We should know by now that nothing is for certain in politics. We are living in an era of massive change. The high water mark of mid-90s neoliberalism is over. In combination with the rapid erosion of public trust in the major institutions that run Western democracy the 2008 financial crisis has precipitated a most profound crisis of the liberal centre as wages stagnate, elites continue to prosper and alienation from the system intensifies. It’s not going away – and yet it remains unresolved. As Gramsci put it, the old order is dying, and the new is not yet born.
The response to this crisis has come in the form of a deep polarisation of politics, to the populist right and the radical left – from Trump to Le Pen, Podemos to Syriza and Farage to Corbyn. In France, we had two sides of this story in place: the rise of the fascist National Front and the embattled extreme centre in the form of Emmanuel Macron.
But outside of the field of vision of the mainstream commentariat, the radical left was also getting organised. Apparently from nowhere, the radical left reformist Jean Luc Melenchon has surged forward and is now, at time of writing, just 2 points behind both Macron and Le Pen. The following interview is with Danielle Obono, a national spokesperson for the Mélenchon campaign platform, ‘Unsubmissive France.’ Here we look at the main players in the election and go behind the polls to reveal the deeper processes at work.
Jonathon Shafi (JS): Mélenchon has rapidly risen in the opinion polls – can you tell us about how the Mélenchon election campaign started?
Danielle Obono (DO): We launched the campaign platform, ‘Unsubmissive France,’ in the February of 2016. This new movement brought together a coalition of forces to support the candidacy of Mélenchon. This was to broaden out from his party, the Front Fe Gauche (the Left Front). Since then we have grown to a movement involving 400,000 supporters who are the activists and financial contributors of the campaign.
This movement has recently come into the mainstream media, but it has been working on the ground for over a year. In December 2016 we launched our programme which resonated with large sections of the population – indeed 200,000 paper copies were sold to members of the public. This work combined with our ability to exploit major corruption scandals in French establishment politics, but also emerging movements against neoliberalism – in particular the campaigns against oppressive labour and anti-union laws.
Within this context we developed both an activist base, twinned with an increasingly popular Mélenchon. His communication skills resonate because he is widely seen as being authentic, honest and seeking power for genuine reasons. He struggled for serious media coverage – but that didn’t mean we stopped building. Indeed we understood the need for our message to be taken directly to the streets.
Of course the television debate was key in securing mass media attention, but we were only able to capitalise on it by building on the ground. Just two days before the debate, for example, and before the major poll surge, we organised a demonstration of 130,000 people in Paris to commemorate the Paris Commune. What the media thinks is not unimportant, but it is always necessary to build a social movement to directly promote our message.
JS: I have been struck by the sheer size of the election rallies. This week, 70,000 in Marseille and 25,000 in Lille to give two examples. What do you see as being the purpose of these events?
DO: Well, the rallies are actually like demonstrations. They reinforce in the public mind that we have mass support, and that the support we have is confident. This is important to encourage wider sections of the population to engage with us. Social media can also be used to make the speeches with huge crowds go viral. We especially feel this is important to counteract the idea that the fascists are the ones with a movement. No – the left is here and is ready to organise and mobilise.
But as well as this we have been finding that there is an intensive ‘listening’ to the political message at these events. Melenchon articulates very clearly our key messages: attacking the elites, calling for wealth redistribution, defending immigrants, demanding far-reaching reform of the EU by condemning the Troika’s attack in Greece and forcing neoliberalism on France, ending our membership of NATO. Our policies are radical and simple. Such is the political context we are working in, people are thirsty for new ideas and for a radical shake up. There is a real feeling that the old system has to go, and that the solution lies in putting forward something genuinely radical.
We experiment too with our methodology and aesthetics. Whether that is beaming in Mélenchon via hologram to a mass meeting, or building expressions of our ideas as part of popular culture. But fundamentally this is about arming hundreds of thousands of people with our manifesto and getting it pushed into workplaces, universities and communities.
DO: The first thing to say is: attack her programme from a class perspective. We point out every policy that will damage the lives of working class people. In doing so we have exposed something important – that Le Pen is two faced. On the one had she says she is the friend of the French worker and on the other that she is on the side of the rich. Fundamentally she is in bed with the system – and that can only be exposed by the radical left. Of course, Macron can’t.
This ‘double discourse’ of Le Pen isn’t just rhetorical. For example – she did not speak out against the deeply unpopular neoliberal labour laws. We did – and not only that – we were side by side with the movement against it. So – we are able to ensure that we expose the National Front not just in words, but in deeds. That builds trust, and gives us a platform that we can properly back up to attack Le Pen. Again – the neoliberals can’t do this.
We make it clear that immigrants are not to blame for the crisis – that the blame is on war and neoliberal European institutions. The National Front rely on the the context of the Paris attacks, the state of emergency and Islamaphobia to feed them support. It’s true this does resonate with many French people. But by relying on this they have become complacent about the rigour of their wider programme. People also want solutions in relation to wages, services and alienation. We are there to provide that and exploit the complacency of Le Pen.
Like everyone else, she is shocked by our rise and this has combined with a less than perfect National Front campaign that has also by their own accord exposed their deep rooted anti-semitism. They are more defensive now than they were. But it is our arguments, not Macrons or anyone else’s, that are really testing the validity of their policy platform and proposed solutions for France.
JS: Fascinating – I can see parallels with UKIP, Farage and the far-right in the UK in this sense. They draw from similar events, but have lack a serious social programme. Speaking of Macron – what is your approach to his campaign?
DO: In one line: Macron is the new face of an old system. He offers nothing to resolve the crisis, and simply reheats the politics and economics that people are rejecting on mass. He does this with a new image, and has been massively pushed by the media. But this rebranding is not going to cut with huge numbers of people – especially in the working class.
He promotes be worst parts of the neoliberal agenda driven by the EU and pushes anti-working class policies. Yes he is dressed in the clothes of ‘progress’ but people can see through it. Again – it is down to the radical left to expose this and present a coherent alternative vision that can meet the demands of ordinary people and spurn those of the elite whose interests he fundamentally represents.
So, his policies don’t address the crisis. As such Le Pen can point to finger at him as being yet another establishment stooge. This underlines the absolute need for the radical left to be in the fight. Without us, the National Front can sap anti-establishment anger without opposition.
Macron is pushing a discredited agenda. The liberal centre just doesn’t work – and its increasingly toxic and seen as profoundly hypocritical. It has led to low wages, unemployment or poor employment, poverty and social alienation.
We have three poles now in France. The liberal centre, the far-right, and now – thankfully – the radical left is on the ascendency. We feel our policy is finding a mass audience and really can start to undermine both the fascists and the neoliberals. We believe in a different Europe: a people’s Europe.
JS: I’m interested in Benoit Hamon. Many people wonder why Mélenchon has gained such momentum while Hamon has stagnated. What is your analysis?
DO: The problem for Hamon is the Socialist Party and the degree to which it has become discredited after pushing anti-worker politics on the one hand, and failing to recognise the deep and profound changes in the landscape that developed since the 2008 financial crash.
He was elected as the candidate of the Socialist Party primarily to get rid of Prime Minister Manuel Valls who also put himself forward. Valls represents the right-wing of the party and is a committed neoliberal. He was widely expected to become the candidate, but was beaten from the left by Hamon – who served under Valls as education minister but quit in protest at President Hollande’s policies.
While some on the left took this as a sign of a possible renewal of the Socialist Party it was never able to overcome its legacy in the public mind. It was also deeply divided. After losing the candidacy election contest, Valls said that he would back Hamon. But of course this was never going to last, and he is now backing – predictably – Emanuel Macron.
During this process Hamon has adopt a very light social democratic programme – and its just not radical enough for the times in which we live. For example, his answer to the mass movement against oppressive labour reforms was to say that they should be ‘repackaged’ instead of scrapped all together. In addition he refuses to tackle the neoliberal EU – a big source of tension.
The combination of three things – the legacy of the Socialist Party, it’s divisions and his own watered down programme have rendered him impotent in the debate. Should we make it to the second round – we would want all Socialist Party voters to support Mélenchon for President.
JS: I know you are busy – and don’t want to take up much more of your time. Your answers have really provided a clear insight into things. But that leads me on to my last question. How are you preparing for the outcome of the election? And if you don’t win, how will you continue? The first round taking place very soon on the 23rd of April.
DO: We are indeed incredibly busy – but in the best possible way. We are delighted to be here and our determination is as unshakable as our focus. Every hour of every day really does count.
We are fighting to win now – but we also know how unpredictable and difficult the political terrain is. For us, of course, but really for everyone in this election.
Without getting into making predictions, we expect to beat the Socialist Party and in doing so we break their hegemony on the left. That means we will have the basis to continue to build and to do so on a renewed and radical basis. Of course we will be fighting back against Macrons neoliberal should be win, and if Le Pen wins we will be part of mobilising a massive resistance movement.
The coalition we have developed through ‘Unsubmissive France’ was developed for this election and for the candidacy of Mélenchon. But such is the energy and activism involved in it, we will look to work out how to develop and maintain it after the election – come what may. To that end we will organise forums and conferences to discuss the best way forward.
We know we are in a long struggle, and that the road ahead is rocky. But for now, we have made sure the radical left is part of the discussion, and more than that, is threatening to make a historic break through. The crisis is not going away, everything we are doing now will count in the years to come.
JS: Very lastly, can we speak again for a follow up interview after the 23rd?
DO: Yes, of course, we need to build international links and understanding.
JS: Great. Thank you for your time – and good luck!
If the situation in France shows one thing – it is that making predictions now is almost impossible when it comes to shifts in the political terrain. But this is especially true when it comes to using polls. It’s worth bearing in mind the Mélenchon was nowhere in the polls just weeks ago, and his breakthrough was not on the radar of the French media or rival political parties. What is key is building on the ground and developing movements that can articulate a vision alongside action. This starts though not from action alone, but also with theory. What is going to sustain the left going forward is confidence in our ideas, and a clear understanding of why they are needed at this historic juncture.
The left has lots of political traditions – and Mélenchon is part of these debates. But what really matters now is not nuance as such – but in raising the possibility of the development of a left-wing discourse across Europe that can fight and win. That said we have to view these developments in their totality, and as part of an ongoing process. Through out that experience mistakes will be made, and defeats will happen. That, however, should not prevent action. There is a lot we can do – not least in building coordination between the movements of the radical left across the continent.
There is one thing about the situation that we can predict: the need to look well beyond beyond the orthodoxies of the present system. The system that drives us further towards war, economic injustice, a resurgent far-right and the destruction of our planet. Walter Benjamin’s thought seems to fit today’s world: ‘Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.’
Those are the stakes globally. For now, France is in the balance – and Europe watches. But thanks to hundreds of thousands of people like Danielle, a left alternative is now firmly part of the unfolding events – as millions can now see.