Danielle Obono, France Insoumise MP. Photo: Youtube / France Insoumise 2e circo du Gard Danielle Obono, France Insoumise MP. Photo: Youtube / France Insoumise 2e circo du Gard

As her organisation mobilised a huge anti-government demonstration, deputy Danièle Obono spoke to Chris Nineham about Macron’s meltdown, the far right’s problems, and the movement

Macron’s support has collapsed and he has now launched a full frontal assault on workers. What are his prospects?

The situation in France is very volatile and despite the Macron hype, the election resolved nothing for the ruling class. Macron’s election was in no way a popular endorsement of his policies. There was a huge level of abstention in the second round of the presidential elections. Added together, abstentions and spoilt ballot papers came second. Many people voted for Macron simply to keep the fascist Le Pen out.

What the election cycle really showed was the collapse of the political establishment. Both the historic ruling parties of the fifth republic – the Republican Party conservatives and the Socialist Party – melted down. Macron filled the void. But he is empty himself. Look into his eyes and you see blankness. He offers nothing new politically. The neither left nor right rhetoric really signifies a lack of ideas. He is Blair lite, without the talent and without the circumstances that came together to allow some space for Blair’s political and economic project. And crucially, it has come at a time when people have twenty more years of experience of neoliberalism and war.

Essentially Macron is a technocrat leading a technocratic government. He and his government have very little political legitimacy and almost no organisation on the ground. And he faces a series of deep contradictions which make his position extremely difficult. One of them is that his positions are ideological. Like all the neoliberals he talks about a small state but in reality, he needs a strong state in order to push through his reforms given the level of opposition he has in society. In practice, he has few options. French capitalism is in a bad place. More of the same means either muddling through or pursuing the neoliberal reforms of the previous Hollande Socialist government with new vigour. Making the classic Fifth Republic mistake, Macron believes in his own absolute power – we call him Emmanuel 1st – and he has chosen the latter option. He has launched an open and confrontational campaign to tear up the labour laws in France which provide some rights and protections for workers and trade unionists. It’s a huge risk for him.

Isn’t the central problem for the neoliberals that the gulf between the claims made for their project and the reality have simply become too wide?

Yes. And this is causing deep stresses in French society, even in the central institutions of the state. Soon after the election, Macron sacked a leading general for speaking out against cuts in the military.This has caused huge resentment in the armed forces. In the last few days, thousands of members of the paramilitary police, the CRS, have taken co-ordinated sick days in protest at the fact that they are having to work on so many fronts. Policing the protests, dealing with the terror threats and so on, and they too are facing cuts.

How has your organisation, France Insoumise, fared since the election?

France Insoumise did much better than we – and most others – expected in the Assembly elections. After being close to getting into the second round of the Presidential elections, we threw ourselves into the parliamentary elections. We were worried about our own lack of local organisation, but we had no choice but to try and hold the line. To our surprise, we won 17 seats. This confirmed the collapse of the socialist party because of its complete capitulation to neoliberalism. It is more evidence of the existence of widespread anger in French society and the desire for new radical initiatives. I think too we did well because people respected our decision not to call for a vote for Macron in the Presidential playoff between him and Le Pen. Despite the attacks we got from liberals and a lot of the left over this decision, we received a huge amount of support for calling for abstention from people who said they could never vote for the neoliberal Macron and felt that it confirmed that we were different from the establishment.

There are a range of political points of view in the organisation, and our leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has a republican framework. But people, in general, are seeing it as an insurgent project, an attempt to challenge the priorities of the French state. We are organising in a different way too. Creative use of social media, promoting political games and so on has allowed us to reach and involve huge numbers of new people. We don’t regard online activism as somehow less valid than campaigning in the streets. In fact, we think the two tend to be connected. There are examples of originally online activists downloading leaflets and circulating them in their area. We also want to do everything possible to look outwards, and not to fall into the old left trap of endless, often sterile discussions. We have a programme that everyone has to agree with, but beyond that, it is up to our supporters what to do.We want to encourage new ideas, new ways of doing things. If a group of activists disagree with what their local Insoumise group is doing, we suggest they just go off and do whatever it is they want to do. The internet has in some ways reduced the importance of the intermediate layers of cadre who used to be a crucial channel of communication.

Lots of working People feel that we are fighting for them in parliament. They recognise us as different. We refuse to make deals – but will work with anyone who agrees with us. We aim to be more of a movement than a party, for us the active participation and campaigning of masses of people is the most important thing. We have for instance called this demonstration on Saturday against the attacks on the labour law, what we are calling a social coup d’etat.

Soon after the election you were very publicly attacked by the media. What was the impact of that on you and the organisation?

I think it backfired. There were moments when it was unpleasant, but because we stuck to our guns and refused to apologise, we win a lot of respect. It highlighted the fact that we have radical black MPs which is very important. Jean-Luc Mélenchon was extremely supportive which also mattered because it meant we were presenting a united front and it reassured people that he really is different from the other politicians.

The far right appears to be having problems after the election – is this simply a result of failure at the election?

The fascist right has plunged into crisis since the election. Despite polling its biggest ever vote, expectations were so high that defeat was experienced as a major setback. Le Pen then took the gamble of a high-profile attempt to mock Macron in parliament. This backfired and made Le Pen herself look ridiculous. Meanwhile, a big controversy has broken out in the FN about Europe. Le Pen has dropped opposition to the EU, leading to a major split, led by Florian Philippot. Disarray in the far rights ranks is, of course, a good thing, confusion over Europe is particularly good for us. It means that in the 2019 Euro elections our organisation, France Insoumise, will be the only major party putting forward a eurosceptic argument. Our position is either we need a complete renegotiation of the EU moving it away from neoliberalism or, Plan B, France should leave.

How is the campaign to defend the Labour Laws going?

The struggle is very serious and a lot depends on it. So far there have been two days of action called by the unions. Both of them have involved something of the order of 500,000 people which is not bad but not a breakthrough either. There was probably more strike action on the second day than the first. We called the demonstration not to compete with the unions but to mobilise others sectors of cosiest in support of the struggle, the unemployed, young people in the suburbs, especially Arabs and Africans, pensioners and so on. We want to show that this is a struggle that affects everyone and in which everyone needs to participate. Judging by the response to the demonstration call, this is a message which is starting to get across.  

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.