On the eve of the presidential election in France, Feyzi Ismail talks to Danièle Obono, a leading figure in the campaign of left-wing hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon
How was La France Insoumise formed, and how did it come to command such a massive following?
We knew that the presidential elections were coming up in May 2017 because they happen every 5 years. In January 2016, when the Socialist Party (PS) started to organise their primaries, disagreements arose within Front de Gauche and Ensemble about whether to work with the PS. Mélenchon was clear that he wouldn’t take part, and a month later announced his candidacy. This was not well received by the Communist Party or Ensemble, who argued that this was doing politics in the ‘old way’. My own view was that we could engage in some of the primaries amongst the left and even work with the PS, despite the fact that the PS was polarising political discussion around itself.
After a few weeks, however, it became clear that the process should be open and the left should discuss a real strategy towards winning. Mélenchon had the foresight to build a movement well before the election campaign started, and he began the process by arguing that the programme should be based on the activity of the past year around Nuit Debout, and that the core of the programme had to clear, and based on policies that would be popular with the working class. So Insoumise started in February 2016 when Jean-Luc Mélenchon put forward his candidacy and asked people to go onto his election site and declare their support. Initially it was mostly online and operating with a small team.
The process actually worked: the programme was developed and a discussion was had around what points need to change and what points need elaborating. Then in October we organised a National Convention to publicise the programme, and that was the moment that exposed to the public what the movement looked like and what kind of dynamic was being built. First, it was clear that something different was happening. The whole project gave the impression of being fresh and appealing to a wide audience. Second, the programme was very solid. The solidity of the ideas and the clarity of the strategy were gaining increasing attention from the public. Even the media were quite impressed. Of course the movement wasn't just built in a day, we did have the mass protests against the labour law, and there was resistance and the building of networks and so on. We were able to polarise the situation and build on that. But from February to October, the ground was laid for the programme and by October over 100,000 people had joined the movement.
You have been leading the co-ordination of the thematic booklets. Can you tell us what some of Mélenchon’s key policies are?
La France Insoumise bases its policies around 4 different axes with the aim of countering what it sees as social emergencies that are happening around the world. The first is the axis around poverty, unemployment and casual work. The second is the environment, climate change and agriculture. The third is the democratic emergency and the hollowing out of the 5th republic in France and the democratic deficits found everywhere. And the final axis is international, focused on war.
The complete programme and the core of the programme is that we want to change the way things are produced, consumed and organised. We want to move from productivism and consumerism towards an ecological transition that would be democratic. Our economic premise is the launch of a strategy that would create 100,000 green jobs, that would redevelop public services and that would engage in all the processes needed to dismantle what is driving our economy currently. For example, we have to transition the whole nuclear energy sector and the people working in this sector towards renewables, which will take years. We have to invest in services, whether it’s childcare or schools or hospitals.
We have pledged to invest €100 billion in an emergency investment plan, which will go towards a green strategy, public services and social emergencies such as homelessness. We also want the wealth shared more equally. So we propose raising the minimum wage by €173 per month and raising civil servants' salaries. We want to share working hours more equally by reducing them to 32 hours per week. We want to reverse pension reforms so that the retirement age is 60. And we want to abolish the labour law that proposed raising the number of working hours and which so many protested against. Some of the money for this will come from taxation, and for that we want to expand the tax categories from 5 to 14, so it’s fairer and people get back the money that was taken from them in the past.
Almost a third of voters are currently undecided, which is extraordinary. What is going to decide for the undecided?
Over the past month, all of our activity has been focused on the programme and getting it out there. It’s this idea that if we explain to people the core of our programme they can be convinced. There are 40 booklets that make up the programme and we have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. We are the only ones who have precisely outlined what our economic policy is about, where the money is coming from and how it will be invested. We are the only campaign that has been able to do that. So we constantly emphasise to people that the way the world is going now, when we have to choose between the likes of Macron and Fillon, who stand in the long line of neoliberals who are responsible for the situation we are in now, and the likes of Le Pen, who pits everyone against each other and only pretends to care about workers but has no plan, then our programme is an absolute necessity.
We want to radically change the ways things are. We want to move on from Hollande and the economic and social chaos we are suffering. Even some of the mainstream economists who don’t agree with the programme say that it could work. We have a Plan A and a Plan B, and we are aiming to show that our policies are workable. And the response has been extremely positive. People have been saying that the campaign has been dynamic and that they have felt like they were free to come and participate. There were no party cards or banners and everyone has been welcome. Mélenchon had argued early on in defence of a left-wing tradition and that this must not be denied. But at the same time, we want to appeal to a wider audience and our programme speaks for itself. That’s what has made us different: the message was that if you agree with the programme then be part of it.
It must also be said that the social media campaign has been unprecedented. Mélenchon’s YouTube channel has a huge following and he’s become the most popular politician in the country. He’s been able to change the game completely. He also has a genuine interest in tech things and tries to learn about it. So all kinds of people have got involved at that level, gamers who developed the video game and who aren’t even in Insoumise. But ultimately, people have said there is finally an alternative that is hopeful. People have felt like they could really make this movement.
What impact will last night’s attack in the Champs-Élysées have on the elections, and how has Mélenchon responded?
We’ve always known it would happen and this, as everyone knows, is an ongoing problem we have been experiencing, and is the reason for the State of Emergency. The only thing to do in this situation is to keep going. We have a policy against terrorism, which relies on rational thought: we argue for a return to reason when it comes to the terrorist phenomenon. In other words, we acknowledge that there are dangers but we have to try and develop a rational response to them, which is not to respond with force. We have to rely on the judicial process but we cannot choose between freedom and security. We have opposed the State of Emergency; an emergency is useful for maybe a couple of hours but everyone has been saying it’s not useful after this. And crucially, we have to play a role in the international arena that is focused on building peace. Terrorists feed their ideology on the climate of instability created by the current world order. We need to oppose that. We must not let people be overwhelmed by fear, we must not let anyone label Muslims and not let Islamophobia be the order of the day. We have to stay united on these questions. Last night we gathered on the Champs-Élysées and Mélenchon refused to cancel public meetings. The message has to be that fear won’t paralyse us.
What is the mood currently amongst Mélenchon supporters and what are the prospects for Sunday?
This has been an unprecedented campaign on so many levels. The polls have never really been able to accurately predict what would happen. But given that the candidates are so closely tied, nobody really knows what will happen Sunday. It’s frightening but also thrilling because until the very last moment people can be convinced. Obviously with the terror attacks that happened yesterday, this could strengthen the right and the reactionary forces. But then again, it wasn’t those people who were going to switch from right to left; the core of the right is already convinced about who they are going to vote for. There has been a media circus around the attacks and people are fed up with it. The amazing thing is that we are only a few votes away from something really big happening, and that should lift our spirits.
Feyzi teaches at SOAS, University of London, and is active in UCU and the anti-war and anti-austerity movements. She is a contributor to The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, and is on the editorial board of Counterfire.
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