- Interview by
- David Broder
A series of elections over the last eighteen months have revolutionized the French left. In 2012 the Socialist Party (PS) candidate François Hollande swept to the presidency on a 52 percent mandate. Yet his term in office in the post-crisis period was so disastrous that he did not even attempt to stand again in the spring 2017 contest, and PS contender Benoît Hamon scored just 6 percent of the vote. Furthering its woes, in subsequent parliamentary elections the historic center-left party was reduced from 280 to just 30 seats in the National Assembly.
So bad was the party’s collapse that 2014–16 PS prime minister Manuel Valls barely held onto his seat, resisting a strong challenge from La France Insoumise (LFI)’s Farida Amrani by just 139 votes. Her movement had already made strong headway in the presidential election, in which its candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon scored almost 20 percent of the vote. She today faces a fresh opportunity to win this Évry constituency; last month Valls quit Parliament, to cries of “good riddance!” from LFI legislators. With his PS forced to leave its offices, Valls now seeks a new career in Spain.
A CGT union activist and mother of three, Amrani is now the frontrunner to become MP for Évry, a new town just south of Paris. The by-election takes place at a time in which liberal president Emmanuel Macron’s popularity ratings are in free fall while Jean-Luc Mélenchon is France’s most popular political leader. Jacobin spoke to the LFI candidate about her view of its progress, how it differs from traditional political parties, and the role of an MP who remains in touch with social movements.
Last Tuesday saw police raids on the headquarters of La France Insoumise, of the Parti de Gauche, and even on Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s own home. Coming on the same day as the reshuffling of the cabinet, and the arrival of a new interior minister, these images traveled around the world. What do you think this represented: were we seeing the political use of the justice system against one of President Macron’s key opponents?
The justice system of course has every right to intervene if this is a matter of protecting citizens’ interests. But there is also a question of fair treatment. The investigation in whose name the raids were conducted concerns the expenses for France Insoumise parliamentary staff — and it is worth remembering that Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s presidential campaign funds had already been officially audited. So given that this auditing had already taken place, there was no need to come storming in.
It is also worth noting that Jean-Luc Mélenchon is not the only figure whose campaign funding has come under investigation; there have been similar questions over (president Macron’s own ally, veteran liberal) François Bayrou, but there is a stark difference in how these cases are treated. There were no raids of Bayrou’s offices, while police did raid Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s own home as well as the headquarters of both La France Insoumise and the Parti de Gauche. And for us it is also problematic if the state has in its hands the personal details and information on the past of all our activists. But the real issue, here, is the different treatment of different parties.
It’s often said that La France Insoumise is a movement and not a party. Podemos in Spain, with which LFI has close links, often talk about having “one foot in the institutions and a thousand in the streets.” Could that also be said to apply to your approach? If you are not a party, what does that mean for the role an MP can play?
Some of those involved in La France Insoumise do come from parties, whether from the Parti de Gauche or from the Parti Communiste or from another left-wing party called Ensemble, whereas others are not from any party. But what unites them is a joint, national political program, L’Avenir en Commun (“The Future in Common”). We work in the interests of a program created by and for the people, above partisan divides.
La France Insoumise is not a party but a movement, and it also involves activists from other fields. For example, trade unionists: I am myself an activist in the CGT union. This ongoing activity among workers, among the unemployed, among local communities, and on the ground is fundamentally important. If we want to be a movement able to listen to what the people is saying, then it is vital to maintain this red thread of organization and continue to have these “feet in the street.”
You have often commented that you come from the “university of life” rather than an elite institution like the École Normale de l’Administration, of which many recent presidents and prime ministers are alumni. Is LFI also seeking to change the profile of France’s political personnel?
This is important for the population itself. [Emmanuel Macron’s party] La République en Marche claimed to be a movement, something new, but everyone can see that this is the continuation of the old world and the old world of doing things. It doesn’t work: France is still knee-deep in unemployment and similar social problems.
What needs doing is to put an end of the power of lobbies in politics. Things can’t go on like that, and it has to be citizens, ordinary people, mothers and fathers, people from the “university of life” who take charge of that change. I am a mother of three children and daughter to a Moroccan who came to France to work. I’m not like the many politicians who come from (elite institutions like) the École Nationale de l’Administration.
When my father arrived in this country he wouldn’t have thought his daughter would become a political and trade union activist. But I myself have three kids and I am worried about their future, and that question is also wrapped up with the future of the French Republic as a whole. The important thing is that things are run for the population rather than the particular interests of lobbies and such.
The by-election in which you are standing owes to the resignation of the previous MP, Manuel Valls, who was the Socialist Party prime minister of France from 2014 to 2016. Indeed, he only narrowly edged you out to win this constituency in last year’s parliamentary election, and the fact he is now leaving France to make a new career in Barcelona has a certain symbolic importance. But what do you think this means for the Socialist Party itself — is it going to disappear? Where do you think its former activists and voters will go now?
As we had predicted, Valls has chosen to abandon this constituency and its citizens in the interests of his own career, and indeed he was quite right to understand that things were not going well for him in France anymore and thus that he would do better to leave. Obviously, this is a betrayal of the people who voted for him and wanted him to be there for them. And on the ground, in the constituency where I live and where I am standing, the Socialist Party no longer exists. Mr Valls has simply destroyed it.
There had already (in the 2017 parliamentary elections) been those within the Socialist Party, on its left wing, who gave me their support, for Valls’s approach within the party was “either you’re with me or you’re against me.” And now there are a lot of people without a political home, but who come to me and say that they will support my candidacy, because even if they have not joined France Insoumise, in any case they want a left-wing MP.
As you mention you are an experienced activist in the CGT union and also once stood as a candidate for the Front de Gauche (an alliance of the Parti de Gauche, the Parti Communiste, and Ensemble). What do you see as the difference between La France Insoumise and those past experiences on the French left? And what does France Insoumise do outside of election-time?
The Front de Gauche brought together several parties into a single front, but in order to participate in it you had to be there as a member of this or that party. But in La France Insoumise there are many people who are not members of anything else; they join the movement as citizens. Some have roles in their trade union branches or in other kinds of association. So, they want to get involved in politics, and even to take on political responsibilities, but also to have another way of doing politics, without having to sign up to a party.
That’s what La France Insoumise offers them the possibility of doing: and it’s a revolution in how we think about political engagement. We are not made to stick to some sort of party discipline, but instead brought together by a common, collectively elaborated program, L’Avenir en Commun, which forms the basis of our activity.
Moreover, outside out of election time, France Insoumise supporters are very active in providing everyday representation and being there for the population, for instance through our participation in school boards or dealing with problems of day-to-day life.
We deal with very simple things like helping young people to get a stage de 3e (work experience for fourteen- to fifteen-year-olds, during the school holidays) or finding people a trade union representative rather than having to go to a lawyer — the important thing is that we are there for each other. And that is not even part of an electoral campaign, but something that comes to us naturally.
You are standing to be MP for Évry, a town just to the south of Paris. Could you tell us about the specific issues the population faces and what their needs are? If elected as an MP for La France Insoumise, what kind of activity can you do to help?
The most pressing question in Évry is public transport, which is a serious problem. This is a “new town” (built from 1965 onward), and many of the people who live here commute to Paris, yet it is poorly served by just one line, the RER D. Three of the services no longer run. But people need to get to work! We may be out in the suburbs, but we deserve respect. As local MP, former prime minister Valls had promised to resolve the situation, but as with so many of his promises this did not lead anywhere.
A further problem is the lack of housing, a recurrent problem in this town, as well as unemployment — the average population here is very young, and they can’t find work. This town was conceived as a “dormitory town,” and everything is run so that the individual has to find their own way, rather than there being any plan for how we can live together here.
La France Insoumise is focused on concrete problems, but this also means talking about issues of an apparently more general character, for instance climate change: clearly it’s a problem if it’s still more than 20°C (68°F) in Paris in mid-October. This is of course an issue for our children’s future, and one which concerns also so-called “ordinary people,” who are aware of the fact that we can’t just go on using plastic plates and cups and so on, but that we have to live in harmony with the environment that we have. Our politics puts the general interests of humanity, and indeed of our children, at the heart of everything we do.
Currently there are seventeen France Insoumise MPs, but they are much more active than those from other parties. Indeed, the ones from La République en Marche hardly show up for debates or to vote. Adding another one isn’t going to change anything. The alternative is to send an MP from among the ranks of the people itself, who will understand their everyday concerns, and who will be transparent rather than be there for the lobbyists.