INTERVIEW: John Mullen on the French Left and an alternative to fighting over abstention

The French presidential election is only days away and for many on the French left, the discussion is less about whether to vote for Marine Le Pen or Emmanuel Macron, but whether or not to vote at all.  A survey among members of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s organization showing that two-thirds intended to cast a blank vote or abstain sent panic through Europe- could Marine Le Pen end up the president of France because of indifference to Macron? Here at Migration Voter, we are somewhat biased towards voting, so we wanted to look into the question more deeply to see what we were missing and whether the press had been simplifying the view of supporters of Mélenchon and others who are opposed to Macron.

John Mullen, a historian, and activist on the French anti-capitalist left was kind enough to take some time to explain the debate and give us his unique take on what’s next for the divided French left. You can read more of Mullen on his blog.

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There is currently a huge discussion on the French left over whether to support Emmanuel Macron or to abstain from voting entirely. Can you sum up for us what’s happening?

There’s a sort of generalized panic on the Left. Although we’ve known for months that it was very likely Marine Le Pen would make it to the second round, there’s been no preparation about what to do and what sort of slogans would pull people together in the event that she made it. Now there’s lots of very unfraternal debate going on.

Macron represents for working people exactly the type of policies that have allowed Le Pen to build up support. Year after year of redundancies, encouraging Islamophobia and reducing union rights have led to this situation where large sections of the population, especially the poorer parts, distrust the establishment completely and are therefore prepared to vote for someone who is essentially a fascist. And so the left is stuck in a situation where both candidates are pretty horrible and there is the tactical question of what to do.

What’s the downside of tactically voting for Macron?

Well, it’s tremendously important to see this from a collective point of view. A lot of the debate has been very individualistic. ‘I would feel dreadful if I abstained!’ ‘I would feel so filthy if I voted for Macron’, and that’s just the wrong question. The question is what campaign will allow the interests of working people and minorities to be moved forward. So I do not campaign to vote Macron, but I also do not campaign for abstention. This question is dividing people so much that the most important thing to do is to find slogans that will bring people together, and a whole number of unions have come up with “Not a Single Vote for Le Pen.” I think that’s a good slogan. .. We’re not campaigning for a vote for Macron, but we are campaigning for no votes for Le Pen and leaving the question of abstention open.

What about those who say that if enough people abstain, Le Pen will end up in the Élysée Palace by default?

I think the important thing to remember is that politics is not arithmetic. All of the Left organizations who’ve called for a vote for Macron have disappeared from the debate for these two weeks because it’s all been summed up by being for or against Macron.  The Left organizations who are fighting Le Pen but not calling for a vote for Macron have, in my opinion, a great advantage, because they are showing the world, and particular the people who are tempted by Le Pen, that Le Pen is not the only opposition to the free-market neoliberal policies that Macron represents. In fact, not campaigning for a vote for Macron actually makes Le Pen’s job harder.

So the strategy is, in a way, to make a point to the people who might be tempted to vote Le Pen, by providing an alternative to neo-liberal policies outside of Le Pen?

I think that the Insubordinate France movement is the reason that Le Pen got 21% and not 27% in the first round. Because the radical left program was able to pull people away from Le Pen in key areas. For example, among young adults and among unemployed people, Melenchon got more than Le Pen. And these are historically very strong areas for Le Pen. So, those of us around Mélenchon’s campaign are particularly furious with the campaign going on against Mélenchon, which suggests that he doesn’t care about fascism and so on.

Mélenchon’s immigration policies were by far the most favorable to migrants and refugees. But now we’re faced with Macron versus Le Pen, Macron continuing the status quo or going slightly stricter while increasing skilled migration, whereas Le Pen wants to do a lot to restrict migration, closing the borders, eradicating the possibility of seeking asylum from within the country, increasing police and border guards, and making other changes that would significantly impact people who immigrate and people of color. To not vote Macron because of economic issues and allow in Le Pen – do you think that is pushing economic issues and opposition to neo-liberalism above the safety of immigrants and people of color?

That sounds like a leading question.

Oh, it is!

I must admit I don’t know much about Macron’s immigration policies. I know something of his attitude towards racism, and interestingly enough, almost for accidental reasons, he has been a sort of modernizing wing of the right wing of the socialist party, who isn’t interested in rapidly whipping up Islamophobia, like Manuel Valls was. And Macron even said the other week that colonialism was a crime against humanity, it was absolutely stunning to hear a right-wing socialist leader say that! So he’s trying to renew and modernize a certain section of the discourse around human rights issues and racial equality issues because France has been very backward on that.

Obviously, the whole society is absolutely soaked in racism, but I don’t think it’s possible to separate out the economic opposition to Macron from the questions about racism, where Macron is not the major factor. I think it’s true that one of the reasons that Le Pen has grown so much is because of the disastrous attitude of almost the entire French left on Islamophobia.

So for example, counter-terrorism policies that have had a disparate impact on people of color- by pushing such policies the socialists have pushed people towards the right?

I think so, but even more, the direct Islamophobia. For example, last year we had a campaign by right-wing mayors who passed bye-laws to stop Muslim women from wearing full body swimsuits on beaches, and they were publicly applauded by the socialist prime minister.

Really? That’s surprising. We did see Macron in the debate agreeing that what Muslim women wear on the beach is a public order issue.

To be just to everyone concerned, Mélenchon was not very good on that either. He said we have to denounce both the right wing mayors who stop people from wearing what they want and the people who are selling burkinis because they want to push an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. Which is nonsense?

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the international scene. The conversation in France is reminiscent of the conversation on the Left in the US. Many people who supported Sanders felt it would be nearly as bad to vote for Clinton as Trump, Trump ended up winning and installing policies that both people who voted for Sanders and Clinton are totally appalled by, and the two sides still haven’t really come together. Is this a warning for the Left in France, or are the two situations incomparable?

I’m not convinced that Trump won because leftists were not enthusiastic enough about Clinton…  I would say that we’ve seen this before in France. In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen got through to the second round and almost the entire left supported the conservative Jacques Chirac against him, and we discovered that this total unity in the ballot box did not put a significant brake on the building of the fascist party in France. And I think we’re obliged to understand that it’s the long-term building of a national, broadly based anti-fascist campaign that can make a difference. And what we need to be looking at in any given political situation is what will help to build a radical left alternative that is active and exciting and going out there supporting strikes and anti-racist demos and demos to defend hospitals, etc., getting really involved in everyday life, and also involved in a national permanent anti-fascist campaign, which doesn’t exist in France. Today the working class is paying for the lack of that campaign, in my opinion.

Final question. Did you read Yanis Varoufakis’ endorsement of Macron?

Yes, I was horrified!

He wrote, “Is Emmanuel Macron worse, from the left’s point of view, then Jacques Chirac in 2002? If this isn’t the case, then why do certain leaders from the left today refuse to support Macron against Le Pen? For me, it’s a veritable mystery.” How do you respond to that?

The thing is that since 2002 in many elections- legislative, regionals and so on- we’ve had often had this huge pressure. ‘Oh, you must vote for the right against the fascists.’ And the result is, 20 years later, the fascists are stronger than ever. But what is interesting today is that when Jean-Luc Mélenchon had a consultation of 240,000 members of his organization, only a third wanted to vote for Macron. That’s not just because they’ve all gone mad. It’s because it is clear to a lot of people that Macron’s politics are the sort that will make fascism stronger. Although people are very frightened in case she wins, many are still favoring abstention.Although it must be said, lots of people who are in favor of abstention will change their mind on Saturday night. Because the pressure is huge.

I wondered whether it would be the opposite- that lots of people who were considering voting would end up getting turned off and staying home.

I don’t think so, the pressure on the television, in the press, on social media, in the workplace is huge, it’s absolutely stunning. And I remember in 2002 there was a huge amount of pressure, even though at the end Chirac got 80%!

I’m not campaigning for abstention because people are scared and I understand that. But I certainly can’t campaign for Macron because he doesn’t represent in any way a future that can cut the grass under fascism. I’m campaigning for no vote for the fascists, and get involved in left-wing politics.

Sources and Further Reading
Results of the Consultation on the Election. La France Insoumise (French).
A Radical Departure? Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party on migration and asylum. Migration Voter.
Macron v. Le Pen on immigration, asylum and integration. Migration Voter.
Emmanuel Macron calling colonialism a crime against humanity in interview. (Video) (French)
Manuel Valls speaking in favor of the burkini ban. La Provence (French), Aug. 2016.
Macron came to Greece’s aid during our crisis. The French left should back him. Yanis Varoufakis op-ed in The Guardian, May 2017.
Image via Jeanne Menjoulet on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2pd9Vmz (CC by 2.0)
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