On Jean-Luc Mélenchon's chances in the upcoming presidential election, on the resignation of whole segments of French society and how La France insoumise (LFI) is approaching them, the party's greatest success in the last five years and the relationship between LFI and social movements.
The interview was conducted by Polish journalist Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat at the 2022 ¡No pasarán! conference in March 2022.
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: A few years ago, millions of French people took to the streets. The Yellow Vest movement revived old revolutionary demands, among which equality, fraternity and social justice. Basic intuition suggests that these are leftist slogans. So where is the French left now, on the eve of the presidential election? What happened to that energy and the will to change?
Danièle Obono: It's a paradox, but indeed - after two great social movements, the greatest we have seen in France, the left's ratings are far from their highest. I am talking about two movements because, apart from the Yellow Vests, there was also a movement against the pension reform - in other words, all the key challenges of our time stood on the order of the day. Millions of people have called for social justice, climate justice, and economic justice. La France insoumise supported each of the grassroots movements. We also protested against the brutal pacification of the Yellow Vests by the police. Our parliamentary representation fought against the pension reform. However, this did not translate into a radical increase of support.
La France insoumise candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is currently third in the polls, behind Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. A lot can still change. Only one thing is certain: we are the only left-wing alternative to all kinds of right and extreme right.
An alternative that, however, does not convince many potential voters. Even people who would objectively benefit from left-wing rule.
We are still struggling with the fatal legacy of the Socialist Party, which betrayed all the postulates of left-wing and social movements. People still remember what happened while these "socialists" were in power. Left-wing concepts have been discredited, and therefore the parties which call themselves left-wing parties are weak today. How could it be otherwise when the party with socialism in its name turned out to be neoliberal, not anti-capitalist? It also discouraged people from politics as such.
A significant segment of French society does not go to the elections because they think that both in 2012 and in 2017, the elected politician simply betrayed them and his promises.
How so? People took to the streets, protested, formulated political slogans...
But they are discouraged from elections, voting. A significant segment of French society does not go to the elections at all, because it is assumed that both in 2012 and in 2017, the elected politician (the Socialist François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron) simply betrayed his voters and his promises. They cannot imagine that they will trust someone again now - and it will end as always. This is an even more important factor contributing to absenteeism than the coronavirus pandemic, although it also plays a part.
At the moment, people will rather organise themselves in some grassroots movement, they will sooner take to the streets than engage in electoral politics. Many people with leftist beliefs will also do so. We are trying to energise the campaign, mobilise people around Mélenchon's candidacy, and create a social movement. We know that otherwise some of our potential will simply get wasted.
What does that mean exactly? What can you do to erase this memory of the "socialists" rule? How to recover the very concept of socialism?
We focus more on the content of our programme than on specific terms and concepts. We draw attention to our political platform, to the fact that we are, in fact, a key force in the opposition, a key one, because we are the only one to talk about a governance that puts the interests of working people first. We are with people on the street during protests, be it workers' protests, youth protests, or demonstrations against racism. We speak in parliament, we support strikes. We show that we are not MP's who forget about their obligations and voters after winning a mandate. Our club has 17 deputies, but we prove that we are militant.
Last summer, we conducted a public opinion poll to check whether our slogans in the economic sphere, our left-wing and pro-employment programme are assessed well. It turned out that each point of our programme gains the support of the majority of respondents - from 60 to 90 percent positive reviews.
The greatest success of La France insoumise in the last five years has been to contribute to stopping the pension reform.
So what's the problem? Why don't these people vote for you?
Because they don't believe that this programme can really be realised.
We hear regularly: you are right, but what you call for is impossible. There is no money for it. People just don't believe the state can be on their side anymore! Especially since they hear similar things in the media - that there is no alternative, no funds, no politics apart from austerity, etc.
We prove that there is money, and the problem is how we divide it. We show that a small minority puts a hand on resources that can be divided more equitably. The pandemic has provided us with a lots of evidence in that matter. The government said there was no money for anything. And yet they found them on specific, previously unplanned actions in connection with the pandemic. We show that during the pandemic the richest multiplied their wealth, so it is not that everyone loses and the sacrifices expected from ordinary workers are just. We show that it is the political will that is crucial and that it is possible to act differently, in the interest of the majority.
We convince voters that it is worth fighting Macron on the streets, having at the same time representatives "inside the system". That, on the one hand, we will always support protest movements, and on the other hand, we will take their postulates to parliament and will not allow them to be ignored. This has been our strategy for five years.
So if you look at these five years of La France insoumise in parliament - what was your greatest success? What have you actually achieved?
I believe that our greatest success was stopping the pension reform. There were demonstrations against the reform, a general strike was announced, and we joined this fight in parliament. We applied obstruction tactics. There are only seventeen of us, so our chances were limited. Nevertheless, we made the work on the bill delayed and so it was not passed on time. Then a pandemic broke out and the government did not dare to push it any more.
It was a success because Emmanuel Macron considered the pension reform to be one of his most important tasks. This was what he promised the elite who brought him to power. He promised them that he would push through the changes and that ordinary people would be forced to work up to 65 years. We contributed to the fact that he failed.
Visions are forged in the course of the action of social movements. That is why I do not think that we politicians are now supposed to create great theoretical visions. The dynamics of social movements alone will make people want to build a better world and figure out how to do it.
I will come back to the voters who do not believe that your programme is feasible. Do you show a different vision by convincing them that a world other than the neoliberal one is possible? A system other than capitalist?
For now, our focus is to show that it doesn't have to be the way it is now. That neoliberal thinking about the economy is not the only option. We convince that the world can be changed, the course of history can be changed.
My experience shows that visions are forged in the course of the action of the social movements. The Yellow Vests took to the streets first in one particular case. And then people began to discuss democracy within this movement, about how to change state institutions. Participation in the protests strengthened them and made them feel they had the right to such reflection. Fighting in the streets broadened their horizons and ambitions. That is why I do not think that we, the politicians, are now supposed to create great theoretical visions and present them to voters. The dynamics of social movements alone will make people want to build a better world and figure out how to do it.
And then we should be with them to show that even bold ideas are possible to implement. We should show: your dreams of a just society can be realised if we do both. As socialists with experience in state institutions, we will share our knowledge: it works, it needs to be organised differently. The last five years of political activity have led me to conclude that this is how you create visions. With people, within the movement, learning from people.
Now let's go back to the presidential election. Recent polls show a systematic rise in Jean-Luc Mélenchon's ratings, but he is still in third place only. His loss to Emmanuel Macron is quite significant, to Marine Le Pen hovers at no more than five points in most surveys. Is it also possible to reach for some working-class voters who leaned towards the candidate of the extreme right?
Our goal is to encourage as many people as possible to vote, who today declare that they will not go to the elections at all. This is more real than fighting back some far-right voters. We focus on workers, people from the suburbs, people from the countryside, people who aspired to the middle class but were pauperized under the current system. We go to the people who have been most abused by French capitalism and who do not see in any politician a man ready to represent them. We tell them: you have the right to be furious, you have good reasons for that. If you organise and trust us, we will jointly create a movement that will fight for change. We convince them that elections do matter.
Yes, it is not easy. But we will fight for this group of non-voters until the last minute, because in the current situation, as you noticed, very will decide about entering the second round. It may even be that the votes of 1-2 percent of people we will now convince to go to the election will be decisive!
What proposals do you have for those voters to convince them?
First of all, we announce a resolute fight against the increase in the basic cost of living. We are committed to set maximum prices for basic goods and services. We propose exempting the poorest from paying their energy bills. If someone earns a little less than the minimum wage then s/he should have a certain amount of energy for free. We want to raise the minimum wage anyway. These are postulates that meet with a positive response.
Another thing that people want and that we want - a policy that really contributes to the decline of unemployment. Green transformation, which allows the economy to be environmentally friendly and does not hit the weakest, on the contrary - creates jobs.
We talk a lot about dignity and justice. We are calling for changes to the tax system that will ensure that the working class no longer bears all the burdens and that billionaires are getting richer. We are saying that we need a redistribution of wealth to save our public services, health care, to save the climate. We call things as they are - we have an existential crisis that threatens humanity as such and no free market will solve it.
We show that when faced with the challenges we face, employees, regardless of their origin, are in the same situation. Our message is that employees must unite, not divide.
Marine Le Pen is offering voters simpler solutions. We will get rid of the migrants and then white French workers will regain their dignity, that is what she suggests. How do you convince voters that it doesn't work that way?
It's not just Le Pen anymore. Racist, islamophobic rhetoric has caught on in other mainstream parties as well. So much so that Le Pen's party even praised Macron for some of the solutions voted on his inspiration that hit Muslims of both sexes. Distracting from social inequality and focusing on Islam is an old tactic. The media has favoured this over the years: by saying that there is no alternative to capitalism with all its social effects, people were discouraged from thinking if the system could be fixed somehow. People did not see where the causes of their ills were, but instead blamed others, scapegoats suggested by the elite. As a result, when we reach Muslim workers with our programme, they tell us that they are genuinely afraid, even for their lives. They fear that the aversion to "Others" generated by the far right, Le Pen and Éric Zemmour (Reconquête!), will eventually lead to outbreaks of violence.
We are against it. We show that when faced with the challenges we face, employees, regardless of their origin, are in the same situation. We call for the fight against economic and social inequalities. Of course, we are also fighting racism. Our message is that employees must unite, not divide. We refer, for example, to a pandemic. Effective fight against the disease was possible when we were in solidarity.
Finally, we say: it is not the immigrant who is your enemy, but the billionaire. It is the billionaires who earned from pandemic and watched with indifference as you suffer and sacrifice. It is against them that you have to fight together! It is time to distribute profits and riches more equitably. We need money to build hospitals, schools, to rebuild public services that used to work before and then collapsed, because under capitalism they are not the most important. They tell us it's populism. Maybe so - but these are all real problems to deal with!
If your candidate gets to the second round of the election, he will have both Emmanuel Macron and all the major media against him ...
… And not only the media, the whole system.
Exactly - the whole system. Are you ready for this? Do you have a strategy outline?
That would be even helpful in a way. There would be a historic confrontation: the representative of the elites, the man who brutally broke the Yellow Vest movement against our candidate. It would be much easier for employees to decide who embodies their interests. And there would be mobilisation on the left, even if the left is divided.
If we come to the secound round and if a direct debate between Macron and Mélenchon takes place, the media would have to change its usual agenda at least for a moment. Instead of obsessively talking about the dangers of migration, they would have to note that the presidential candidate talks about rising prices, about what life is like for a French worker today. And we would consistently raise our demands.