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Behind the Mélenchon Phenomenon

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Behind the Mélenchon Phenomenon

At 5 per cent in the polls, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was dismissed as a far-left maverick. At 10 per cent, the French media started to take note. At 15 per cent, there was an explosion of illusion mongering on the international liberal and socialist left.

Now, credited with 17 per cent of first-round votes, Mélenchon and his Front de Gauche (FdG – Left Front) are mobilising a final push with daily rallies of tens of thousands across the country.

It seems many on the worldwide left have been deceived by the ostentatious red-flag waving, Internationale-singing grassroots mobilisations that have made the FdG’s campaign the talking point of the elections, and apparently sidelined the traditional far-left, Lutte Ouvriere (LO - Workers Struggle) and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anticapitalist Party - NPA).

Mélenchon’s rapid rise in the polls has provoked a wide range of reactions on the international left. The overwhelming conclusion reached from reading the different analyses is that everyone sees what they want to see in Mélenchon. Indeed, this is the great strength of his campaign, and is the reason why a revolutionary critique of the FdGs politics is necessary to prepare the working class for the inevitable betrayals being cooked up at FdG headquarters.

With the Die Linke (the Left Party) in Germany on 11.9 per cent and 5 million votes in 2009; with George Galloway’s landslide by-election win in Bradford claiming to be ‘real Labour,’ and Mélenchon riding high in the polls; we should not underestimate the possibility of a revived reformism attracting large numbers of leftward-moving workers.

Moreover, in France, it is plain that left reformism is gaining ground not just at the expense of the mainstream Socialist Party, whose presidential candidate is François Hollande, but also at the expense of the far left, whose candidates in 2002, Oliver Besançenot and Arlette Laguiller, together won 2.85 million votes or 9.97 per cent. Then it seemed to be driving the once mighty Communist Party towards extinction with 3.37 per cent and under a million votes. So what lies behind this dramatic turnaround?

The Left Front
The Front de Gauche was formed in 2009 as an electoral alliance between the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) a left-split from the reformist PS, and the shrunken forces of the PCF, which still had a basis in the CGT trade union bureaucracy and a dwindling number of municipalities.

In the EU elections that year, the Front won 6% and soon became a pole of attraction for the right-wing of the newly-formed NPA – a faction of whom around Christian Piquet split away to form the Gauche Unitaire (Unitary Left) which later became a component of the FdG.

However, a large part of the right wing remained in the NPA, arguing publicly for an orientation to Mélenchon and the PCF. They had in fact from the outset been opposed to the whole NPA project, calling it ultra left and sectarian. What they really wanted was the formation of a reformist party with the PCF and Mélenchon, on the model of Die Linke in Germany, whose charismatic left Social Democrat leader Oscar Lafontaine they hoped Mélenchon could imitate.

In fact, the FdG spent the next three years cruising on around 5 per cent of the vote in regional elections, seemingly unable to make a breakthrough. That the breakthrough came several months into the Presidential election campaign is important. It is also undeniable that the breakthrough represents a capitalisation on the disintegration of the NPA, which is paying the price for its undisciplined internal wrangling and confused opportunist attitude to elections, habits inherited from the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR).

Having spent 30 years in the Parti Socialiste (PS) Mélenchon finally broke away to form the Parti de Gauche after losing the leadership race to François Hollande in the wake of Sarkozy’s defeat of the PS’s 2007 Presidential candidate Ségolène Royal.

He found an eager and willing ally in the post-Stalinist Parti Communiste Française (French Communist Party, PCF) which has long pursued a strategy of hitching itself to the left wing of the PS. This alliance, first struck by PCF leader Georges Marchais with wily PS leader François Mitterrand in the 1970s, did indeed bring the PCF into office on a ‘Common Programme’ in 1981.

Yet this coalition was precisely what sunk the PCF as the major party of the French working class. It was repeated, with even worse results, between 1997-2002 under the ‘plural left’ government of Lionel Jospin. Over two decades of this self-defeating tactic saw their voting base collapse from 15 per cent to around 3 per cent, lower than either LO or the LCR.

Nevertheless, the still considerable influence of the PCF within the trade union bureaucracy has provided a powerful contribution to the FdG’s campaign, as anyone who attended the demonstrations and rallies will know.

Crucially, the break of the major trade union federations, in particular the CGT, from the traditional period of ‘social peace’ during elections has been critical. Despite the defeat of the pensions struggle in 2010, which saw widespread indefinite strikes betrayed by the trade union leaderships, the CGT continued to mobilise throughout 2012 under the slogan ‘Kick out Sarkozy’s gang’.

Mélenchon and the PS Question
Mélenchon’s programme is undoubtedly more radical than anything seen from the PS for decades. The innovation of US-style primary elections for PS voters to choose their candidate played a role in this. In them, a left-winger, Arnaud Montebourg, won an unexpected 17 per cent. Since 2.5 million people, far more than the membership of the PS, voted in the primary, this revealed the potential popularity of a left presidential candidate. This surge of support for a left-wing candidate was a real boost to Mélenchon, coming as he does from authentic PS stock.

The original response of the PS hierarchy was to ignore Mélenchon completely. Then, when he got to 10 per cent of voting intentions, they argued that French workers should only cast a ‘useful vote’ [vote utile] that is, one that would count in the second round. This, however, backfired since many workers thought it was “useful” to put the wind up Hollande and the PS by voting FdG in the first round, hoping a big vote for Mélenchon would push the PS to the left. After the 100,000-strong rally at the Bastille, his vote climbed to between 15 -17 per cent.

The unspoken strategy of the FdG, freely admitted by many of its supporters, is to apply left pressure to Hollande. In this they have been quite successful, forcing Hollande to call for a 75 per cent tax on all earnings over € 1 million. With the PS forecast to win the second round of elections with 54 per cent of vote (big in French politics) the PS and PdG will certainly be negotiating to reach a deal for the parliamentary elections and then for government positions.

Nevertheless, throughout the campaign, Mélenchon has focussed on creating some clear red water clear between the FdG and PS. Concretely, these areas are:
i) renegotiation of the EU treaties,
ii) full pension at 60,
iii) a comprehensive reform of wages policy and
iv) the foundation of a Sixth Republic.

Melenchon’s programme certainly contains progressive measures on pensions, health and labour conditions, but his call to renegotiate EU treaties would be a pipe dream so long as it remains his policy to also repay the debt.

Equally, he has made opposing the poisonous racism of the Front National (FN) under new leader Marine Le Pen, a central plank of his campaign. This has been important in popularising anti-racist sentiment with regards to the crisis – making it clear that it is neither the Roma population persecuted by Sarkozy nor the 2nd and 3rd generation Arab communities who are to blame for unemployment and housing shortages, but the conscious policies of a right-wing, pro-rich government.

However, these progressive aspects are combined with reactionary protectionist measures; his support for the Made in France campaign; his commitment to France’s attack on Libya plus his so-called ‘secularist’ (in fact islamophobic) support for the ban on Muslim women wearing the veil.

For all the focus on populist policies, such as a 100 per cent tax on earnings over €300,000 or the creation of co-operatives for closing factories, Mélenchon does not represent a real break with the tried and failed politics of left-reformism.

He may be lauded for exposing the “systemic” nature of the crisis but, ultimately, he poses it as a question of “wealth redistribution” rather than taking social ownership and control of the means of “wealth creation”. As such he offers nothing but illusions in the ability of reformists to manage capitalism in the interests of the majority.

His radical proposals and revolutionary rhetoric are aimed at mobilising votes from the working class base of the PCF and the militant union federation traditionally linked to it, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). He has also aimed at attracting a major section of the votes of the far left, the NPA and LO. In this, thanks to the mistakes of the latter over the past two years, he is having considerable success. LO and the NPA will probably suffer a historic humiliation.

Those on the far left who have decamped from the NPA, together with many left commentators abroad, are labouring under the illusion that critically (actually not so critically) supporting Mélenchon will open up space for a new workers’ party - like Die Linke - as though this would be some great achievement. In Germany, where the far left was a marginalised force, the process of formation of Die Linke did indeed have the potential to aid in the building of a revolutionary party. In France, after the developments between 2002 and 2009, it would be a major step backwards.

The truth is that, far from positing a ‘new left’, Mélenchon is simply carrying out a decades-long campaign to drag the PS leftwards, treading a thin line between working-class populism and nationalist demagogy. This is the old PCF strategy of hitching itself to the only possible election winner, the PS. In the process they hope to gain more seats in parliament, thanks to deals with the PS, and then, perhaps, some minor ministries.

All this also opens the possibility of access to the cash cow of public funding for electorally successful parties. But payback time for this chronic opportunism will come as soon as Hollande, once in office, is subjected to the pressure of the state machine and the market and carries out the attacks demanded by the capitalists. Then, support for Hollande will bring the chastisement of workers, just as it did for the PCF’s subservience to Mitterrand and Jospin in the 80s and 90s.

Hanging on to the coat tails of Mélenchon should be rejected by revolutionaries for both principled and practical reasons. The alternative in this campaign, and in the parliamentary elections in June, should be to use the dung heap of bourgeois politics as a platform from which to rally the genuinely anticapitalist, that is, revolutionary, forces who have waged repeated struggles over the last decade; to give them a real voice.

The aim must be to speed the inevitable rupture between all those who have illusions in the reforms a PS president and government will bring (with or without Mélenchon and FdG ministers) when it inevitably capitulates to the bond markets. Only if a strong and combative force is present will this disillusion lead not to cynicism and a retreat from politics but to an advance towards revolutionary politics.

Placing demands on the reformists
Melenchon’s success, like the success of Montebourg in the PS primaries, reflects the desire of workers for an alternative to the austerity agenda of right wing governments. So, too, will a victory for Hollande on a programme of taxing the rich.

When François Hollande announced his taxation policy and the pledge to renegotiate the European fiscal pact, which condemns governments to imposing austerity, the media was immediately filled with arrogant threats from the banks, financial institutions and ratings agencies that, if the people dared to vote him into power, the bond and stock markets would bring France to its knees. Of course, Hollande has no intention of seriously opposing these threats but his supporters will think otherwise as will those of Mélenchon and the far left candidates.

In the second round, revolutionaries should maximise efforts to win critical support for Hollande, spreading no illusions that he will do anything other than implement cuts to satisfy the markets, albeit maybe at a slower tempo. When he does, we should not simply stand aside and say “We told you so”. Our task will be to organise a rejection of the pro-rich austerity of Sarkozy and to campaign around the demand that Hollande refuse to carry out capitalist austerity.

The NPA has called on the FdG to join with it in mounting a ‘left opposition’ to a PS government. Though it does this from a very weak position, and more in the manner of a charm offensive than as a challenge to militant action, it is nevertheless correct to pose the choice: participation in, or support for, a Hollande government, versus a militant fight for pro-working class policies and outright opposition to the first signs of austerity.

Preparing the post election offensive
Revolutionaries should prepare now to launch a massive post-election offensive against the speculators, the bankers and the whole capitalist class, demanding not only government controls on the markets, but workers’ control over the banks; demanding socialisation without compensation of all sectors of capital engaged in sabotage of policies for which the people have voted.

As in June 1936, when the Popular Front government was elected, the unions, the youth, the unemployed and the immigrant communities should launch a mighty social movement, including occupations of the factories and other workplaces, of the lycées and universities.

General assemblies should draft demands for an end to unemployment, précarité and against austerity and cuts. They should call for a massive renovation and expansion of education, health and public services in general. They should summon the fighting workers of Europe, in Greece, Spain, Italy to join them in combating the fiscal plans that impose social cuts and unemployment.

This is a perspective and a strategy that the NPA, whatever the level of its vote, should fight for, not just amongst the far left electorate but amongst the rank-and-file of the FdG and the PS, in the trade unions and the workplaces. It should quickly formulate a revolutionary action programme around which to rebuild and re-invigorate its own activists and rid its ranks of those who actively sabotaged its election campaign.