The French radical left politician spoke to Jim Wolfreys about France’s parliamentary elections and the fight against the fascist Front National
In France’s presidential elections in April Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical left candidate, waged a dynamic campaign and won around four million votes. But at the same time the fascist Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen achieved a record 6.4 million votes.
Parliamentary elections are now taking place across the country. The Front de Gauche’s Mélenchon and Le Pen went head to head in the constituency of Henin Beaumont, in northern France.
Le Pen has built up a significant level of support in the town over the past five years. It is in the Nord Pas de Calais region where the FN presidential vote was up nearly 10 percent on 2007. Mélenchon nevertheless decided that he would stand against her.
Historically this has been a left-wing region, with a long tradition of working class struggle and organisation. Mélenchon tried to draw on this history to undercut the FN.
One in five people are unemployed in Henin Beaumont. Corruption scandals have damaged the local Socialist Party, allowing the FN to pose as a “clean” party.
The fascists have tried to whip up anti-immigrant racism during the campaign, producing a fake Front de Gauche leaflet with “Let’s vote Mélenchon” written in Arabic. Though they printed the Arabic backwards. Another anonymous leaflet depicted him as Hitler in front of Auschwitz.
In response, the Front de Gauche has combined condemnation of the FN’s racism with attempts to encourage ordinary people to feel their collective strength. These campaign methods, Mélenchon argues, are “borrowed from working class trade unionism—the idea that a show of strength is necessary. Strength brings forth strength, liveliness and joy.”
He continued, “When someone is a bit disorientated, a bit lost, they see who is strong, who is joyful, who they want to be with. Today nobody wants to be with the Socialists they see arriving at the market with their suits and waistcoats and haughty and contemptuous ways.
“Then they see the Front de Gauche turn up with its red flags and street singers, so there’s an atmosphere that’s created, a joie de vivre, that embodies the ideal of the left. We’re not there to be bored or sad.”
This is part of a wider strategy: “We’re carrying out what we call a campaign of popular education. This can’t be something pretentious or arrogant that sounds like we’re giving people lessons. We also need to avoid being suffocated by the past—as if everything was glorious before and it’s all rubbish now. It shouldn’t be dry history either.”
On 3 June the Front de Gauche initiated a march and rally to commemorate Emilienne Mopty. She was the organiser of a 1,500-strong demonstration in 1941 by miners’ wives. They were protesting in solidarity with 100,000 miners from across the region taking part in the first mass strike under the Nazi occupation. Mopty was also a resistance fighter—arrested and tortured by the Nazis and beheaded in Cologne in 1943.
Several thousand joined the march. At the rally, Mélenchon spoke of the 29 different nationalities that made up the workforce in the mines, listing each one in turn. He told the crowd, “Here, on the land that gave rise to the labour movement and to socialism, we’re supposed to endure the shame of it apparently being the fiefdom of the abject descendents of those who invaded, occupied and betrayed us. We’re going to make them leave, we’re going to hunt them down and politically eradicate them.”
He explained why he had prioritised the fight against the FN. “The Front National is a threat in France and in Europe. Politicians make use of it. The FN gives the right a pretext to shift their rhetoric in a direction that they think will bring them electoral gains. But the basic function of all this in a period of crisis, when people are uniting together against the power of neoliberalism, is to divide them.
“This reality exists for capital. So the FN represents a threat to our democratic institutions and also a danger in terms of the possible ways out of the crisis. In the presidential election we set ourselves the aim of finishing as high as possible. At the start our main target wasn’t Marine Le Pen, it was to eliminate the [centre right candidate] François Bayrou so that the Socialists couldn’t make an alliance with him.
“It was only in March that we overtook Bayrou. Then I set the next target—‘We’re going to catch her [Marine Le Pen] and beat her.’ I didn’t beat her in the presidential election so the campaign is still going and I will continue to pursue it until I’ve had the last word. That’s why we’ve come here, where the problem is greatest because she’s here herself.”
Mélenchon sees this as a part of a national fight for political influence. “I’m demonstrating that we are stronger, more numerous, more disciplined and more clear sighted than this band of badly-educated gorillas who’ve been caught in the street handing out fake leaflets like the cretins that they are.
“There were those among us who hesitated about standing, who said, ‘You’re going to narrow down our message’. I said ‘No, it’s you who are reducing the meaning of the FN to a moral question’. The FN question is a social question, it’s an ideological question. Either they win authority over the masses or we do. And the question will be—is it the banker or the immigrant who’s responsible for the crisis? That’s what’s at stake here, in this place—and in the wider world. So the struggle must be implacable and to the end.”
The Front de Gauche is trying to involve and inspire confidence in ordinary people. Mélenchon explained, “My method of intellectual combat is to link three threads all the time. The first thread is the programme. It’s the rational, reasoned way of opening up a debate—there’s a problem, here’s the solution. It’s radical but concrete. We always make sure we show how things are going to be done.”
Underpinning his strategy is an attempt to make ideas accessible and inspire a belief that there are practical political answers that can be found to the problems society faces. “In the old far left, or the left of the left, the tradition is to say ‘we just have to…’ or ‘what we must do is…’ without showing how. So concrete radicalism.”
Culture, Mélenchon’s “second thread”, is a highly contested area —and one that ordinary people often feel excluded from. He said, “These values mustn’t be evoked in a metaphysical way. There’s a way of relating them to the means of making them thrive. The culture we draw on is made up of principles and cultural acts, words that don’t need any justification.
“I read a whole page of Victor Hugo in a mass meeting. There were 10,000 people there. People loved it because they understood what I was doing. I read a poem by Louis Aragon [a Communist poet], everyone was quiet and listened and applauded.”
Finally, there is history, the subject of intense debate in France, particularly over the question of “national identity”. “The battle is profoundly ideological. There are those who talk about roots as something that pre-exist us, that are immobile and that we should try to reproduce in order to live correctly. That’s the classic reactionary obscurantist ideal. They tell people it’s a way of ‘returning to an identity’,” said Mélenchon.
One alternative is to remind people of their radical history, from the French revolution to resistance against the Nazis. He said, “Against their ethnic roots, I counterpose historical roots and proclaim that, ‘we are the inheritors of Maximilien Robespierre and Emilienne Mopty’.
“This is how the struggle is radically and integrally ideological in character. But it’s the way of doing it that’s the most important thing. It’s Marx who says that hunger satisfied with raw flesh torn off with fingernails is not the same as hunger satisfied with a knife and fork.
“We have to start with the idea that we are cultured beings. That the working class is not just a stomach, it’s a brain. Of course it’s the stomach that ends up deciding, but the call of the stomach also passes via the brain. “So it’s this vision of political struggle that we take into battle.”
Mélenchon’s campaign has mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in demonstrations, rallies and electioneering. He said, “Everyone has a role in the Front de Gauche. Mine is to put words together. Little by little you can hear people talking again about revolution, the red flag, the clenched fist and nobody seems to find it strange any more.”
He sees a thirst for radical politics, arguing, “Even a few years ago if you heard the word capitalism, half the room would faint and the other half would burst out laughing. That’s all finished. Now we can talk about revolution. So I think we’ve won a series of battles through the influence we’ve got over the vocabulary of politics.”
Whatever the outcome of the parliamentary election, the Front de Gauche campaign has had a big impact on activists in the area. Antoine is a member of the New Anti-Capitalist Party. He told Socialist Worker, “Mélenchon’s campaign has managed to give hope back to the left and to the working class. That’s a medium term project.
“It’s about saying ‘No, things don’t always need to be this way. We can get beyond capitalism. There is a collective force that can be mobilised, and no, there’s nothing inevitable about the extreme right gaining an influence in this area.’
“There’s a hope in this campaign that’s inspiring. I’ve lived here for eleven years. We’ve done lots of painstaking anti-fascist activity—it’s been hard sometimes. Now there’s more of a sense of our mass, collective strength.”
The first round of France’s parliamentary elections confirms the rejection of austerity that led to Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in presidential elections last month. The combined left vote was 47 percent. The right won 35 percent.
The fascist Front National’s score of nearly 14 percent has more than tripled since the last parliamentary elections five years ago. The abstention rate of 43 percent is the highest ever.
This indicates that the results reflect a lack of support for the right rather than positive identification with François Hollande’s Socialist Party. He is expected to win a parliamentary majority in the second round on 17 June.
The desire to beat the right also appears to have squeezed the vote for radical left candidates. In the northern town of Henin Beaumont FN leader Marine Le Pen came top with 42 percent of the vote. She now faces a second round run-off against the Socialist Party candidate.
The Front de Gauche’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon was narrowly beaten into third place. The Front de Gauche took its opposition to the FN into workplaces and markets, housing estates and community centres, organising meetings, rallies and a march against fascism and austerity.
Having only announced he would be standing last month, he won 21 percent of the vote and vows to continue the fight in the area.