- Interview by
- David Broder
On Sunday, June 11, French voters go to the polls in the first round of elections for the National Assembly. After pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen in the May 7 presidential contest, his En Marche! formation and allies now look set to win a large majority of seats. Having come close to reaching the second round of the presidential election, scoring almost 20 percent of votes, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise (France Unbowed) is seeking parliamentary representation for the first time.
Jacobin spoke to the left movement’s spokesperson Hadrien Clouet about its prospects, as well as the broader themes of the campaign.
To begin, could you tell our readers what the most important themes of the parliamentary campaign have been? Your posters often carry the slogan “Don’t give full powers to Emmanuel Macron.”
There are two important themes, both of which stem from the question of democracy itself. The first is the fact that we refuse the kind of campaign that plays on people’s ignorance. By that I mean that we are faced with a Macron government that, for one of the first times in French republican history, has not set out its program before we go to the polls.
We are about to vote on Sunday, but only on Wednesday, four days before the election, did we find out about the content of the decrees Macron is going to issue to dismantle the Labor Code. And just three days before the vote, we found out that the government’s intention is to put the terms of the State of Emergency — with the exceptional security measures allowing people to be put under house arrest — into common law.
This means removing a judge’s role in the implementation of exceptional measures. So we have this incredible situation where just four days before the vote we found out about the decree to dismantle the Labor Code, and just three days before we found out that the State of Emergency is going to become normality. So in the final days, we want the cards to be laid out on the table, and to make sure that people know what they are voting for.
The second important aspect, of course, is the democratic system. Our own vision of democracy is not one where a party that gets thirty percent of the vote then receives 500 seats out of 577, as the seat projections by pollsters suggest. It is incredible that a party that doesn’t even get one in three votes can end up getting five-sixths of the seats. For us, that is impermissible. So that is what we are fighting against.
We are the only major force in this parliamentary campaign that clearly says what it would do in opposition to Emmanuel Macron. That is a fundamentally important point. In every constituency in France, people do not know what their representatives would do — except for us.
We have an incredible situation where people are standing on En Marche! lists who have no parliamentary experience — nothing wrong with that — but worse, no ambition or will to do parliamentary work. That is what is most worrying. Macron wants to just make decisions without them. We have called this a kind of social coup d’état, for it counts on getting people elected in order to remove any power from them, for the purpose of breaking the French social system.
During the presidential campaign, Jean-Luc Mélenchon stood on your program called “The Future in Common.” It talks both of these democratic questions and project for a Sixth Republic, but also of a big-picture vision of humanity’s very future.
Yes, we began campaigning in September 2016, and France Insoumise decided to augment and complete this program as we continued to campaign. And yes, the program speaks of the environmental problem as well as of democracy. Yet it is important to remember that these are the same question. Ecology, namely the question of the compatibility between human life and the sustainability of the ecosystem, itself brings us back to the democratic question.
For ecology reveals, scientifically, the equality of all humans faced with a problem that is going to affect them. Of course, the rich have a lot more means for self-preservation than the poor do. But rarely is there a general problem that threatens human life as a whole. If this life disappears, then even the children of the rich will not have a planet left. There we have a problem.
So this is a task for society, and we call for a democratic means of action to deal with it. Obviously we want very serious measures for that, and the worrying thing is that we now have a government packed with lobbyists. Macron’s prime minister Édouard Philippe is himself a former lobbyist for Areva, fighting for nuclear power. So things have started rather badly, there.
In the presidential election Jean-Luc Mélenchon made a major breakthrough, scoring almost 20% of the votes, and in the second round (where France Insoumise affiliates did not endorse Macron) there were historically high levels of blank votes and abstention. But now it seems that Macron is heading for a record score.
Well, not a record in terms of the number of people voting for him, but a record number of seats. That is the threat now. Macron’s strength is the electoral system and indeed the fact that in each seat he has four candidates: one for En Marche! (Macron’s own “movement”), one Socialist Party candidate, one Republican one, and often an En Marche! dissident.
Since four out of five candidates are more or less secretly candidates who support Macron, it is quite possible that he will be able to achieve those kind of inordinate majorities. But looking at all the seat projections, even if we take the ones most favorable to Macron, in the first round he might get 30% of the votes — so all the same, 70% of French people will not have voted to give full powers to Macron.
So it’s obviously a bit bizarre, this media discourse telling us that 70% of people are not going to vote for Macron, but he is going to win a huge majority of seats anyway. That of course is yet more reason to fight for a rupture, for a change in this institutional order.
Even if En Marche!’s own candidates don’t make up a majority, is there the prospect of a coalition or deal with Socialist or Republican parliamentarians?
Looking closely at the candidates for En Marche!, we find a little of everything, with totally unknown people whose single competence and quality is that they have been lobbyists, and who start out from there. Here we find people trafficking their support, conflicts of interest, and so on. Macron had no difficulty finding candidates: he wrote to them, he bought them, and he had them within fifteen minutes.
Another reason that it was not difficult to find these candidates is that all they have to do is sit in the National Assembly and not dispute what he says: his plan is to rule by decree and govern by himself. So his idea of governance takes away from the people’s elected representatives the possibility of amending the text of his bills.
This is extremely worrying, because it means he is trying to get people elected precisely so that they will do nothing in parliament. And of course there is also the case of the former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls, who like many from his party wanted to switch to En Marche! He wanted to switch, but they did not want him.
So are we seeing the death of the Socialist Party? Opinion polls suggest it will fall from almost three hundred seats to less than thirty.
Yes, we are seeing its clinical death. It has gone down the road to defeat. But really this episode is very telling, because the fusion of all these people into a single party — Macron’s party — clarifies things.
All the partisans of so-called social-liberalism or the Third Way, all the people who said there is no alternative, now have their own party, and it is Macron’s party. The party of no alternative. We think that this is a point of strength for us, because now at least it is clear where people stand. All those people are going off to govern together.
Some Socialists like Benoît Hamon, the party’s presidential candidate, have taken a different line, though. If his party is dead, do you think you can win what remains of its left wing to your own project?
Yes, Hamon has supported the Communist candidate against Valls in his seat. And yes, I think we can win people over. But the problem with that is that there aren’t a lot of people still there to be won over, so that is difficult. Again, I think we are about to see that these legislative elections will clarify things.
There is a force, France Insoumise, that will get a considerable score, and others that will get smaller ones. That is fine: they are there to stand up for their ideas. They are right to do so, in the first round, where we will see everyone’s relative weight compared to each other.
I do not think that Mr. Hamon and his friends will manage to form a group in parliament. For our part, we have our line and our program “The Future in Common.” Whoever wants to join us in fighting for that is more than welcome, and I think many Socialist voters will do so.
According to the surveys, about a quarter of French voters will vote either France Insoumise or Socialist or Communist (roughly 13%, 8%, and 3%, respectively). But France Insoumise seems to be struggling to conquer this whole political space. Do you think that the rivalries on the Left have undermined its campaign: not the mere fact of the multiple candidacies, but the widely-broadcast clashes between the left-wing parties in the debate over whether to stand together?
I think that is more a discourse among militants themselves, but I would not read things in that way. My impression is that on the ground people are more interested in the fundamental questions like how to give them work, or how in their constituencies they can get rid of people who have betrayed them, who have gone off with Valls or to work directly for Macron. That is how I understand things.
What about the way France Insoumise’s own candidates are selected? It’s not as if you had representation before, there were only a few Front de Gauche MPs. And indeed, in your plan for a Sixth Republic, you suggested that a future constituent assembly election would not allow former MPs to be candidates.
France Insoumise had no representation before. And we did not just suggest that ex-MPs should not be able to run for the constituent assembly, we wrote it in black and white in our program! Even for our own candidates, for us to be credible it is important that they do not belong to existing structures and political circles.
Our candidates were chosen by local support groups, we have gender parity and a lot of young candidates, and a lot of different occupations are represented. One interesting thing is that as compared to the candidates for En Marche! we have more engineers, technicians, and white-collar employees from the private sector. They don’t want his decrees dismantling the Labor Code in their enterprises. That’s a difference from En Marche! candidates, who know nothing about enterprises except their stock price listing on the Internet.
In the presidential election, Mélenchon did well in winning over popular layers that the media had predicted would vote for the National Front (FN), particularly youth and the unemployed. In the presidential election it did not manage to impose its themes around security and terror. What are the possibilities of winning these layers’ support not only in a passive electoral sense, but mobilizing them?
These parliamentary elections are the first time we have seen the National Front losing votes. As compared to the equivalent elections in 2012, they are losing support, not just in vote share but in their performance in seat numbers. I think that we are indeed seeing something interesting in terms of mobilizing people.
A notable case is where François Ruffin, director of Merci Patron! (a popular comic-documentary film about resistance to layoffs) is standing. That is an interesting constituency where he is really mobilizing people who used to vote FN, on the ground. So there are places where we are managing to do that more and more.
Of course we are also seeing more activity in local support groups, of which there are several per constituency. For example, in my constituency in northeastern Paris, we have five new activists joining a support group every week, whereas during the presidential campaign it was three. It is really remarkable, the number of people getting involved.
Social movements in France do not seem so strong since the 2010 struggle against pension reform. We can also note that in Greece and Spain, strong electoral movements took off after the social movements had already begun to die down. What can a movement like France Insoumise do to reinvigorate social movements, even in a non-electoral sense?
Well, I would not agree that they aren’t strong; after all, we had the Nuit Debout movement against the El-Khomri bill (the Labor Law) in 2016. But we contribute through our day-to-day work. On the one hand, that means informing the population. For one thing, we can talk directly to the over five hundred thousand people who have signed up as France Insoumise supporters. That is a really important strength.
It means there can hardly be a family in France who does not have an insoumis to come along to Sunday lunch and annoy everyone by saying “well, things aren’t quite like that.” A second thing is that with MPs, we will be able to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry into Macron’s plans for the Labor Code. Beyond that, after the presidential contest, we now have tens of thousands of people with campaign experience: they know how to organize a meeting, to arrange an apéro (an early evening drink and discussion sometimes combined with leafleting), and to convince people.
There are little villages with three or four hundred people where we now have people capable of being militants. So we have armed tens of thousands of people who want to fight for the municipal elections, to save their schools or public water, and so on. So that helps feed social movements.
Do you think the France Insoumise movement will now become more organized and structured, something more like a traditional political party? We could think of the Podemos example, and indeed Clementine Autain of radical left formation Ensemble! referred to this possibility in a previous interview for Jacobin. What do you think will happen?
The only process that can happen to begin with is one that reflects on what has happened. I’m not sure that there is only one option. There is a whole gamut of possible solutions for collective organizations, and it is not just a debate between movement and party. It will take many weeks of collective discussion to determine what comes next, so I can’t preempt that point. But it is also true that coming out of this electoral period will present us with a particular political context. So the response is not necessarily the same.
We are in a particular situation in France where, after the presidential and parliamentary votes, with campaigns lasting throughout the first half of 2017, there will be no more elections in the next two years. Which also means two years of not doing electoral work, and not needing an electoral war machine in that period. That removes the particular obligations incumbent on us during an electoral campaign.