We Need to Win Our People Back - Lessons from the French Left
It's been decades since the “red fortresses” of industrial France handed millions of votes to the Communist and Socialist parties. Yet today, as France polarizes between President Emmanuel Macronand the far right around Marine Le Pen, the Left’s social roots seem to be weakening further. In the 2017 election Jean-Luc Mélenchon bucked this trend, scoring 19.6 percent of the vote. Yet in May’s European elections, his France Insoumise (LFI) movement won just 6.4 percent, while Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) came in first place nationally. Seeking answers to the Left’s malaise, Mediapart sat down with Elsa Faucillon, an MP for the French Communist Party (PCF) and Éric Coquerel, an MP for LFI. They discussed the reasons why old forms of mobilization aren’t engaging working-class France, their plans to reverse the advance of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, and their thoughts on the rival left-unity projects that have emerged in recent years.
Fabien Escalona and Pauline Graulle: The European elections illustrated the Left’s difficulties in attracting the votes of the popular classes in any lasting and significant way. Did this owe to the nature of this contest itself, or were your respective parties somehow lacking in their bid to mobilize these popular layers?
Elsa Faucillon: Well, what you say is only half-right. There are two reasons for that. First, there were, indeed, sections of the popular classes who turned out in this election. But sadly, it was the RN who benefited the most. If this contest was framed in terms of opposition to the European Union as currently configured, or as a referendum on Macron, a part of the popular classes thought the RN was the answer. Then again, we should also note that 30 percent of the blue-collar electorate did vote for left-wing parties. The problem is that the Left was completely fragmented.
Éric Coquerel: LFI’s aim was to rally the 11 percent vote we’d managed to turn out in the parliamentary elections two years ago [after the presidential election]. But clearly, we didn’t achieve that. Earlier, we had conquered a bedrock of popular support, with voters in the Paris suburbs [banlieue] and peripheral areas added to middle-class voters who backed us in the first round of the presidential contest, thinking that we had a chance of winning. I’ve always thought the 600,000 extra votes we’d have needed to make the second round [by beating Le Pen] were there to be found in the popular neighborhoods. That’s why I began the Recontres des Quartiers populaires[Meetups in the Popular Neighborhoods] in Épinay-sur-Seine in fall 2018. And that’s why I think the only way the LFI can rebound in the local elections is to target these same neighborhoods, helping them to organize.
FE and PG: Sure, but how come you couldn’t turn out more of your “bedrock” vote in the European elections? Indeed, it’s not that LFI was absent in the quartiers populaires —your activists happily went door-to-door canvassing support.
EC: There’s several reasons for this. Traditionally, the European elections are very difficult for a movement like ours. We speak to an electorate that tends to abstain in this kind of in-between elections. It is distrustful of the European Union, or even outright Eurosceptic. And while we put across an honest message, it was also rather complex. We said it is necessary to break with this Europe, but that the European Parliament isn’t the place to do that; that we should break from the European treaties, but that this can’t be done before we win the presidency. Frankly, this was a complicated message to put across.
But what Elsa said is right: the RN managed to mobilize people with its very critical message, and us less so. And it’s worth emphasizing that the far right was helped out by the duo that’s been established between Macron and Le Pen. This helped motivate the pro–Le Pen electorate and abstainers, who wanted to send the president a message.
Another element, though, was an underestimation of the setbacks that our kind of politics is facing across the whole of Europe. The idea that we provide a vehicle for leaving behind financialized capitalism is yet to bear fruit. This is a rather gloomier conclusion than just saying there was a problem with our line or how we organized — it relates to a more structural phenomenon.
EF: We’re each sufficiently in touch with the folks living in our constituencies to recognize that the dynamic of hope that characterized 2017 — a mood which we also felt in local mobilizations — has waned. The question this poses, for us, is how to unite the popular classes. Some voted for Le Pen’s RN, thinking that it can provide a response to Macron and to neoliberalism; some continued to vote LFI; another section abstained, though they might equally have voted for left-wing parties or even for Macron. As for the middle classes, a sizable number identified with the Greens. Faced with this splintered vote, the problem isn’t just the fragmentation of the parties, but also the lack of any unifying project that could create a sense of “takeoff” once it passed a certain threshold of support.
FE and PG: Restoring ties with the popular classes requires long-term political work. But we’re faced with both climate and social emergencies, while the far right is riding high. Is there time for all this? Terra Nova [a liberal think-tank with ties to the Socialist Party] even suggested, in a provocative and widely contested comment piece, that the Left should do without the popular classes, now that they’ve turned away from it.
EC: Terra Nova never wanted a citizens’ revolution [as LFI does]. If our only aim is to trim around the edges of the system, then certainly we can go over the heads of the popular classes and focus on the middle classes. But that’s not what we’re in politics for! For the forces of rupture, there are no shortcuts. We cannot abandon those being pummeled by the crisis and soaring inequalities. The history of the anticapitalist — or at least, anti-neoliberal — left can’t be written without the popular classes, who are a necessary factor in taking power. Then comes the question of the connecting thread that can mobilize the popular and middle classes together.
EF: The way you reach power says something about the policies you’ll conduct once you get there. You can’t skip past the stage of raising class consciousness, of emancipating people from their condition. Even if you do sneak your way into power, your project isn’t going to be tenable.
FE and PG: What do you say to folks — often from the popular classes — who think institutional politics is powerless to change their lives? Are they mistaken?
EC: Judging by the policies that have been pursued so far, they are right. But if one day LFI governs France, we’ll be able to find room to act.
EF: There’s a lack of trust — a deep doubt in politicians’ capacity to turn things in their favor. But personally, I don’t hear folks claiming we can’t change things. I hear them saying that their elected representatives do have real power but are using it to the benefit of finance, the big media, and the rich, and not for them.s total distrust toward politicians. What people feel isn't so much powerlessness as this idea that "they won't let us win."
FE and PG: One question that divides the popular categories is immigration, often conflated with the question of national identity. What’s the best way to deal with this problem — sideline it, or tackle it head on?
EF: If we want to build a project that concerns all dimensions of equality, then to neglect the questions posed by migration is to sidestep the concrete challenges we have in front of us. Especially since the xenophobes are, in any case, embedding their ideas in wider society. The [Macron government’s recent] amendment to ban the wearing of the veil on school outings doesn’t just come from an instinctive racism — it’s part of a political strategy designed to divide the popular classes. Beyond the strategic question, there’s also a problem of political sincerity. But I can only be furious about what is happening in the Mediterranean. My job is to get the message across that we can’t just leave people to die there.
EC: There’s people who have an interest in making immigration the central problem of our time: both the far right, because that’s its stock-in-trade, but also Macron, since it suits him if Le Pen’s party reaches a certain level. He loves to portray himself as both tough and “humane.” Two days before the unemployment reforms [cutting benefits to hundreds of thousands of people, interior minister] Christophe Castaner started prattling about immigration quotas. I don’t think this was an accident. When we talk about inequality, we shouldn’t hide the fact that part of the population suffers extra discrimination because of its skin color or its religion. It’s important to be on the side of those who suffer specific discriminations. But we shouldn’t make immigration the obsessional focus of public debate.
FE and PG: Let’s talk about who can be mobilized. If in the past the popular classes were typified by the engineering worker, this kind of figure doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Have the gilets jaunes at least provided a point of identification?
EC: No one can deny that the yellow vest was an astounding choice [as the symbol of the movement]. For it’s the same vest worn by people who work in the street, on building sites, those who help schoolkids cross the road. In short, the new proletariat. I don’t think we can still unite folks simply on the basis that they have nothing to live off but their labor power. We’re in a mass unemployment society where the self-entrepreneuriat is on the rise and there’s a boom in short-term contracts. The workplace can no longer be the only subject or site of politicization. The difficulty is, there is no single factor that can bring people together — there’s several. Take questions like popular sovereignty (who decides, who runs things), or booming inequalities (today, twenty-seven people have half of all humanity’s wealth) and the environmental question. We have to build around this triad. Clearly, that’s more difficult than uniting the working class, but it’s what needs doing.
EF: When there was a debate in my town about the gilets jaunes, I was struck by the fact that young people interested in the movement — mostly from immigrant backgrounds, if across several generations — were pulling up photos of gilets jaunes who looked nothing like them. They said: “No one listens to us, but perhaps these folks will get a hearing, and they’ll win for all us all.” There was the same phenomenon of “mobilization by proxy” at the time of the Maintes-la-Jolie affair [when police in a deprived town west of Paris made dozens of mostly minority-ethnic schoolkids line up on their knees with their hands behind their heads — a posture which gilets jaunesthen adopted as a symbol of resistance to police repression]. Folks who experience police violence everyday said: “Finally this question has made it into the public debate, now that it affects the middle classes too — all the better for us!” Though the Left is confronted with the splintering of the popular categories, we should recognize that the gilets jaunes acted like a “hyphen,” to unite people.
EC: The CGT [France’s biggest trade union confederation] made a huge mistake, because when the mobilization was at its strongest — when the gilets jaunes began to occupy the oil refineries — the CGT turned its back on them. It had a big responsibility, there. At that point the unions were strong enough to link up with an important social movement. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
FE and PG: But does that mean giving up on the workplace as a site of mobilization, or at least relativizing its importance?
EF: Work remains a very important site of political socialization. But I’ll note that the gilets jaunes’ struggle, which was often built around social aspirations, was mostly oriented toward the state, not to employers. We hear people who work in small and medium-sized businesses saying things like “my boss is a nice guy, he’d like to give me a pay rise but he can’t.” To say that the site of struggle is necessarily at the company level no longer fits with reality.
The question of work, in the broad sense, must nonetheless remain central to our project. For folks from the popular classes, their relationship with work — for instance, the flexibility neoliberalism imposes upon them — remains an essential part of their existence. Our task is to build a program, symbols, an imaginary, that make it possible to link the questions of work, democracy, information, and problems concerning the environment.
EC: The destruction of permanent contracts, together with the repression of the unions brought in by the [Hollande government’s] Loi Travail, means that we are heading toward the end of a model that affords the possibility of workplace mobilization. But as we’ve said, there’s no time to wait, and not winning the 2022 election is not an option. So, what should we do? In the next three years, we have to federate the people.
One of the structural factors we have in front of us is the authoritarian regime imposed by the current powers-that-be. The gilets jaunes have faced more repression than any other social movement in the Fifth Republic [the French state since 1958]. But this shared experience of dealing with the police can also bring the popular classes together.
Similarly, in urban areas the housing question cuts across other divides. The middle classes are being forced out of city centers and the popular classes live in unsanitary habitats. I could also cite other issues that federate the people, like the privatization of the Paris airports. Our role is to find the points of entry, that will allow people to recognize that they have common interests.
FE and PG: Do you agree on this?
EF: I agree on the need to fight against the introduction of authoritarian rule, as well as the need to develop program points on questions like housing, the right to the city, transport, and so on. But that’s not enough. There has to be a positive project that doesn’t make the environment just one more issue. The young people marching for the climate aren’t talking about socialism or communism, but through their focus on the environment they express a certain relationship with time, with work, with knowledge. They have this intuitive sense that something new needs inventing in terms of our way of life, of sociability, of mobility.
Our political “offer” has to address them. That requires pluralism and internal democracy. It’s shocking to see what a gulf there is between social struggles and the political sphere. I can’t see any other way of being attractive other than producing something new. And you can’t do that by going out in search of hegemony over the popular classes, at whatever the cost. Rather, it demands a unifying project able to reach out to different sensibilities. The political crisis is also a crisis of the forms of mediation. Without such mediation we just have a figure addressing himself to the people and the popular classes. But that has no space for consciousness-raising and self-organization.
FE and PG: Éric Coquerel, do you accept this — veiled — criticism of La France Insoumise?
EC: It’s true that we certainly have to embody a project and not only a manifesto. Jean-Luc Mélenchon himself did this in 2017, which allowed him to rally more than 19 percent of France. I think that in the longer term it’s necessary to put eco-socialism at the forefront of things and reflect further on that. It is a doctrine that deals with the climate question by embracing the need for a rupture with the system, upholding the importance of sovereignty and equality. LFI, born during the 2017 electoral campaign, hasn’t advanced this term, but I think it is a fruitful one — more so, in any case, than environmentalism “without adjectives.” In my view the Greens are going to get tripped up because of their inability to draw along more proletarian elements of the French people, whereas we instead integrate the climate challenge into an anticapitalist vision.
FE and PG: And what do you have to say about what Elsa Faucillon mentioned — the lack of forms of mediation?
EC: The workers’ movement in the form it historically took is dead. The historical value of social democracy, which was to find a compromise between labor and capital, collapsed with its conversion to neoliberalism. The Communist Parties of the twentieth century were also a failure. That directly poses the need to rebuild with something else. LFI, in its rapid development, offered an opportunity worth grasping — the opportunity for a citizens’ movement. It has its imperfections, of course, but it has made it possible to bring people together in a more effective way than the Front de Gauche [the coalition of the PCF, Mélenchon’s Left Party, and former Trotskyists, who backed his candidacy in the 2012 election] ever could.
n the current period of setbacks, we shouldn’t overlook or neglect the activist and institutional advances we’ve made. But though the door was also open to existing organizations, they chose each to plough their own furrow. The “Big Bang” initiative recently proposed by Clémentine Autain [a dissident France Insoumise MP who, together with Faucillon, recently called a conference designed to overcome sectarian divides on the Left] is something Clémentine had already proposed four years ago, with her idea of a “common front.” And again, we find the same names backing it who we get with all this kind of appeals — indeed, I’ve even signed up to some of them myself over the years. Frankly, it’s not top of the agenda.
EF: I come from the PCF and I’ve seen the party deny the reality and continue to see only the external reasons for its own weakened condition. So, it troubles me today to see the analyses produced by LFI show similar signs. Our side has always been able to fight among ourselves — in fact, it’s a reason why it’s been a site of intellectual production. But [in LFI] I see the reflexes of the “besieged fortress,” or the idea that any criticism is, by definition, a hostile one. The hope I saw in [the LFI presidential campaign in] 2017, especially among the popular classes, had an extremely positive mobilizing effect. This campaign appealed to the intelligence of those whom it was speaking to, and it’s a shame that LFI is turning away from that.
As for [Éric’s implicit] criticisms of the Communists’ assertion of their identity, I share this view — I’ve talked about it quite enough from within the PCF. But the idea that any movement can say “we’re the leadership of the movement, come along and join us, that’s the only way” worries me, because this approach has already burned out a lot of people’s hopes. Especially as here “Join Us!” is a matter of absorption rather than unity. In LFI there’s no space to say when you disagree.
EC: Hmm, well I get the impression that a lot of people would prefer everyone [all the left-wing parties] to be an equal level, even if this means a level of weakness, rather than have LFI be able to bring together a majoritarian project. That’s also what happened after [the presidential campaign in] 2012, when the PCF sought to play down the success that owed to Mélenchon in particular. That had to do with the motives of the PCF’s own party apparatus, but perhaps also because what we clearly want is to govern.
Now we’ve understood that not everyone will join us. Hence our proposal for the local elections — self-organized citizens’ lists on clear programmatic bases, but not cartels of parties. Even so, I continue to think that an opportunity has been missed, in all this.
Ultimately, folks like you — and I say this from a place of political sympathy — also have some responsibility for the fact that we haven’t succeeded in being the federative structure so that we could all be together.
FE and PG So, there isn’t the mutual trust that would allow you to be in one common political home?
EF: Let’s be clear. The model of “the union of the Left” [historic electoral alliances led by the Socialist and Communist parties] is obsolete today and not something I’d aspire to. The affirmation — from the Front de Gauche onward — that we want to govern is something that’s enthused me. For a long time, us Communists didn’t reckon that was our issue: we were instead focused on consciousness-raising and Communist activity at the municipal level. That said, the project for the conquest of power can’t skip across the need for a long-term mobilization of the popular classes. To oppose the powers-that-be in the most macho terms isn’t enough. There still has to be a whole work of organizing and becoming rooted in society.
EC: That’s a little unfair, though. First off, we have, after all, succeeded in animating a heterogeneous group in the National Assembly. And on the ground, though we’ve lost activist strength compared to the time of the presidential election, we’ve never abandoned popular education and citizen and self-organization. I don’t see what the “Big Bang” would add to that.
EF: The point of the “Big Bang” is to bring people together, not to wipe out what they’re doing already. We shouldn’t abandon what already exists. But the urgency of the socio-environmental challenges we face means we can’t just stop at discussions of the type that says: “It’s a shame you didn’t come along for the ride.” That’s unreal, now. There’s a lot to be done and we can’t operate just as a rolling presidential campaign. There’s an extremely strong aspiration that our fragmented condition should end — an aspiration we find among the signatories to the “Big Bang” appeals, and one I hear voiced in my own constituency. The popular classes, in particular, won’t understand if we each separately plough our own furrow.
About the Authors:
Elsa Faucillon is a French Communist Party MP in Hauts-de-Seine.
Éric Coquerel is a France Insoumise MP in Seine-Saint-Denis.
About the Interviewers:
Fabien Escalona and Pauline Graulle are contributors to Mediapart.
About the Translator:
David Broder is a historian of French and Italian communism. He is currently writing a book on the crisis of Italian democracy in the post-Cold War period.
Our new issue, on the housing crisis and capitalism, is out now. Get a discounted subscription