France: A new left faces new challenges

December 1, 2017
The conference’s purpose was to give more shape to the organisation’s structure and activity.

More than 1600 delegates gathered for the third annual conference of La France Insoumise, the radical left political project that has stormed onto the stage of French politics, over November 25-26 in the city of Clermont-Ferrand.

The group’s name defies a neat translation, often rendered as France Unbowed, Unsubmissive or Untamed. Only launched in February last year, the group is widely seen as the only real and effective opposition to President Emmanuel Macron. Founding spokesperson and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon is recognised in opinion polls as the effective leader of the opposition.

The conference’s purpose was to give more shape to the organisation’s structure and activity. More than 500,000 people have signed up online as “supporters”. The more active are now involved in about 5000 “action groups” across the country. About 3000 people followed the conference proceedings online.

In the lead up to the conference, 69,000 supporters took part in an online poll to determine campaign priorities. Among the dozens of proposal, the following three were selected (with their respective poll result): The fight against poverty (supported by 30%); a rapid exit from nuclear power to be replaced by renewables (26%); and a crackdown on tax evasion and fraud by big corporations (25%).

France gets a greater share of electricity from nuclear power than any other country, but public support for it has slipped below 50%.

President Emmanuel Macron has been backing away from a pre-election promise to start the nuclear phase out, citing the need to retain nuclear power to keep a lid on fossil fuel emissions.

However, the conference heard a report on how huge public subsidies to the nuclear industry are blocking the uptake of renewables.

The emergence of La France Insoumise comes in the context of a complete shattering of France's post-war traditional political parties, to which it is contributing. It is important not to overstate Macron’s popularity or mistake his election as a popular endorsement of his neoliberal policies.

In the first round of the presidential elections, Macron only won 24%, not far in front of the other three front runners —National Front’s Marine Le Pen (21.3%), traditional right party The Republican’s candidate Francois Fillon (20%) and Melenchon (19.6%, but rising to 30% among youth and in major working class urban areas).

The candidate for the traditional centre-left Socialist Party won only 6.36% — the party’s lowest score ever.

However, after defeating Le Pen in the second run off with 66% of the vote, Macron cemented his position when his “extreme centrist” party La Republique En Marche and allies secured a thumping 350 seats in the 577 member National Assembly.

This majority is grossly inflated by France’s non-proportional electoral system. But it has thrown The Republicans, the Socialist Party and the National Front into complete chaos.

All three have suffered splits. They are grappling with how to differentiate themselves from Macron when they agree with many of his policies, or whether to abandon the pretence and just jump onboard the gravy train.

Emblematic of this situation is the fact that Macron has just succeeded in pushing through far-reaching reforms to the labour code that drastically reduces workers’ rights. An attempt to pass similar legislation was the previous Socialist Party government’s suicide mission.

La France Insoumise has been the main public voice of opposition to this attack, despite only having 17 seats in the assembly.

Whether public sentiment can be galvanised to stymie Macron’s neoliberal agenda, as the French people have done so many times before, remains to be seen.

The most recent street protests against the labour law in November were disappointingly small by French standards. They only gathered people in the several thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands that are required.

The next round of demonstrations in mid-December will be an important test.

[Sam Wainwright is a Fremantle councillor and a member of the Socialist Alliance. Wainwright attended the La France Insoumise conference.]

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