French elections: France Insoumise – where we agree, and where we must go further!

In the April 2017 French presidential election, Révolution, the French section of the International Marxist Tendency, critically supported the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise (FI). Five years later, the French Marxists will again support FI in the upcoming elections (which begin on 10 April), despite maintaining their criticisms of its and Mélenchon’s limitations. In this article (written at the beginning of the year), they explain their position.

[A longer French version of this article is available here]

Jean-Luc Mélenchon and France Insoumise (FI) represent the only real possibility of defeating President Emmanuel Macron and the far right in the presidential elections. FI’s official programme, L’Avenir en commun (‘A Shared Future’) is more radical than that of the Greens and the Parti Socialiste (PS), which promise to enact ‘change’ society without lifting a finger against the interests, power, and wealth of the French bourgeoisie. But FI’s programme is nonetheless reformist. It plans to dramatically improve the living conditions for the vast majority, without breaking with the capitalist system. We subject it here to a Marxist critique.

‘Correcting’ capitalism?

In his introduction to L’Avenir en commun, Mélenchon writes: “The financial capitalism of our time is creating social violence and plundering nature to a degree unprecedented in the history of human civilisation. It feasts on everything in its path, including pandemics […] And since it feeds off its own disasters, the system is incapable of correcting itself.”

But what is to be done? Marxists reply: whilst continuously fighting to defend and improve the living conditions of the masses, the labour movement must take up the central aim of overthrowing the capitalist system, bringing the workers to power, and initiating the socialist transformation of society. Until capitalism is overthrown, in France and across the world, it will continue to condemn humanity to economic crises, social decline, imperialist wars, and environmental catastrophes.

L’Avenir en commun, on the other hand, plans to “correct” – in other words, reform – the capitalist system. Mélenchon points the finger not at capitalism in general, but at “financial” capitalism. A section of Chapter 8 of L’Avenir en commun, entitled “De-financialize the real economy”, argues that “we must protect the real economy from the actions of speculators by regaining power over finance.”

But the fundamental laws of the ‘real economy’, under capitalism, necessarily bring about the development and growing domination of finance capital. Marx anticipated this in Capital – and Lenin would later emphasise the central role of this phenomenon in the development of imperialism. The entire history of capitalism ever since has confirmed Marx and Lenin’s analysis.

To do away with economic and social chaos, society must be purged of capitalism altogether, and not simply ‘finance’ capitalism. All key sectors of the economy must be expropriated under democratic workers’ control. Employees themselves must manage the ‘real economy’, in order to coordinate a democratic economic plan in the interests of all.

Bourgeois opposition

L’Avenir en commun does propose a series of quite radical policies: significant wage rises, an increase in pensions and social guarantees, expansion of public services, recruitment of public servants, reduction in the working week (to 32 hours), a sixth week of paid holiday, free education and public healthcare, and the construction of one million social homes.

It plans to “immediately raise the monthly minimum wage to 1,400 euros net”, to “raise all pensions for a full career to at least the level of the (raised) minimum wage”, and bring all minimum social benefits (out-of-work benefits, old-age benefits, etc.) “up to the level of the poverty line” (1,063 euros per month). It goes on to say that: “Young people who are no longer part of their parents’ tax household” will benefit from a “self-sufficiency guarantee” of the same amount. Even taken in isolation, these measures would be enough to pull millions of people out of destitution.

macron Image ECB FlickrIf Mélenchon wins the upcoming elections, given the deep crisis of capitalism, the ruling class would fight the FI’s programme even more ruthlessly than the Tsipras government in 2015 in Greece / Image: ECB, Flickr

The programme continues: “Every long-term jobseeker will receive a job (from the state) that plays a role in the ecological transition or in social action (urgent priority sectors), in line with his or her qualifications, and on a voluntary basis.” These jobs – more than a million, potentially – will be paid “at least the raised minimum wage”, or 1,400 euros net. Moreover, L’Avenir en commun proposes the mass hiring of public servants across all services and administrations.

How would a FI government finance these policies? L’Avenir en commun replies: through borrowing (thanks to the generous goodwill of the ECB) and taxation (on high-income households and corporations’ profits). As a whole, the programme proposes taking at least several tens of billions of euros, every year, from the pockets of big business and handing it over to workers, the unemployed, students, and pensioners.

Would the ruling class accept FI’s programme? This would go against all past experience, beginning with the conclusion of the 2015 Greek crisis, which saw the reformist Alexis Tsipras abandon his programme of social reforms under the pressure of the European bourgeoisie and impose austerity.

If Mélenchon wins the upcoming elections, the French ruling class would fight the FI’s programme even more ruthlessly, given the deep crisis of capitalism. Not to mention the fact that, over the past few decades, French capitalism has been in constant decline relative to its main competitors on the world market. In the hands of the ECB, debt would be a means for the bourgeoisie to attack the government. And FI’s progressive tax programme would provoke deep opposition among the wealthiest layers of society.

In such circumstances, an FI government would only have two options: either yield to the pressure, and give up its progressive programme; or go on the offensive, nationalising the key levers of the economy to deprive the bourgeoisie of its means of sabotaging the actions of the government. It would have to put on the agenda the expropriation of the major levers of production and exchange: industry, banks, mass distribution, transport, the pharmaceutical sector, etc.

Expropriating the bourgeoisie – overthrowing them as a ruling class – is the only way to carry out the social policies contained in L’Avenir en commun. But Mélenchon explicitly rules this out, which is the main weakness of his whole political approach.

The public health crisis

The sixth chapter of L’Avenir en commun is entitled Life in a State of Permanent Pandemic. It puts forward a series of measures that differ considerably from the catastrophic handling of the public health crisis by the Macron government, which is primarily concerned with protecting the profits of big business.

For example, L’Avenir en commun plans to “reverse the fall in the number of [hospital] beds” and to “initiate a multi-year recruitment plan for healthcare and social care professionals (doctors, nurses, nursing assistants and administrative staff).” Moreover, treatment would be completely free of charge, guaranteed by a “100% reimbursement of prescription healthcare.”

If healthcare is to be 100% reimbursed, there is no reason why the entire health sector shouldn’t be made 100% public. The pandemic has perfectly demonstrated the central contradiction between the pursuit of profits and public health, which has taken the lives of so many people since March 2020. It can only be resolved by nationalising – under democratic workers’ control – all private healthcare facilities (clinic, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.), the whole pharmaceutical industry, and all sectors linked to public health.

In 2020, total turnover for the pharmaceutical industry in France came to more than €62 billion, a 2.4% rise in comparison to 2019. These figures alone are enough to justify the expropriation of Big Pharma. And yet, L’Avenir en commun contains no such measure, it only plans “to requisition companies necessary for producing medical equipment (masks, tests, purifiers)”.

What is needed is the nationalisation, without compensation, of the entire health sector: wresting it from the claws of shareholders. This would allow us to improve the pay and conditions of workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities, who for years have condemned their exhausting working conditions, which have deteriorated under the pressure of austerity policies. Not only does L’Avenir en commun fail to put forward such measures, it plans “to put conditions in place for the grants given to private companies who engage in vaccine and medical research”(!)

We don’t suggest turning all private doctors into public healthcare workers at a stroke. Instead, private healthcare would be gradually absorbed into public healthcare as the state system itself develops through proper investment, offering better working conditions to its employees and adequate coverage throughout the country.

Ecological planning

Faced with “financialised capitalism that wears out humans and destroys the planet”, L’Avenir en commun defends “planning, since the market and competition have shown themselves incapable of rising to [environmental] challenges.” This is a sharp contrast to the ‘green capitalism’ stubbornly defended by PS and Green leaders. L’Avenir en commun puts forward specific measures that aim to pressure capitalists into polluting less and being less wasteful. But it also proposes “a massive plan to invest €200 billion into ecologically and socially useful activities.”

These proposals present two issues. Firstly, is it really possible to pressure capitalists into stopping extremely profitable activities? Secondly, who is going to carry out the colossal investments needed for the development of renewable energy, the expansion of public transport, and the ecological transition in general?

A coal fired power plant on the Ohio River just West of CincinnatiDemocratically planning the economy would allow for the greatest harmonisation of the relationship between humanity and nature / Image: University of Stanford

These two issues have a single solution: the nationalisation of the major means of production and the democratic planning of the economy, under the control of workers and consumers. You cannot plan what you do not control – and you cannot control what you do not own. But the number of nationalisations planned by L’Avenir en commun is very limited. The programme mentions the motorways, rail, Ariane Espace, Française des Jeux, the “marine energy” branch of Alstom, the recently privatised airports, EDF, Engie, and “some generalist banks”.

Why leave the capitalists with a single one of the major “generalist” banks, that is institutions that specialise in the speculation and plunder of the planet’s resources? Any genuine planning should be based on a fully public, centralised banking sector that is able to properly invest.

Nationalising large energy companies, like EDF and Engie, is essential. But many other sectors are also responsible for destroying the environment. For example, the transport sector sees a handful of capitalists produce millions of highly polluting (but very profitable) vehicles for personal use, while public transport is both neglected and shackled to the profit motive. Investing in public transport at the expense of the private transport industry demands control of the sector, and that means expropriating the parasites that control it today.

Another key issue for the ecological transition is housing insulation. Not only do we need to insulate existing houses, but we have to ensure this requirement is in place for all new housing. This is entirely possible! With more than five million unemployed people in France, the problem isn’t a lack of manpower or skills. But rather than providing profits to property magnates, the major construction companies should be nationalised and merged into a centralised public industry, to coordinate the huge construction and renovation works that are necessary.

Finally, the food industry and the large retailers should also be moved into the public sector, so that we can reorganise and develop agriculture to satisfy everyone’s needs, while ending the harm it inflicts on nature, our health, and our wallets.

Democratically planning the economy would allow for the greatest harmonisation of the relationship between humanity and nature. Such a perspective can only be fully achieved on a global scale: pollution and climate change do not recognise borders. The crisis is a global one, which, ultimately, only international socialism will be able to resolve.

The Sixth Republic

L’Avenir en commun begins with the aim of founding a new, sixth republic, in which a constituent assembly would be called that would have two years to draft a new constitution, which would then be submitted to a referendum.

Marxists approach this question – like all others – from a class perspective. The French bourgeoisie is aware that the institutions of the Fifth Republic are becoming increasingly discredited. This endangers their grip power, as shown by the important role played by the demand for a “referendum by citizens’ initiative” during the Gilets Jaunes movement. However, the ruling class isn’t trying, for now, to regain its prestige via a new republic because they’re afraid that such a change would arouse too many expectations among the masses and trigger a movement for democratic and social reforms that might slip from their control.

The Fifth Republic is corrupt and rotten to the core. In the last analysis, however, the crisis within its institutions is only the expression of the crisis of the capitalist system upon which they stand. Real power doesn’t reside with the assemblies elected through universal suffrage, nor with the councils of ministers, nor even in the presidential or royal palaces. Real power resides with the boards of directors of banks and multinationals. In France, a hundred capitalist families have a decisive influence on the policies of each successive government.

Like his predecessors, the current ‘presidential monarch’, Emmanuel Macron, kneels down before almighty Capital. For that reason, if a Sixth Republic doesn’t dethrone this present-day king, it will be just another bourgeois republic. FI’s programme doesn’t contain the necessary measures to end the dictatorship of Capital. To give the project for a sixth republic genuine importance, it would have to be reworded as follows: “Down with the Fifth Republic! For a new socialist republic!”

The state apparatus

L’Avenir en commun expresses outrage at how “a privileged caste, at the service of the wealthy, is poisoning the state.” But the bourgeois state is, by its nature, “at the service of the wealthy”. Rather than draw the conclusion that we need a workers’ state, based on socialist relations of production, the authors of L’Avenir en commun put forward “a plan for separating money and the state”, targeting a few of the more blatant cases of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism. This is like trying to empty an ocean with the help of a teaspoon.

The second chapter of the programme, dedicated to justice and the police, contains some measures that head in the right direction – for example, making the most common [legal] procedures free (including divorce). But other than these, the chapter completely fails to mention the class character of the justice system and the police.

nice violence police genevieve Image EuroPalestineThe police can’t be reformed; they can only be pulled down by a socialist revolution, which would replace the institution with the “armed people” / Image: EuroPalestine

It states that “in a republic, justice is dispensed on behalf of the people.” But in the French Republic, more than 400 gilets jaunes protestors have been imprisoned. Among their cellmates is not a single one of the white collar crooks who, year after year, carry out large-scale tax evasion with complete impunity.

Moreover, L’Avenir en commun proposes “rebuilding a republican police… committed to the rule of law”, because “the police should act to protect individual and collective liberties.” As Marx explained, the bourgeois police form part of the “armed men who defend capitalist relations of production”, and who are the essence of the bourgeois state. The police can’t be reformed; they can only be pulled down by a socialist revolution, which would replace the institution with the “armed people”, as Marx said on the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871.

The communards also produced two other principles for the founding of a workers’ state: 1) all high-ranking officials should be elected and revocable at any time; 2) their wages should be the same as those of a skilled worker. These two measures alone would be infinitely more effective at “separating the state and money” than the measures put forward by L’Avenir en commun. But the application of these two measures presupposes a socialist revolution.

The European Union

The EU leaders would be very hostile towards an FI government. In particular, the German ruling class – which dominates the EU economically – would exert enormous pressure on the French government to force it to back down from its programme of progressive reforms.

How Mélenchon foresees this situation – and how he plans to respond – has evolved slightly over the past few years. The 2017 version of L’Avenir en commun stated: “plan A is for all countries in favour to exercise a joint exit from European treaties by withdrawing from existing rules and negotiating new ones. Plan B is France’s unilateral exit from European treaties in order to initiate new partnerships. We either change the EU or we leave.”

In the current version of the FI programme, Plan A remains the same, but plan B is phrased as follows: “in all cases, we will immediately apply our programme at the national level and meet head on the confrontation with European institutions. To do so, we will use all possible mechanisms to assert our position at the European Council and to disobey obstructive rules whenever necessary.” Instead of leaving the EU, we have the perspective of France disobeying the injunctions of the European leaders – but without a formal break.

This change in the FI programme has sparked an outcry among a (very small) section of the ‘radical left’ who constantly claim ‘leaving the EU’, in itself, would mark a huge step forward for workers and young people across the country. But as long as such companies as Bouygues, Dassault, Bolloré, Lagardère control the core of the French economy, there won’t be any way out for workers and young people, whether inside or outside the EU. For example, has Brexit provided any improvement in the lives of the exploited and oppressed British masses?

That being said, the change in L’Avenir en Commun is not an improvement. ‘Plan A’, which proposes, for example, negotiating a “change in the status of the ECB”, is a pipe dream that would leave the German ruling class (among others) completely unmoved. The new ‘Plan B’, on the other hand, foresees the inevitable ‘confrontation’ between an FI government and the EU leaders without offering a plan on how to win.

Once again, the only solution would be breaking with capitalism and appealing to the working classes of Europe to follow France’s example, with the perspective of replacing the EU – this colossal instrument at the service of European multinationals – with a Socialist United States of Europe.

Wars and peace

The chapter of L’Avenir en commun on foreign policy and war, ‘Anti-globalist Diplomacy’, states that “to promote peace and cooperation, regaining an independent voice is a necessity”. To this end, the programme plans to “immediately withdraw [France] from NATO’s integrated command and then, in stages, from the organisation itself.” The reason given is that “permanent military alliances like NATO, built for and by the United States, are contrary to the interests and principles of our country.” Mélenchon previously stated that, under an FI government “[France] would no longer be dragged into conflicts undertaken solely for the benefit of the United States in its decline.”

It’s true that French imperialism is a second-rate power and Macron’s government is an underling of US imperialism (albeit a noisy one). But with that said, how could France’s independence from the United States “contribute to [world] peace”? We’re obviously not in favour of France remaining in NATO; however, by what miracle would withdrawing from NATO enable French capitalism to lose its imperialist character? Furthermore, by what other miracle would it prevent the other NATO powers – with the US at their head – from continuing their imperialist wars?

stoltenberg marcon 2017 Image NATO FlickrWe must tirelessly explain that real, lasting, universal peace will only be possible once the world has been purged of capitalism – and therefore of imperialism / Image: NATO, Flickr

L'Avenir en commun answers this final question by proposing that France should therefore “refuse all military interventions without a UN mandate” – which means accepting interventions that have received such a mandate. The role of the UN is not to prevent war. It has never played a progressive role. It’s nothing more than a forum in which the great imperialist powers debate questions of secondary importance.

When a question of genuine importance is on the agenda, the UN doesn’t have the last word: the great powers themselves decide, in line with their interests. We saw this in the case of the 2003 Iraq invasion, for example. For reasons connected to the interests of French imperialism, France took a position, in the UN, opposing military intervention. The American imperialists invaded Iraq anyway, without a UN mandate.

It’s true that, from time to time, the five members of the UN Security Council are in agreement about certain military interventions. But this doesn’t mean that such interventions are any less imperialist or reactionary. The First Gulf War (1990) was supported by the UN, just like the embargo imposed on Iraq between 1991 and 2003 that resulted in between 500,000 and 1.5 million victims, the majority of whom were children. More recently there was the military operation in Libya (2011), which plunged the country into a state of chaos from which it still hasn’t emerged. And what about Haiti, a country endlessly tormented by imperialism, which had to endure, from 2004 to 2017, the de facto dictatorship of the UN peacekeeping forces?

One of the UN’s functions is precisely to give their wars a veil of ‘international legitimacy’. Our role is to expose this propaganda and to explain what really motivates warring countries. Often, the horror of war causes left-wing activists to declare: “we have to do something, and now!” And too often this causes them to end up supporting an imperialist intervention, particularly when such an intervention has received a UN mandate.

We say: war is a fundamental, inevitable feature of modern capitalism. You can’t have one without the other. If we’re serious about the struggle to end imperialist wars, our first duty is to explain, whenever we get the chance, the genuine class nature of the war and the real aims being pursued by the different forces involved. It’s from this class perspective that mass mobilisations against imperialist wars must be organised.

In France, the priority must be to expose the crimes of French imperialism and to mobilise the labour movement against these crimes. We must tirelessly explain that real, lasting, universal peace will only be possible once the world has been purged of capitalism – and therefore of imperialism.

Socialism, collectivism, and cooperativism

As Lenin famously wrote: “there can be no advance except towards socialism.” This is the crux of the matter: L’Avenir en commun refuses to move towards socialism. Mélenchon has stated previously that he prefers the word ‘collectivism’ to ‘socialism’. We of course disagree, but the debate is not really about the choice of words - it is about content. Socialism – in the Marxist sense of the term – aims to collectivise all the large companies of a country. This is precisely what L’Avenir en commun does not seek to do. So what does the ‘collectivism’ of the FI leaders actually consist of?

One answer is provided in a chapter entitled ‘Sharing the Wealth’. It proposes “generalising the social, inclusive, and cooperative economy” by “promoting the expansion of SCICs (‘public interest cooperative societies’) and SCOPs (‘cooperative and participatory societies’) to develop public services where the responsibility is shared between citizens, users, employees, and private and public partners.” This is presented as an “alternative to the liberal economy”.

Note alternative to the liberal economy – and not the capitalist economy. And for good reason: cooperativism is not really an alternative to capitalism, because a cooperative is a company that competes, on a market, with other companies, even if they’re also cooperatives. This competition necessitates increasing the productivity and intensity of labour, limiting or cutting wages, reducing the total wage bill as much as possible, etc. In other words, the workers ‘own’ the company, but they end up having to exploit themselves using the methods used by classical capitalist companies. This often results in the introduction of a growing differentiation within the company between the workers in charge and the workers who take orders.

Moreover, given that cooperativism doesn’t eliminate the chaos of the market, it’s incompatible with economic planning. Planning requires the socialisation and centralisation of the major economic resources of the country, as well as their democratic management. For these resources to be rationally and democratically planned, they must be the collective property of all workers.

At present, in France and in all major capitalist powers, the working class constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population. Their role in history is to take power and re-organise society on the basis of the socialist and democratic planning of the economy. As collective owners of the means of production, they will be able to coordinate, develop and administer production to satisfy the needs and reduce the workload of the entire population.

This perspective is no less relevant today than when Marx and Engels first developed it in its scientific form. It remains the only means of overcoming the barbarism into which global capitalism is leading humanity.

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