Building a Political Alternative: Stathis Kouvelakis on the French Presidential Election

Feyzi Ismail's interview with Stathis Kouvelakis — a member of the Greek Popular Unity party and a supporter of La France Insoumise — about Emmanuel Macron's victory in the French presidential election and the prospects for the radical left was first published at Counterfire

France Insoumise International Women's Day demonstration, March 2017. via Flickr.

What is your assessment of Macron's victory over Le Pen and how did we get to this?

We shouldn't underestimate the danger of Le Pen's result of 34.5%, even if she wasn't elected. This is a solid performance that makes her appear as a credible alternative for power, which means the slogan we have been hearing that says "Macron in 2017 equals Le Pen in 2022" has the potential to become true. This is one essential reason why against all odds the left should have been supporting a tactical vote for Macron for the second round. Abstention under these conditions was not an option.

This is because, firstly, the National Front (FN) is a fascist party, not just a bourgeois party. Since we can't dismiss the value of democratic freedoms and civil rights, we can't disregard the fact that for a big part of the French citizenry and foreign people living in France, Le Pen is an immediate physical threat. And so it does make a difference. If we agree with this, then we cannot say that other people should do the unpleasant job of voting for Macron. We have to take the responsibility. Secondly, Le Pen achieved a result of over 16% more than her father in 2002, and this has the potential to be a serious threat for the short and medium term because it will reduce the space for building a proper left-wing alternative.

The big difference between now and 2002 is that in 2002, the entire left with only marginal exceptions argued for a vote for Chirac in order to isolate Jean-Marie Le Pen and keep his vote as low as possible. Now, the situation has deteriorated and the political crisis is much more serious. The level of anger of ordinary people against politicians is incomparably higher than in 2002, and this anger is directed at the entire political establishment. This also means that sometimes people stop really thinking and express their gut feeling and anger in an unreflective way. That is partly where the position in favour of abstention or for a blank vote comes from. It doesn't come out of a doctrinaire or ideologically worked out position, it is essentially anger and the feeling, for those who are old enough to have that experience, that the 2002 vote for Chirac in the second round proved unable to stop the rise of the FN.

The other difference is that the May Day demonstrations this year were a fraction of the size they were in 2002. But in 2002 it was a big shock that Le Pen got into the second round. This year everyone was expecting this; in a way, the result of Le Pen now was lower than what the opinion polls predicted a few months ago and also lower than what the FN got in the last regional elections or even in the European elections. This is due essentially, though not only, to the success of Mélenchon's campaign and the fact that he appeared as a credible alternative, but of course in a progressive and left-wing direction.

Do you think it's fair to say then that we are not just witnessing a shift to the right but a polarisation in French society, something we have also seen elsewhere?

Absolutely, the dominant trend is polarisation and it's a level of unprecedented tension in French society in the last decades. If you read the press what you realise is that there is a lot of anger, and bitter divisions have appeared, even within families and among friends. Of course this isn't a surprise because we've seen in the past year the mobilisations against the labour law, the Nuit Debout movement and of course the trade union mobilisations, which were very important. Last year's social movement was a turning point. In a way the roots of the success of Mélenchon, the dynamic we have seen unfolding in this campaign was prepared or has been emerging since the movement of last year.

It's not a linear continuity by any means; but it helped preparing a fertile ground for the campaign. What we have also been seeing is how polarised and tense things have become in French society in general. If you put all of these things together: the terrorist attacks — and how they were used in order to trigger an even tougher wave of Islamophobia and racism — the social mobilisation and the polarisation along class lines and class issues, the political crisis and the whole collapse of all the established political parties starting from social democracy and going up to the traditional right wing and so on, then you realise that you have all the ingredients for a major political and social upheaval in the coming period.

The four political currents that came to the fore in these elections, that is the remnants of the traditional right around Les Républicains, the fascist right around Le Pen, the "extreme centre" — to use Tariq Ali's formulation — around Macron, and the radical left around Mélenchon, have all existed in French society for some time but the balance of forces has changed. Social democracy, which used to be quite central, has disintegrated, at least in the way it has been structured until now, the traditional right is in tatters and a totally new political landscape has already started emerging. But it's very difficult to see how it will stabilise. What is ahead for France is a long period of political instability. And this of course also means that there is an opportunity to be seized for the left here, to build something new and radical.

How was Mélenchon able to nearly double the share of the vote for the radical left, and why did this happen now as opposed to in 2012?

Spatially, the vote for Mélenchon covers areas where there are strong communist traditions, both in the cities, the working-class neighbourhoods and in areas where the Communist Party (PCF) remains strong. But the vote for France Insoumise was also particularly strong in southern France, where Mélenchon took a substantial part of the Socialist Party (PS) vote. He unified the core of the electorate which has a propensity to vote to the left of social democracy and he succeeded in bringing a part of the traditional PS and Green electorate — those who were disappointed and disgusted by Hollande — and who didn't want to vote Macron. He also brought together younger people, who in many cases were tempted by abstention.

The major success of Mélenchon was probably the way he brought down the result of Le Pen by bringing out the vote of sectors of the population who were disconnected from politics, or who were uninterested in politics. He succeeded in capturing their imagination and triggering their interest, and bringing to politics a spirit of insurgency. I think that's the most important thing — it was the first time since long that we heard a discourse on the left that was interesting, which was rich with ideas, which had self-confidence, and which was not just a defensive discourse around resisting neoliberalism and that everything is bleak. Mélenchon offered a perspective of winning something and hitting the adversary hard. In order to do that and be credible, you need to have a lot of talent and he has that, but you also need to have a level of intellectual and political maturity, and he has that as well.

One of the reasons he has been able to exploit the situation now is because first, there was a window of opportunity. Back in 2012 the PS had far more reserves, whereas now it's on its knees; that of course makes a big difference. The second thing is that in 2012, the radical left was standing as the Front de Gauche. This coalition between the PCF, Mélenchon's own party — the Parti de Gauche — and forces coming from the revolutionary left, was both a strength and a weakness. The strength was that it allowed the organised forces of the political left to regroup, which was not the case in this campaign — things were much more complex and contradictory. On the other side, in 2012 it also meant that Mélenchon was constrained by the tactical moves, concessions and compromises that had to be done between him, the PCF and the other forces participating in the Front. For instance, on the terrain of ecology, which was central, he could not speak freely, because the PCF is in favour of nuclear energy, and was very reticent to make ecological preoccupations central to the campaign in 2012.

With La France Insoumise, Mélenchon's discourse was much more credible, and that was also the case for issues like contesting the EU and EU treatises more strongly, using the perspective of a Plan B, which would mean moving out of the Euro and possibly the EU as such, if they blocked the implementation of a progressive politics. Mélenchon is the only leader of the radical left in Europe to differentiate himself from Tsipras and Syriza by saying that capitulation is not an option and that we should be prepared to do whatever it takes not to repeat that. And this was possible because he was unconstrained by the framework of the Front de Gauche. But there is also a price to be paid for that type of freedom; the cost was that the organised sectors of the left and of the social and trade union movements in France were not directly involved as such in the campaign the way they were in 2012.

If you look, for instance, at the Paris March rally in 2012 and now, the difference is that in 2012 you see the Bastille Square absolutely full of red flags with big contingents of trade unionists, of social movements participating, with the banners of political parties and those networks supporting the Front de Gauche — it was a recognisable campaign of the radical left. If you look at the rally this year, and it was comparable in terms of size — huge and successful, vibrant and combative in both cases — this year you could see only national flags, and people came to the rally just as individuals. It didn't have that dimension of a collective movement and of sectors of the movements preparing for a social battle. This means that the way the reconstruction of the left will go ahead in the forthcoming months will be a very complex affair.

Clearly France Insoumise cannot remain in its current form and will have to transform itself in the near future. What will this transformation look like?

Mélenchon and the quite narrow team around him lead the entire campaign and marginalised all other parties around it. There is an obvious lack of accountability since Insoumise is not a party; it's not even a movement or an organisation, it's just individuals signing up on this electronic platform and forming themselves into local support groups. This is obviously connected to the "left populism" that Mélenchon is claiming as the kind of identity for France Insoumise. They don't see themselves as a structured movement but rather a label: if you agree with the agenda then come on board and do your own thing, organise your own group; as long as you agree with the programme we have proposed then that's fine, and don't expect anyone to come and say what you have to do.

This sounds very horizontal but it presupposes that you already have some sort of recognised leadership and a programme that is taken for granted. It's quite clear that someone is taking decisions, in the way the campaign was conceived, in the kind of tactical moves that were made, how to react to how the Socialists did and so on. Not all of that was in the programme, or democratically arrived at. It remains to be seen whether Mélenchon and his staff see that as a kind of temporary (and for now unavoidable) way of dealing with the situation — needing to take an initiative, having ad hoc structures and top-down decision-making and so on, but recognising the need to supersede that and move towards a more democratic and collectively organised form of movement — or if they continue building what will just be a kind of electoral machine, very much top-down with an undisputed and charismatic leader, then Mélenchon will remain almost unaccountable.

In Spain we have seen how Podemos, particularly after their first Vistalegre Congress, has adopted this very vertical, very top-down and electoralist type of approach. This has created a lot of problems, including drying up all the vitality of the mass dynamics that existed initially at the grassroots level, in Podemos "circles." So it would be a pity if France Insoumise moved along these lines. They should avoid doing that, but it is a fact that they are very influenced by Podemos. I think it is inevitable that France Insoumise will have to form an organisation; the whole question is of what type? They will either move towards an electoralist, leader-centred and top-down model, or they will try to keep this kind of dynamism that we have seen in the campaign but giving it a properly collective and of course democratic structure. But to do that they need to open up the discussion to other sectors of the radical left and the alternative left and take more organised forces on board, to start a conversation with others. The references to populism are not very helpful for this type of engagement.

What should be the strategic priorities of a reconfigured radical left in France?

One way or another a coalition is needed and the comrades of France Insoumise will have to accept that they cannot by themselves cover the entire political space of the radical left in this country. The radical left in France has a tradition of more than a century, it's very deeply rooted in the socialist and communist traditions; it has a whole history of struggles and of insurgency. You can't say that a single political subject should be the expression of all that, and so we need to find a way of building a coalition between different forces but at the same time being innovative. What have failed so far are deals being made at the top level of parties. We need to think more in terms of open, flexible forms of organising but nevertheless with a form of coherence and unity, because it needs to be recognisable and visible and, of course, democratic and not a bureaucratised form of unity that we have seen in the past between parties of the socialist and communist left. All of them have failed and no one wants to reiterate this type of experiment.

The PS is also disintegrating, and people around Hamon realise that remaining in a party that is no longer viable in its previous form is not really an option. Of course there are serious differences between the PS and the radical left but I think with Hamon and those around him, it is possible to have a conversation, and we saw this during the campaign. It's conceivable that some form of alliance is possible with forces that have supported Hamon against the majority of the establishment and of the PS. People do not realise it yet because legitimately we feel disappointed that Mélenchon didn't make it to the second round, but the importance and the weight of his result will appear in the next period. This is because the social democracy is totally squeezed between on the one hand, those who will now join Macron and the new majority, and on the other its most progressive parts, which is attracted to the radical left. For its part, the radical left — one way or another and despite all these difficulties and contradictions — has, at the electoral level at least, regrouped in the political space around Mélenchon and La France Insoumise.

The most obvious thing that we can see in the near future is that there will be major battle around the further dismantling of the labour legislation, which Macron will put forward, and not even through parliament. Already, following last year's reform, local agreements within a company prevail over branch agreements and even the national agreement, which means that employers have become all powerful. The difficulty here is that the French trade union movement is divided and weak. And it also lost last year's battle against the first reform of the labour legislation. The second thing we need to realise is that the political legitimacy of Macron will be very low. Already in the first round, according to the exit polls, half of the people who voted for him said that they did so only as a useful vote against the threat of Le Pen or against the possible second round run-off between Fillon and Le Pen. So already in the first round the level of consent to his programme was very low; it was enormously more so in the second round.

That's something that we need to take advantage of, both in terms of mobilisations in the streets and in the building of a political alternative. This is real way to defeat fascism. If we fail building the political alternative and just restrict ourselves to sectoral battles and social mobilisations we will fail. Especially given the stake of the organisations of the working class and social movements in France. We don't have a strong union movement that could compensate for the weakness of our camp at the political level. So we need to build on the basis of the space that has been opened up as a result of the success of Mélenchon, which has been historical, and we also need to have successes in terms of the social battle. If we do that, it's perfectly possible to become the real alternative and to beat the fascists on that terrain. We were less than half a million votes behind Le Pen, so it's absolutely feasible to say that in a few years, even before the next elections, we will be the real opposition to Macron, breaking with authoritarian neoliberalism, and breaking with the institutions of the fifth republic. This is the challenge.