France voted in 2012 to reject the neoliberal politics of Nicolas Sarkozy. The election of President Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party was hailed at the time as a major blow against the continent-wide assault on working people and a potential game-changer in terms of the EU's austerity policies.
That was natural enough - Hollande came to office pledged to oppose the EU's fiscal treaty, to prioritise economic growth, to tackle unemployment and to re-establish workers' rights.
But in power he has done none of these things.
In fact, the Socialist government is actively demobilising the unity against austerity achieved in 2012. The broader left is divided, and the forces of the right are regrouping, with massive media support.
As in almost every country in Europe - including Britain - the ruling class is exploiting the economic crisis to attack social services and workers' rights and dividing working people against each other to forestall an effective fightback.
In France the politics of "national identity" are being used as a cover for racial, religious and sexual intolerance.
It was against this backdrop that the French Communist Party (PCF) met for its 36th congress in the communist-run municipality of Aubervilliers in north Paris.
The overriding question, as put by general secretary Pierre Laurent, is how the left can mobilise all groups in society which are under attack to defeat the right. A question equally relevant on this side of the Channel.
The party is growing - it has gained over 22,000 new members in the past four years. The 778 delegates to its congress were noticeably young and almost half were women.
The roots of this advance were laid in 2005, when the party provided the organising force behind France's rejection of the proposed EU constitution.
At that point former Socialist Party minister Jean-Luc Melenchon broke with his party, along with many supporters, to work together with the Communists in an alliance which ultimately evolved into the Front de Gauche, or Left Front.
The alliance has seen growing electoral success, from 6.4 per cent of the vote in the 2009 European elections to 8.9 per cent in the 2011 local elections. Melenchon won 11.1 per cent in the 2012 presidential election, while the Communist Party's own share of the vote as part of it in the subsequent parliamentary election stood at just under 7 per cent.
But such advances are hardly enough when the state is using all its power to stifle the left.
The opening session of the congress heard from a delegation of workers from the Florange plant of Arcelormittal who had been assaulted by police the previous day.
The Florange workers, members of the PCF-aligned CGT trade union, had been lobbying the European Parliament in Strasbourg for their plant to be brought into public ownership since it has been run down by its multimillionaire owner.
It's a demand increasingly heard across France as big business slashes capacity amid the deepening recession.
But the French police responded with tear gas and flash balls. Two workers were injured. One lost an eye.
The French government is not considering nationalising plants due to close. It is urging trade unions to enter a social partnership agreement with the main employers' federation.
In terms familiar in Britain the employers say they can only take on additional labour if unions commit themselves to legal changes which make it easier to dismiss staff - a pact for "competitiveness."
The CFDT union, which is aligned with the Socialist Party, has signed up. The larger CGT, along with the Force Ouvriere and SUD unions, have refused.
How the PCF takes on this bid to split the labour movement was the main theme of the congress.
Strengthening party organisation in workplaces and local areas to lead struggles for employment rights, public services and jobs was deemed essential.
More controversially the party leadership is recommending merging the PCF into the Left Front to make the Front itself a more effective organisation.
In practice this would mean decisions at departmental level would begin to be taken in terms of individual membership of the Front, rather than by agreement among its component parties.
Some delegates were concerned that this could endanger the identity and effectiveness of the Communist Party itself - symbolised in their view by its controversial decision to replace the hammer and sickle on party membership cards with the symbol of the European Left Party.
But supporters of the change said it would enable the party to take the offensive and mobilise the class as a whole more effectively than retaining its old structure could.
It was a dynamic congress and one which showed the breadth of the PCF's engagement internationally. It was addressed by the Palestinian ambassador and by a representative of the Kurdish Party for Peace and Democracy, who called for publication of the police investigation into the murder of its three women leaders in Paris last month.
The head of Egypt's Democratic Revolutionary Front, which includes communists, described the unprecedented mobilisations of more than two million people this month to demand the removal of President Mohammed Morsi, while leaders of the progressive alliance in Tunisia spoke of the mounting public anger at the killing of left leader Chokri Belaid.
And with France leading military action in Mali the presence of a representative from that country's Progressive Movement of March 22 was especially poignant as he slammed an imperialist intervention which showed no respect for the Malian people.
The decision to invade had been taken in Paris, not Bamako, he argued - and it would maintain the power of a corrupt and illegitimate pro-Western president while exposing the country to years of conflict between foreign-funded Islamists and French and EU imperialism.
The congress affirmed the party's strongly critical stance on the EU, demanding that France rejects the fiscal pact and ditches the neoliberal and federalist Lisbon Treaty, though its call for a "refounding" of "Europe" on the basis of mutual support may strike British readers as vague.
There was nothing vague about the congress's immediate calls, however.
It will mobilise for general strike action on February 27 against the government's "competitiveness pact" between employers and unions, seeking to bring all trade unions on board.
The party is pushing for increased public ownership, union representation on all company boards and an end to the legal persecution of trade unionists for interfering with "the rights of management."
France will be a major battleground in the fightback against austerity across Europe, and with Hollande's presidency having dashed so many hopes the PCF will be in the front line.
If you appreciated this article then please consider donating to the Morning Star's Fighting Fund to ensure we can keep developing your paper.