Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Campaign Shows That the French Left Can Still Win

Manon Aubry

Rising poll scores bring Jean-Luc Mélenchon ever closer to making the runoff in April’s presidential election. France Insoumise’s Manon Aubry tells Jacobin how the Left is challenging the neoliberal and far-right stranglehold over the country’s politics.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, speaks at a rally for the establishment of a Sixth Republic, in Paris, France, on March 20, 2022. (Benjamin Girette / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

Recent years have seen a sharp reactionary turn in France — and not just thanks to the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant leader Marine Le Pen. Emmanuel Macron, formerly finance minister under the Parti Socialiste’s François Hollande, won the presidency in 2017 promising to bring together “both Left and Right.” In practice, he has governed from the center-right, with his administration pushing attacks on the welfare system, authoritarian measures against protesters, and even a witch hunt against supposed “Islamo-Leftism” in the country’s universities.

Macron’s term has seen major social movements, from the gilets jaunes protests that began in fall 2018 to the strikes against his pensions reform. Today, French voters list purchasing power as their main concern — a problem exacerbated by soaring inflation. Yet, until now, it had seemed that the Left was struggling to give effective electoral expression to this discontent.

Ahead of the April 10 first round of the presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was initially one in a crowded field of candidates, with fragmentation on both the Left and the far right of French politics. Yet the waning challenges of such figures as Communist leader Fabien Roussel, the Greens’ (Europe Écologie Les Verts, EELV) Yannick Jadot and soft-left Christiane Taubira have again focused attention on the France Insoumise (LFI) leader. He has risen into a strong third place on 15 percent support, a handful of points behind Le Pen, in the race to make the April 24 runoff against Macron.

Manon Aubry is a member of the European Parliament for LFI and copresident of the Party of the European Left. She spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about Mélenchon’s campaign and his chances of turning French politics away from a cycle of neoliberal reforms and identitarian backlash.

David Broder

Jean-Luc Mélenchon is enjoying a rise in the polls, to around 15 percent support. Can he make the second round — and what effect would this have in changing the terms of the debate?

Manon Aubry

Less than two weeks from the elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon — but also, behind him, the Left’s campaign, Popular Union — has a real chance of being present in the second round, denying the racist far right that position. Even beyond any prediction as to the result of that runoff, his being there would make it into a different contest.

It would mean the end of the duel between a right-wing president like Emmanuel Macron and the far right, who in fact agree on many economic issues: on pushing the retirement age to sixty-five, on freezing salaries, on sticking with the presidential monarchy that is the Fifth Republic, and on tax handouts to the richest.

If Jean-Luc Mélenchon makes it to the second round, we will finally have a debate on social issues: between retirement at sixty or at sixty-five, between a minimum wage at €1,400 net per month or else stagnant wages, between the reestablishment of the solidarity tax on wealth or else more gifts to the rich, between moving toward the Sixth Republic or maintaining the presidential monarchy, between green public planning or the destructive free market.

It would mean that the debate would not be about how many state employees we are going to cut, how many refugees we are going to send back to the border, or how much to stigmatize Muslims.

Addressing these real questions would completely change the atmosphere in the country, even beyond the second round.

David Broder

In 2017 you were under two points short of making the runoff. What have you learned from that experience? Is the important thing to overcome the splintering of the Left; to appeal to “angry but not fascist” protest voters; or perhaps even to appeal to those who usually don’t vote?

Manon Aubry

For us, these things aren’t opposed. The key to this election is to bring back the Left to the people, and the people to the Left. To mobilize all those who do not want to be condemned to a second round between Macron and Le Pen.

We need an emphasis on social issues, especially with our clear proposal to cap prices in response to the current social emergency. We call for ecological planning, the redistribution of wealth, and institutional change with the Sixth Republic. There is an overall majority for these proposals in the country, and the Left can rally around them and reach the second round.

But we shouldn’t be mistaken. Today, the power of political parties in France, the Left included, is weak — and our main enemy is neither Macron nor Le Pen but indifference and distrust. Over the last fifteen years, people have seen three different parties in power but not seen any change in their lives, except that they’re getting poorer. So, the biggest challenge for us is to show that the election can make a difference. I think that as we get closer to qualifying for the second round, it can also help mobilize these people.

The key to the elections is in their hands. I often say that there is only one place where each of us is equal with a tycoon like France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault — in the United States, you might say with Jeff Bezos — and that’s at the ballot box. We can be sure that Arnault and all his buddies, the billionaires, will be mobilizing around this election. If we mobilize too, there’s more of us than them — and we can make a difference.

I believe this will also be an inspiration at the international level, after the end of the era of Bernie Sanders and of Pablo Iglesias in Spain. A new left is emerging, as we saw with Gabriel Boric in Chile and with AOC in the United States. In other countries, the Left is struggling — but a good result for us in France would boost our comrades all over Europe and show that we can make it.

David Broder

If we look at cases like Sanders, Iglesias, and, indeed, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, they made their breakthroughs with antiestablishment and populist rhetoric yet in subsequent campaigns seemed more concentrated on uniting “progressives” or the left-wing electorate. Has France Insoumise made a similar shift, compared to 2017?

Manon Aubry

Well, there’s two things. One is that, in 2017, we were coming out of five years of François Hollande’s presidency, which people saw as the Left in office. So, if we went door to door and said, “Hello, we represent Jean-Luc Mélenchon, we are the Left,” people would ask: Well, what has the Left done in power? It tore up labor rights, it made tax gifts to big corporations, and it threatened to strip people of foreign descent of their French nationality. The left-wing label had been devalued and lost its ideological bearings. So, in 2017 it was complicated to claim a left-wing identity, while today, though Macron has claimed to be “both left and right,” he has pursued a fully right-wing policy. Confronting him in this changed context, we are a clearly social opposition, in the left-wing camp.

The second thing that’s changed compared to 2017 is that back then La France Insoumise was very new, with little experience, and it was said that Jean-Luc Mélenchon alone represented it. Five years later, he is running surrounded by a team of MPs and MEPs known and recognized for their work. In 2017 he was doing two or three rallies a week, but this time, once a week, all of us MPs are doing rallies and gathering thousands of people in towns all over France. We are the only force with this capacity for collective mobilization, which also points to the type of government we want: an exercise of collective power.

David Broder

It’ll help you reach the second round if you can siphon off votes from the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot. He is sharply critical of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and opposes the idea of a “pragmatic vote” for him — instead saying the only “pragmatic vote” is to vote for ecology. Why should ecologists vote for Mélenchon, not for Jadot?

Manon Aubry

It seems that Yannick Jadot spends more time fighting Jean-Luc Mélenchon than fighting Emmanuel Macron or indeed the far right, which doesn’t care about global warming. It’s a pity, because today Jean-Luc Mélenchon embodies the side that’s serious about combating the climate emergency. And Jadot’s role should be to bring back center-left voters from Macron.

Obviously, we have many points of convergence with EELV, and it’s good that we have two deeply ecological parties on the French political spectrum. Where we have nuances and areas of disagreement is the strategy that gets us there. We think that we cannot meet the climate challenge and the challenge of planetary limits within the framework of our current economic system and that we need a policy of rupture. To break the current logic, we need to profoundly transform our economic model, and we cannot do this with a few Band-Aids around the edges.

This also means having a strategy to overcome the obstacles that will be put in our way. One obstacle we often cite is at the EU level: it has certain rules that will prevent us from tackling the climate issue head-on.

For instance, if tomorrow we wanted to make school canteens free and serve only locally sourced, organic food, this would run counter to EU competition law, because it demands an open-tender process for who runs school canteens and such a policy would be favoring only one option.

Or if you want a public transport system, and indeed an efficient, state-managed rail system that rejects the freight privatization imposed by the EU, then that runs counter to European law. If you want mass investment in the ecological transition, and in particular the transition of our agricultural model to renewables, then you need to fully abandon the EU’s rules limiting budget deficits to 3 percent. If you want an organic, small-farmer-led agriculture that respects the planet and the earth’s cycles, you need a profound transformation of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Here, I’ve mentioned several proposals incompatible with the EU’s rules. We propose a strategy to confront those rules, whereas EELV limits itself to saying we are going to persuade everyone else, which is what the Left has been pretending to do for thirty years. François Hollande said he would do so, promising even to renegotiate the European treaties — but then he absolutely didn’t.

I say to our friends in the ecological movement that to consistently follow through on that commitment you have to remove the obstacles that the European rules set up to environmentalist proposals. There is a power struggle that has to be fought at the European level, but so far, EELV rejects that. Finally, I’ll note that Mr Jadot keeps saying that “faced with the ecological emergency, the true radicalism is to govern.” I agree, and that is why we need the best-placed ecological candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to win.

David Broder

Your program on Europe says that you’ll implement your program no matter what the EU says, and France Insoumise sometimes speaks of breaking out of the limits of the EU treaties. But you no longer speak, as you did in 2017, of a “Plan B” that could mean leaving the EU entirely. So, is the approach only to disregard the existing rules — or do you see some concrete possibility of reforming the EU treaties?

Manon Aubry

There’s several things. First, the context has changed since 2017. Now, we’re done with the Angela Merkel era. The European Commission’s current president, Ursula von der Leyen, has the weakest mandate in its history. Moreover, many rules and dogmas have been shattered in the light of the public health crisis. The 3 percent deficit rule was suspended. The rule on state aid, which enshrines the sacrosanct right to free and undistorted competition, was suspended during the crisis. Here is the proof that these rules do not make sense, even from the standpoint of free-market liberals.

Also, thanks to our experience at the European level, we have gained a more precise understanding of our capacity and our strategy to achieve our goals. Our logic, our compass, is to implement our program whatever the cost. We will not give up on the program we have been elected on. That is a democratic imperative: first, because we do not want to lie to the people, and second, because this is also the opportunity to remove the obstacles we’ve identified.

We have reviewed all our proposals with regard to European rules, and we have systematically identified blockages. I mentioned some of them earlier, for instance regarding the renationalization of rail freight and investment in renewables.

Our strategy is based on two pillars. The first is to create the necessary confrontation within the European institutions, over free trade agreements, for example. Such agreements require unanimity among member states. Without France’s signature, there will be no agreement with Mercosur (the Southern Common Market), with China, New Zealand, Canada, or the United States. So, we have the possibility of blocking these rules.

Moreover, there is a certain relation of forces within the EU that has to be considered. We are the second-largest European economy, a net contributor to the European budget. Obviously, we favor European solidarity, and we have no problem being a net contributor. But this mustn’t be done against the interests of France and the program we are elected to implement. So, we are ready to use our contribution as a negotiating tool to ensure that European rules are not applied against the will of the French people.

The second pillar is a strategy of disobedience. The EU has several rules that we are clear we will not respect if we are in power. We would not apply the directive on “posted workers,” which pitches European workers into a race to the bottom. We would instead ensure that, for example, a Polish worker in France has the right to the same social protections as a French worker.

I’ll add that, in reality, disobedience is already commonplace at the European level. Macron himself does not respect data-protection standards. Macron does not respect the norms on working hours and rest periods in ministries. Macron does not respect the European goals on renewable energy. These rules are good, and we intend to respect them — but not the other rules that prevent us from carrying through the ecological transition.

We think our ability to break the rules is a way to make the rules change. There’s plenty of examples. Germany recently said that it wanted to exclude water management from privatization. It obtained that not only for itself, but for the entire EU.

Even more recently, in the context of the current energy crisis, Spain asked to be able to control energy prices and thus lower them for households — that is, to disregard existing EU competition law. It obtained this exception, and it has been extended to the whole EU. So, I think we can push together with other member states asking for the same things, and this will reorient the European construct. And it does need this change, or else it will surely go to the wall.

David Broder

We can imagine that France could defy the EU laws and force change in that way. But, in, let’s say, a more “constructive” key, I’m interested that your program also speaks of convening a European summit.

Manon Aubry

If Jean-Luc Mélenchon is elected next month, he’ll also have the remaining months of France’s presidency of the European Union. We intend to use this to convene a major summit that would seek to review certain European rules on which we wish to begin discussions.

This would be an opportunity to say, for example, that our vulnerability to the energy crisis, which has been highlighted in recent months, must end. To do this, we must give the member states the possibility of creating what we call public energy poles with public management of energy rather than the forced privatization which has been imposed on us by the European Commission in recent years. This would allow us to tackle both the questions of prices and our energy independence.

For us, it is a priority to open up a discussion and to set out a certain number of necessary changes on which France will be uncompromising. And it is an opportunity to put these subjects very clearly on the table, using the French presidency of the EU to set down some strong political markers. The same goes for the end of austerity rules, the funding of a real Green and Social New Deal through the tax on financial transactions, and so on.

David Broder

Catalyst published an article by Cédric Durand, in which he speaks of a selective deintegration on some areas even while seeking more integration on others, for instance in collaboration on fighting the climate crisis. What do you think of this proposal?

Manon Aubry

The logic is similar. It means saying that today the approach and the debate between federalism and sovereigntism no longer makes sense and that we should take things subject by subject. That means adapting to the context, because there are subjects on which “more Europe” is, indeed, necessary. We have seen this in health coordination, for example, or with regard to climate change, or the fight against tax evasion. But this should not prevent us from acting unilaterally when necessary and, ultimately, acting on a case-by-case basis, to avoid being blocked as we have been in recent decades by the European framework.

I’ll take an example that I know well: the fight against tax evasion and avoidance. Today, every tax decision must be taken unanimously by the member states, in other words, with the agreement of Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Malta — in short, with some of the world’s worst tax havens. On this subject, we have to be clear that we are going to move forward without them, but we are changing the rules, and we are even ready to sanction European tax havens if we want to tackle this plague.

David Broder

Jean-Luc Mélenchon began his rally at the Place de la République on March 20 by hailing the Ukrainian resistance against Russian invasion. He also defends a policy of French exit from NATO, repeatedly insisting that nonalignment does not imply neutrality or isolationism. But if Mélenchon and not Macron were president, and France not in NATO, what would be different about France’s role regarding the war in Ukraine?

Manon Aubry

First, I should explain that nonalignment means not being subject to a diplomatic bloc. That doesn’t mean isolation but rather being able to see the geopolitical situation clear-sightedly. So, it means being able to say no when the United States invades Iraq, to say no when the Russians invade Ukraine, and to say no if, one day, China invades Taiwan. Nonalignment means being able to say no: not having a systematic ally whose strategy we always have to approve of. Each situation requires its own alliances.

Moreover, the NATO allies include Turkey, and I’m not sure I want to endorse everything that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey is doing right now.

So, nonalignment means being lucid about the interests of empires and proposing an alter-globalist diplomacy. A historic strategy of the Left, which the debate is only now coming back to, is to seek a diplomatic route at all costs. Jean Jaurès said: you can’t wage war to get rid of war. To respond to war with war will only escalate it, and we must seek, at all costs, a way to force Vladimir Putin to return to the negotiating table.

Before, I mentioned tax evasion. It makes me laugh when people say we’re going to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs: because tax havens are so opaque, we don’t really know where the assets are. A group of journalists have revealed that there’s at least $17 billion held by Russian oligarchs in tax havens. Perhaps the European Commission should wake up and threaten sanctions against European tax havens that refuse to disclose the list of assets held by Russian oligarchs. And, if the commission refuses to do so, France should take the initiative. This is our vision of a nonaligned diplomacy that aims to bring peace at all costs through all possible means of pressure.

Our policy also remembers that the objective is to put pressure on Putin, and all those surrounding and financing him, not to condemn the Russian people. They did not choose this, and such a policy against them could even be dangerous, handing Putin even more grip over the Russian people at the end of their tether due to the sanctions.

Nonalignment means having an independent voice faced with each situation and to think of the global equation, to convince those who can put pressure on Russia. I am thinking in particular of African countries that have refrained from condemning Russia. We have to listen to them but also try to convince them, to show that we care about the food crisis they could suffer as a consequence of the crisis in Ukraine.

David Broder

This year we have seen the limits of France’s supposed level playing field for presidential contests. Emmanuel Macron has refused to debate the other candidates for the first round, allowing only stage-managed media events, while there has also been massive hype around far-right Éric Zemmour’s candidacy on privately owned media. How we overcome this focus on individual “stars” running for the presidency and overcome the power of the big media platforms to create them?

Manon Aubry

We’ve been working on this issue of media concentration for a long time: it was addressed already in Mélenchon’s 2012 program, and ten years later we see it creating a political monster. Vincent Bolloré — one of the billionaires who owns a large part of French media — raised Zemmour to this prominence and was able to impose a fascist as a major candidate in this election. This is an extremely serious problem and a real threat to democracy if a candidate can be created from scratch like this. So, we need to break this media concentration and also rebuild left-wing media spaces in France, which are rather weak.

We have reached the end of the Fifth Republic, and this election is an opportunity to completely overhaul it.

But behind this is a deeper crisis of our democratic system, with powers concentrated in the hands of one man, the president we vote for once every five years and whom we have no power over in between. This has been exacerbated under Macron, since he decides all by himself, without transparency or accountability. Even amid the still-ongoing pandemic, faced with our system’s most important election, he does not deign to enter into a debate.

This is why we want to completely rebuild our democratic system. We want a Sixth Republic, as a way to take back control of politics and respond also to the rising anger and the extremely high abstention due to people no longer seeing themselves in the current democratic system. We want a process to rewrite the constitution, so the French people can collectively take charge of the rules of the game. This could mean a refoundation of our democracy.

That means giving new rights to citizens, like being able to call referenda on citizens’ own initiative, as the gilets jaunes demanded. Like being able to recall elected officials when they do not satisfy their electorate. Like a deeper role for local, municipal assemblies in ecological planning and the management of common goods. In short, to reappropriate democracy, which increasingly seems to have escaped us in recent years. We have reached the end of the Fifth Republic, and this election is an opportunity to completely overhaul it.