- Interview by
- Nicolas Jara-Joly
Close, but no cigar. In April’s French presidential elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon again showed that France’s radical left is a force to be reckoned with — but didn’t manage to capture the presidency. After his run for president as head of the Union Populaire, in June’s parliamentary elections he rallied the Green, Socialist, and Communist parties behind his own France Insoumise vehicle in an alliance called NUPES.
Union Populaire took its name from the broad-left coalition that brought Salvador Allende to the Chilean presidency in 1970, a formative period in shaping Mélenchon’s own politics. That promising Chilean experiment would face massive domestic and external destabilization: in 1973, a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende and installed a military dictatorship that lasted seventeen years. Still today, influences from the Latin American left weigh heavily on Mélenchon’s call for a Sixth Republic and a new constitution written by citizens. But the aftershocks of the Pinochet era also weigh on the French left in other ways.
One of the candidates elected to the National Assembly for France Insoumise this June was Rodrigo Arenas, today the MP for the 10th constituency in Paris. Born in Valparaíso the year after the Pinochet coup, he is above all a son of exile following Allende’s downfall, and the convergence of his Chilean heritage and French political commitments is at the core of his politics today. Jacobin’s Nicolas Jara-Joly met with Arenas to talk about exile, diaspora, and the future of the Left in the two countries.
You were born in Valparaíso, Chile, in 1974, but your family fled the country under General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and you grew up in France. How did your family end up there?
My father was the first to leave Chile, in 1977, after various years of clandestine resistance against Pinochet. Like many others in the same situation, it was by chance that he ended up where he did. First it was supposed to Copenhagen, then Stockholm, then Paris. I arrived a year later with my mother, in 1978. By that point, the political pressure and persecution had gotten unbearable. At age one, I was excluded from going to nursery because I was the son of a leftist. During that time, my mother was training to work in the nursery and was told she needed to leave because she was in danger. In the early days of the coup, there was still a certain lack of awareness — the idea that “yes, it’s violent right now, but it can’t continue like this indefinitely.” When my mother finally realized it was not going to let up, we left for Paris.
What did the Chilean diaspora look like in those days? How did the political divisions from back home carry over?
At the time, the extraction and settlement of exiles was organized in large part according to party affiliation. My father, back in Chile, was a member of the Radical Party’s revolutionary youth wing, which had sought to keep that party within Allende’s base of support. When he entered clandestinity, after 1973, he worked mostly with Communists, and so it was only upon reaching France that he joined the Chilean Communist Party. So initially, he found himself in something of a gray zone in this respect. But certainly, sectarian distinctions did carry over into France in important ways. One of them was geographical. In the Île-de-France region, for example, the Essonne département was traditionally more Socialist, whereas Marne was more Communist, and this affected where Chileans settled.
One reason I think Chilean parties in exile continued to organize separately from one another is that, as with Franco’s Spain, no one expected the dictatorship to last as long as it did. Everyone clung on to the idea that, soon enough, we would be returning home — not just to make empanadas on Sundays, but to take back power! This kept party distinctions relevant. There were also fundamental disagreements regarding the best path toward revolution. On the whole, two strategies for gaining power dominated: that of Fidel Castro, through armed struggle, and that of Allende, through the ballot box. These divergences within the Chilean diaspora mapped onto very similar debates within the French and international left at the time, and among other Latin American diasporas. In retrospect, I think it produced high levels of internationalism. However, that’s not to say there weren’t very strong confrontations between these different orientations, which inevitably gave way to accusations of betrayal — “social traitor,” “class traitor,” “cardboard revolutionary,” etc. — but that isn’t specific to the Chilean diaspora, I don’t think.
There must have also been a lot of solidarity, though, I imagine. What forms did that take in terms of Chilean community life?
Well, exactly — by the 1980s that sort of stuff lost its potency. Ultimately, you’re all still stuck with Pinochet and he still needs to be fought. After you’re all done counting your dead — and everyone had many — those distinctions start to seem less important.
Overall, the shared activity of organizing to help the resistance against Pinochet in Chile tended to bring people together. And indeed, let’s face it, the mythologies which were being collectively built up to bear the experience of exile itself, a sort of necessary form of psychological resistance to trauma — we’re talking about people who were tortured, persecuted, and lived through some pretty bleak historical moments.
As a result, community life always had an incredibly intense political core. But it was both a community like any other and a political one. In Champigny-sur-Marne, for example, where I lived, there was also a large Portuguese community that put on events for families, where they would cook their food, speak their language, talk about the home country, and instill love for it in their children. Chileans were no different. On Sundays, we would have events, the parents would do politics and share news from the front, and us kids would learn about Chile, learn to write Spanish, learn our songs, and imbibe the cultural references that allowed us to maintain those links. In general, cultural events were very mixed. The Chilean diaspora in France had a lot of artists who provided us all with our cultural grounding, the kids especially. And those links have always remained very strong; I am still close with Oscar Castro’s children and those of Quilapayún band members, all of whom are childhood friends. Quilapayún came and sang at one of my campaign events a few months ago!
The big shock for me, as a teenager, was when I went back to Chile and realized that, unlike all the Chileans I knew in France, not everyone here was against Pinochet (“Yes, Pinochet is a dictator, but Allende wasn’t all roses” kind of thing). You essentially grow up in a version of Star Wars where you’re the Jedi — but then you realize that’s not how it is for everyone. For me, at least, that’s when I started to realize the political importance of bringing people together.
You joined the French Communist Party (PCF) as a teenager. How did your political trajectory evolve after that?
Inevitably, everyone I grew up with got into some form of activism, whether political, associative, or something else. Growing up, the question of where I was going to put my political energy was never far from my mind. It was when I was about fifteen, after having gone through various Chilean organizations, that I started getting involved in French ones. And that’s when I joined the young Communists (“les cocos”), no doubt in part because of my parents, but also because at Champigny — the town of Georges Marchais, the national secretary of the PCF at the time — that’s all there was. Actually, one of my first political commitments independent from my parents was anti-apartheid activism.
Then later on, 1999–2000, the alter-globalization movement exploded onto the scene, and that really spoke to me. Europe Écologie became the repository for a lot of that stuff during this period, not to be confused with Les Verts [the Green Party, which merged with Europe Écologie in 2010], that were very much not that. What I found in Europe Écologie was an attempt to cohere this new alter-globalization galaxy in the aim of pushing forward its project. However, I didn’t stay there for very long after it merged with the Greens to become a full-fledged political party. Suddenly I had become a party activist. I couldn’t stand having to devote all my energy to trying to eliminate some other competing force within the party because they didn’t support the right motion or whatever. It seemed so contrary to the principle of ecology itself — in a social sense, in terms of the biodiversity of opinion — that, as far as I was concerned, it had lost all meaning. I was done. But it was nonetheless in Europe Écologie that I met a lot of the people I now work with today.
After that, I started to invest my political energy into associational work, which felt a lot closer to people’s real lives, and my own too – I am, after all, also just a normal person, with kids at school and the rest of it. So I eventually became president of the Council Federation of Pupils’ Parents (FCPE). I don’t think the importance of schools can be overstated. The one of the few things that you, me, and almost everyone across the globe has in common is that we all go to school. As a result, it is a crucial place for influencing and changing social conditions.
The problem is that this is a long-term strategy, and today we don’t have that kind of time. This is why I wanted to become a parliamentarian.
You talk of “not having the time” — how does the current emergency look, to you?
Climate change, social discrimination, inequalities, the enslavement of nature and animals — all of these are urgent problems in different ways. And if we don’t deal with them . . . I mean, it’s going to be Mad Max. I’m joking, but it’s not far off.
The rub is that tyranny is a perfectly viable way of dealing with the problems they pose. Democracy is a fragile thing. So fragile, indeed, that this year we saw the election of eight-nine MPs from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. To share the parliament with eighty-nine far-right MPs is not an easy thing for me. I came to this country with my parents as a result of persecution by the far right. And now I have to sit opposite their descendants. So, the way I see it, we must choose democracy. In my case, concretely, that requires choosing peaceful and legal means of countering those who wish to use tyranny to control society. If we don’t fight them now, we have already failed. And we cannot afford to fail.
From another perspective, the dominant solutions, which the market proposes, supported by the likes of Emmanuel Macron and co., we know they don’t work. Unless you think child labor in Congo and Bolivia, the destruction of the Atacama and the Amazon, massive floods or leaving migrants to die in the Mediterranean are acceptable levels of collateral damage, all the fixes we are being offered are trash. The emergency goes way beyond whether we are going to be warm or cold in the years to come; it’s as simple as whether the human species is going to have a future on this planet. It’s gotten to that point. These are long-term problems that require long-term solutions, in a timeframe we no longer have. It is in this space that fascism becomes a real possibility.
That’s a scary picture. What gives you hope for the future?
Ultimately, I’m not afraid for myself. I’m forty-eight. It’s going to end sooner or later for me. It’s for my children that I’m scared. I have four boys. If there is a war, whatever form that takes, it’s they who are going to be on the front.
The problem is, we have almost no way of seeing into the world that they are going to be confronted with. Even just from a technological perspective, they’re not taught to understand or to shape the technologies that will determine their world they’re taught to be clients, to be users of this technology. We are sending our kids off into a world that they are not equipped to confront — which wasn’t really the case for us. They haven’t grown up with the same spirit of resistance and collective organization that previous generations have. And that’s a real worry. Yes, we have seen significant uprisings, but they come in the form of jacqueries — spontaneous, momentary revolts, not organized responses of the kind we would have previously called revolutionary movements. Social struggle is still atomized. In short, what is missing is the type of collective, concerted, and organized reactions to problems that produce alternative systems.
The only system that exists today is business, which has essentially become an alternative to social organization as such. And as the world becomes more and more digitalized, we weaken our capacity for social organization. The complex problem that this represents needs to be met with real alternatives of similar complexity.
The irony is that the object of my hope is the same as my fear: the younger generation. In particular, their capacity to find answers and meaning in social organization beyond the narrow confines of mere “economic development” and their bank accounts. Their ability to confront the older generations is very important. That’s why I am a big supporter of Greta Thunberg: because she’s right. And the reaction of the old world — my world, let’s be clear — faced with this girl, who is subjected to every manner of outrage you can imagine, says it all. The fact that people like that are still standing, and creating new people like them, gives hope.
But ultimately, we need to be making new systems. And that’s why, for now, whether we like it or not, the state is so important, because it is the only social institution at present capable of confronting and coercing the monoliths of the business system.
What does the NUPES represent for you? Are there risks going ahead with so many parties working together?
The NUPES is, fundamentally, a response to Macron. He deconstructed the political field by creating new alliances. We have done something similar. One of the (many) differences between the NUPES and Macron is that the differences of opinion within his bloc are miniscule: they all believe in business and the market, essentially. NUPES is different insofar as it brings together groups and currents of opinion that really are different. It is an exercise in nurturing diversity, just like we need for life in general, or in the case of biodiversity. I think that if we succeed in making the NUPES work, by cultivating a new system of political diversity, then we will be one step closer to producing the kind of answers we need to solve the problems of the country, and the world too.
What’s the risk? That it just becomes another electoral machine for the advancement of individual interests. If that’s what you want to do, you might as well go and join Macron right now. Because the NUPES is not a business, it cannot be a business, and I will fight for that tooth and nail. Why? Because there are real people behind this, it’s serious stuff, it’s not a game. Regarding disagreements within the NUPES, so far I can only really speak for myself: because I have spent so long working in the associative sector, I already have quite a lot of experience working with people from all different parties and so it hasn’t been difficult for me at all. I’ve even had to work with MPs from Macron’s party — so this is a walk in the park.
As for the old guard (“les éléphants”) from the last Socialist Party government [under François Hollande] who oppose NUPES: just own the fact that you are right-wing — it’s OK guys, but just stop claiming to be something you are not.
To return to Chile, what does the election of President Gabriel Boric mean for you?
It made me happy, of course. But more than anything, I’m happy for what it represents. For me, Boric’s election represents a victory for organized civil society. Much like with the NUPES, his job is to act as a bridgehead for this layer of society. In that sense, it’s a good example of what we need here in France, a process in which people who rise up through social struggles are able to create and present a program for government.
But let’s be clear: I don’t agree with everything in his program or that he has done. For example, he has not addressed the question of the ownership of the copper deposits, a central question in Chile. Today, there are in Chile what I would consider political prisoners, people who fought during the social movements that started in 2019, who are now incarcerated as a result and who have not been released. As for foreign policy, with Boric’s foreign secretary specifically, I’ve got more than just a few differences. Particularly in terms of the need to be making alliances between Latin American countries to better protect the region from US pressure. All these things are live questions. One can be happy about his election while also not being blinkered. It’s a matter of being clear-sighted.
But I am ultimately an outside observer, so have to remain somewhat modest in that respect. What is more interesting to me, and again highly relevant for France, is the project of a new constitution. Here we talk a lot about a Sixth Republic, but for the time being, this remains just a slogan. What’s important in Chile is that it has been a process driven by popular participation and control, whether in agreement or disagreement. The end result of the plebiscite is less important than the democratic process that it has represented and the new political movement it has given life to. And I’ll tell you why. In Chile, in France, everywhere, we need to reappropriate these democratic tools of which we have been dispossessed over time. That’s the only way a Sixth Republic can ever really take place here in France.
How do you interpret the rejection of the new Chilean constitution?
For me, fear is at the heart of this no vote. On one side, we have a smaller portion of citizens who know change is necessary, and who shook up Chilean norms by introducing abortion and indigenous rights into the constitution. On the other, there’s the citizens scared of change, particularly in a period of such profound instability, and who expressed this through the refusal of the new constitutional document. In certain very conservative regions, these new rights are perceived as destabilizing and disturbing.
Ultimately, parliamentarians will probably end up just “cleaning up” the old constitution brought in by Pinochet. They prefer small steps inside their comfort zone rather than leaps toward something new. The same thing happened in Iceland, for similar reasons. Citizens were held back by a conservative sense of security and the fear of change. After voting for the constituent process to happen, they let the politicians invalidate it and even ended up voting for a majority made up of conservative MPs.
For now, [left-wing] politicians’ role is to explain, to educate in a sense, to have the courage to confront the fears of a majority of their voters while still advocating for radical laws. It’s difficult, but I believe it is unavoidable.
Of course, the referendum outcome was disappointing for the committed people on the Left who got Boric elected. But let’s not forget that many center-right-minded voters also supported him in the second round. That also explains why he couldn’t obtain a majority for the new constitutional text from this segment of the population.