France: Mélenchon, Macron, Zemmour and the future of the left

Issue 
France Insoumise election rally
France Insoumise has attracted tens of thousands of people to its election rallies across the country. Photo: @FranceInsoumise/Twitter

As the election campaign continues through April, what is the atmosphere in the radical left in France?

This is a long electoral season, as there are two rounds of presidential elections in April, and two rounds of parliamentary elections in June. The two are very much linked, because the electorate is traditionally generous with whoever wins the presidentials. On the left, some of the political positioning in April is decided with possible alliances for June in mind.

In 35 years of being an activist in France, I have never seen a radical left program so visible or an electoral campaign so exciting. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s campaign got at least 60,000 people on the streets of Paris in a demonstration in mid-March. The YouTube Channel has 800,000 subscribers and Mélenchon or other France Insoumise Members of Parliament are on prime-time TV most days.

Mélenchon’s mass meetings are real moments of mass political education and get tens of thousands to attend, far more than any other candidate (next week the meeting will be simultaneous in 12 towns, with the help of 11 holograms of Mélenchon!). The message is very simple: The money exists to increase wages and pensions enormously, make energy and agriculture green, and abolish homelessness. Let’s change society and tax the rich instead of scapegoating Muslims and Arabs.

Because of the tremendous combativity and political consciousness of millions of French workers over recent years, left reformism has been able to re-emerge in this way — outside the traditional parties of the left, which are now marginalised — and with a dynamic, insurgent tone.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent actions of the so-called “West” (sanctions, rise of militarism, much talk about “Europe’s place in the world” etc) are reshaping the political terrain. Can you talk about the impact in France?

A warmongering atmosphere always helps the government in place, since they are in a position to “do something”, or at least appear to do so. Also, right-wing demands for more military spending are harder to oppose in a confusing war atmosphere. Macron has tried to profit from all this in an almost caricatural manner. He suddenly stopped shaving and started wearing military sweatshirts hoping to look more like [Ukraine’s president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy in a photoshoot! He quickly rose 5% in the opinion polls, but seems to be losing some of that gain now, and is adapting his tactics day by day to suit.

Mélenchon has stood out as opposing NATO escalation. This led to a major campaign led by Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo (who has 2% in the polls) to smear him as a friend of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin. Although millions probably believed this nonsense, Mélenchon’s anti-war stand won him some support too, in a polarising atmosphere, and he has gained a couple of percentage points.

Macron seems to be the favourite. Can you describe — politically, socially — the core of his electoral support? Do you think there could be an upset in the second round and — if not — what should we expect to see during his new term?

There are around 48 million adults in France. In the 2017 elections Macron got eight and a half million votes in the first round, and won the second round easily against Marine Le Pen, with many millions voting for him just to keep the fascists out. So it is not that he is popular, but that he is more popular than others in a very fragmented political landscape. Macron’s voters tend to be older and he is very popular among managerial staff. And these are groups who do not generally abstain.

Macron built his party on the ruins of the traditional left and right, filling it with right-wing opportunists and left-wing traitors, but the party has little presence on the ground (only a handful of towns have a mayor from La Republique en Marche, his party).

Partly because he is outside the traditional parties of the right, he has been able to do a couple of things to make him look socially concerned or “centre-right”. For example, class sizes have been much reduced in schools in the poorest towns, heavy elitist policies in top universities have been changed, and help for wage workers during the pandemic was better than in neighbouring countries.

Certainly Macron has a strong hand for re-election. He wanted to be France’s [Margaret] Thatcher, but in fact only managed to carry out half of his planned attacks. Vicious attacks on the unemployed, in education and against local government were pushed through, with gradually more Islamophobia and violent repression, and big tax cuts for the rich. But his flagship plan (to smash the French pension scheme) was defeated by mass strikes and demonstrations of millions.

In his campaign for re-election, he is saying he will try again to attack pensions, and promises to build nuclear power stations. He also hints at other attacks — like making students pay much more to go to university (at present they pay only a few hundred Euros a year). The billions which were spent on the pandemic will encourage him to push even harsher austerity, and there will be huge fightbacks. Already some quite solid strikes for wages have been taking place.

It has been some months since the initial rise of [far-right candidate Éric] Zemmour in the polls and commentary about the emergence of this new trend. What more do we know about the realignment of the French far right today? Is he simply splitting a part of FN’s [National Front, now known as National Rally] electoral support or bringing in additional forces to the far right? How are both of them ([Marine] Le Pen and Zemmour) doing in terms of building their forces on the ground?

Zemmour is reacting to the long and relatively successful campaign by Marine Le Pen to give her party a respectable image. He demands a “ministry of re-migration” and aims to throw Blacks and Arabs out of the country. After a police murder in the Paris suburbs a few days back, he trumpeted his support for the murderer [cop], saying “we must eradicate this scum”. He defends the record of the French fascist Vichy regime, claiming they defended French Jews! It is extremely worrying that he managed to get 30,000 people to a national rally in Paris at the end of March.

Both Le Pen and Zemmour are very weak from the point of view of local party organisation on the ground. In the 2020 local elections, Le Pen’s Party scored 2.3%. In many towns they dare not organise public meetings or leafleting, and fascist demonstrations have been very rare in recent years. Their main effect, so far, through electoral pressure, has been to push official politics rightwards and ensure that Macron launched a series of attacks on Muslims and on free speech. So Macron has been banning Muslim and pro Palestine organisations and now has probably the most violent police force in Western Europe.

A lot has been written about the weak state of the left. Disunity (in the ranks of “the left of the left”) was obviously a factor in these elections, but I am guessing that there are also issues that run deeper than that, of the type that cannot be solved during an election. So, what are the main challenges that the main currents of the “left of the left” (LFI [France Insoumise/France Unbowed , PCF [French Communist Party], NPA [New Anticapitalist Party]) should address in the coming period, after the election is over?

The recent tactics of the reformist French Communist Party and the New Anticapitalist Party have been moulded by the two main characteristics of the period: the staggering collapse of the Socialist Party (which held the presidency and the government until 2017 and now stands at 2% in the polls) and the emergence of the France Insoumise as a mass movement, gaining 7 million votes in 2017.

The Communist Party supported Mélenchon’s candidacy for President in 2017, but put its own candidate up this time — Fabien Roussel. Roussel’s campaign operated a very clear shift rightwards to distinguish him from Mélenchon.

Roussel made plenty of noise about his support for nuclear power, attended a reactionary police officers union rally, and emphasised his closeness to well known left Islamophobes. He declared that Mélenchon did not speak to the “real” French people but only to “the radicalised population of some outer suburbs”. This has been widely interpreted as code words for black and Arab young people.

Roussel also trumpets the importance of “traditional” French food and wine, in a coded attack on multiculturalism. His aim to distinguish himself from Mélenchon is also linked to future legislative and other elections. In 2021 regional elections, the PCF allied itself with the social liberal Socialist Party in 9 of the 13 regions.

The New Anticapitalist Party has, in my view, not grasped the significance of the resurgence of radical left reformism, and that is why they have run their own candidate for president — Philippe Poutou (at 1% in the polls). They assumed that France Insoumise would disappear after the elections of 2017. Their newspaper and leaflets say almost nothing about the France Insoumise campaign, and they have not attempted to engage debate with the FI movement, mostly limiting themselves to abstract denunciations of reformism. “If Mélenchon is elected”, said one of their leaders, Olivier Besancenot, some time back, “his [radical] broom will be transformed into a feather duster and he will just end up dusting the furniture in the Elysées Palace”.

Now, there is a broad and crucially important conversation going on about radical reform and its limits, in France. Mélenchon recently produced a video with Stathis Kouvélakis about how to avoid a failure like Syriza’s in Greece, and two lectures about the 1981 radical left Mitterrand government in France and its limits. Marxists will have many serious disagreements with what Mélenchon says, but boycotting this debate, when it is involving twenty times more people than ten years ago, is a grave mistake.

For most people, Poutou’s campaign, which lists radical reforms like Mélenchon’s does, is difficult to distinguish from that of the France Insoumise. Mélenchon says “citizens’ revolution”, Poutou says “break with capitalism”. I do not want to sound like a red professor, giving bad grades to the NPA, an organisation of determined class fighters, but critical support for Mélenchon would have allowed immeasurably more Marxist input. Some smaller revolutionary organizations, such as Révolution work inside the France Insoumise, and, as the latter is a movement not a party, this is relatively easy to do.

The election campaign here sees an enormous amount of debate and argument, which is an excellent thing. The France Insoumise has launched mass door-to-door campaigning, which is not a common tradition in France. As I write, Mélenchon is around 14.5% in the polls. It is not impossible for him to go through to the second round, which would be a political earthquake, a massive blow to the far right, and a boost to everyone on our side. It would mean that, between the two rounds, radical change would be the focus of every political conversation.

If the second round is again “a duet and not a duel” between Macron and Le Pen, the France Insoumise will nevertheless remain central to the radical Left. Building its influence, persuading its members to prioritise non-electoral struggles too, while maintaining a fraternal, independent, Marxist voice, is the main task for anticapitalists.

One of Mélenchon’s spokespeople, Manuel Bompard, tweeted this week “We are not asking anyone to vote for us and then go quietly back home! We call on people to vote and then to continue to mobilise! We need a society which is boiling over! That is how we will finally succeed!” Anticapitalists and Marxists can only be delighted to support this approach, for all our criticisms.

[John Mullen is an anti-capitalist activist living in the Paris region. His website is here. Panos Petrou writes for Rproject (Greece).]