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France Insoumise banner at protest

France Insoumise banner at protest. Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

As France’s presidential election looms, John Mullen spoke to Phil Butland from The Left Berlin about the principal issues and balance of forces

Hello John, thanks for talking to us again. Could you remind people who you are and what your relationship is to the coming French elections?

I’m a revolutionary socialist and I’ve been living in the Paris region for over thirty years. Although a bit less active than I used to be, I am a supporter of the France Insoumise, and of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left reformist candidacy for the presidency.

So, a new French president will be elected next April. What are the polls looking like at the moment?

Because of the two-round election system (the strongest two candidates go through to a run-off), candidates are above all aiming at getting over 22% or so in the first round. The fragmenting of the vote should mean that 22% is enough to get through to the second round, and the more people who stay at home on election day, the fewer votes will be needed to get through. In 2017 Emmanuel Macron got 24% in the first round, while far-right Marine Le Pen got 21.3%. 22% of those registered to vote stayed at home. Macron is hoping for an exact rerun, confident he can easily win again in a second round against Le Pen.

The polls continue to show the shipwreck of the traditional Socialist Party and classical Conservative options. Declared Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo gets around 5% (which, given that the president before Macron was Socialist Party, remains stunningly low). The traditional right Republicans haven’t yet decided on their candidate, but the most likely, Xavier Bertrand, stands at around 13% in the polls. The Greens just chose a candidate from the right of their party, Yannick Jadot, who is on 6-9%.

Radical left Jean-Luc Mélenchon is at 7 – 10%. The Communist Party, which backed Mélenchon in 2017, is fielding its own candidate (who is at 2-3%), a rebel ex Socialist Party candidate gets 2-3% too, while various Trotskyists get 1.5 % each. Macron gets 24 -28 %. But in the latest polls the shock is the fascists, represented by two candidates – Marine Le Pen on 16-19% and Eric Zemmour on 12- 15%.

How are French people reacting to Emmanuel Macron’s presidency at the moment?

In the polls, at least 25% of those registered say they will vote for him in the first round. His “extreme centre” neoliberal support base is stable, so he certainly has a good hand of cards to get himself re-elected. The success of the vaccination campaign and of the vaccine pass (required to get into cinemas, restaurants etc) have helped his ratings (in France there are 35 deaths a day at the moment from Covid, as against 150 in Britain).

But if a quarter of voters definitely want him back in, that leaves an awful lot of unhappy and angry people, and what these people decide to do is key. We have plenty to be angry about: the Catholic charity Secours Catholique just reported that fully ten per cent of the French population had to use food banks last year. Macron has been pushing through Islamophobic laws, slashing taxes for the rich and making life harder for the poor since his first day in office. Recently a new system for unemployment benefit came in, meaning you now have to work six months not four before having initial rights to unemployment benefit (this in a world where short-term contracts are everywhere). He has also been talking of clamping down on unemployed people who are “not really looking for a job”. There is no evidence that there are many of these, but politically it looks good for Macron to be loudly denouncing them.

Macron does have however a key political defeat to swallow. Millions on the streets and on strike forced him to shelve his huge flagship “reform” which would have destroyed a retirement pension scheme which has been kept intact if bruised after twenty-five years of working-class struggle. Last week in a major speech, Macron admitted (if we read between the lines) that he was too scared to relaunch this attack before next year’s elections. So as to have a new flagship project, he announced the building of a bunch of nuclear power stations.

A year ago, most people outside France had never heard of Eric Zemmour. Who is he and is he dangerous?

Zemmour is a media personality and journalist, openly claiming that France is threatened with destruction through immigration. He represents a part of fascist and hard right opinion which regrets the move towards respectability of Marine Le Pen. By throwing her father out of the organisation, changing its name, no longer talking about the Holocaust, and allying herself with some small non-fascist right-wing organisations, Le Pen has been fairly successful in mainstreaming her politics (although building a rooted party structure has had limited success).

Zemmour appeals to hard racists. He demands that it become illegal to give babies first names like Mohamed or Fatima. He claims that Muslims are terrorising working-class neighbourhoods like mine. He claims that the French fascist Vichy government during World War Two tried to protect French Jews, and asks people to be reassured that most Jews sent to their deaths by Vichy were of other nationalities. At present, he is (once again) in court accused of inciting racial hatred by saying that unaccompanied minors among migrants seeking asylum are “murderers and rapists”.

The fact that he can get 1,500 people in Bordeaux to his public meeting, without the support of a proper party structure, is worrying. And his new book “France Has Not Said Its Last Word” is on sale on every high street, promising the slashing of taxes and benefits and the abolition of environmental regulations, and warning against the supposed dangers of woke-ism and “gender theory”. Fortunately, there have been counter-demonstrations against Zemmour’s meetings in a number of towns, including Nantes, Bordeaux and Geneva. These should be built everywhere.

Should we be pleased that Zemmour seems to be taking some voters away from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (formerly Front National)?

Some desperate people on the left feel that way, but they are wrong to do so. Zemmour is normalising hard Islamophobia and fascist ideas, and dragging much of the media debate to the hard right. On news channel CNews, Zemmour was invited to discuss whether Western civilisation had forgotten how to be proud! These bad tidings follow a year in which the far right have successfully built their support, very much helped by the context of much broader mass anti-vaccination demonstrations.

The rise of the far right has encouraged Macron to go much further in attacking Muslims, even though he himself originates in a branch of right wing thought for which Islamophobia was not important. The government has recently banned several Muslim organisations that fight Islamophobia, on the grounds that … they fight Islamophobia! Excuses were used along the lines that outside commentators had left antisemitic comments on the Facebook pages of the now banned organisations! The Education Minister has said universities are in danger from hordes of “islamo-leftists”, while Le Figaro, a mass circulation conservative newspaper had headlines last week on the “indoctrination of our children” by “LGBT ideology” and by “antiracism”!

Many people have been inspired by France’s Yellow Vest movement. What are the Yellow Vests doing now, and have they had an impact on the elections?

The Yellow Vests were a broad, dynamic, leaderless movement of revolt which inspired millions and scared Macron. Today the movement is many times smaller, and is unlikely to produce a united response to the elections, though it could burst into action again at any time.

France has seen some large Covid demos this year, in which both left wingers and right wingers have participated. I was at a film screening recently where the director called these protests a continuation of the Yellow Vests. Is he right?

The Yellow Vest movement was always contradictory; an alliance of poor workers and very small (sometimes penniless) businesspeople. So the anti-authority and individualist content was always strong (supporting destruction of speed radars etc). Sadly, along with much of the radical left, certain sections of the remaining Yellow Vests have mobilised on an individual freedom basis against Covid restrictions that are necessary to save lives. This led to a mass mobilisation which was not hard for the far right to profit from: in Paris we have seen separate marches by anti-vax fascists, the biggest fascist marches for decades.

Who are the Left candidates for President and what do they stand for?

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is standing for the Socialist Party, but it does not seem that she can revive the Socialist Party’s very sick body. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the left candidate who really matters. Yannick Jadot is the Green candidate. The Communist Party, which supported Mélenchon in 2017, is standing Fabien Roussel, who is pitching for political space to the right of Mélenchon, loudly emphasising his support for the police and for nuclear energy. At least three revolutionary Left candidates are hoping to stand, including Philippe Poutou for the New Anticapitalist Party.

Of the various left candidates, the one most likely to challenge for president is Jean-Luc Mélenchon. What are his chances?

There are several anti-Macron candidates on the Left very broadly defined. Mélenchon is the only one who could win, because he is the only one who might be able to run an insurgent campaign and persuade millions who were going to stay home to go and vote. This is how he got 19% and seven million votes last time, the highest ever vote for the radical Left, with 24% of blue-collar voters and 22% of white-collar working class voters choosing him. His programme of raising the minimum wage, retirement at 60, a hundred percent renewable energy, huge investment against violence against women, generalisation of free health care, and many dozens of other radical reforms, pulls the political debate leftwards. It opens up spaces for mass discussion on crucial questions, on which we Marxists have things to say to other class fighters. And he has been loudly defending Muslims against Islamophobia for years now, improving on his previous positions on Islamophobia.

His organisation, the France Insoumise (FI), is running a dynamic campaign. The YouTube channel has 600,000 followers, and the plan is to knock on a million doors over the next few months, although door-to-door canvassing is not a traditional tool in French elections. Mélenchon is an extraordinary orator and his mass meetings will be huge.

The FI calls for a “citizens’ revolution”. The tiny Trotskyist candidates reply “that would be the wrong kind of revolution”. They are kind of correct in the abstract, that is, the question of overthrowing the capitalist state cannot be avoided, but the differences between a citizens’ revolution and other kinds of revolution are sadly unknown to 99% of French workers.

Given that Mélenchon’s campaign and movement is not a membership organisation with strict rules to limit what activists can do, it seems to me obvious that revolutionaries can and should work within it, rather than chase after getting 1% of votes based on distinctions invisible to the working class in general. Marxists who work in the campaign for Mélenchon’s election have plenty of space for fraternal debate about reformism and the state, and to politically oppose other sets of ideas like the deep green degrowth ideas, identity politics or animal rights ideas, which all have considerable influence.

Mélenchon is a left reformist candidate, and I could amuse myself by listing twenty-seven disagreements I have with him, but this would be unproductive. He is at present facing a major smear campaign which will accelerate as the months go by (we will hear that he is a megalomaniac, racist, antisemitic friend of Putin’s, etc etc). The lessons of Corbyn in Britain must be learned. Mélenchon is under attack because he says neoliberalism is not inevitable, and that another world is possible in which human needs are put first. Those sections of the radical left who are tempted to bay with the hounds are doing our class a great disservice.

Whoever wins the presidency, social struggles will continue. What is on the horizon?

If Macron wins, he will try again for his juggernaut anti-pension reform, and there will be mass revolt. If Mélenchon should win (which is possible if it turns out he is in the run-off against Le Pen), the ruling class will pull out all the stops to prevent him from applying his programme, and mass movements are also likely. However, my crystal ball is rather hazy today, so watch this space.

John Mullen’s political website can be found here.

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