In the run-up to the first round of the French elections in late April, one surprise was a surge of the “far left” (as described in the bourgeois media, and undoubtedly in some parts of the alternative media) around the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mass rallies throughout France, with slogans deriding the Socialist (PS) candidate Francois Hollande as “Hollandreou” (referring to the Greek Socialist leader whose personal position and political party, the PASOK, collapsed as his government implemented European Central Bank austerity), showed something brewing to the left of the mainstream battle between the “center-right” Sarkozy and the “center-left” Hollande of the French SP. Behind the Mélenchon phenomenon was the French Communist Party, making its biggest organizational breakthrough in more than 30 years.
Insurgent Notes could care less about elections, in and of themselves, but we contacted our Paris comrade, Yves Coleman who publishes the journal Ni patrie ni frontières, to find out what (if any) social significance lurked behind these electoral maneuvers. (This e-mail “interview” took place before the first round, in which Mélenchon got 11 percent of the vote.)
IN: What do you think of this Mélenchon phenomenon? Today the Financial Times foresaw him getting 12–15 percent of the vote. Is this Arlette Laguiller on a larger scale or something quite different?
YC: The Front de Gauche (Left Front) is a coalition, based on the German model of Die Linke. It includes the French Communist Party (PCF) being reborn from the ashes; a small contingent from the so-called left wing of the Socialist Party (PS) which formed the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) in 2008; some no-global movement local members; some ex-Maoist and ex-Trotskyist tiny groups and finally some “intellectuals” who tried to make a quick career in the NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party) but were confronted with the old Trotskyist core and left. Where the organizational apparatus is concerned, this phenomenon would not exist without the PCF. The PCF is the main force of the Front de Gauche, even if the leader (Mélenchon) of the coalition belongs to the small Parti de Gauche and not to the PCF. The mass rallies of the Front de Gauche Mélenchon talked to would not have been possible without the financial and organizational support of the PCF who paid for hundreds of buses and thousands of train tickets to transport its supporters and even its municipal employees to fill the huge squares where they met.
From a social viewpoint, Mélenchon is the only politician appearing a bit outside the tandem of the UMP and the PS while not defending an anti-immigrant program as the right wing and National Front do. He does not project the image of a tiny left group leader such as Besancenot (NPA candidate in 2002–07), Poutou (NPA candidate in 2012) or Arthaud (Lutte Ouvrière candidate in 2012), although he is a leader of a small and new party.
The Left Front and its leader Mélenchon are anti-American (in the traditional French, Gaullist, reactionary way: they criticize American foreign policy but are almost silent about French imperialist policy abroad and never criticize French military forces). They are pro-“Maghreb” (they want to have good relationships with North African governments and peoples), pro-South (with a “no global” ideology). They support the necessity of trade unions and strikes; they have a rather “radical” taxation program (100 percent tax for all income above €360,000, etc.) as compared to the Socialist Party program; they call for a maximum 10:1 ratio between the highest and lowest wages, and total control of the European Central Bank by governments.
They are critical towards Europe, without calling for an exit from the euro. They support the idea of a “social Europe.” Mélenchon’s rhetoric is a rhetoric of left-wing nationalism (it situates itself in the tradition of Robespierre and Jaurès), rather proto-Gaullist or even Gaullist. He clearly advocates democratic socialism (in the social-democratic sense), while defending the PCF and its role in the existence of the nation. He expresses sympathies for Cuba and Chavez while remaining unclear about the nature of these regimes.
For all these reasons, Mélenchon is “popular.” He quite often attacks journalists, showing the extent to which they have sold out to their bosses, but he does not do this in a fascist way, but more in the tradition of Georges Marchais, the former general secretary of the CP in the 1960s and 1970s. As one journalist put it, Mélenchon is “Marchais with a master degree.” He is entirely secular, is rather critical towards all religions, and not at all multi-culturalist, but without being anti-Muslim. He denounces Islamophobia.
That said, Mélenchon has good relationships with Serge Dassault (the major military aircraft producer and also right-wing senator); he defends all the sleazy aspects of Mitterrand (in the name of respect for personal privacy); he is a peerless interloper in all sorts of associations which he and his friends tried to infiltrate and take over; he is a self-declared Freemason; he has never gotten rich himself but did not oppose the PS system of false billings to beef up the coffers when he was the right-hand man of the Socialist Party mayor of Massy; he tried to take power in the PS for 30 years by allying himself with all sorts of sleaze balls: Mitterrand, Emmanuelli, Jospin, etc.
He doesn’t impress me as an orator, but all the media and all parties (including the right) tout his talents as a speaker. Let’s just say that he is not too off-putting and has a certain charisma for people who like rather brutal politicians, both in the way he talks and in the way he treats journalists (at least in public… because some recent articles showed he had good “private” relationships with reactionary journalists). He lacks the youthful and hip humor of Besancenot (NPA former candidate and leader), but he does have a good feel for repartee.
He does give the impression of doing something new, of linking up with the 2005 movement against the European Community Treaty (TCE), and above all of being able to put pressure on the PS to push it to the left. In a nutshell, people won’t need to struggle; they’ll elect lots of “Front de gauche” deputies in the legislative elections (scheduled for June) and everything will be fine. His problem is that he pretends he does not want to participate in a left-wing austerity government, whereas the PCF is perfectly ready to do so.
After the presidential and legislative elections, Mélenchon will either stick to his line “to the left of the PS” and thus will lose the militant support of the PCF. Then his party, the Left Party, with only 10,000 members (as opposed to at least 120,000 in the PCF) will initially probably stagnate or even collapse (the PCF is now recruiting, for the first time since 2005). Mélenchon will have to wait until the next presidential elections and will have to be able to build a mass party as important, or more so, than the PCF. For that, he will need to integrate LO and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) members and cadres (more or less 2,000 or 3,000 “militants” each), but these two groupings won’t help him, particularly since all the careerists of the NPA have already left or will soon leave (the minority of the NPA wants to leave, take 40 percent of the election money with them and go the Parti de Gauche!) to join Mélenchon’s Party of the Left before the parliamentary elections. The other possibility is that Mélenchon will be given a ministerial post and will be rapidly marginalized. I don’t see much hope for his future, unless he just wants to have a seat in parliament (and ideally lead a “Front de Gauche” parliamentary group) and use it as a tool for the 2017 presidential elections.
I recently talked with a woman in the Left Party, one of the founders. She is convinced that neither Mélenchon nor the PCF will accept a ministerial portfolio, and that they will therefore constitute a force outside the government which will support it without participating in it, which will allow it to put pressure on the PS. I’m skeptical about the ability of the PCF to play the role of a pure, tough opposition, especially after the experience of the austerity turn of 1983. But in her opinion, the Left Front coalition exists precisely to avoid such a turn, and that’s why it will be effective. We’ll see which of us is right.
I reminded her of the experiences of the Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German “Communists” who never succeeded in pressuring the socialists when the latter were in power. She hopes that it won’t be the same in France. Which would mean that the Left Front coalition and the PCF will prepare themselves to ride on the backs of the social movements, and that my comparison with Largo Caballero is not wrong. The other day I was reading a chapter of a book on Largo Caballero; I can easily see Mélenchon talking very radically if a mass strike movement emerges. But it will be nothing but talk. He could be part of a facelift solution for the bourgeoisie in the event of a very serious social crisis. But he doesn’t have enough of a party for the moment.
Mélenchon certainly inherited, from his time in the OCI, a real capacity to politically educate the people around him, and to organize schools of political education around himself, and therefore a minority of cadres able to have a certain influence, write booklets, publish newspapers and journals, etc. He pulled in several no-global movement intellectuals, which allows him to stake out some apparently serious left-wing reformist positions. But he has a long way to go if he wants to be credible for the bourgeoisie (journalists regularly denounce his program as unrealistic or good for the ’70s) and credible for the wage laborers who would like to create and support a new PCF, or something like it. LO thinks Mélenchon will collapse like a balloon and that he is only a puppet of the PCF. The future will tell.
Last but not least, he is a quite unpleasant fellow in his daily dealings. He rarely listens to other people, doesn’t like being contradicted, and he imposes a very authoritarian style inside his own party. He doesn’t have the skills and subtlety of a Krivine, a Bensaid, or a Besancenot (all leaders in the LCR now called NPA) in his relations with the party militants. But if rank and file militants want an authoritarian leader, they’ve got one.
IN: But if Mélenchon gets 12–15 percent of the vote, will that imply a rearrangement of the political spectrum?
YC: Quite honestly, I don’t think so, because of the lack of political courage of the PCF. At any rate, if the PCF refused to participate in a Socialist Party–led government, the PS would make an alliance with the MODEM (« left » center party whose leader is sometimes very critical of Sarkozy but has been a right-wing minister) and would undoubtedly have a majority. This is what the “left-wing” of the PS and the PCF (more timidly) have always denounced: that Royal and now Hollande were ready to ally with the centrists.
On the electoral front, I don’t think that the PCF is ready to radically commit suicide just when it is breaking out of its isolation thanks to Mélenchon’s “charisma” and support of the media. The PCF doesn’t have the ability to force the PS to do anything, from the electoral standpoint. For now (but that might change), it doesn’t have enough salaried workers, and still less enough proletarians, who would be ready to strike, occupy the city halls, and occupy the administration buildings to put a symbolic pressure on the left-wing institutions.
IN: So if I understand correctly, the big Trotskyist groups (LO, OCI, etc.) are not supporting Mélenchon?
YC: Heavens no! LO has been denouncing him constantly, both for ideological reasons but also because they want to feed the discontent of the PCF militants who find themselves putting up posters and generally running errands for a guy who, even though he is the candidate of an electoral front which includes the PCF, is always talking about himself in the first person, in the most egotistic and arrogant manner, and rarely mentions the Communist Party which is doing most of the work.
LO is still trying to win over a part of the PCF rank-and-file. The problem for them is that the “left” oppositions within the PCF are generally ultra-Stalinist and anti-Trotskyist. The NPA has been denouncing Mélenchon because its members who favored an alliance with Mélenchon’s Left Party, people from other little eco-socialist groupings, and ex-Maoists, rushed to sign on with the Left Party before the elections, so they could get seats in the next legislative elections or at least in the municipal elections, or responsibilities of that kind. For example, Christian Picquet, an NPA right-winger who has for years leaked information to the bourgeois press about his own party (the LCR and then the NPA) to promote his own views, is now supervising the negotiations and the debates between the PCF with its 120,000 members and the Left Party with 10,000, even though Picquet left the NPA with only 300 or 400 militants.
IN: But who exactly are these new people recruited by the CP? Workers? Marginal youth from the high-rise suburbs (banlieues)? Students? People disappointed by LePenism? And on what political basis is the PCF recruiting? For years, they have been so disoriented that any far-left militant could publish in L’Humanité. Has a Stalinist nucleus remained through that whole period?
YC: From what I can read in the press, it’s a mixture of students, lower-middle-class wage earners (especially if they are not Gallo-French and their parents were migrant workers), local municipality employees, public servants and precarious young workers. Politically this is a consequence of the battle for the No to the European Community Treaty in 2005. At that time, nobody succeeded in capitalizing on this upsurge of militancy. The Left Front coalition led by Mélenchon was able to recreate a dynamic unit around a pseudo charismatic character, based on a violent denunciation of the National Front in the media and milder attacks against Sarkozy, but without concessions. On the basis of left nationalism (“we are a great nation, we have a great history, we have the means to disrupt the functioning of the EU, we can get out of NATO,” etc.).
There are still some Stalinist or neo-Stalinist cores in the PCF, but they have no power at the national level. They have fiefdoms including in the north of the country, Marseilles and Lyon, but on opposed political positions. For example in Lyon they do nothing for the undocumented people, while in Marseilles and Lille they are very active. The same goes for the CGT trade union: they are old grassroots activists who supported the strike of 6,000 construction or restaurant workers, they had the backing of some national leaders of the CGT trade union, but that was all.
The PCF has become multi-culturalist, pro-gay rights, feminist (at least in its top circles), etc. There has been no deep self-criticism or serious balance sheet of its Stalinist past, but the Party has slowly moved on many “socio-cultural” issues which enabled it to attract the new petty bourgeoisie of wage earners (teachers, social workers, etc.), people who are not careerist enough to go to the Socialist Party, people who still believe the working class exists, who do not fall into the myth that each of us should create a small business.
Everyone knows that the PS will continue to dismantle the welfare state. The PCF and the wider Left Front coalition regroup all the people who still believe in the welfare state, think that the crisis is not inevitable (unlike the UMP and Socialist Party) and that there is a national solution to the crisis. They are people who are left nationalists but not xenophobic.
The National Front and journalists use often a declaration made by the Communist Party general secretary Georges Marchais in the 1970s (a video which can be seen on the Net) where he explains that there are too many migrants in France. Mélenchon responded: “The Communist Party has evolved, and anyway Marchais meant that French workers and migrants should have the same rights.” This is a lie, but it works. The Left Party and even the Left Front coalition have the most favorable program towards immigration. And this is important given the fact the ethnic composition of the wage earners has changed in France. It is no longer made up only of Gallo-French blue-collar workers, but also of precarious people or petty bourgeois wage-earners, who are the sons and daughters of migrants, who have French nationality and who vote.
IN: Do the final results of the presidential election cause you to reconsider any of what you have already said [question posed on May 26]?
YC: Not really, although it may seem presumptuous. The balance between the Right and the Left is most of the time the same in France, around 50 percent for each “camp.” This time it was 48 percent for the Left and 52 percent for the Right and the Far Right (as they were divided they did not win).
As there is no “proportional suffrage” for the next parliamentary elections in June, the Left (i.e., mainly the Socialist Party) will probably win and the Left Front will have a parliamentary group.
Mélenchon has chosen to confront the National Front’s leader Marine LePen which is not a risky move at all: if he loses this parliamentary election in a working area of Northern France (where the National Front has been active for 15 years), he will keep his seat at the European Parliament with a very good wage (at least €10,000 per month) and if he wins (Hollande gathered 60 percent of the votes in this constituency) he will be a “media hero” for a long time because he will continue his pseudo radical show in the French Parliament and on TV, and earn just a bit less of money.
As the Front de Gauche and Mélenchon failed with their 11.1 percent (3.9 million votes) to beat the National Front in the presidential elections (the NF got 17.9 percent and 6.4 million votes), Mélenchon will have a kind of personal and political revenge if he is elected as an MP against Marine LePen. In both cases, he will anyway attract media attention for 6 more weeks.
For the moment what preoccupies working class people in France is not so much the next elections (although they will certainly vote) but the euro crisis and the massive layoffs postponed by the bosses and the Right until after the elections. I doubt Melenchon, his party (the Left Party) and the Left Front will be able to organize workers against these massive sackings or will be able to promote a common struggle of European workers to break up the schemes imposed by the various European governments with the help of the IMF. All the work is left to be done!
As regards President Hollande, his choices for his first government leave no room for any hope of a significant change. But, as we know, there is always a certain gap between our pessimistic perception of social-democrat and stalinist parties and the way working class people see (or want to see) the political situation and opportunities. We will have to learn the hard way, I’m afraid, there is no room for a soft and painless reformist-capitalist solution to the present crisis.