- Interview by
- Mathieu Dejean
- Fabien Escalona
- Ellen Salvi
On Tuesday, tempers again flared in France’s Assemblée nationale. A week after the death of Nahel Merzouk, the seventeen-year-old shot at point-blank range by a police officer last week, the chair of the France Insoumise parliamentary group, Mathilde Panot, had raised a question about the lack of political responses. But Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne responded with a fresh attack on Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing movement. “You are stepping outside of the bounds of the Republic,” she told France Insoumise MPs.
Since the tragedy in Nanterre on June 27, right-wing criticism targeting France Insoumise has also been increasingly heard within the ranks of broad-left alliance Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES). The debate on the realities of police violence in working-class and marginalized neighborhoods, meanwhile, has been completely overshadowed.
In an interview with Mediapart, Jean-Luc Mélenchon analyses the reasons for this turn of events. Behind it, he sees the emergence of an “anti-popular front” — designed to unite the Right and far right while demonizing the people in revolt.
It’s been a week since Nahel was shot at point-blank range by a policeman. Quickly, the debate shifted from police violence to violence by young people from working-class and marginalized neighborhoods. What do you think of this shift?
The president should have responded immediately to the issues that led to Nahel’s death. In other words, he should have immediately suspended [former prime minister Bernard] Cazeneuve’s 2017 “license to kill” law. But since the president’s intention is not to respond to the problems this has raised, he’s invented other ones to talk about instead. It’s a diversionary tactic.
First, he pointed the finger of blame at parents — an insulting remark that shows his refusal to take their social situation into account. Then he blamed video games — which is just bar room talk, as there is no study proving a link between these games and violence. Finally, his supporters in parliament pointed the finger at us, France Insoumise.
When I explained that we were calling for justice, it was inferred that I wasn’t calling for calm, and we were criticized for that. But we’re acting in our own field. We are not sociologists or urban planners. Our role is to formulate a political assessment of a political problem in order to provide political responses.
What do you think of the government’s responses?
I’ll acknowledge that Macron’s first reaction, when he was informed of the killing of a young man of seventeen, was humane. Like any parent, he felt that this event was unacceptable, which is true. And he stopped there, leaving it up to a minister to call Nahel’s mother. He could have called her himself or gone to see her, which would have been an extremely powerful gesture, to show that there isn’t a disconnect between the population and the authorities.
Instead, he has spent his time running along behind the police. This was immediately understood by the Unsa Police and Alliance Police unions, who issued a statement that was totally unacceptable. However, we didn’t hear a word of criticism of this. When we questioned [Justice Minister Éric] Dupond-Moretti or other government figures, they said it wasn’t their words, or even that they had no comment to make. Which means that we are in more danger than we’d thought.
The biggest police union claims that “now is not the time for union action but for combat” and even that “the police are in combat because we are at war.” I am speaking here as the political representative of a section of French public opinion that feels threatened by a government that behaves in this way toward the quartiers populaires [working-class and marginalized neighborhoods]. And which does nothing when armed gangs of fascists come into the streets to grab kids and hand them over to the police. So, I insist: we are in danger because the government no longer controls the police. It’s running scared of them. It’s subservient to them.
That’s the situation after a week. With the unbelievable fact that the president and his government have still not made a single proposal in relation to the events, apart from sending forty-five thousand men [responsible for maintaining order — a figure deliberately overestimated by the Interior Ministry, according to Le Canard enchaîné] throughout the country. Even Jacques Chirac, [faced with riots] in 2005, made a speech that tried to preserve a common ground that people from all sides could identify with.
At the time, Claude Dilain, the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, had this wonderful line to say at the Socialist Party congress, held just after the urban uprisings: “You want a return to normality, but it’s normality that’s unbearable.” We know that normality is unbearable, and that the people who live there are putting up with it with incredible courage and patience. So, the answer is justice. In other words: calm is something you have to build.
You say that the authorities are afraid of the police. That’s a powerful statement. Do you think this is an unprecedented situation in the Fifth Republic?
It was a similar situation that led to the 1958 rewriting of the Constitution, because then the government no longer controlled the army. Now it no longer controls the police, whose biggest unions use words taken directly from the repertoire of the far right, calling the population that resists them “pests.” Our first warning sign came when [former interior minister] Christophe Castaner spoke out against the use of chokeholds. At the time, we were stunned to see police officers demanding that they be allowed the right to strangle people. At the time, we understood that in order to show such effrontery, they needed to feel that the balance of power was to their favor. In fact, Mr Castaner lost his ministerial post.
How do you explain the fact that it has become impossible to criticize the police? To simply say that there is a problem of racism in the police without being immediately ostracized by the Republic?
The starting point is a confrontation between two visions of the world and social relations: the far right’s and France Insoumise’s. The partisans of neoliberal economic doctrines found themselves faced with a population that resisted their policies en masse. They then accepted taking on the diversionary rhetoric of the far right, claiming that the problem was immigrants, and even Muslims, in order to create a split in the French population. This set things along a downhill path. But, that’s the fate in store for anyone who cedes the slightest ground to the far right.
This trend toward the worst of options is reflected politically in what economists Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini call the “bourgeois bloc.” It was clear in the runoff contests of last year’s parliamentary elections that Macron’s government considered that the worst threat was not the far right, but us. Then there was the turning point of the by-election in Ariège, where a France Insoumise candidate, who had come well ahead in the first round, saw everyone else join together to defeat her in the second. We immediately heard [conservative former prime minister] Jean-Pierre Raffarin claim that a reverse of the republican front [i.e., the electoral front historically used to shut out the far right] had been formed. And indeed, the Republican front was turned inside out, transformed into an “anti-popular front.” I use this expression because it is reminiscent of the situation in 1936, when all the others joined together against the Popular Front, under the slogan “better Adolf Hitler than the Popular Front.” The formation of this anti-popular front is an open door to disaster for our country.
You and France Insoumise have become the focus of criticism, with your detractors excluding you from the arc of republican forces. How do you intend to break this isolation?
First off, we don’t feel isolated. We represent a sector of the population. If we’re being targeted, this is in fact just a pretext for another political aim, namely the unification of right-wing forces. The challenge we face is to never distance ourselves from the social groups we represent. This, even when they have contradictions — and no one is happy about cars being burned. We have to prevent part of our bloc from siding with the party of repression. To do that, we have to continue to represent this bloc politically, even when it’s difficult. Justice everywhere — that’s our common cause!
In any case, no amount of propaganda will erase the basic facts of the problem. Firstly, the quartiers populaires have been relegated to the fringes of the Republic, with populations that have been racialized by the way they are seen by others, reduced to their religion and exiled in the suburbs, and benefiting from less money, transport, and medical care than others. Secondly, the rich have seceded from the Republic. They have taken refuge in their own neighborhoods with a fantasized vision of the rest of society. Generally speaking, everything that used to be in the nature of a community is disappearing, with the result that it’s “every man for himself.”
You mention the rich, but behavior “seceding” from society can also be seen among the middle classes…
Let’s talk about that. Back in the 1930s, the middle classes were already in play electorally. They were more heterogeneous than they are today, with many shopkeepers and farmers. The Right set the fate of these groups in opposition to that of the workers, in its fight against the Popular Front. Today, we are faced with a more homogeneous population than at that time, due to a de facto material community, in people’s dependence on various kinds of networks.
Let’s take a closer look. For the center-left strategy to work, as it did in the 1970s, you need a rising middle class. When I was a Socialist in Lons-le-Saunier, my party-section secretary was a social worker and my federation-level first secretary was a university lecturer. Who were these people? They were the children of unionized workers, on their way up the social ladder, and they shared the same slogans cutting across society, such as self-managed workplaces.
The difference is that today the middle classes are no longer rising. They are impoverished and on the way to being declassed. Their relationship with politics is determined by uncertainty: as society becomes polarized, which way are they going to go? For now, they are leaning toward a return to calm. In a week’s time, however, you’ll have an avalanche of documents, articles, and columns on living conditions in the suburbs. At that point, I think the educated and “informed” middle classes will regain their composure and realize that there is no police solution to a situation like this.
What political strategy should you adopt, in a hysterical, polarized media climate? It’s your policy to never back down from a position you’ve taken, but don’t you run the risk of constantly having to justify yourself on problems of form, to the detriment of the political content?
Let me remind you that we’re not here to sell ice cream. We belong to a political camp, and our convictions cannot be bargained for. Taking that approach is the only way we’ll get a hearing.
If we don’t stand firm, who will? Whose sympathy would we win by giving in? People who panic? People who are afraid? Should we feed that fear? No. Our duty is to stand firm. In this respect, I am powerfully and pleasantly surprised by the resilience of the France Insoumise parliamentary group. Many of them were elected for the first time in their lives last year and they’ve had to put up with constant attacks.
We won’t waste time explaining ourselves on problems of form, because there aren’t any: it’s a pure invention. None of us have called for insurrection or set fire to anything. On the other hand, when I go on TV and tell the story of mothers struggling to cope, I am heard by thousands of women who are the very substance of the quartiers populaires. Every step of the way, we are saying something to someone who will feel more dignified and stronger.
Let’s go back to Nahel’s death. In February 2017, the government of Bernard Cazeneuve and François Hollande passed a law allowing easier use of firearms by law enforcement officers. The entire Socialist group voted in favor. Is it possible today for the NUPES left-wing alliance [which includes the Socialists] to have a common position for its repeal?
You are right to mention this law. It would have been common sense to suspend it after the death of a child. The signal to the police would be: no more shooting. No one has ever questioned the fact that they use their weapons in legitimate self-defense. They know that. But I’m always in favor of limiting the damage. That’s why I said that they should be disarmed, when it comes to controlling demonstrations. We also support the immediate transfer of jurisdiction for all cases of police violence, which is a demand of the magistrates’ union, and the creation of a “Truth and Justice” commission. We need this, because there are a great many cases where there has not yet been a court decision.
Let’s turn to those who voted for this law. For a start, neither the Greens nor the Communists did — that’s a good start. As for the Socialists, their group in the Assembly issued a press release that reads as follows: “Because we are committed to republican order . . . we say clearly: we urgently need to redefine a doctrine for maintaining order, work on reforming police training, overhauling the control and sanctioning authorities of our forces of order, but also on a necessary evaluation of the application of the 2017 law, with a view to revising it.” So, they want to revise it, which is better than nothing. What need is there to go on to say that they have a fundamental difference of opinion with me? What are they talking about?
Just after Nahel’s death, you said that the police needed to be “completely overhauled.” What does that mean, concretely? And what do you say to all those on the Left who believe that the police will always be a repressive force in the service of the state?
There is a need for a police force in every society, that’s been obvious for as long as cities have existed. I don’t think we’ll ever do without the need for people representing the state who enforce the law. Why? Because we don’t want everyone taking it into their own hands. There is a police force, so that not everyone gets involved, and because it has to be done properly. This is, therefore, a profession and a delegation of power that must remain under close political control. Traditionally, the great fortresses of the state are comanaged. The interior minister works with the police unions. But there is a fine line between compromising and handing power to the police!
Surveys show that almost 50 percent of police officers vote for the far right. How is it that the body responsible for maintaining republican order has a majority opinion for nonrepublican ideas? Why does a twenty-four-year-old man shoot a kid? Or a young woman? It’s because he doesn’t see his brother or his girlfriend. I’m not saying they shoot out of racism, but their racism makes them forget who they’re about to shoot at. That’s my belief.
So, we need to overhaul the police force, starting with training, getting supervision back under control, reinstating Pierre Joxe’s code of ethics… Let me remind you that when Joxe was interior minister and armed police officers came to demonstrate under his windows, he suspended one hundred and twenty of them and expelled four. I guarantee you that after that there was a more professional atmosphere. Making demands is part of union life. But a union that writes “we’re at war” should be directly put in its place.
You’ve evolved on issues of Islamophobia. Can the same be said about violence in politics?
Compared to when I was twenty, without a doubt. When I was twenty, I was an admirer of Che [Guevara]’s guerrilla war. Then, after Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état, I agreed with those who engaged in armed resistance. And then I took stock of all that: had we achieved anything significant anywhere, in any way? No, and the best people died.
I definitely think that violence as a political strategy leads nowhere. Not because I’m some kind of saint who’s afraid of violence, but because it only leads to disaster. I advocate nonviolent strategies. The only revolutionary strategy is the vote.
So how do you explain being accused of being on the side of violence?
We have to spend all our time defending ourselves from claims that we’re violent, when it’s the authorities who institutionalize violence. There is also a semantic drift in our vocabulary. When I hear Macron talk about a “decivilization” process, it scares me. Even when we talk about riots, by habit of language, it suggests that it’s something crazy and blind, when we can clearly see that things are more complicated. We are in a situation of urban revolt. They are taking forms that fit the terrain.
You put a lot of emphasis on urban issues in your book L’Ère du peuple. Back in 1989, the founding text of the Nouvelle école socialiste theorized the concept of “urban social democracy.” How can the residents of the quartiers populaires regain collective control over this space?
My idea at the time was that, as the world became more urbanized, the new progressive, socialist, and collectivist organizations would emerge from the urban structure and not from the level of companies. The city is not mere scenery, it corresponds to its era. Logically, it has accompanied the various changes in capitalism.
During the Fordist and Keynesian era, the city was cut up into pieces: the place where you lived, the place where you went for a walk, the place where you ate, and so on. But it was a city of the social contract, where everyone lived together. Then came the neoliberal city, characterized by a trend toward gentrification. Today, in Paris, if you’re a family and the parents don’t take in €5,000 a month, you can’t get by.
The city also produces specific political forms. When its residents have no resources, they go into phases of revolt that are like eruptions. There is no longer any mediation to translate this into forms where a compromise is possible. The city is nonetheless the new arena of social conflict, because to produce and reproduce your material existence, you need networks. And you can’t negotiate with a network. Tap water either flows or it doesn’t. There’s a power supply or there isn’t.
The disconnect between the political class and working-class and marginalized neighborhoods is nothing new. How far back do you see this disconnect, and how can we rebuild the link between the residents of these neighborhoods and the political structures?
This breakdown depends on the social balance of power. Those in power have always said that subjugated and oppressed social classes are dangerous. During the Paris Commune, Émile Zola said: “It’s a wonderful cause, but it’s poorly represented.”
When the unions lost their power, destroyed by neoliberalism, there was no longer any line of social and political resistance. The parties in power were not going to agree with those who were protesting against their way of running things, i.e., in the quartiers populaires. The last line of defense we had were the associations, and they too were dismantled. Millions of people were left helpless. And the dominant discourse goes on saying: the revolts are the fault of the people in revolt. There’s been absolutely nothing new under the sun for a century.
France Insoumise has four thousand people who serve as points of contacts in individual housing blocks. No other organization does that. We’re still a long way off, we need four or five times as many. There’s also political representation. That means getting Rachel Keke, Carlos Martens Bilongo, or Louis Boyard, who also comes from a quartier populaire, elected. So the problem is there and we’re trying to address it.
But I believe that the restructuring of society will produce its own form of political representation. The law already stipulates that towns with more than twenty thousand inhabitants must set up neighborhood committees. But how many towns actually have them? From the moment you have urban sprawl, with no edges, no limits, it’s obvious that the question of how to run them is posed differently, and that the right scale is the neighborhood level.
The social movement against pension reform has been defeated, the securitarian agenda is gaining ground and many political leaders are talking like the far right. What concrete initiatives should the Left take to avoid being crushed under this deadly agenda?
First of all, the Left has to exist. At the political level, we have managed to overcome the division — with many difficulties — by proposing the NUPES coalition for last year’s legislative elections. But that’s not enough. The strategy is popular union, not just the union of political parties. Popular union is an objective that is aimed at the masses and that also takes organized forms. As we saw during the pensions battle, we still haven’t overcome the absurd division between social forces and political ones. Naturally, our opponents are taking full advantage of the situation: they are pitting the unions against the political organizations, and then the political organizations against each other.
After a week of revolts and with no response from the government, are we capable of calling for a joint mobilization? Can we put forward common slogans like “truth and justice”? Saturday’s marches are a response to this [a collective call for a rally has been launched for July 8]. This is a good precursor to popular union.
Discussions are taking place, we’re doing what we can, but our opponents are very clever: by demonizing me, they’re trying to make me impossible to associate with. But I’m not the issue. That’s why I’m calling on everyone to overcome the spirit of clans, chapels, and groups, and rise to the occasion. When you have fascists in the street, it’s time to wake up, isn’t it? We have to be capable of putting up a nonviolent front. But to be effective, it has to be ten, a hundred times more massive than that of the violent.