Tribes of the left gather to celebrate a vote against hated EU constitution

While France prepares for its European treaty referendum, John Lichfield has been travelling around the country listening to the debate. Today he reports from Martigues in the south
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The hall resounded with 6,000 voices chanting the war cry of the French left. "Tous ensemble, Tous ensemble, hoy, hoy." (All together, all together. There is no known translation for hoy, hoy.) They were all here, or almost all of them - the many tribes of the Gauche Française.

The hall resounded with 6,000 voices chanting the war cry of the French left. "Tous ensemble, Tous ensemble, hoy, hoy." (All together, all together. There is no known translation for hoy, hoy.) They were all here, or almost all of them - the many tribes of the Gauche Française.

There were the Communists, the Socialists, the Greens, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (Trotskyist), the Republican Movement of the Left (nationalist), the Radical Party of the Left (radical), Attac (anti-globalist), Copernic (anti-European), Alternative Libertaire (anti-bosses and police), the Alternative Movement (alternative), the CGT (a large, radical trades union federation), FO (a breakaway from the CGT) and SUD (a breakaway from the FO).

They were here, in Martigues, a Communist-run town between Marseilles and the Camargue at the mouth of the Rhône, to celebrate the victory of the "non" in Sunday's referendum on the proposed EU constitution. To celebrate, because the anti-treaty left - and many in the pro-treaty centre-right and centre-left establishment - now believe that the battle is decided. Ten opinion polls in a row have shown the "non" camp ahead, by up to eight points.

Barring a miracle, or one of those repudiations of the opinion polls to which French voters are occasionally partial, the EU constitution will be rejected by France on Sunday and, therefore, die. The rally in Martigues was, therefore, more about What Happens Next than about the campaign just ending. Speaker after speaker, and there were 18 of them, called for the preservation of the "new unity" of the anti-treaty left: far left, alternative left, old communist left and part of the socialist and green moderate left.

The new spirit of comradeship, forced in the "struggle" against the treaty, must create "a revolutionary, new political situation in France", they said. Some hope. These people hate each other, almost as much as they hate capitalism, globalism, liberalism and the EU. The treaty campaign has divided them from the "electable" core of the moderate socialists and greens.

"Yes" or "non" on Sunday, the French left will enter the next presidential campaign scattered and weakened, divided between ideologues and realists. It was, nevertheless, extraordinary to hear the massed ranks of the mostly elderly, "official" communists at the Martigues rally cheering the ambitious, young Trotskyist postman Olivier Besancenot, aged 31 (LCR).

It was astonishing to hear the Trotskyists, of the teacher and civil servant-dominated LCR, cheering for the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), which is the last direct descendant of Stalinism outside of Cuba and North Korea.

If you think that is an unfair description of French communism, meet a life-long PCF member, Gérard Claude, 70, a retired fisherman. He came to the rally in a red T-shirt marked CCCP. (He was not the only one). "For me," he said. "The Soviet Union still exists. It will always exist."

He did not accept, then, the popularly held view that the USSR was a failed tyranny. "No!" he said. "That is a capitalist lie. The Soviet Union did nothing but good..."

Continuing The Independent's Tour de France before the vote, we have come down the Rhône valley from Burgundy to the economically booming, but politically polarised and bad-tempered, French Deep South.

If this was the cyclist's Tour de France, this would be the mountain stage. Martigues is in flat country in the oil-refinery-infested marshlands of the Rhône delta. The French left is, however, uphill work.

Before the rally began, I spoke to a score or more of "militants" of one persuasion or another. They were against the EU treaty because it was "ultra-liberal" and "not sufficiently social"; because it was "written for the bosses, not the people"; because jobs in France were being moved abroad; or because they feared an influx of Polish or Romanian workers, on cut-price wages.

But weren't all the references to "free-trade", "competition", and "markets", which they hated, copied into the constitution from existing EU treaties going back to 1957? Weren't they therefore challenging, not just the constitution but the whole basis - free trade, free movement of workers - on which French prosperity had been built in the 1960s? No, they weren't against free movement, they were just just against the Poles and Czechs coming to France on low wages. They wanted a united Europe but one with harmonised social protection, not free trade or "competition".

A Frenchman of Polish extraction whom I met on my travels this week said: "The French left is like a radish. It is red on the outside and white at its heart." In other words, fiercely nationalist. Much of the left-wing rhetoric in this campaign has resembled far-right rhetoric: anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner.

For low-paid Poles, read low-paid Arabs, I suggested. George Capozi, 58, secretary of the Martigues branch of the CGT, objected to that. "We are not far right. We are not against foreigners," he said. "My own grandparents came here from Italy in the 1930s..."

Would they be welcome today?

Tomorrow: Toulouse