John Mullen looks at the direction of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the new French left after their electoral breakthrough earlier in the year
Around five thousand people attended the radical left summer school of the France Insoumise (FI), held at the end of August at Valence in the South of France. Three days of discussion and education ended with a rousing call for immediate action against Macron, and for far higher taxes on excessive profits.
On the summer school programme were debates and lectures about all the key political questions of today: Green planning, sexism in politics, Palestine, how to defend our hospitals, racism, strikes, public health, Ukraine, Marxism, secularism, feminism, homophobia, the French revolution, neofascism, housing, animal welfare, the Yellow Vest revolt, education policy, police violence, France in Africa, and the South American Left, to name about half the subjects discussed. There were one hundred and ten meetings in all. Films about working-class resistance and about the Algerian war, and a handful of concerts, completed the event. Intellectuals, trade unionists and campaigners were invited to speak, and there were even three (very stormy) debates with ministers of Macron’s government. Four hundred and fifty activists under 25 had attended a three-day youth camp just before, and the younger generation of activists was very much visible at the summer school. Many of the meetings were recorded and are available on the YouTube channel of the France Insoumise.
Of course, it is always more enjoyable to attend a summer school of a movement on the rise! Since last year, the FI has moved from 17 MPs to 75, obtained 7.7 million votes at the presidential elections, and built an electoral alliance on a radical programme which now represents the only visible left opposition to Macron.
The rise of the France Insoumise as a confident and radical mass left-wing force was made possible by twenty years of mass struggle during which millions of class-conscious workers on the streets opposed the slashing of pensions, the tearing up of labour protection laws and cuts in public services. This combativity needed a political representation, and the team around Jean-Luc Mélenchon, realizing that even the left wing of the Socialist Party would never break fully with neoliberalism, built the France Insoumise to fill this need. They now call for a “citizens’ revolution”, a new constitution ( “the sixth republic”) and “spectacular change”.
How effective is this new force and what future does it have? It is certainly useful to have a few dozen radical Left MPs who are ready to fight. The France Insoumise MPs were the only ones, along with some Communists, to vote against the recent extension of NATO to Sweden and Finland and to point out that NATO does not defend freedom. FI MPs condemned Israeli apartheid this summer (and were promptly accused of antisemitism by a government minister). A parliamentary fight to impose price freezes on basic foods is underway, and a bill to make all school meals free is in the offing. Indeed, the usefulness of the FI MPs to the working class has been highlighted recently by a series of predictable smear campaigns against three of its best-known leaders.
A huge fight outside parliament is on the cards. Macron, re-elected this year, is determined to spread misery and pain. His plan to make people retire later and on less money was defeated two years ago by mass strikes and millions on the streets. This plan is back on the table. New measures to reduce unemployment benefits will come into effect this Autumn.
Government islamophobia is ever more vicious. Last month there were attempts to expel Muslim Imams from the country without a trial, on the vague excuse that they “do not adhere to French values”. This is despite the fact that the Imams have lived in France all their lives.
Although the main meeting of the weekend was entitled “For a citizens’ revolution!”, and though it is common to hear speakers here talk of “a people’s revolution like 1789”, of “breaking with capitalism” and of “class struggle”, the France Insoumise must be considered a left reformist force. This is not an insult – it simply indicates that the central strategy is to win governmental power through elections and use the State to serve the interests of the people. If one looks carefully, it is clear that this also means using the French police and the French army differently at home and abroad, to defend “the interests of France” in a new way. It is not unreasonable to be sceptical about such possibilities.
A series of key discussions are underway about how to win. One is on the question of structuring the movement. The France Insoumise is not a political party. There are no membership cards, no subs (supporters give donations), no traditional conference with motions, factions and leadership elections. The idea was to allow people different levels of involvement, to include hundreds of members of other parties, and to avoid the heavy traditions of faction fighting on the radical left in France. It was also thought that traditional party meetings, committees and structures were less important in the digital age where information can be circulated, and even votes held, in other ways.
This loose method of organization has advantages for revolutionaries inside the FI. You can sell your own paper and have Marxist meetings without it becoming a problem of party discipline. A couple of hundred Marxists do this, but most Marxist groupings have stayed outside the FI, stood candidates against it, and often followed a “red professor” sectarian line, simply giving the FI marks out of ten at the end of each term.
Is this loose structure going to change now the FI is stronger and has a permanent presence? Some of the leaders would like it to. Manuel Bompard insisted that what is needed is “an organized political force which can fight the battle of ideas, which can support the different struggles going on in society, which can push forward people’s self-organization and educate the activists of the future”.
Some activists are pushing for “more democracy” in the movement: elected committees and delegate conferences in a more traditional party mould. These include many who believe this would ensure a leadership more responsive to grassroots opinions, and allow more discussion on tactics and communication between the different local groups. It would also, insists MP Clementine Autain, help train many hundreds of local leaders and reduce the domination of MPs in the decision-making processes. These voices for structural change in the organization are joined by some who are simply nostalgic for the faction fighting of their swiftly disappearing youth. Some changes are probable, but the more important question is “democracy in order to do what?”
FI activists want Macron out soon. For this, the question of the links with extra-parliamentary struggle is crucial. The vocal support of FI for the Yellow Vests and for the fight to defend pensions, as well as its key role in the occasional mass mobilizations against racism and the far right have been very useful. Aurélie Trouvé, previously chair of Attac and newly elected FI MP, declared that we need “unity from below with all those who are resisting, in whatever sphere: in trade unions, in culture or science, or in various campaigns. We needed to bring people together, and not only party activists.”
Nevertheless, the general priority of the France Insoumise is winning elections, and the main thrust of much of the summer school was “What new laws are needed?” and “What kind of new constitution is needed in France?” The FI leadership insists that supporting strikes and struggles is important, but the practical work of supporting struggles is generally left to local FI groups, and many of these do little in that area.
There are no more elections for some time, and Macron wants to move quickly. In his latest speech, he insisted arrogantly that “the time of abundance is over”. Meanwhile the use of food banks has risen by 12% in a year, and the very richest have seen their fortunes rocket.
This summer has already seen a number of strikes in local transport and refuse collection. Macron’s attacks, and the effects of inflation on family budgets, mean that mass resistance could easily spark up this autumn. A trade union day of action is set for 29th September. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon announced at the summer school that the main Autumn campaign will be around the demand to tax the excessive profits of big companies. This will involve mass petitioning, “people’s assemblies” in every town, and a monster demonstration in mid-October, in cooperation with the main trade unions.
Combativity is definitely in fashion in FI. It is important to note in passing the tremendous progress made in FI on a key question and historical weakness of the French Left – that of Islamophobia. Four years ago, the FI summer school invited well-known “left” Islamophobe Henri Peña Ruiz, who declared “I have the right to be Islamophobic”. Now, after several years in which Mélenchon has repeatedly and vocally defended Muslims against prejudice, the atmosphere is different: a number of invited speakers and FI MPs spoke of the importance of fighting Islamophobia. More progress is needed, certainly: most FI MPs, like the rest of the Left, said little concerning recent Islamophobic expulsions.
In conclusion, the France Insoumise is by far the most exciting place to be on the French Left. It is still on the rise, and the wave of struggles emerging will be a chance for it to show its worth. Marxist activists should work inside this “movement for spectacular change”, building the organization, and at the same time spreading Marxist understandings of how to move forward.
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John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.
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