- Interview by
- David Broder
Ahead of the European elections due to be held on May 26, French politics looks sharply divided. On the one hand, most media tell us, is the slick liberal president Emmanuel Macron, with his bid to breathe new life into the beleaguered European Union. On the other is Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (ex–Front National), with its hard line against immigration and so-called “populist” rhetoric against Brussels.
But as the ongoing gilets jaunes protests have shown, this is not the only divide shaping these elections. For six months Macron allies have sought to portray the gilets jaunes as reactionary Le Pen voters riven by antisemitism and homophobia. Yet far from this caricature, most gilets jaunes are just working-class people fed up at not being able to pay their bills, arguing that they shouldn’t have to shoulder all the costs of the ecological transition.
Today, this argument is key to the European election campaign being waged by La France Insoumise (LFI). Since its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s 2017 presidential bid, scoring 20 percent of the vote, it has stressed the importance of green jobs and putting an end to neoliberal EU treaties which impose breakneck deregulation. For LFI, social and climate justice aren’t opposites: they’re about taking on the same neoliberal elites.
Danièle Obono is a La France Insoumise MP in France’s National Assembly. Ahead of next weekend’s elections to the EU Parliament, Jacobin’s David Broder asked Danièle about her movement’s plans to shake up the European Union, the new alliances it hopes to build in Brussels, and how it hopes to combine the spirit of the gilets jaunes with the new demands coming from the young climate protesters.
The latest Plan B summit of left-wing parties was held in Stockholm on April 13-14. All the speakers opposed austerity and the neoliberal character of the European Union’s treaties. Yet it is also notable that these summits include not only the various national parties involved in the Party of the European Left, but also France Insoumise and even the Labour Party. If such summits have been staged for several years, what common vision or “plan” have they arrived at?
The Internationalist Summit for a Plan B has held several conferences already and is united by a common analysis of what needs doing after the events in Greece in 2015. That crisis-hit country elected a left-wing leadership under Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza, promising a break with austerity, and yet the European Union subjected that government and the country as a whole to even worse budget cuts.
The Plan B summit is about setting forward a different vision, not at the level of isolated individual parties but building across the continent for an alternative social and environmental program. It is not limited to parties from the European Union and includes both forces that have supported governments from the outside, like Podemos in Spain and the Left Bloc in Portugal, and oppositional forces who are currently asserting their claim to government in their countries, like Labour and La France Insoumise.
What unites them is a common recognition that we cannot do what Syriza tried, and act within the rules of the European Union such as it is currently constituted. Rather, we need to change the rules for Europe as a whole.
Notwithstanding its abandonment of its fight against austerity, Syriza remains part of the Party of the European Left, whose representatives in the EU parliament in Brussels sit in the European United Left / Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group. Your own colleagues in La France Insoumise have however broken away, trying to rally the anti-austerity movements behind an appeal entitled Maintenant le Peuple! (“Now the People!”), backed by Podemos, Portugal’s Left Bloc, and the Danish Red-Green Alliance. What exactly do you plan to do differently — and do you expect these other parties to help you form a separate group in the European Parliament?
Syriza did the opposite of what it promised, saying it would put an end to austerity but in fact imposing it even more harshly. Today, Alexis Tsipras’s party is imposing an antisocial and anti-environmental policy to suit the demands coming from Brussels. People like the French Communist Party don’t want to talk about it, but in remaining part of the same party at the European level they are continuing to ally themselves with Syriza. If you do that, it makes no sense to say you want to change Europe.
Syriza’s strategy was wrong and it betrayed the people who believed in its promises. This was the wrong strategy: as Plan B says, you can’t just operate within the existing EU treaties. The summits and the Maintenant le Peuple (MLP) statement are each about building a common proposal to break with the EU treaties. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
We want to create an MLP group in the European Parliament with anti-austerity parties from around the continent. We’re not going there to play some role in the Brussels bureaucracy or elect “our” head for the European Commission. Rather, we need to send members of the European Parliament who will fight the lobbies and the neoliberal directives. That means we need representatives who fight. We will, of course, have allies in GUE/NGL if there is no MLP group, but that’s the goal.
La France Insoumise proposes its own Plan A, Plan B strategy: try and reform the European treaties or break with them if that fails. However, several recent reports in the French press, including a Mediapart article by Pauline Graulle (reaction here), have accused your movement of abandoning past rhetoric which suggested the possibility of leaving the European Union entirely. But if you don’t want to leave the European Union itself, what does it mean to “leave the treaties”?
There can’t be a European Union without France, and France can’t leave Europe. Indeed, France’s governments have helped build the European Union as it is, so it’s also our responsibility to change things. That said, we don’t just want to talk in the abstract of the Europe we want, but to pose the concrete alternative.
Our position hasn’t changed. We have never stood for Frexit: there are some members of La France Insoumise who want that, but that was never the position of the movement as a whole. You can see that in what Eric Coquerel, a France Insoumise MP, has been saying at each of the Plan B summits over the years. Plan A is to reform Europe: to renegotiate the organization of the European Central Bank and to propose protectionist policies as against a current neoliberal order that stands against most peoples.
But if we can’t achieve that, then Plan B is active disobedience: a France Insoumise government would break the 3 percent budget deficit limit and other antisocial and anti-environmental dogmas imposed by the European Union. That is, we would apply our program in defiance of the EU treaties, even before we are able to change those documents themselves.
At the same time, the European elections also have a particular domestic significance in France. The vote will be a referendum on Macron, for what he implements are EU policies. We are going to treat the elections as such even though we recognize that these are elections to a European Parliament that has no real power: the European Commission, not the parliament, makes the decisions. That is also part of what our Plan A seeks to change.
European leaders have lined up to associate themselves with Greta Thunberg and the climate protests involving schoolkids around the continent. Yet if the European Union presents itself globally as a leading actor in combating climate change, you say that its policies hamper any effective response. Why is that?
The climate crisis is an international problem that demands an international solution. As the world’s second leading economic power the European Union could give the lead. But the solution demands not just nice rhetoric but changing the whole way we produce and consume, the whole apparatus our economy is based around. Sadly, the European Union’s international trade deals, including with Japan and Canada, point in exactly the wrong direction.
Here, the European Union’s priority is not protecting the environment but deregulation. Take the example of pesticides: the European Union still refuses to ban glyphosate [known for carcinogenic effects]. France — a leading agricultural producer, and also a leading polluter — has the responsibility to put an end to these free trade deals. It must push Europe toward an industrial policy based on social imperatives rather than the outsourcing and social dumping that lower both wages and environmental standards.
The debate as it currently stands recognizes that a problem does exist, but it never puts in question the existing economic system. The European Union’s proposals for carbon markets — buying and selling permits to pollute — show how out of touch it is. Indeed, the youth protests show they are much more conscious of what is really at stake. Governments are trying to instrumentalize their demonstrations, but the kids aren’t so easily fooled.
That is why Maintenant le Peuple! has put forward proposals on both pesticide bans and a common economic policy for Europe. And this is also why the idea of a Green New Deal is so interesting, because it’s about breaking out of market imperatives and putting forward a new model of investment and production appropriate to our current moment.
Social and environmental concerns are not always simply the same thing. We saw this with Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax hike, which triggered the gilets jaunes protests by car drivers who were struggling to pay their bills. The mostly working-class protesters have strongly resisted claims of far-right associations, and indeed the way Macron seeks to blame their consumption for the climate crisis.
Yet the president does seem to have succeeded in portraying his clash with Le Pen as the dominant antagonism in French politics, while polls suggest La France Insoumise is shedding votes to the Greens and Socialists. What’s the answer: should LFI be trying to unite the Left behind its own banner? Or is that you need to do more to win alienated working-class voters from Marine Le Pen’s party?
Emmanuel Macron has tried to dismiss the gilets jaunes as having failed to understand the environmental question, in a bit to deny their movement credibility. The protestors’ own slogans — insisting that economic justice and climate justice are the same fight, because the people responsible for their day-to-day hardships are the same ones responsible for environmental problems — have powerfully rebutted the various smears. They have shown that confronting the obscene division of wealth in society is key to creating a sustainable economic model. This is a sign of the gilets jaunes’ maturity: they are far more attuned to the climate crisis than the government itself is.
As you say, Macron’s strategy has been to turn everything into a rerun of the second round of the presidential election, setting his own LREM party against Le Pen’s RN (ex-FN). Everything is then a matter of mobilizing progressives against the apparent fascist threat. This is damaging in a vote like the European elections when there is low turnout and the middle classes are most mobilized. And we don’t want Macron to be able to claim that he has a mandate just because turnout is low: our main fight in this election is against abstention.
At the same time, Macron is not all-powerful, and his bid to pose as the resistance to the far right clashes with his bid to create a “party of order” uniting conservatives. His government has taken an authoritarian turn through the gilets jaunes protests in particular, with some ten thousand arrests and two thousand injured. We haven’t seen this since the war in Algeria — and that was, indeed, a war.
Fundamental rights are under attack, and emergency laws have been introduced which have been condemned even by the United Natioins. The Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has posed for photos with his far-right Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini and even copied his rhetoric about NGOs who “help smuggle refugees.” The leading candidate for Macron’s LREM party at the European elections, Nathalie Loiseau, has even been found to have stood on a far-right list at university.
None of these problems for LREM automatically mean that La France Insoumise will benefit. And certainly we need to do more than unite the Left, or the various parties of the traditional left. Our aim is not to unite a bunch of acronyms, but to federate the people itself. They don’t necessarily want to vote in the European elections, but the gilets jaunes movement shows how the old forms of political alliance and representation on the Left are falling by the wayside. The point for us isn’t to add up vote totals among left-wing parties, but to bring together the people in struggle, from the gilets jaunes to the youth on the climate march. That is exactly what our movement is about.