Members of France Insoumise in the National Assembly, 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Members of France Insoumise in the National Assembly, 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As a massive wave of strikes continues in France, what forces might propose a mass political alternative to Macron? John Mullen discusses the party being led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon

La France Insoumise (France in Revolt) is a radical Left movement founded in 2016. Its roots lie in the same anger which led to the rise of Podemos in Spain or of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, but its particularities come from the specific history of the French Left. Unlike Podemos, its most well-known leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has been in politics for many years (previously a senator elected on a Socialist Party ticket). Unlike Corbynism, this new movement did not rise up inside the structures of an established social-democratic party.

Boosted by a series of impressive mass meetings adressed by Mélenchon, seven million people voted for him in the first round of the presidential elections of 2017. They did so because his programme promised to roll back neoliberalism in a big way. The score of 19,5% was for a radical approach similar to that of Jeremy Corbyn, and Mélenchon narrowly missed being qualified for the second-round run-off. The manifesto included, to name just a few elements, proposals for the following: constitutional changes, nationalization, taxing the rich, 100% renewable energy and an end to nuclear, government job creation, the establishment of a maximum salary, a free health service (not the case right now), a massive boost for organic farming, prison reform, a shorter working week, retirement at 60, building a million low-rent homes, leaving NATO, free school canteens and smaller classes.

It is a reformist programme since, although the words “citizens’ revolution” can be seen in FI material, the method for achieving its aims does not involve dismantling the state, its police and army, and taking over ownership of all big capital, but rather involves electing a new government. This approach corresponds to the world view of workers under pressure: they want to get rid of the Macron government which is launching incredibly vicious attacks on unions, on public services and on working conditions, and they remember that major positive reforms have sometimes been made by governments in the past, often pressed from below.

The space for the rise of the FI comes from the collapse of the Socialist Party. In the first round of last year’s presidential elections, its vote fell to 6% (from 28% five years earlier). A month later, 249 of its members of parliament lost their jobs, leaving only 30 PS members in the assembly. The horrifically right-wing policies of PS president François Hollande, particularly in slashing retirement pensions even more than Conservative governments had dared to do, destroyed the PS’s credibility. It is at present so weak that its entire youth section has voted to leave the party.

The legislative elections gave the France Insoumise two and a half million first round votes and 17 members of parliament. Its 7 million votes in the presidentials and its 17 MPs give it the legitimacy to bid for leadership of the anti-Macron struggle. For the last year, the FI has been building what they hope will be a new kind of political movement, avoiding both the disastrous compromises with the Socialist Party in local government which the Communist Party has favoured, and the marginalized traditions of the far left. Their declared aim is to replace the Socialist Party, win a majority and form a government. What was initially a movement built for running an electoral campaign is now being transformed into an organization with many dozens of local “action groups”, setting up public meetings, film shows or leaflettings and joining local campaigns against cuts. The FI has also established an ambitious activists’ educational programme and regular online video interventions.

The 17 MPs, practically all new to parliament, have been combining parliamentary activity and support for various struggles, and polls show that the FI is seen as by far the most credible opposition to Macron. Outspoken supporters of the railway strikes, fierce critics of police violence and calling for a new may 1968, the movement is being accused by the Socialist Party of taking over the strike movement.

In the media and in parliament they have been dynamic and combative. When one Macronite MP mocked students who were protesting against a 5 euro cut in benefits, saying it was insignificant, FI MPs brought into the parliament a bag of food to show the toffs what you could buy for five euros. Young Black FI MP, Danièle Obono has been particularly outspoken in support of radical antiracism.

The movement has also run two major political campaigns. The first, against nuclear energy, involved an information campaign and a “citizens’ vote” at which 82 000 people voted at campaign centres, and 230 000 voted online. The second campaign is against tax evasion and tax havens, and is being run in conjunction with Podemos in Spain, and other partners.

“Doing politics differently” is a demand which comes from people’s disappointment with existing political parties, and there are a number of ways in which the FI wishes to be a new type of political organization. It aims to avoid “pragmatic” alliances in local and regional government which have often blunted the left ideals of communist party elected councillors. But there are other elements too: many decision are made by FI assemblies made up of supporters chosen by lottery among those who volunteer. The manifesto was written by many collaborators. There is a tendency to work by consensus and little room for factional influence. The aim is to avoid the tradition of factionalism which has plagued much of the far left in France (and has led to inordinate amounts of time spent by militants in factional meetings). The disadvantage of this is that the national leadership can have overwhelming influence if there is in reality little strategic debate.

In other ways too, the FI is trying to be different. Many members are Marxists, but more are not. The leadership wishes to move away from symbols of communist ideas, such as the red flag and the first of May. Its (very popular) call for a united anti Macron demonstration on 5th May should be seen in this context, as should its choice of the Greek letter Phi as its party symbol, rather than a logo linked to the history of the workers’ movement. At the same time, the language of class struggle remains very much present, and FI leader Mélenchon often repeats that “the only thing which can limit exploitation is resistance”.

The radicalism and combativity are to be welcomed, and FI has a loose structure which allows people with different ideas to work together within it. Revolutionaries have every reason to build the FI, without, naturally, abandoning an independent voice.

For there are many crucial debates to be had. If FI were to form a government, the whole force of ruling class power would be used to stop it carrying out its programme, and it is not too soon now to talk about what we should do then. In addition, the leadership of the FI is attached to a tradition of left patriotism which considers that France can play a positive role as a world power. So the programme does not call for France to abandon its nuclear weapons, but to organize diplomatic initiatives to negotiate away nuclear weapons. On a symbolic level, the FI leadership is attempting to reclaim the Marseillaise song because of its revolutionary history, preferring not to see that it also represents horrific French imperialism. Further, like all French Left organizations, the FI is very weak indeed on fighting islamophobia.

Still, for the moment, a more immediate problem is left sectarianism against the FI. The Communist party, very worried about being replaced as the left pole within institutions (it still has 12 MPs and 1600 local councillors), and the far left, of which a large proportion believes that Left reformism cannot exist and that Mélenchon is just intending to betray, do not defend the FI leader against slanderous media campaigns similar in tone to those thrown recently at Corbyn. The understandable enthusiasm for the person of Jean Luc Mélenchon shown by some sections of the working class is, sadly, cynically mocked by many leftists.

How far the FI can go in its project to become the next Left government in France remains to be seen, but the aim is credible, and the movement is the most promising on the Left in France for a long time. In the building of it, a new generation of working people could learn political struggle, even if reformism will, in the medium term, not take us all the way we need to go.

John Mullen

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