itself on the backs of the 99 percent. The political and economic elites, hand in hand, have produced a world of unprecedented inequality. They have also pushed the planet to its outermost limits….”

However, when an on-line petition urging the sovereigntist parties to negotiate a mutual non-aggression pact gathered more than 10,000 signatures, the QS leadership, in a formal statement,[6] retreated somewhat. They agreed to meet with a designated mediator to examine the possibilities. They did not categorically reject “a united front to govern with the Parti québécois,” while affirming that “it seems extremely difficult to us” for the reasons given in the June 14 article by David and Khadir. They suggested instead that “isolated and limited arrangements” be explored — a thinly veiled appeal to the PQ in particular that it agree not to oppose certain QS candidates in return for QS desistance in some ridings the PQ hoped to win — provided that each party undertake, if elected, to reform the electoral system to include, inter alia, some form of proportional representation as of the next general election; repeal of Law 12 and amnesty for those arrested and charged under it; abolition of the tuition fee increase and the heath-care fee imposed by the Liberals, higher taxes on the rich, etc. “Almost all of these points are already commitments by the parties” concerned, QS maintained.


Newly-elected PQ premier Pauline Marois campaigned (unsuccessfully) against Québec solidaire leader Françoise David in Gouin riding.

In the end, the PQ refused to negotiate with QS and the only agreement reached was with Option nationale:  QS would not run against ON leader Aussant (he lost anyway) and ON would not run against David. It is worth noting that these manoeuvres by the QS leadership, which on their face ran counter to the decision of the April 2011 convention, were not endorsed by the party membership or even by its National Council, its governing body between conventions. The NC has not met for some years now. Important policy decisions are made vertically and unilaterally by co-spokespersons David and Khadir in collaboration with the dozen or so members of the QS National Coordinating Committee. The election experience should put the issue of party democracy back on the agenda in any QS balance sheet of the campaign.

Predictably, the election result produced attacks on Québec solidaire (and ON) for splitting the sovereigntist vote. Within hours of the vote, Pierre Dubuc listed 22 ridings in which he said the votes of QS and ON, either separately or combined, deprived the PQ candidate of victory, thus depriving the PQ of a majority government with 76 seats. The arrogant (and mistaken) assumption, of course, is that the QS and ON supporters would have voted PQ if their own parties were not on the ballot! QS and ON could with similar logic argue that the PQ’s presence on the ballot had deprived them of election in a number of ridings, too. The FPTP system is inherently unfair to minor parties and privileges larger, more established parties. Thus the PLQ and PQ took more seats than their share of the popular vote would warrant, while QS, with 6% of the vote, took only 1.6% of the seats. Asked why Québécois had denied her the majority she wanted, Marois told a post-election press conference that the two-party system was a thing of the past and that we were now in a multi-party environment. But she continues to be adamantly opposed to any reform of the electoral system that would reflect this reality. After all, the PQ can argue, without the FPTP rule we could now be facing a Liberal-CAQ coalition government!

However, the PQ has additional concerns in mind. As QS member Paul Cliche pointed out in Presse-toi-à-gauche, the PQ program for 40 years called for proportional representation, but the party failed to enact it during the 18 years it has held office. And the PQ dropped the demand at its April 2011 convention, with Marois’ support. “It’s no secret,” writes Cliche, “that the real reason the PQ blocks reform is to keep the progressive milieu, including QS supporters, captive as long as possible in order to retain its hegemony over the sovereigntist movement. Hence the appeals to vote strategically that come from all sides each election.”

Friend or foe?

While the PQ was eager to attack Québec solidaire, the QS leadership’s quest for some sort of electoral alliance with the PQ illustrated a problem that became more evident as the campaign developed. QS leaders seemed uncertain as to whether the PQ was friend or foe. Françoise David, for example, sought to fend off the “strategic voting” assault on QS by stressing the left party’s willingness to work with the PQ in the National Assembly — in support of “progressive” measures, of course. And in an interview with Le Devoir on the eve of the election, David and co-leader Khadir said they hoped for a PQ minority government with a few QS MNAs holding “the balance of power,” pulling the PQ “toward the centre left.” And they even appeared to offer the PQ a blank cheque for their support over the next year.

“Québec solidaire,” wrote the reporter, summarizing their argument, “will count on ‘responsible and reasonable negotiations’ with the next government, dismissing any notion of bringing it down, if it is a minority, ‘within the coming year’. ‘It is irresponsible to try to overturn a government one month after the election!’ exclaims Françoise David.”

One wonders whether the QS leaders have thought through the implications of these statements. As one reader remarked to me, what if there is another showdown between the government and the students? A big public sector strike? A corruption scandal significantly involving the PQ?

Celebrating her personal victory on election night, David again repeated several times how eager she was to work with the new PQ government — as if QS, and not the PLQ or CAQ, now held the balance of power. And in a post-election scrum, David said that given the government’s minority status “everyone will have to put some water in their wine, including Québec solidaire.”

A quite different approach was followed by some QS supporters, who correctly differentiated their party from the neoliberal PQ. Presse-toi-à-gauche (PTàG), an on-line journal that generally reflects the views of the left in Québec solidaire, was exemplary in this regard, publishing many articles exposing how the Parti Québécois, over the years, had undermined the movement for national independence through its right-wing course. PTàG writers, such as Bernard Rioux, Paul Cliche, Pierre Mouterde, Pierre Beaudet and others, effectively answered the péquiste criticisms of QS and argued forcefully for QS to mount a more aggressive campaign in opposition to the PQ as well as the other capitalist parties. Moreover, an internal memorandum for QS election candidates, published on the party intranet, was quite frank in its cogent critique of the PQ:

“Everything we hate today about the Liberal party, the Parti québécois has already done: anti-democratic special laws, closure of debate in the National Assembly, increases in tuition fees, cuts in social programs, reduction in trade-union powers, privatization in health care, reform of social assistance, reduced taxes on the wealthiest, reduced business taxation, generous subsidies to Québec Inc. and participation in secret funding of political parties. Under the veneer of change lurks the same vision of the world as that of the Liberal party.”

QS platform

The election platform published by Québec solidaire (including in English) demarked the party in the main from the PQ’s neoliberalism. The format ­— specific demands, addressed to current issues, that are (“responsibly”) realizable within a four-year mandate and within the provincial context — reflects the party’s approach to elections. It does not contest elections solely to make propaganda for its overall program, as do so many small leftist sects. QS seeks to elect members to the legislature with the goal of forming a government, an especially difficult challenge for a still-small party under the FPTP system, as we have noted. At a pre-election convention in April, QS delegates debated and selected which demands in the party program were especially pertinent to immediate issues and struggles, and thus should be highlighted in this campaign.

Unfortunately, for reasons that are unclear to me, the topics addressed were published in alphabetical order, following the French text: from Agriculture to Democratic Life (Vie démocratique), without prioritizing any. Thus “sovereignty” became just one of the topics, and not the first. Under this heading QS briefly explains its proposal for mobilizing popular support for sovereignty, and a mass commitment to fight for it, through organizing a massive public debate on Quebec’s political, social and constitutional future under the aegis of a Constituent Assembly in which, of course, QS would fight for an independent Quebec — although, the platform notes, the party does not preclude the possibility that the Assembly might opt for something less, like renewed federalism.

This apparent readiness to accept a democratic verdict of the Assembly, whatever the state form chosen, was seized on by PQ and ON supporters to question — unjustly — the QS commitment to a sovereign Quebec. Fortunately, a detailed four-page memorandum for QS candidates published on the party’s intranet[7] explains the need for sovereignty, how Quebec independence offers a new framework in which to fight for progressive change, why it is necessary to build a mass base of support for independence, and effectively answers some of the key questions the candidates will face in this regard. And it notes that “since the Quebec people cannot deny to other peoples what they demand for themselves, Quebec’s sovereignty will be achieved in close partnership and collaboration with the indigenous nations. Their decisions and orientations, whatever they are, will be respected.”

A clearly anticapitalist alternative could only be posed realistically in the context of an independent Quebec state that could nationalize banking and finance, determine its international policy, have its own military defense force, and so on — all of these being federal jurisdictions. As the party’s Plan Vert states (p. 11), “for the time being, Quebec does not have mastery of all its economic levers because it is still stuck in the Canadian federation....” Outside the context of an independent Quebec, the platform lacks a key dimension of the party’s politics and does not indicate a clear break from subordination to Canadian and global capital. This is a deficiency of the QS program, and could not be compensated by the election platform based on that program.[8]

And it leaves QS open to charges of naiveté at best — for example, the platform states that QS accepts the Quebec Finance ministry’s projection of economic prospects, overlooking the economic and social crisis only now starting to break over Quebec, to the inevitable disruption of those prospects — or of a slippage toward “social liberalism,” as a few left critics of QS argue.[9]

Notwithstanding its deficiencies, the Québec solidaire campaign attracted interest and significant support from activists in a number of social movements. Six major ecology groups, in a comparative evaluation of the environmental commitments in the party platforms, ranked QS first with a score of 83%, well ahead of the PVQ (Greens) at 42%! The PQ scored 73%, the Liberals 33% and the CAQ came last with 31%.

The major trade union centrals were officially neutral in the campaign, even the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) which has often endorsed the Parti Québécois and its federal pendant, the Bloc Québécois. (The FTQ is annoyed with the PQ for its support of Charest’s Law 33 banning the union hiring hall in the construction industry.) The CSN called on its members to vote for the “progressive” candidate with the best chance of defeating the Liberals and the CAQ — meaning, in most cases, the PQ. L’aut’journal reported that the FTQ’s Montréal regional council endorsed three QS candidates — trade union militants André Frappier, Alexandre Leduc and Édith Laperle, but not Amir Khadir in Mercier! However, this support was not indicated on the council’s web site. The Montréal Central Council of the CSN endorsed David and Khadir, and called for a vote for QS candidates where it would not result in the election of a Liberal or CAQ candidate. The lack of union engagement with the Québec solidaire campaign underscored, once again, the failure of QS to organize and give direction to the many party members who are union militants.

And the students?

Québec solidaire was the only party supporting free education from kindergarten to university. But leaders of this spring’s massive student strike either placed their hopes in a victory for the PQ, which promised to reverse Charest’s fees increase (while indexing future fee increases to the cost of living) or, in the case of the more militant wing of the movement, chose not to intervene in the election. And indeed, there was ample evidence that this extraordinary summer election[10] was part of Charest’s strategy to break the student movement. He hoped to take advantage of any continuation of the strike to campaign as a champion of law and order. Alternatively, if the students ended the strike he could claim success for his hard line resistance to their demands.

The students were facing some difficult decisions. The government’s Bill 78 (now Law 12), imposed in late May, made continuation of the strike illegal and threatened the student associations with decertification and heavy fines that would bankrupt them. On the other hand, it effectively blackmailed the students by offering them the possibility of completing their semester with full credit in late August and September if they ended the strike. More than 3,000 students arrested during the spring protests are facing serious criminal and civil charges and heavy fines if convicted. Many were unable to get summer jobs, and most are financially extremely vulnerable.

Moreover, there were signs that the movement was flagging, notwithstanding some impressive mass mobilizations on the 22nd of June, July and August. Most importantly, there was no sign that major new social forces — especially the unions — were prepared to mobilize to extend the strike movement into the broad “social strike” that was needed for victory.

Faced with these obstacles, two student associations — the FEUQ and the FECQ, representing many university and college students — opted to participate in the election campaign in an effort to defeat the Liberals and CAQ at all costs. Activists in both associations went door-to-door in targeted Liberal ridings to spread their message, and picketed Charest in his public appearances. FECQ leader Léo Bureau-Blouin agreed to run as a PQ candidate, although none of the associations endorsed any particular party.

The largest and most radical of the student groups, the CLASSE, after an intense discussion, rejected any intervention in the election campaign although an internal strategy document[11] that included a critical analysis of each party’s positions found, in part, that Québec solidaire is “by far, the party that is most responsive to the demands of the students.” It noted that QS “proposes, inter alia, to establish free tuition and a wage for students during their first term in office,” adding “We could hardly ask for more.” But voting for QS could not suffice as a strategy for winning the current struggle, it concluded, since the party could not possibly become the government in this election. The CLASSE saw no option but to try to continue the strike, although it left the decision to its member associations.

Student assemblies held on university and college campuses during August, most of them poorly attended, voted in most cases to end the strike at least until September 4, following which many intend to meet again to consider strategy in light of the election results. The votes being held this week strongly favour a return to classes.

Premier-elect Marois’ pledge on the day after the election to overturn the tuition fee increase was greeted by student leaders, although they warned about the threat posed by the Liberal-CAQ opposition. Even the CLASSE, the militant student coalition that led the way in Québec’s printemps érable, is now referring to the strike movement in the past tense. “If the PQ yielded so quickly on the tuition fee increase, it is because there was an historic student movement,” CLASSE co-spokesperson Jeanne Reynolds told the media following a meeting of its leadership on September 6. The CLASSE “had called for continuation of the strike. However, we note that the student associations voted instead for a return to class, and we respect their decisions.” She expressed the hope that Marois would soon discuss with the CLASSE how to organize the summit on education the PQ had promised during the campaign.

The CLASSE is now organizing for a mass demonstration again on September 22.

* * *

In coming days this blog will report on how the Quebec left analyzes the election results and the road ahead for Québec solidaire.

Richard Fidler

September 7, 2012

[1] Aussant was from 2003 to 2005 vice-president of Morgan Stanley Capital International in London, a bank now being sued in the USA for its role in the sub primes crisis of 2008. The ON platform had parallels with the platforms of both the PQ and QS, especially the latter. It criticized the PQ for its reluctance to fight for sovereignty since the narrow defeat of the 1995 referendum.

[2] Benjabib, a refugee from Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria, has authored a number of books urging such measures as a public ban on religious insignia such as the hijab or scarf worn by many Muslim women. She lives in Gatineau, and is employed by the federal government.

[3] For background on Québec solidaire, see my blog Life on the Left, and in particular “Québec Solidaire: A Québécois Approach to Building a Broad Left Party”: and

[4] QS was excluded from the three one-on-one debates among party leaders sponsored by the private TV network TVA, owned by Péladeau’s Quebecor Media. The only TV debate with a QS presence was Radio-Canada’s, in which Françoise David represented QS and garnered much praise for her effective presentation of the party and its platform.

[5] For details, see

[6] The full statement by the QS National Coordinating Committee is no longer available on-line. The QS web site publishes a summary.

[7] In all, QS published 13 such memoranda on its intranet. And on its public web site it published a detailed “budgetary framework” and a “green plan,” the latter as a response in part to Charest’s Plan Nord and its projection of rampant development of private mining activity in northern and rural Quebec.

[8] See ‘Beyond capitalism’? Québec solidaire launches debate on its program for social transformation.

[9] See, for example, the many criticisms of the QS platform and program published by QS member Marc Bonhomme, a Marxist economist, on his blog.

[10] Under the parliamentary regime inherited from Britain, the government in Quebec may choose any date within a five-year mandate on which to hold a general election. September 4 is more than a year shy of the legal end of the Charest government’s term of office.

[11] “Document de réflexion sur la non-rentrée d’automne 2012,” by Louis-Philippe Véronneau and Émile Plourde-Lavoie, August 2012: