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Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Photo: MathieuMD / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked below article

Ahead of the French presidential elections, John Mullen analyses the usefulness of La France Insoumise and its new version of left reformism for the working people of France

The French presidential elections take place in April 2022, and the legislative elections two months later. With two far-right presidential candidates, and with Macron playing a strong hand, there is plenty of bad news, but there is a hopeful side too. The first part of this article will look at the usefulness for working people of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s campaign and organisation[1]. The second section of this article will look at his left patriotism, foreign policy, and some major disagreements of Marxists with his strategy. As we write, it is still just possible for Mélenchon to get through to the second round.

Part one: How useful is Jean-Luc Mélenchon?

Mélenchon got seven million votes (19.5%) in the first round of the French presidential elections in 2017, the biggest radical left vote in France since 1945. FI votes were particularly common among blue-collar voters (24%), among low-grade white-collar voters (22%) and among 18-24 year-olds (30%). At present, at over 15% in the polls, he has at least six times the support of the Socialist Party, which held the presidency till 2017, and no other left candidate comes near. At the last elections, 21.4% was enough to get through to the second round. Fewer may be sufficient this time, and Mélenchon’s team is hoping to mobilise those working-class voters who usually stay home, to create a surprise on election day.

Mélenchon’s pitch and his programme[2]

The fact that, after five years of Macron, the 500 richest families in France have doubled their wealth, while the number of children living in poverty has risen by 40%, as well as the remarkable combativity and class consciousness of French workers in recent years, guarantees that there is plenty of space for the radical left. Mélenchon and his team believe it is possible to bring about a “citizens’ revolution” to usher in “the epoch of the people”,[3] to quote the titles of two of his many writings.

It is hardly surprising that so many are inspired or encouraged. The FI programme proposes dozens of measures to radically reverse the trend of wealth being siphoned off ever more by the 1%. It is proposed to freeze prices on a series of basic necessities, and develop a policy of a basic quantity of free electricity and water for every household. A sharp rise in the minimum wage, and of minimum pension rates is promised, while the laws passed by Macron and Hollande which restricted workers’ rights to organise and to have stable contracts, are to be repealed. The programme plans a completely free health service (at present most people take out complementary insurance). It promises retirement at 60 and a shorter working week.

The vision put forward is one which takes full account of the urgency of climate deterioration: policies include the end of nuclear power before 2030, a move to 100% renewable energy, and the creation of a million and a half climate jobs. The intention is to set up massive support for organic agriculture, creating 300 000 jobs and moving quickly to 100% organic farming.

The programme reacts to recent movements by reserving a billion euros for the fight against sexist violence. And, after the recent scandal of large-scale mistreatment of elderly people in the Orpea chain of private retirement homes (1100 homes across France) an FI government would only allow retirement homes to be run by non-profit organisations or by local government.

A determined effort is planned to tax the rich more and stop the use of tax havens. On inheritance tax,  Mélenchon’s programme would impose a twelve million euro maximum for inheritance. Anything more than that would go into the public coffers (and, calculations show, could pay for student grants for all). For the rest of us, up to 120 000 euros of inheritance would be completely tax-free.

Finally, the France Insoumise wants to change the constitution and sharply reduce the power of the president, moving to a sixth Republic (the Fifth was established in 1958). If Mélenchon were to be elected, he would call a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

In a world where austerity, privatisation and individualism are sold to us as inevitable, it is a breath of fresh air to watch Mélenchon and FI members of parliament on television defending these reforms. And the reforms are popular. Early February, the manifesto was number six in the list of best-selling books in France, and the YouTube channel had 700 000 subscribers. A recent opinion poll showed that[4] 88% approved of a sharp rise in the minimum wage, 90% agreed retirement pensions should never be below the minimum wage. Eighty per cent said enough water for basic needs should be free; 86% are in favour of aiming at 100% renewable energy, while 63% want a change in the constitution and the establishment of a sixth republic.

In addition to its radicality, the FI campaign has an insurgent tone, which allowed it in 2017 to draw millions of voters who had previously stayed home at election time. Mélenchon quotes the great French writer Victor Hugo, saying “From now on, this word ‘Revolution’ will be the name of civilisation, until it is replaced by the word ‘harmony’”. He likes to repeat in meetings that great left slogan “Ecology, without class struggle, is just gardening really”. And he insists that “the only thing that can limit exploitation is resistance to exploitation”.

Islamophobia

Like the rest of the radical and revolutionary left in France, the France Insoumise does not sufficiently mobilise a fight against islamophobia. Macron’s dissolution of groups which assisted victims of islamophobia was greeted only by angry press releases by the whole of the left. However, Mélenchon’s recent positions, with encouragement from anti-racist groups based in multi-ethnic, working-class neighbourhoods, represent a historic shift in France on the question, as Islamophobia loses its hegemony on the left. Fascist candidate Eric Zemmour accuses Mélenchon of “lying down passively before the Imam”, and he is regularly attacked for being “soft on Islamic fundamentalism”.

In December 2019 there was the first ever mass demonstration specifically against Islamophobia in Paris. Mélenchon was there (whereas the Socialist Party refused to support). Unlike some, Mélenchon refuses to apologise for having been at the demo. This demonstration caused some dissensions within the Communist Party, and within the France Insoumise, with one of their MPs, François Ruffin, famously commenting that he wasn’t going to this demonstration “because I have football on Sundays”. Since then, Mélenchon’s defence of Muslims against racism have become louder, clearer, and systematic.

The FI group was the only parliamentary group to vote against the Islamophobic laws – supposedly against “Muslim separatism”-  pushed through by Macron last year. Mélenchon declared that “separatism” was “a stupid concept” invented “in order to stigmatise Muslims”. He now regularly reminds his mass audiences that “hatred for Muslims is a central factor of division allowing the powerful to remain powerful”. It is not an accident that most influential Black anti-racist groups are calling to vote for him, when they are often uninterested in “white politics”. One explained it was because Mélenchon “had broken with the Islamophobic consensus” and because he defends “the creolization of society” (a term Mélenchon has often used) and explicitly rejects a White identity for France.

Usefulness in struggle

The fight against the power of capital has always had three main aspects;[5] Firstly, the concrete fight – gaining wage increases, union rights or permanent contracts; secondly, the political fight – pushing through laws which help our class (whether it be bigger health budgets or gay marriage) and finally the ideological fight, to push back the idea that “There is No Alternative” to vicious austerity and militarism, and to push forward the idea that capitalism can be overthrown, and explain how this might be done. How useful in these struggles is the FI?

If Mélenchon gets a strong vote in the first round, every concrete struggle will be encouraged. If he should get to the second round (and the large number of candidates means this is not impossible) it will be a political earthquake. Already in 2022, solid railway strikes and education strikes for pay have shown that a fightback is coming – a large radical left vote will help this along.

The France Insoumise has at present 17 MPs elected to the National Assembly, including a call-centre operator, Adrien Quatennens; a librarian, Danièle Obono; and a nursing assistant, Caroline Fiat. They have carried out intensive parliamentary work since 2017, occasionally managing to push through an amendment in the interests of the 99%, more often proposing bills or amendments which are voted down, but which allow a debate in parliament and in the media on a wide range of social questions.

On the question of police racism, for example, the FI proposed an amendment which would oblige all police officers who checked someone’s ID to give a certificate to the person concerned. This would improve the situation in particular of Black and Arab men, by making repeated checks several times a day impossible. The FI MPs have stood out in their denunciation of police violence.

The vocal FI support in parliament and in the media for the successful campaign in 2019-2021 to push back Macron’s plan to smash pensions, was certainly useful, as was the support for the Yellow Vests. The MPs organised a minute of silence during a parliamentary debate for the Yellow Vests killed and injured during the movement “because of their commitment to be citizens”.  

FI MPs know how to attract the media. A couple of years back, when one of Macron’s ministers mocked those protesting at a cut of “only five euros” in Housing Benefit, France Insoumise MPs upset the government by coming into parliament with some shopping, to teach the minister what you can buy with five euros when you are poor. Last week, François Ruffin brandished in parliament a huge cheque for many billions of euros, symbolising the money given by Macron to big business during his presidency.

On the key question of antifascism, Mélenchon is the one who had the courage to stand directly against Marine Le Pen in her own constituency in 2012, and the FI were central to the organisation of last year’s rare mass demonstration against fascism. Meanwhile one FI MP, François Ruffin, is responsible for the two best mass-distribution political documentaries in 30 years: “Je veux du soleil” (2019)[6] about the Yellow Vest revolt, and “Debout les femmes” (2021) on the work and struggles of women cleaners and care assistants.

The France Insoumise sees the presidential campaign as a time of crucial political education and debate (two and a half hour political interviews on prime-time TV is the way we do things here!).[7] Three of Mélenchon’s recent long TV interviews received more than 1.5 million visits on the FI YouTube channel. He is an extraordinarily good speaker. His February meeting at Montpellier, entitled “The rich are idlers” got an audience of 8 000 people, and 300 000 YouTube visits. For the political struggle of our class, the France Insoumise is doing its bit.

Libel and slander

Naturally, Mélenchon is the target of impressive smear campaigns, which have loudly trumpeted that he is a megalomaniac, a racist, an Islamist, an antisemite and, most recently, a friend of Putin’s. These smears usually come from the Right, the Socialist Party, the Greens or the mass media, but are occasionally taken up by people on the far left.[8] The smear campaigns run in the usual manner, with Socialist Party press releases saying “He’s a friend of Putin’s”, soft left papers saying “it is widely believed he is a friend of Putin’s”, and many foolish people vaguely on the left chipping in helpfully with “Can you prove he isn’t a little pro-Putin on Tuesdays?” There are not enough people on the left who understand that any section of the left must be fiercely defended against smear campaigns by the whole of the left. The Corbyn experience in Britain shows how crucial this is.

Part two: Taming the Capitalist State?

In the first part of this article, I analysed the potential of the new left movement which has been built up in France around Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the France Insoumise, and explained why I thought revolutionaries should support this movement, while, obviously, retaining an independent critical voice. In this second part, I will look at some major differences Marxists have with the main thrust of France Insoumise politics – in particular concerning left patriotism and foreign policy, and I will consider the limits of left governments under capitalism.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s programme aims at a “citizen’s revolution” through the ballot box, leading to a rapid and decisive break with the last few decades of wealth trickling ever faster upwards into the pockets of the one per cent. The France Insoumise aims to use state power to break with the main thrust of capitalist neoliberalism.

There is every reason for anticapitalists to be cautious about such claims. Whether in Britain in 1964 or 1974, in France or Spain in 1981, or in Australia in 1972, claims for radical change through elections have generally turned out disappointing to say the least.[9] Harold Wilson, the 1960s Labour Prime Minister in the UK, wrote in his memoirs[10] of how stunned he was to realise how little power he had compared with the giant capitalist concerns who could pull the capital investment out of the UK economy, and in the 1970s the IMF showed UK Labour PM James Callaghan who it was who ruled the roost when push came to shove.

To look at a French experience which I will come back to later in this article- the election of Socialist Party president François Mitterrand in 1981- who better to understand what left governments can and cannot do than Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle Mitterrand. She recounts how she discussed government power with her husband:

“I used to ask François, “Now you have power, why don’t you do what you promised?” He replied to me that he did not have the power to stand up to the World Bank, to capitalism, to neoliberalism. He said he had won a government, but had not won power. In this way, I learned that being the government, being the president, was not much use in these societies subjected to capitalism and dominated by capitalism. I lived through this experience for fourteen years [Mitterrand was president from 1981-1995]. Even if he tried to avoid the most negative side of capitalism, his dreams very quickly began to collapse […]”[11]

Far more recently, the experience of novel left organisations such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, both of which exploded onto the scene in the context of the collapsing of compromised social-democratic parties, have shown they could raise hopes and expectations but, faced with organised ruling class resistance, were not up to the mark. The harsh austerity at present established in Greece is one of the tragic results.

Revolutionaries must analyse these past experiences and explain patiently the limits of electoral politics while taking into account what is new in each situation. Mélenchon’s positions open up important opportunities for us. Faced with the concern that past left governments have abandoned the interests of workers, Mélenchon does not at all avoid the question. On the contrary, he has recently given lectures about what went wrong in the 1980s, and why Mitterrand disappointed. One of these lectures, given in May 2021, on the fortieth anniversary of Mitterrand’s election was entitled “1981: the revolution suspended”. Another was entitled “A complete balance sheet of François Mitterand’s presidency”.

In the first of these, he presents a historical analysis of the Socialist Party victory in 1981, as the end of a political process of which the main accelerator, he insists, was “the ten million workers on strike” in 1968. He underlines that the reforms introduced by Mitterrand were more wide-ranging than has often been recognised: the nationalisation of dozens of banks, of electricity companies, engineering companies and of motorways, the doubling of the budget of the ministry of culture and the taxing of the rich. And he insists it is not reasonable to think of Mitterrand and other left leaders as intending to betray.

Mélenchon blames the turn to austerity, only two years after Mitterrand’s 1981 election, on a lack of political courage, a lack of strategy on the left of the left, and a lack of mass mobilisation. He takes the time to present thoroughly the arguments in defence of left reformism and its prospects. He deserves serious and thorough fraternal responses from revolutionaries, but such responses are very rare on the French left. [12]

Left patriotism

Apart from this debate about the feasability of radical transformation of society through parliament, there are two other aspects of France Insoumise politics which I would like to analyse, which have often provoked dismissive comments or insults from the far left rather than convincing responses.

Firstly, one of the France Insoumise ideas which Marxists cannot agree with is the use of left patriotism, and the promotion of those symbols of the French nation - the tricolour flag and the national anthem, the Marseillaise. Mélenchon saw no difficulty, when he recently spoke in Burkina Faso, declaring “I love my country” and he looks forward to a time when France, having left Nato and rejected colonialist attitudes, plays a positive role in international relations. Marxists, in contrast, have always proclaimed that working people have no homeland, and in wartime revolutionaries in imperialist countries prefer that their country lose the war. All this does not mean that we must not analyse the specificities of Left patriotism in France today, and it is certainly imbecilic to assimilate Mélenchon’s left patriotism to that of the far right.

The FI leadership consider that national symbols and national pride do not have a fixed meaning. For the right, the flag and the anthem symbolise the supposed glories of colonialism, but, says Mélenchon, the revolutionary origins of the tricolour and the Marseillaise mean they can be used by the left. The right want to tell the people that the soul of France is about Christian tradition and Great White Men, but Mélenchon insists that the soul of France is the barricades of 1789 or 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, the great strikes of 1936 and 1968, or the Resistance against the Nazis under the Occupation. His idea of France, he says, is “creolization” – mixing cultures and ethnic groups to form something new and vibrant.

Left patriotism obviously sounds less insane when the national motto is “Liberty, equality and brotherhood!” rather than the British motto “Dieu et mon droit”. And the FI is not the only ones to go for patriotic symbols. The Yellow Vest movement in France frequently used the tricolour flag and the Marseillaise on demonstrations, and this was not due to far-right influence (which declined quickly after the beginning of the Yellow Vest movement). One could see on the Yellow Vest demonstrations groups singing the Marseillaise puntctuated with chants of “Macron Out” and other movement songs such as:

Here we are, here we are
Although Macron doesn’t like it, here we are!
For the honour of the workers and to build a better world
Although Macron doesn’t like it, here we are!

Nevertheless, if Mélenchon’s left patriotism is structured and progressive in intention, this does not make it correct. One immediate problem it poses is that patriotism, including left patriotism, supposes an identification with the interests of “the country”. Supporting one’s country in the football or at the Olympics is the least of it. We are supposed to feel good if “France” wins market share in aeroplane manufacture, feel sad that it was not the Covid vaccines developed in France which won out, and worry if China is gaining “too much” influence in French-speaking Africa. We are supposed to be horrified at the prospect that some territory at present part of the French Republic - Martinique or Guadeloupe for example- might move towards independence. So, even if the FI programme plans leaving Nato, and building a new relationship with French-speaking Africa, the continuing identification with the national state is more than likely to conflict with an identification with the international working class.

Another serious drawback, if patriotic symbols are used to build a left political force, is that these symbols do not have the same meaning for everyone. What is the meaning of symbols like the French flag to those from the former colonies, or from African countries still today mistreated by French imperialism? Mobilising that important part of the French working class of North African heritage is hardly going to be facilitated by patriotic symbols. So, if left patriotism may speak to people, it is fraught with political dangers.

Some on the Left here have denounced Mélenchon for moving away from symbols such as the red flag and the hammer and sickle. This is to misunderstand the meaning these symbols often have in France, the country which fifty years ago had the strongest Communist Party in Europe. Given the crimes of Stalinism and the alliance of the CP with austerity Socialist Party policies while waving ever more red flags, the rejection of these symbols by most workers is unsurprising.

This question of which symbols to use has sometimes led to slightly bizarre situations. At the final meeting of the 2018 Summer School, it had been planned to sing The Marseillaise. Most of the FI MPs were on stage and led the singing, while the music was piped through the loudspeaker system. It had not been planned to sing the Internationale. Yet, once the Marseillaise was finished, while the MPs were clapping, several voices from the several hundred in the hall, began the Internationale. After twenty long seconds of hesitation, the MPs joined in. Of course this is only an anecdote, but it has its importance. Easily a majority of people in the room were happy to sing both anthems, and, in my view, this shows an atmosphere where serious debate is possible and Marxists have plenty to say.

Foreign policy

Patriotism is obviously closely linked to foreign policy. France is a major imperialist state. For example, as it just wound down its  operation in Mali (a resounding failure), voices on the right were  raised worrying about the declining influence of France in Africa. In a television interview, Mélenchon was attacked because he declared “Mali belongs to the Malians” and said that if the government of Mali decided they wanted no more French troops in the country, he as president would bring them home. The TV journalists were incredulous at the idea that France did not have a God-given right to send its troops wherever it wanted to without asking.

Mélenchon’s foreign policy programme is certainly a welcome slap in the face for the defenders of imperialism. Nevertheless, his plan is to use French state power in a different manner, certainly nothing more radical than that. This is his statement on international power and alliances:

“Of course, we are leaving Nato […]First of all, I want to restore our military sovereignty. France with nuclear deterrence must remain independent and manufacture its weapons without depending on American imports. Why should we take on the quarrels of the Latvians or Estonians with Russia, which have been going on for a thousand years? Why should we guarantee the physical borders of Ukraine? I want a non-aligned, alter-globalist France.”[13]

So we see the plan is to retain nuclear weapons as a lever for international power, but to use that power differently. This position is in many ways a logical extension of left patriotism. And although non-alignment is preferable to enthusiastic support for war, we are a long way from overthrowing imperialism, and a very long way from reminding workers that loyalty to their class internationally is immeasurably more in their interests than loyalty to their country. Mélenchon recently declared, “If I’m leading this country, anyone who wants to push us around had better watch out!”

These three examples (the limits on the power of left governments, the use of left patriotism and the attitude to French foreign policy) all serve to underline how important it is for Marxists in France to have an independent voice. But an independent voice is only useful if you get it heard where the masses of political activists who want change are – and in France today, that is massively around the France Insoumise. Because there is no obstacle to revolutionary currents being active within the France Insoumise, I think this is the best place to be.

In a period when most workers are not conscious of the difference between a social revolution and a “citizen’s revolution through the ballot box” it is particularly important that revolutionaries participate in fraternal debate in a milieu of many thousands of activists, not in a milieu of a few hundred. At least three small revolutionary groups, two of around a hundred members each (Gauche révolutionnaire and Révolution!) and one larger current (Ensemble Insoumis) are active inside the FI. Each of them had a stand at the August 2021 Summer School, and two of them produce independent revolutionary papers.

Since he left the Socialist Party to form the Left Party (Parti de gauche) in 2009, Mélenchon has written seven or eight books about political strategy and how to defeat neoliberalism. There is a real shortage of Marxists seriously taking up the debate with these ideas of the new left reformism.
 

First published on the Left Berlin website, in two parts: Part One and Part Two

John Mullen is an anticapitalist activist in the Paris region. His political website is here.
 


[1] For reasons which have mostly to do with how the French language works, the best translation of “La France Insoumise” is “France in revolt” not “France unbowed”. Firstly, “soumis” and  “insoumis” are relatively everyday words in French, whereas “bowed” and “unbowed” are not, in English. More importantly, “France unbowed” suggests the whole of France is referred to, whereas “la France Insoumise” can refer to that part of the French nation which is in revolt. This is why you can see terms such as “La France vaccinée”… ( word for word “vaccinated France”…) to speak of that section of French people who are vaccinated, or “La France syndiquée” (“unionised France”) to speak of those in France who are members of trade unions.

[2] You can find online, in English, the Table of Contents of the 2017 version of the programme, which gives an impression of its nature and tone.

[3] L’ère du peuple, Paris, Fayard, 2014.

[4] Harris, August 2021.

[5] These were mentioned by Marx as early as 1850.

[6] At least 200,000 people saw it in French cinemas.

[7] Two and a half hours of the Green candidate here and of Jean-Luc Mélenchon here.

[8] Leading member of the New Anticapitalist Party, Olivier Besancenot, in this interview for example.

[9] Ian Birchall’s classic and very readable book on reformist socialism is still one of the best explanations. Ian Birchall, Bailing Out the System.

[10] Harold Wilson, The Labour Government 1964-70, Penguin, Harmandsworth, 1974.

[11] Interview from 2005, available online here. My translation.

[12] A basic revolutionary response from twenty years ago can be found, in French, here.

[13] Le Monde 18 January 2022.

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John Mullen

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

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