Building a left alternative in Macron’s France

May 29, 2017

The victory of former banker and government minister Emanuel Macron, representing the new En Marche! formation, over Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) in the second round of France's presidential election on May 7 has led pundits around the world to say that the far right has passed its political peak. Macron and his allies are now campaigning for legislative elections that begin on June 11. The question now is what arrangements he will make with the two mainstream parties that have dominated French politics for many decades, but which were both shut out of the run-off election for the first time ever.

But as Léon Crémieux, an activist in the Solidaires trade union federation and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), explained in an interview with Ahmed Shawki and Lee Sustar, the long-term crisis of neoliberalism that produced the best-ever showing for Le Pen and the NF on the one hand, but that also galvanized support for left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon will continue--and create possibilities for rebuilding the left.

SOME OF the mainstream coverage internationally celebrates Macron's victory as a sign that the electorate in France was turning away from extremism and populism and back to the status quo and faith in the existing system. Is that right or wrong?

ON ONE hand, we can say that, of course, there was a very clear rejection of the National Front. But nevertheless, their candidate Marine Le Pen obtained 10 million votes, which was more votes than for her father in 2002 [the NF's best result in a presidential election previously]. So it was a very bad result in that sense, because a lot of people nonetheless voted for her.

More than 60 percent of people who cast a ballot voted for Macron. Of course, a lot of people voted for Macron not in support of his politics but only to vote against Marine Le Pen. But nevertheless, he was elected--and now that he's here, we have a problem.

Macron is portrayed as new, but he has been active in politics for more than 10 years. He was, in fact, an advisor of Socialist Party President François Hollande at the beginning of Hollande's presidential term, and then Minister for the Economy. Macron was the author of the government's social attacks in 2013 and 2014, including the deregulation of labor laws and tax cuts for business. Macron was also the inspiration for a labor law reform proposal against which we have had strikes and demonstrations all over the country.

Thousands demonstrate in Paris against austerity the day after Emmanuel Macron's victory
Thousands demonstrate in Paris against austerity the day after Emmanuel Macron's victory

So Macron doesn't at all represent a new way of acting in politics. It is exactly the same as what we have in Italy with [former Prime Minister Matteo] Renzi, and what we can have in a lot of other countries. Macron is in the middle between the left and the right, but it's the same politics either way.

And to be clear, many people who were supporting Macron were, as we say in France, "old horses"--all the politicians who understood there was a new situation and tried to go with him. His orientation is not at all new for the system or for society.

IT'S ONLY been a year since the labor law sparked mass strikes, which you compared to other great mobilizations of workers and youth over the last 15 years in France. Is struggle on this scale a possibility in the near term?

SURE, BECAUSE there is a deep crisis of the two traditional parties at a political level.

There is a big crisis of the two traditional parties, the center-left Socialist Party and the conservative Les Republicans [formerly the UMP], the party of François Fillon. It's clear we're going to have a sort of recomposition--a rebuilding of every party in France.

It's possible that Macron can gain a majority in the parliament, the National Assembly [in the June 11 legislative elections]. But in any case, it will be a very unstable situation, because the majority won't be very clear. If he has no majority, there will be an alliance of the mainstream left and right--so at the institutional level, the situation will be unresolved from what existed in previous decades.

The challenge for labor is very clear, because there were 10 million votes for Marine Le Pen. The far right is appealing to people completely disappointed by the situation--people with problems of housing, unemployment and misery. They believed that Le Pen would be a solution, and also a solution for the pressure coming from the European Union. So there are a lot of contradictions.

On the other side, a lot of people involved in social action supported Mélenchon as a left-wing candidate. So we have a sort of polarization. The left is not united, but nevertheless, we can say clearly that within the next months, there is a real possibility with social movements.

And Macron knows that. The best evidence of this is that he wants to move very fast on social issues. There are all sorts of legal ways for the government to bypass the parliament to make new laws--like "ordonnnances" measures made by President Charles De Gaulle in 1967, one year before the general strike of 1968.

That's not to say that we are in the same situation as 1967. But Macron understands things very clearly, so he wants to move fast, even if he needs to defy the National Assembly to do it. So I think we are going to have a very uneven and unstable situation.

Of course, we can't make a prediction concerning social movements in the next months. But we can say all the ingredients for a new social movement are around us. For instance, there were 12 million people who abstained in the second round of the election, and 4 million people who voted blank or spoiled ballots. This is very unusual.

It's clear that there were people who were very much against the National Front, but didn't want to vote for Macron. So we can see that this is a complicated situation in which there are a lot of ingredients for mobilization.

HOW DID votes from traditional working class areas change in this election?

THERE WERE results from industrial workers--as we say in France, the socialist category--in which Marine Le Pen was first in the first round of the elections. But if we look at the votes of all workers, blue collar and white collar, it was, in fact, Mélenchon who came in first, not Le Pen.

But it's clear that in areas of the North with many former mineworkers and textile workers, areas where there is a lot of unemployment, Marine Le Pen came in first. There was a polarization among the people caused by the National Front. This is a very big problem. There was fear – fear of terrorism, fear of unemployment.

MÉLENCHON DID not support a vote for Macron in the second round, unlike the Socialist Party and other forces on the left. What do you think about that?

WE BELIEVE Mélenchon's approach between the two rounds was mistaken.

To be clear, the NPA didn't say to people "Vote for Macron." We didn't share the position of the Communist Party or others who said that we have to vote for Macron.

But on the other side, we said clearly "don't vote for Marine Le Pen, not a single vote for her." For us, Le Pen is not at all the same as Macron. We know that Macron won't protect us from the National Front, but we also said not to vote for the National Front, clearly. And campaigned on that.

We made the campaign during the two weeks between the two rounds about opposing people voting for Le Pen, by saying, "The National Front is not a solution for workers." It is a neo-fascist party, it is a capitalist party.

The problem with Mélenchon is that he did not say that. He had a very confused position about the NF which was not appreciated by a lot of social activists.

For instance, in the trade unions, there was a very clear position not to vote for the National Front. The majority of people in the social movements said, "We are against Macron, but do not vote for Marine Le Pen."

COULD YOU talk about the NPA candidate Philippe Poutou's presidential campaign and why he refused calls to step aside in favor of Mélenchon when it appeared that Mélenchon had a chance at making it into the second round?

THE BALANCE sheet of the Poutou campaign is a very good one, in comparison with five years ago, when it was very hard for Poutou to appear as credible.

One year after the movement against Macron, Poutou could appear clearly as a continuation of the movement. On a lot of issues, he could appear as the voice of social activism. He is clearly not a professional politician like Fillon, with his background of corruption. Poutou was very different from other candidates, even Mélenchon. He also appeared differently from Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouviere (Workers Fight), who was a very scholastic candidate.

But concerning issues of unemployment, the euro and the question of Europe, the campaign was not so good, because all this was a very personality-driven. There was not really debate concerning content or program. It was very difficult to have clear discussions.

Nevertheless, we can say that we had good success among young people. During meetings close to the first round of elections, there were more and more young people. We had a good presence on social media. So for us, it was a good balance sheet.

The NPA appeared as a party that wanted to unify people to try to have political representation. It was saying to workers, "You are not represented by the traditional parties or the politicians, and we need to go with our own organization, gathering not only social activists but also all people involved in the fight against austerity, against capitalism." So for us, that is good.

WHAT ARE your expectations for the June National Assembly elections--for Macron and the left?

NOBODY IN France is capable to saying what the composition of the next National Assembly will be.

In the last two elections, it was sort of automatic that the candidate that succeeds in the presidential election would have a clear majority for their party in the Assembly elections one month later.

Now it is quite different, because, of course, Macron has a new party. Up until now, we haven't known who the candidates will be for him. It will be a mixture of completely unknown people and also old politicians from the UMP [the former name of the mainstream conservative party], the Socialist Party and the centrists from around François Bayrou's Democratic Movement party.

It is clear that Macron can expect to have a really good result because of the rejection and crisis of the Socialist Party and also because of the rejection and crisis of the Republicans. So it is possible for people who are unknown to have good results.

But on the other hand, for instance, some people predict that Marine Le Pen is capable of getting 100 seats. This is only a threat. But she could get 15 or 20 seats, because in the two-round voting system in France, it is possible for the second round to have three or four candidates. One thing is clear: We will have a very low number of Socialist Party seats. It will be a very bad loss for them.

Concerning the right, there is a new leadership in the Republicans as they try to turn the page from Fillon. But it is very hard for them, because a lot of old politicians are now looking toward Macron.

The official leadership of the Republicans says it will be in the opposition to Macron. But on the other hand, people like former Prime Minister Alain Juppé say, "We have to have conservative politics. So we will not say we will be against them."

It's quite the same in the Socialist Party. The voice of the leadership of the Socialist Party says that they will have a "constructive collaboration with Macron." To be clear, the majority of the SP leadership says, "We won't be in the opposition." And besides that, there is the old-fashioned social democratic wing of the party that says, "We are in the opposition: we are not for Macron."

All that makes it difficult to say exactly what the National Assembly will look like after the election. We can say for sure that Macron will have a slim majority of seats or at least large minority of seats. That is clear, even if he does not yet have a real party.

But he will have a program of alliances--with the SP, of course, but also with people of the right-wing parties. I believe in the first part of his term, he will attract people around his policies. So he will be capable of having a majority concerning his project. After that, there will be weaknesses in his own party and in the other parties.

But it won't be a strong Assembly. In previous decades, we had a very strong majority around the right wing, and even one around the Socialist Party in the 1980s. It was very difficult to deal with that.

The next assembly will be a weak assembly. So it will open up possibilities for us and for social activity.

Of course, there is the challenge of Le Pen. Up until now, her movement had only two deputies in the National Assembly. Now they have the capability of getting 15 to 20 or more deputies in the Assembly. It will be very difficult for her to win a substantial place in the assembly, but still, she can have a parliamentary group for the first time.

The situation will also be difficult for Mélenchon, even though he had good results in the presidential election. Mélenchon's movement France Unbowed supports candidates for all 577 seats. But the Communist Party--which backed Mélenchon for president--will also contest every seat, because there was no agreement between Mélenchon and the CP. So already, there is a split inside Mélenchon's movement.

There is also pressure--even if it is weak--in some areas on the grounds that it is completely crazy to have so many candidates against austerity. There are calls for united candidates against the far right and also against Macron--candidates who will say that we will be in the streets and we will be on strike against all Macron's proposals.

We are for rejecting all Macron's projects concerning social laws. But there is a contradiction in France Unbowed, because although Mélenchon succeeded in winning votes because of his reputation for opposing austerity, it is clear that he does not at all want to build a democratic, unified anti-austerity movement. His social and economic program is not capable of attracting social activists. It is very soft--not at all anti-capitalist.

There is also a big problem concerning democracy in Mélenchon's movement. A lot of people supported him because he seems to be the main candidate in the election, but now that the election is over, it won't be the same.

What does it mean to be inside France Unbowed? It's not very clear. It is not the Communist Party. It's not the Left Party that Mélenchon co-founded years ago. It's not a movement or a real party, within which activists are organized with democratic rules, dues and so on. This will be a problem for daily political activity once the election campaigns are over.

WHAT ARE the next steps for the NPA?

THE FIRST thing to be done is organizing the resistance against Macron's policy. Some radical unions and Solidaires Union have already organized several demonstrations. But up until now, the main part of the union leaderships hasn't done anything.

After that, we need to work toward a political gathering of forces for common activities concerning anti-austerity and anti-capitalist issues--not only around the NPA, but also with a lot of activists who supported Mélenchon or who didn't vote for anyone. In several areas, we have begun this work.

Another big challenge for us will be to put out our solution to Europe. We have been weak on that, even in the NPA campaign. This wasn't an issue in the debates during the campaign, other than the question of the currency in Europe. There was no debate of what kind of politics we need in Europe. We have a challenge in dealing with that.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song and Robin Horne.

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