- Interview by
- Harrison Stetler
French politics seems to be radicalizing to the right — with president Emmanuel Macron’s interior minister accusing Marine Le Pen of having gone “soft on Islam” and far-right TV polemicist Éric Zemmour rumored to be planning a bid for the presidency. Ahead of April’s presidential election, mainstream media as well as Fox-like outlet CNEWS are dominated by an obsession with immigration and national identity.
One figure in the firing line of this narrative is Danièle Obono, an MP for the radical-left France Insoumise. Elected to the National Assembly for a northeast Paris constituency in 2017, this anti-racist activist has been a frequent target of conservative media’s efforts to demonize minorities and the Left. Last summer, she was the target of a vile “political-fiction” story published by the far-right weekly Valeurs Actuelles, which portrayed her as a captive of an African tribe complicit in the slave trade.
Attending France Insoumise’s annual summer convention, Obono sat down with Jacobin’s Harrison Stetler to discuss Emmanuel Macron’s rule, the far-right threat, and her party’s hopes of a breakthrough in next spring’s elections.
You’ve been a member of France Insoumise since the start. How has the political situation changed since your election — and do you think that the conditions that fed the rise of France Insoumise have changed?
I think that we’re clearly at a tipping point. We’re at a crossroads, in terms of the direction that this country, this continent, human civilization, is heading in, whether in terms of the climate crisis, democratic institutions, or rising inequality.
I’ve been involved in politics for a long time now — even if this has been my first spell as an MP, I was also involved in the [presidential] campaigns in 2012 and 2017. The last four years have seen a form of radicalization. But from two different points: from both the far right and the extreme center, which has grown into an annex of the far right. We see this when we consider Macronism as a political force, as a form of power, both in its antisocial dimension and in its anti-ecological dimension.
They have accelerated the democratic deficit at the heart of the crisis of the Fifth Republic. There were remarkable moments in this regard, from the Benalla scandal [the beating of protesters by the president’s personal bodyguard, disguised as a policeman] to the response to the Yellow Vests. The handling of the pandemic is also revelatory of their incapacity to think in any other way than through the framework of neoliberalism, where it’s the market that regulates everything and we must, at any cost, get back to “normal,” to business as usual.
These people are incapable of thinking in any other way, even when governments elsewhere are starting to ask themselves, “Perhaps neoliberalism cannot solve the present crisis.” I’m thinking especially of Joe Biden — under the pressure of popular movements, of course. Macronism has proven shockingly reactionary — ideologically, culturally, and economically.
The factors that convinced me to join France Insoumise and to build this alternative have only been confirmed by developments in recent years. The period has justified our analyses and the place we hold in the political terrain. We are the main progressive, ecological, and alter-globalist alternative to Macronism and the Right.
To build on what you were saying on differences between the political classes in France and the United States: In 2016 and 2017, Macron seemed to represent broadly what Biden stands for in the US context. And even without wishing to give undue praise to Biden, who is markedly conservative on several issues, there is a certain degree of flexibility, a certain political pragmatism, while in France we seem to only see an ideological stiffening.
It’s clear Biden is a reformist. He wants to reform things to save the system, whereas we want to change it. There’s a radical difference between that and social democracy, which has mutated into a social liberalism. But certain segments [of the ruling class] are starting to realize — because of the climate emergency and the pressure of social movements — that they’re at an impasse with their model.
I have the impression that there is a particular form of backwardness specifically among the ruling class in France, when you consider the trajectory of Macronism which was something of a floating signifier in 2017.
In 2017 there was no doubt a general dégagisme [“clear them out!”] relative to traditional forms of party politics and political identities, which we benefited from. Macron played off of this as well to put on the facade of renewal, but we very quickly saw that there was no new mentality — even from a capitalist position and from that of the ruling classes. The COVID-19 crisis has shed light on this ideological, political, and strategic impasse. There will be no return to their “normal.”
For our readers outside France, your party may bring to mind the experiences of similar forces in Europe that have been marginalized or outright defeated — Podemos, Syriza, Corbynism . . . So, does this realization of just what Macronism is, and what it represents as a development of the ruling class in France, call for a new strategy for La France Insoumise?
We’ve been able to learn a lot from the dynamic around Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020, including the circumstances which led him to not fight to the last and to rally behind Biden, and the limits of political rupture that exist in the very particular American context — which was also something of the experience of Corbyn in the Labour Party. All while knowing that the difference between Sanders and Corbyn and us is that we had the opportunity to construct an autonomous force.
We think that we have the responsibility to do that, even if we’re constantly under fire from a myriad of criticism and attacks from the political and media establishment. It has been nonstop for four years.
When we consider a movement like the Yellow Vests, that confirms everything we are trying to say about the “citizens’ revolution,” the people, the anger and resistance in society. But at the same time, we have to confront the question of how we weren’t able to become the clear political expression of that. We saw in the midterm [local and regional] elections after the Yellow Vests that we were not able to free ourselves from the general climate of hostility and distrust.
I think that that confirms that we can’t win without the people. We see in the recent polling forecasts that the higher the turnout, the better we do. I think that the fundamentals of our political analysis — on the necessity of breaking with social-liberalism, and being clear about that, on the idea of speaking directly to the “people,” on class, independent of political markers, and on the question of the program — are still valid today. We are speaking about the “Popular Union” for our strategy in 2022, we’re putting forward the idea of federation, bringing people together . . .
I’d like to continue on that point. One can only be impressed by the intellectual richness of this movement and the ideas in the program. But what explains the difficulty of translating that into a concrete breakthrough in public opinion?
There are plenty of things that we have not yet succeeded in doing. I think that we have had trouble breaking out of a certain space on the traditional left, of the educated, white middle classes. These limits are handicaps for us today that we need to figure out how to overcome. Despite that, I believe that what remains of the popular and left-wing electorate can recognize itself in Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s candidacy. There is a strong class nature in the attacks and polemics that he — and we — have endured, especially in the aftermath of the investigations and police invasion of our headquarters. Likewise, there is clearly a class element in the support of the lower classes and the middle classes that we were able to unify in 2017.
Today, we’re emphasizing that these ideas we bring to the table, the ideas that we have defended at the National Assembly, represent a majority of the French population.
But that majority hasn’t expressed itself in recent elections, and many of the popular revolts have had ambiguous political forms.
The presidential election in France is the one that traditionally decides everything. When institutions lose their purpose and their sphere of effectivity, midterm elections pay the price. Political power is, institutionally speaking, more and more concentrated, even on the local level. But we are nonetheless in a situation where the country has had a series of unprecedented popular revolts for the last two years. It’s not like we’ve woken up in a different world overnight: the Yellow Vests did not forget what brought them out to the streets for weeks on end, presenting a grave danger for the political powers that be. I also think we were somewhat taken by surprise by this, along with the broader left and the labor unions.
We have in this country a deep anger, and even forms of resistance that are contradictory — such as the problematic elements in the opposition to the compulsory health passes. But objectively, the country is not Macronized, and it has not shifted to the far right.
I think that there is really a rift between the institutional, political, and media terrains — which have really shifted to the extreme right — and the concrete reality, the state of consciousness, even if these are unfortunately impacted by those shifts. The power of [Fox-like news network] CNEWS and co., of course that has an impact, which poll support for the far right has shown. We have this growing rift between institutions and the actual society, people’s concrete lived experiences. This is what is driving the crisis of the regime, the institutional crisis which is at an unprecedented level today in this country. And it’s therefore in a moment like this that, as revolutionaries — I was about to say, “as a Marxist” — we have to ask ourselves, “How do we seize these opportunities to transform all the anger that exists and all the resistance into a majority force that can arrive in a position of power?”
Despite, or perhaps because, of the public-health crisis, this past year in French politics has been dominated by a series of right-wing media frenzies — from the government panic over campus “Islamo-leftism” to the former army officers’ column in far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles calling for military action to stop “chaos.” You yourself have been targeted by some of these attacks. How do you interpret all this?
There is indeed a worrying new level of political violence, and the side pushing it is clearly this new extreme right, which now includes the traditional [conservative] Républicains and [Macron’s] La République en Marche. As popular support for neoliberalism or for the reigning ideology decreases, elements in power or in the right-wing opposition or in the far right are trying to reinforce a form of support grounded in stigmatization, in nationalism, and in ethnocentrism. This is what we see taking place today.
Macron is in power without a real electoral base. He was indeed elected, but people voted against Marine Le Pen rather than voting for him. The country was never Macronized. There is not majority support for his project of the “start-up nation.” During the Yellow Vests movement and during the movement against the pension reforms, we saw that their only recourse was violence and mass repression at a level never seen before in France, even though we have a long history of resistance and social movements.
What I see here is that there is a group in the ruling class that is ready to resort to authoritarian measures. The marching orders for these media attacks have also been sent from the very top of the state: the absolutely dizzying attacks on academic freedom were pushed by ministers, the minister of higher education herself! This all has fed into the creation of a political climate where sexist and racist violence is exacerbated, where figures who represent different voices and different political strategies are targets. It just so happens that I’m a woman, black, and Insoumise, and was picked out by the Right, with a certain complicity coming from the government. But in any case, the attacks have generalized — just take the attacks on universities. We were the only political force to fully come out in opposition to these campaigns.
At the police rally in front of the National Assembly in May, a Macronist MP spoke to me about the different parties in attendance: France Insoumise was the only major party not to attend. He said that there was clearly a “republican front” behind the police. In French political vocabulary, that is a very charged and loaded term to use.
For them, the “republican front” goes from segments around the Socialist Party all the way to the extreme right. There’s a major displacement going on today. The front today, it’s against La France Insoumise. Today, we’re outside the “republic.”
But more broadly, we are a country that is riven by racism and sexism, but this all goes way beyond my time in politics and beyond this specific term. When you are a woman of a racial minority with a certain degree of visibility in the media — which we have very few of, because of the level of racism and sexism in political life — you are the target. Take the former minister Christiane Taubira, who was singled out by this kind of violence.
When you look at the strategy being used by the Bolloré Group, which controls CNEWS, we see that over the last four years it has positioned itself as the network of the extreme right, and it’s increasingly setting the tone. There is a choice that segments of the ruling class have made — I don’t know exactly what the calculation was — but there was clearly a choice to favor, to diffuse, and to legitimize them. And when President Macron says that to win he has to be running against Marine Le Pen [in the runoff], what he’s really doing is campaigning for Le Pen, for her to be in the second round. And he’s hoping that he’ll be the one to beat her. That is the general context of these attacks.
“Fascism” is of course a very heavy word, and it originates in a historical moment very different from our own. But should we speak of a “fascist” risk in France? For several weeks in April, French politics was dominated by the column I mentioned by army officers calling for military intervention against “chaos” and — even if polls need to be scrutinized — one survey suggested that as much as 58 percent of France supported these sentiments. Is there a risk that the French people have shifted dramatically to the right?
No, I think that you need to make a distinction between society and public opinion, and then superstructures like media and political institutions. Within the political-media establishment in France, there is clearly a gravitation toward the extreme right. When I speak about the Bolloré example, it’s because Bolloré is not just CNEWS, it’s a media empire. And then there’s the choice made by Macron to situate himself on that terrain.
But nonetheless, I do not believe that the French people have shifted to the extreme right. There is systemic racism, there is systemic sexism . . . but two years ago, the popular revolts were not against immigrants and things like that — despite a context that might have oriented them toward that. They were carried by a series of progressive demands: for social justice, for ecological justice. That’s what the Yellow Vests were all about at the end of the day. We need to remember the nature of this movement. We had the movement against retirement reforms, which a majority of the French supported. It’s the pandemic which put an end to that.
The people have not been won over to fascism, but the risk does still exist. As in other cases, it is a political choice. More and more segments of the right have participated in the normalization of Marine Le Pen. It will not be the fascism of the 1930s with brown shirts on the streets, but there is a taste for authoritarianism, reaction, and violence, and clamping down on popular movements.
The reverse side of this “Zemmourization” of media life — the influence of figures like far-right pundit Éric Zemmour — is the increasing political mobilization of racial minorities. The protests that followed the murder of George Floyd last summer were some of the largest since the onset of the pandemic. What is the place of these movements today in relation to France Insoumise — and how far should it be an outlet for them?
I think it’s crucial for our strategy, in fact. It’s connected with what I said earlier about people who have withdrawn from political life not out of a lack of interest but out of a general disgust. That is the place of abstentionists in this movement. I don’t think these forces make up a majority, but they could of course add a few percent to our support to help reach the second round. Among the masses of those who abstain, the overwhelming share is in the lower classes, which are multicultural. Fighting against racism is essential for building the majority, whether on daily discrimination or police violence.
But the purpose of a political force is also to help and to be at the service of those who organize and are leading movements. This is the other important aspect — being allies for those who are organizing their own battles. Then there’s the question of creating a dialogue so that we can be perceived as the vote that would be useful to people. Because it’s not just about ideals or talking about the Sixth Republic.
When it comes to everyday discrimination and people’s rights, is it going to change something to have an MP [on your side], or even a President Mélenchon? So I don’t think that we’ll be the “political outlet” of these forces, as such. I hope that we can construct, in dialogue with them, the right political responses.