- Interview by
- Harrison Stetler
The war in the Middle East has divided left-wing forces across the West — and France is no exception. Eighteen months ago, the formation of the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES) alliance promised to unite this camp. Yet today, it faces perhaps its worst crisis yet, as latent tensions over NATO, Russia, and Europe–United States relations boil over once more. The center-left Parti Socialiste suspended its participation in NUPES’s parliamentary caucus in late October, joining in with the attacks coming from much of the French political class over La France Insoumise’s (LFI) refusal to term Hamas a “terrorist organization.”
Arnaud Le Gall is a member of the National Assembly and one of France Insoumise’s leading representatives on international politics and foreign policy. He spoke with Jacobin’s Harrison Stetler about the crisis in Gaza, the emergence of a “nonpolar” world order, and the need for a new left-wing foreign policy.
Over twelve thousand Gazans have died as a result of Israel’s bombardment and invasion of the isolated coastal strip, in response to the Hamas-led attack on October 7. At this stage, most Western heads of state are calling for little more than a momentary pause in Israel’s offensive. What has this crisis revealed about the West?
We’re again confronted with a disastrous example of our governments’ double standards. The so-called West has a very selective capacity for indignation. This is not unique to Western countries, but what is peculiar about them is that they like to lecture the entire planet on human rights — which they equate to “Western” values, though human rights in fact has a global history. This double-talk has provided a shocking demonstration of the idea that all lives are not equal. It’s despicable. I don’t know how else to describe it.
It’s also a huge mistake from a purely strategic perspective. Gone are the days when the West could dictate things to everyone else on the international stage. On the contrary, [Western powers] are now being challenged — for both good and bad reasons. The reaction to what’s happening between Israel and Palestine is confirmation of what we’ve seen since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Countries of the so-called “South” no longer follow Western dictates. They’re taking advantage of changes in the geopolitical landscape to find their own way. It’s a bit like in the days of the nonaligned movement, even if that was a different world and “nonalignment” doesn’t have the same meaning today.
The Israel-Palestine crisis is another catalyst for these shifts. And it goes far beyond the Arab world, contrary to the old cliché about Arab “manipulation” of the “Palestinian question” and the classic discourse about the so-called “Arab street” — an expression that I consider a variant of racism. Nobody talks about “the Western street.” We’re talking about peoples, public opinions, and civil societies — not some kind of collective irrational actor that we have to drag around like a ball and chain. These people have a political conscience and know how to denounce a double standard. They reject hypocrisy.
On November 5, the heads of eighteen UN agencies and NGOs released a joint statement calling for a cease-fire. UN secretary-general António Guterres has spoken of a “crisis of humanity” to describe the situation in Gaza since the beginning of Israel’s latest military campaign. These are warnings from actors and institutions that make up the foundation of the liberal world order that the West claims to defend. Why are their concerns so inaudible among Israel’s major international backers?
Let’s be very clear: our problem isn’t the UN. It’s member nations that block it from acting.
The UN continues to play a crucial role. In a situation as tragic as the one that’s now unfolding, we need to be careful with the words we use to describe things. Thankfully, that’s an authority that the UN still has in the eyes of much of the world. People like Guterres are saving the honor of humanity right now. Even if, obviously, for a Gazan who has been killed, or for an Israeli whose family has been taken hostage or murdered, what the UN says will not, for the time being, lead to a concrete resolution and peace. That’s the fault of governments. It’s not Guterres’s fault. It’s not the UN’s fault. Yet for the time being, they’re the only ones with an authority to put words to a phenomenon.
For example, [On November 5], Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, gave online testimony to a meeting of the France Insoumise group in parliament and alerted us to the fact that ethnic cleansing was underway in Gaza. Amid crisis and wars of this type, it’s very important that we scrupulously use the words of international law. Our group also held a meeting with the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees, which has lost over a hundred members of its staff, killed by Israel’s indiscriminate bombings — all while the powers that claim to represent the “international community” have remained silent.
France Insoumise has found itself isolated over its position. What is your response?
The crux of the attacks that have been launched against us is that while we spoke of terrorist acts, acts of terror, war crimes, even crimes against humanity to describe Hamas’s actions, we haven’t called it a terrorist organization. Why? Because — like the many NGOs that hope that these crimes will eventually be punished — we wanted our position to be in conformity with the categorizations provided by the United Nations.
According to the UN, this is a war and a colonial conflict. So, we need to be speaking of things in terms of the laws of war.
I have no problem saying that Hamas committed acts of terror. I’ve said it from the beginning, as have other France Insoumise representatives, including our coordinator, Manuel Bompard. But if we solely focus on the terrorist dimension of the [October 7 attacks], that has its consequences as well. The end game of this political choice is the Manichean simplification of the situation, which will only feed a logic similar to the one the United States followed after September 11 against al-Qaeda, or more recently against Daesh: the idea of a “global war on terror,” or a global conflict of “good” against “evil,” which just as often serves as an alibi for major abuses and crimes.
This is why it’s essential to keep in mind that these unjustifiable acts of terror were conducted in the context of a very old war, and one that is recognized as such by the United Nations. The demand to qualify Hamas in such and such a way avoids the political background of what’s happening and bypassing the fact that the rules of international law also apply to Israel, a state that has also been making use of terror.
On November 16, France finally started to recognize this. [President Macron has called for “work toward” a cease-fire.] That’s important, even if France’s statements were largely limited to the crimes committed by colonists on the West Bank, and don’t mention the material and political support that the state of Israel is giving them — while also failing to mention that Israel’s military operation in Gaza is also terrorizing the local population.
Foreign policy has long divided the Left, especially in France. But over the last month, those tensions have reached a new height, with the Parti Socialiste suspending its participation in the NUPES alliance. Why is the French left unable to come to a united position on international politics?
As many observers tell us (off the record, unfortunately), we are the last force on the Left — along with, in part, the Communist Party, although that has not greatly influenced its leader, Fabien Roussel — that continues to think about international politics in a global and cohesive manner. I’m not saying that our platform is the best in the world. That’s not the point. But we do strive to think globally and in a coherent way about international issues.
Other forces no longer have an international program but bring together a hodgepodge of NGO causes. I say that with all due respect for the work of NGOs. We use many NGO reports to develop our platform. Alongside the UN, global civil society is one of the last bastions of humanism in international politics. But the role of a political force is to propose a global political line and an articulate vision, not just to take the sum of demands from different actors without thinking about coherence or the country’s capacity to make the policy a reality.
With our left-wing partners, sometimes we’re in complete agreement, sometimes not. But I have the impression they don’t really have an international program or a vision of the world. They don’t ground their politics in an analysis of the incredible upheavals we’ve been witnessing since the end of the Cold War — and which have only been accelerating over the last ten to fifteen years. This often leads them to mechanically adopt the position that they think will be the least damaging to them in the short term, without any regard either for the reality of the situation or the balance of views in French society, which is largely attached to the idea that all lives have the same value.
This also leads many to not question slogans like “the alliance of democracies against dictatorships,” which is really a supposedly progressive variant of the old “clash of civilizations.” Should we wage “democratic” crusades like the US did in Iraq? Against whom? Are “democracies” themselves exemplary in their relations with the rest of the world? Why are some dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia, acceptable and others not? What are the criteria? In short, we refuse to mask the concrete realities of international relations.
The shifts going on today in global politics can be heard in the slogans being used by people taking to the streets. In Tunis, protesters in solidarity with Gaza have demonstrated outside the French embassy, calling France — which fashions itself the “land of human rights” — the “land of certain humans’ rights” [“les droits des certains hommes”]. What do you think the lasting effects of this crisis might be, beyond Israel-Palestine as such?
Clearly, the unilateral positions adopted from the outset by the president and his ministers have not improved France’s international image. The executive broke with the historic line of French diplomacy: the concrete defense of the two-state solution, the defense of international law, of the law of war. This has frustrated many of our diplomats.
The current conflict, and the sharply diverging reactions to it, are part of a wider historical movement. Some speak of the “transformation of the geopolitical order,” or, less neutrally, of “de-Westernization,” a useful concept but one with its own limitations, as an insightful recent book points out.
After the unipolar phase of the 1990s, and all the talk of the “end of history,” the United States became bogged down in the war on terrorism, which precipitated the weakening of their power and the decline of their hegemony. [The United States] remains the world’s leading power, but is no longer hegemonic. Added to this, there is now a structural crisis of capitalism and, since the late 2000s, a deep questioning of the global economic order, free trade, and neoliberal globalization. This debate has become even more pronounced since the pandemic.
In this context, the disconnect between what we only wrongly call — because this category is riddled with contradictory interests and visions — “the West” and what we call the “Global South” (also wrongly, for the same reasons) is increasingly marked. It is likely that the tough stance adopted by the United States on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will only accelerate this divergence, allowing other powers (Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, for example) to play a role as political mediators on this issue, which carries enormous symbolic weight on a global scale.
With the growing number of military, humanitarian, and economic crises around the world, it’s become almost a requirement for leaders of the European Union to vaunt some form of European “autonomy.” But time and again, the EU falls into line behind Washington on international politics. Why?
The EU suffers from several fundamental strategic problems.
First off, the EU is structurally tied to NATO and, by extension, to the United States. Second, there is no agreement between the EU’s twenty-seven member states on a common foreign policy or geopolitical vision. The EU is not really capable of acting independently at the international level. The EU thinks that vague declarations on foreign policy or pledges of developmental and humanitarian aid suffice. But even as a moral force, the little credit that the EU had has collapsed because of its alignment behind Israel’s far-right government.
For a while, the dogmatic neoliberalism of EU leaders led them to believe that it was enough to be a large market in order to act as a power. In contrast, countries like the United States and China have long understood that conflict integrates multiple dimensions at the same time. The EU is the last major economic zone in the world to think that things can be separated out.
Even in the purely economic field, it’s kicking itself in the teeth by being the last integrated zone in the world to cling dogmatically to neoliberalism. Other countries give themselves the means of autonomy, by allowing public authorities to play a planning and organizational role (take, for example, the case of the US with the Inflation Reduction Act). There’s been nothing comparable in neoliberal Europe, which continues to rely dogmatically on the market in strategic economic sectors.
In short, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as European “strategic autonomy.” That will remain the case as long as the EU clings to NATO membership and a purely neoliberal economic model.
In global politics, criticism of the Washington Consensus has largely become monopolized by the so-called BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa]. What is your analysis of these emerging actors?
De-Westernization is opening up enormous opportunities, just as it increases the number and intensity of potential conflicts. We have gone from a unipolar world to a world that some call multipolar. We don’t want to see a generalized competition of all against all in every field, any more than we no longer want the hegemony of an imperial superpower whose hubris has led to disastrous wars that have claimed millions of lives and destabilized entire regions for decades. In the end, I prefer to use the notion of a “nonpolar” world: There are no longer any clearly constituted blocs with perfectly coherent and orderly alliances.
It’s only the Atlanticists who believe there’s such a thing as a coherent Western bloc. What is Atlanticism? It’s the belief that there is a community of values and interests between Europe and North America. In my view, there is neither. We sometimes have common principles. But we also have principles in common with the whole of humanity.
The same goes for the BRICS. What are the BRICS, really? Fundamentally, they are a sign that the world no longer revolves around the West. The BRICS countries represent over 40 percent of global domestic product and well over half the world’s population. But at the same time, the BRICS are not a community of values and interests. It’s a patchwork forum and an alternative to the Westernist vision of the world, but it’s fraught with major conflicts.
A two-centuries long parenthesis is closing. It’s a fact. But there is a temptation on the part of some on the Left to view the BRICS only as a welcome counterweight to the United States. We disagree. Certainly, we have no nostalgia for the old unipolar, Western-centric order, but a geopolitical transformation on the scale of the one we’re going through, and which goes hand in hand with a structural crisis of capitalism and an ecological crisis, will only lead to war if it takes place in a disorderly fashion.
All the indicators are red. In many parts of the world, we’ve seen the dynamics of citizen revolts confronted by an authoritarian counterrevolutions — after the so-called “Arab Spring” but also in Chile, Lebanon, Thailand, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere, and even in the United States and Europe.
There’s an international far-right movement ranging from [Narendra] Modi and [Marine] Le Pen to [Donald] Trump, [Jair] Bolsonaro and Tunisia’s Kais Saied. In the face of today’s challenges, it would be an illusion to think there’s an alternative between a left-wing break with neoliberalism and the far right’s increasingly authoritarian, ethnically obsessed reinvention of it. The headlong rush to authoritarianism, the exacerbation of hate speech, the convergence between the center and the far right are not accidents. They are the reactionary response to generalized social anger.
France Insoumise’s critique of NATO and Atlanticism has fed allegations that it is flattering certain nationalist tendencies on the far right — or has even inherited its tradition of antisemitism. What is the war, and the broader international situation, doing to politics in France?
Nonalignment is not simply a matter of leaving NATO: we need to break with the Westernist vision of the world, which has always entailed the disastrous doctrine of the “clash of civilizations.” This has been on full display in France, where people like Éric Zemmour or Marine Le Pen, but also a considerable part of the center-right and the Macronist center, analyze everything through this prism. Look at how they immediately made the (nonexistent) link between Hamas and the terrorist attack in Arras on October 13. They’re the ones who transpose a vision of the situation in the Middle East onto France. They’re the ones who have started to look for would-be traitors — the alleged “Hamas supporters.”
By blaming the Left for antisemitism, and equating the latter with any and all criticism of the Israeli government, they’ve used the pretext of the fight against antisemitism to reinforce the growing alliance between the extreme center and the far right on the backs of French Muslims.
In France, the most striking fact of the current international crisis is that the extreme right has been laundered of its intrinsic antisemitism — as if Marine Le Pen had broken with the history of her party, one founded by veterans of the Waffen SS and her own father, convicted of antisemitism. As if Zemmour hadn’t himself rehabilitated Marshal [Philippe] Pétain by claiming that he saved Jews — a common refrain among Vichy nostalgists…
In the nonpolar world that you claim we now live in, how do we go about building an effective, democratic diplomacy?
Confronted with warmongering like this, the nonalignment we propose in no way means a flat-footed belief in the possibility of the status quo or a weak neutral position. On the contrary, a nonaligned France can remain aligned with certain key principles, namely the defense of international law, the political search for peace, and the rejection of neoliberalism. There was a time when France, either rightly or wrongly, was perceived as the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that was able to talk to everyone. It was aligned neither with the Russians and the Chinese, nor with the United States and the United Kingdom.
We want to speak to the whole world. We’re neither on China’s side nor on the United States’ side — but neither are they our enemies. Our foreign policy should be structured around what we call the diplomacy of common causes. Agreeing on everything or nothing makes no sense. Refusing the “clash of civilizations” allows us to build coalitions for common causes. We recently had the occasion to discuss this with partners in Africa, a continent that in many respects represents the future of humanity, if only because half the global population under age eighteen lives there.
The first common cause is the defense of peace. It’s also in our interest to form a global alliance to combat global warming. It goes without saying that this alliance and this objective will be easier to achieve if China and the United States are both on board, because they are the two main emitters. Likewise, we need to work with the many powers and emerging countries who will be the first victims of a brutal collapse of the dollar. Achieving an organized de-dollarization and thus a common world currency — John Maynard Keynes’s old dream — is in all our interest, because the explosion will be terrible if the dollar collapses.
These are just a few examples, but they are crucial. To make meaningful progress on issues like these, we need to move beyond the logic of blocs and old-fashioned allegiances and instead build broad coalitions in the service of the general human interest.