Interview with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – “Social confrontation seems inevitable”

Below we publish an interview with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left wing formation Front Gauche in France . Jean-Luc Mélenchon participated in the French presidential elections earlier this year and received 11,1% of the vote. For more material on Mélenchon please read the following articles (Mélenchon as candidate of the Left Front – What campaign, on what programme? and Massive support for Mélenchon). The interview was first published in the French Marxist paper La Riposte.

La Riposte: What is your take on the first six months of the Ayrault government?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: For want of a better phrase, I would call the policy of these first six months of the Ayrault government “Social-Liberal”. This has been the case for every European Socialist Party since Blair. It led to the collapse and unconditional capitulation of Papandreou in Greece, the Prime Minister and President of the Socialist International. This has been François Hollande’s line since the Eighties, as demonstrated in my book, Enquête de Gauche (Left Inquiry). After rallying to the Sarkozy-Merkel treaty, the austerity budget and the Gallois plan (relating to the competitiveness of French businesses) the new power has spent the last six months “coming out” – in the tradition of the American or Italian Democrats – and publicly breaking with all of the traditions of the Left in France. The Left Front has done well to remain independent. Its MPs did not vote to give confidence to the government. Our group voted against the social security budget in Parliament. As far as I am concerned, it should do the same on the State budget.

However, the new government poses a serious problem: it is damaging the balance of social forces. The victory over Sarkozy was ultimately short-lived. A Left government should have rapidly proposed thoroughgoing popular measures in order to extend its social base and to bring the rest of society behind it. The duty of a newly elected Left government is to establish a balance of power with employers. Instead of that, Hollande and Ayrault are pushing aside the few reforms that were promised. They are refusing to grant an amnesty to the trade unionists who stood up against the Right and were convicted for it, and if they treat the Front de Gauche (Left Front) with sectarian contempt, they are therefore organising the demobilisation of those who had enabled them to defeat the Right. At the same time, on austerity, “competitiveness” and now the 35 hour week, Hollande and Ayrault validate the employers’ discourse. The balance of forces is therefore degrading rapidly. At every turn, MEDEF (the employers’ union) rushes into the breach. Hollande and Ayrault are putting the Left and the workers in grave danger.

LR: MEDEF is campaigning for a massive alleviation of “employer charges”. It argues that this will create jobs. What do you say to that?

JLM: MEDEF is advancing its pawns because it senses that the government is weak. But we are not left intoxicated by their words. What MEDEF calls “charges” are in fact contributions, that is to say a part of the salary. Human labour is not a “cost”; it has a price. This price integrates health, education and the protection of the worker from unemployment or old age. Labour is above all the only source of wealth in society! The figures plead in our favour. Over ten years, exemptions from social contributions have already cost 215 billion euros and yet unemployment has continued to rise. This proves that the problem of the French economy is not the price of labour. The problem is in fact the cost of capital. Businesses spend twice as much on interest and dividends than on employers’ social contributions! The draining of profits from the country’s wealth has tripled over thirty years! This is why the margins of French companies after dividends are the lowest in Europe!

The hype about competitiveness is a lie. It is a pretext for the raising of profits. The core of our economy is suffering as a result of austerity, which causes activity to contract by reducing public investment and consumption. In order to fight unemployment, we must accept the idea that social progress creates economic activity: raise salaries to stimulate socially and ecologically useful activity, re-localise production and take the economy out of the hands of the financial sector.

The situation of the sectors affected by international competition also raises good questions. Why are we not protecting our industries against social and ecological dumping? Why are we not devaluing the euro, the high valuation of which has pushed Airbus to produce in the dollar zone? Why do we continue to tolerate relocations in defiance of all ecological and social logic not only in France, but also in ‘low cost’ countries? Continuing the race to the bottom with the Germans, Romanians and Chinese is socially and economically inept. To whom will we sell our products when there is no one in France but the impoverished and unemployed?

LR: A recent article from Médiapart reported that in a certain number of businesses threatened with closure (Fralib, PSA, Arcelor-Mittal…) trade unionists are now speaking out in favour of their “nationalisation”. Should this idea not be developed further by the Left Front in connection with those struggles?

JLM: The program of the Left Front, L’humain d’abord (The Human First) proposes the extension of public property to new sectors, notably the banking sector or that of energy with the nationalisation of Total. But especially, we want to extend social property. It is necessary to study each time the most appropriate form, whether it be nationalisation, workers’ co-operatives etc.

For that, we have proposed a right of pre-emption for workers over their businesses in case of sale and a right of repossession in case of the employer’s departure. And whenever necessary, the State must intervene to allow this transfer to the workers by requisition, temporary nationalisation, and then helping the business through a public banking centre.

The Parti de Gauche (Left Party) has, for example, come out in favour of the nationalisation of Florange and the requisition of Fralib and Petroplus, but experience shows that the question of management and industrial strategy does not stop at the question of property. It must incorporate workers’ power.

We must also realise the ecological transition of a certain number of industrial sectors. The meeting organised by the Left Front during a joint campaign with the trade unionists of several threatened businesses showed that this ecological objective is an asset for re-industrialisation. It is the workers who know best about production and industrial facilities. They should have more power in businesses, whether public, social or capitalist.

LR: The austerity policies conducted in Europe have resulted in strikes and mass demonstrations, particularly in Greece and Spain. What are the perspectives for France in this regard?

JLM: The people of Greece, Spain and Portugal are struggling with immense courage against austerity. In those countries, the levels of consciousness and mobilisation are more advanced than in France but for the moment, austerity is also being imposed more savagely there. This is the price of listening to the calls for sacrifice from the Social-Liberals! In these three countries, the Social-Liberals are responsible for this policy. But will our discrediting of their policies be enough to lead us to power? In France, many voters believed that this question could resolve itself without social struggle. That is the sense of the election of Hollande. Today, consciousness is evolving. Social confrontation seems inevitable. There is a lot of depression but we remain a point of reference that boosts our own supporters. This was shown by the demonstration on 30 September against the Treaty. This will also be shown on 14 November in France (the European day of action against austerity). This date is an important step in European integration.

LR: In Greece, the rise of Syriza to the detriment of Pasok is an upheaval in the political life of the country. In France, the Left Front may also serve as a political rallying point for those who struggle against austerity. What should be the main focus of our struggle against Capitalism in the coming months?

JLM: The examples of Syriza and other parties in Latin America show that when people look for an alternative, the best is possible; not certain, but possible. From this point of view, we have assets in France. Unlike other countries, we developed a tool of resistance before the crisis entered into an acute phase. This tool is the Left Front. For four years it has existed, reinforced itself and progressed. At every moment we must rally together, convince others and mobilise as we have since 2009. The presidential campaign has led to a considerable expansion, not only in the streets at the Bastille, Toulouse or Marseille, but also at the polls with four million votes. We must continue on this path in order to become a real front of the people. Building the People’s Front is our historical mission.

 In order to achieve this popular expansion, the Left Front must retain its independence in relation to the Social-Liberals. If we are identified to a greater or lesser degree as accomplices of austerity, we will be swept away because we will no longer have any reason to exist. I add that we will only convince people if we are capable of proposing a radical but concrete alternative. We must constantly affirm our ability to govern and to form, from the Left Front, a majority Left alternative.

Finally, on the ideological plain, we must oppose the European Union’s drift towards austerity. Let’s use this in order to pose the question of the legitimacy of the power of finance and the bosses. By imposing austerity in an authoritarian manner, the Liberals and Social-Liberals are pushing towards making a permanent link between the social struggle against austerity and the political struggle to affirm the sovereignty of the people, in the Nation and in the workplace.

[Note from the editor – a reply to the interview will be published shorty by La Riposte and will be translated for publication on the In Defence of Marxism website as well.]