Danielle Obono, leading member of France's Left Front tells Chris Nineham about the situation in France as the next round of elections approaches, and analyses the left’s progress in Europe
What was the impact of Hollande’s victory over Sarkozy?
More than anything, most people are incredibly relieved to have got rid of Sarkozy. They feel they can live again and breathe again, life feels less oppressive and easier. We are suddenly aware how hard the last five years were intellectually and physically. I don’t think people expect a huge amount from Hollande but they think it can’t be as bad as it was under Sarkozy.
Hollande has made few announcements. One thing he has done is raise the minimum wage by 5%. This is not as much as we would have liked, it is essentially a symbolic gesture, but it is an interesting symbol, because this was something that he was against during the election campaign. The fact he has had to do it is a product of the pressure he felt from the left.
Most of his other announcements have been about presentation – he has appointed as many woman as men to the cabinet, including some young faces, some Arabs and so on. All good but more about image than substance. He is waiting till after the rest of the elections for more serious policy decisions.
There hasn’t been any sign of working class or social movement revival yet but politics is in pause mode in the run up to the legislative elections on the next two weekends. After that we will then be in summertime which is a holiday break so perhaps the real political and social situation won’t really be clear till autumn.
How seriously do you take the idea that Hollande has a different economic approach?
He will be more cautious and less rabid than Sarkozy, but at the end of the day he is a neoliberal and he doesn’t have a plan B. He was in favour of the European treaty and what is interesting is that if you look closely at the composition of the cabinet, the key ministers, including the finance minister, are older, white, male neoliberals. There are no leftists in the economic ministries. There is no way they are going to do anything differently – and they were quite open about this during the election campaign. The rhetoric will be different, and here Hollande is using the Obama approach and talking about growth. We will have to see about the practice, but I guess he will be more hesitant than Sarkozy but with no fundamental difference.
Will there be a different relationship with Merkel, and if so, will it matter?
The break in the strong nexus between Merkel and Sarkozy will have an impact, but perhaps more in Germany than in France. It will serve to isolate Merkel a bit. Hollande of course has to look like he is not just following Merkel’s lead. So when he met her he stressed that he was pushing for growth. But the current Euro treaty is based on a neoliberal agreement and if you are not against the treaty then there is nothing you can do except perhaps add a few social elements. The way Hollande behaved towards SYRIZA’s leader Tsirpas when he came to Paris ten days ago was interesting. Hollande and his fellow Socialist Party leaders refused to meet him despite being asked several times. But Hollande met the leader of PASOK a few days later. The French Foreign Minister has made a public statement saying the Greeks must vote in the right way, in other words for austerity. Any change in the general approach would have been there, meeting SYRIZA, showing some support for the Greek people, that would have been an important gesture.
What has been the effect of the Front de Gauche’s electoral success?
The legislative elections in the next two weeks will be a big test for us although they are harder because they are local and the media are ignoring the Front de Gauche. The Socialist Party is behaving with complete arrogance towards us as if the role of the Front de Gauche made no difference. At the same time they are having to shift a little bit to the left because of us.
Because we mounted such a principled and high profile opposition to Sarkozy and to the far right Front National, we have created a sense of pride. People are very thankful. Two days ago Melenchon visited the Paris constituency I am standing in, and people came out on to the streets to say thank you for everything he and the Front de Gauche have done. I think we have helped create a different mood and people feel perhaps we can stand up and fight. For the moment people are still waiting to see what Hollande will do. People will give him some space and a little bit of time, so we still don’t know if and when the social movement will go back on to the offensive.
As well as helping to generate a different mood, I think the Front de Gauche campaign helped provide an opportunity for the activists to regroup and to be in place and ready to go back in to action. For all these reasons, we are in a good position to help build the movement in the autumn. And there are expectations because this is a left government. The upcoming election results will affect this. If there is a big majority for the Socialist Party and if we have a strong result that will boost the movement.
Is the European left back in business?
There are important breakthroughs but it is still uneven. In Greece SYRIZA's remarkable progress is a result of the way the crisis is destroying the country, it’s a direct product of the contradictions of the capitalist system and the way the traditional parties have failed to find any solution. In France things are not so acute yet, but some of the same feelings exist. The success of our campaign relied partly on us saying we should not wait till things get that bad. We need the Front de Gauche because we have a real solution.
Elsewhere things are less clear. In Germany the left has been weakened recently, in Italy there is no left organisation that is seen as a possible alternative, and the situation is very depressing for activists. The Greek situation is the weakest link for the capitalist class; it is the most important link for us.
So it is too early to say that the left is back but there are good signs. In the short term a lot depends on whether SYRIZA wins. If they win this will be a major turning point, for the first time our left will not just be on the offensive but actually in power. The question will then be stark and concrete: not just are you for or against a neoliberal Europe but do you or do you not support the government of the Greek people? Are you with them or fighting against them? Because the EU institutions and then other governments will attack them and it will be a struggle of life and death for a radical government.
Melenchon has taken quite a big gamble by standing against the National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Is it paying off?
By all accounts it is going very well. It was a bold move as you say and everybody is talking about it. It is not only significant because he has taken on Marine Le Pen, but he is standing in a place where the Socialist Party has lost legitimacy because of corruption scandals. The Socialist Party is not legitimate there and the right and the UNP is very weak. It is a district where there was a lot of industry that has collapsed, and there is now mass unemployment. It is a constituency that encapsulates the problems of neoliberal France.
We are saying all this is not about local politics fundamentally, these are national, European and global questions. We are trying to rebuild the left’s arguments, to retell the story of left wing politics so that people understand the logic of what we stand for. Next Sunday for example we are organising a march on the day that a woman activist organised a protest under occupation in 1941 to commemorate a miners’ strike. We are trying to popularise the left once again, and I think we are making progress.
Danielle Obono is speaking in London on 19 June at a Coalition of Resistance rally supporting the TUC's anti-cuts demo called for 20 October.
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.
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