Jean-Luc Melenchon speaking in Toulouse in 2013. Photo: Flickr/Pierre-Selim Jean-Luc Melenchon speaking in Toulouse in 2013. Photo: Flickr/Pierre-Selim

The leftwinger’s inspiring campaign raises crucial questions about the potential and limits of state action in favour of the working class, writes John Mullen

As the French presidential elections draw near, the result is getting ever harder to call. The fascist and the Blairite (Le Pen and Macron) are hovering around 22.5 % in voter intention polls for the first round, which would push the two of them through to the second round run-off. But close behind are corrupt Thatcherite François Fillon for the Republicans, who is at around 19% (having lost a lot of ground in the last two months) and Red-Green Jean Luc Mélenchon, also around 19% (having gained six points in recent weeks). Well behind, at around 9%, is official Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, who on the Left of his party, but much hampered by the unpopularity of that party after five disastrous years in office, and abandoned by a series of high-profile Socialist leaders. A third of French people are still undecided about their vote and the complex play of likely “tactical voting” makes the result even more difficult to predict.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is described as “far left” by The Guardian and “hard left” by The Independent. So his score of nineteen per cent of voter intentions (and, in parallel polls, 68% of the population say they have a “positive” opinion of him) constitutes a phenomenon not experienced in France for several decades. This means it is very important to understand the nature of Mélenchon’s campaign, a campaign which brings up crucial questions about the role of elections in social change, and the potential and limits of state action in favour of the working class.

Mélenchon’s Red-Green campaign was built apart from the established parties, in a new movement baptized “Insubordinate France”. The movement has drawn in tens of thousands of left activists and many new to politics. In the absence of rich backers (the average donation to the campaign is of 23 Euros), it is relying on a grassroots mobilization. Three thousand supporters’ groups around the country structure the campaign, which has also made full use of social media and new technologies. Mélenchon held a public meeting in Paris and Lyon at the same time, by means of hologram technology, and is planning a multi-town holographic rally this week. The YouTube channel of Insubordinate France has 270,000 followers, and there is even a hilarious video game in which the hero, Mélenchon, catches rich fraudsters and makes them repay their ill-gotten gains.

Mélenchon’s rise has parallels with the stories of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Syriza and Podemos. Across the world, traditional parties of the Right and Left are distrusted at best by ever more millions of electors, since their neoliberal attacks savage public services, working conditions and pay, and leave unemployment at very high levels. This disaffection can lead to desperate support for fascist or far-right organizations, or for a demand for a Left which does not bow to the dictatorship of capital.

Mélenchon regularly gets tens of thousands of people to campaign meetings around the country. Over 60,000 came to his meeting in Marseille. He is a brilliant speaker, whose radical humanism is a breath of fresh air in a political landscape all too often reduced to sound bites and empty slogans (the Socialist Party candidate in the present election is campaigning under the slogan “making the heart of France beat faster”, for instance). In forty years of activism I have never seen a campaign like it. People are drawn to his candidacy because he speaks about ordinary people’s experiences: looking after elderly parents, finding childcare, dealing with arrogant bosses, wanting to respect the planet. He is attacked by the right for being “populist”, an easy label with little meaning, and by the sectarian left who say he claims to be a saviour. In fact he is one of very few candidates who insist that the crowds at his meetings should not chant his name, but should chant “resistance”, and at his recent mass meeting he insisted “You shouldn’t be voting FOR me but WITH me”. He sees his campaign among other things as one of popular education, of explaining how capitalism works, how finance works, how tax evasion works, to the crowds.

His programme has been written by networks of committees, with forty pamphlets on the forty key questions for the country today, including Youth, Justice, Immigration, Secularism, the Media, Transport, Housing, Poverty, Peace, Energy, Forests, Health, Sexism and Disability. At each meeting he deals with one of the questions (and often finishes with a poem).

Radical reforms

For many years Mélenchon participated in the building of a Left opposition inside the Socialist Party. He became a junior government minister in the early 2000s. As the neoliberal course of the party became more pronounced, he left in 2008 to form the “Parti de Gauche” – Party of the Left, based on a more radical platform. He is the only left politician who had the guts to stand directly against Marine Le Pen in her constituency, in the North of the country, and was sued by the FN for calling her a fascist.

The campaign of Insubordinate France focuses around the idea of “dégagisme” (“Get rid of the lot of them!”). Certainly the programme proposes radical change. Mélenchon is committed to scrapping last year’s vicious Labour law which effectively abolished national minimum standards on working hours and working conditions. The campaign demands student grants for all young people and 100% free healthcare (which for the moment is partly reimbursed and partly subject to private insurance). To beat unemployment, there would be a return to retirement at 60 for everyone, a return to the 35-hour week, An immediate increase of 16% in the minimum wage, and massive state programmes to create jobs. These last Mélenchon links with ecological responsibility. He intends France to dismantle its nuclear plants and move to 100 per cent renewable energy, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Converting the whole of France’s huge agricultural sector to organic farming and ending industrial suffering for animals could create hundreds of thousands more. Making all public places fully accessible to people with disabilities more still.

He proposes to establish a legal maximum wage in any given company of twenty times the wage of the lowest paid employee (a figure which was suggested by certain European trade union organizations). To those who claim the country cannot afford these changes, Mélenchon’s team replies with detailed figures on the billions of Euros lost every year to tax evasion, and demands tough action to stop it, and to fight against tax havens. The bankers’ newspapers are swearing that several dark horsemen have been seen somewhere in the clouds saddling up just in case Mélenchon becomes president. Meanwhile, on foreign affairs, the candidate denounces the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bombing of Syria, and wants France to leave Nato.

Using the state

The main thrust of his message is, then, that the state could intervene massively in favour of working people, and against oppression. The struggle from below is not ignored. Strikers are invited to address his mass meetings (recently strikers from McDonald’s), and the candidate likes to repeat “the only limits which exist on exploitation are those which resistance places on it”. On hearing of a one-day strike at Macdonald’s France, he encouraged his supporters to go and talk to the strikers and show solidarity. During the recent general strike in French Guyana, an overseas possession of France in South America, he read out in full at his meeting the letter to the French president from the strike leaders. He began his 60,000 strong meeting in Marseille with a minute’s silence for the thousands of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean because of EU frontier policy.

Nevertheless, the main thrust of the politics, like that of Podemos in Spain, or Die Linke in Germany, is electoral. The magnificent and creative wave of strikes and occupations of squares which rose up last year to fight against a reactionary labour law did not succeed in stopping it and so, understandably, millions of workers are now turning to a magnificent and creative presidential election campaign in the hope that they will have better luck.

A Sixth Republic

Mélenchon is also demanding a change in the constitution. The structure of the French Fifth Republic, with a tremendously powerful president, and an upper chamber indirectly elected, has been a constant source of discontent on the Left in France, and the demand for a new constitution (a Sixth Republic) has more resonance than one might expect. Mélenchon promises, if elected, to call a Constituent Assembly which will write a new constitution, and then resign once the new rules have been prepared.

Of course, if myself and my Trotskyist revolutionary friends were to decide to build a perfect mass campaign out of Lego, there would be a number of Mélenchon’s priorities we would leave in the box. He goes in for a particular brand of left patriotism: Insubordinate France distributes French flags at some rallies and the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, is sung. The words of the anthem were written as a call to arms against tyranny during the French Revolution, and Mélenchon’s line is that the real France is the tradition of the fight for republican equality and fraternity, the Paris commune and the welfare state established after world war two by the national committee of resistance. In addition, he puts great store on the positive influence that he says France has sometimes had in international diplomacy, and the positive role France could play in the United Nations in moving against war and against the great imperialist countries. Moreover, he is not opposed to France retaining its nuclear arms. Obviously, these are positions which revolutionaries would contest, and there are more objections too. Though he regularly denounces anti-Muslim prejudice, he tends to think, wrongly, that a Muslim fundamentalist threat is widespread in French society, and he has joined in misinformed speculation about the “real meaning” of a Muslim headscarf.

But the main factors to consider today are the effects of his campaign and the prospects for rebuilding through it an active and combative mass Left alternative. At the moment Mélenchon is under attack from all sides. From the right and centre-right candidates Fillon and Macron, since at 19% in the polls he is a credible threat to either, and from significant sections of the anticapitalist Left who seem to be angry that left reformism still exists, and specialize in trying to “prove”, by isolating a phrase here and there, that he is “really” a fan of Putin, or a closet racist.

There is a small chance that Mélenchon could actually win next week and become president next month. This would be a fine victory for the working class, an inspiration for the world. It would herald a major intervention of the international ruling class against his policies, and would make a massive wave of class struggle highly likely. Already, as he rises in the opinion polls, the interest rate charged by the international banks to the French government has been bumped up, hinting at the immense resources the ruling class has at its disposal to fight back, even if the size of the French state and economy would make the battle an altogether different kettle of fish than the taming of Greece two years back.

If he does not win but gets the highest score of any Left candidate (which is likely), the rebuilding of the French Left will focus around Insubordinate France, the Socialist Party will no doubt split, and the prospect of combative mass Left parties will be on the cards again. It will be crucial that the enthusiasm of the campaign continue to mass intervention in everyday class struggle. Marxists will have to find the best ways of engaging with a mass of new left reformist activists.

The main effect of Mélenchon’s campaign is to argue in the sight of millions that capitalism can be understood, that our work produces immense riches and that these riches can and should be used for our class. We need to support Mélenchon as long as he speaks in the interests of the working class, whether or not he uses traditional Marxist language. At the same time we must prepare the organizations of mass intervention which we cannot do without.

John Mullen

John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.