Jean-Luc Melenchon: 'Blame the bankers not the migrants'
Issue: 2307 dated: 16 June 2012 Features
posted: 7.45pm Tue 12 Jun 2012
The French radical left politician spoke to Jim Wolfreys
about France's parliamentary elections and the fight
against the fascist Front National
In France's presidential elections in April Jean-Luc
Melenchon, the radical left candidate, waged a dynamic
campaign and won around four million votes. But at the
same time the fascist Front National (FN) leader Marine Le
Pen achieved a record 6.4 million votes.
Parliamentary elections are now taking place across the
country. The Front de Gauche's Melenchon and Le Pen went
head to head in the constituency of Henin Beaumont, in
Le Pen has built up a significant level of support in the
town over the past five years. It is in the Nord Pas de
Calais region where the FN presidential vote was up nearly
10 percent on 2007. Melenchon nevertheless decided that he
would stand against her.
Historically this has been a left-wing region, with a long
tradition of working class struggle and organisation.
Melenchon tried to draw on this history to undercut the
One in five people are unemployed in Henin Beaumont.
Corruption scandals have damaged the local Socialist
Party, allowing the FN to pose as a "clean" party.
The fascists have tried to whip up anti-immigrant racism
during the campaign, producing a fake Front de Gauche
leaflet with "Let's vote Melenchon" written in Arabic.
Though they printed the Arabic backwards. Another
anonymous leaflet depicted him as Hitler in front of
In response, the Front de Gauche has combined condemnation
of the FN's racism with attempts to encourage ordinary
people to feel their collective strength. These campaign
methods, Melenchon argues, are "borrowed from working
class trade unionism--the idea that a show of strength is
necessary. Strength brings forth strength, liveliness and
He continued, "When someone is a bit disorientated, a bit
lost, they see who is strong, who is joyful, who they want
to be with. Today nobody wants to be with the Socialists
they see arriving at the market with their suits and
waistcoats and haughty and contemptuous ways.
"Then they see the Front de Gauche turn up with its red
flags and street singers, so there's an atmosphere that's
created, a joie de vivre, that embodies the ideal of the
left. We're not there to be bored or sad."
This is part of a wider strategy: "We're carrying out what
we call a campaign of popular education. This can't be
something pretentious or arrogant that sounds like we're
giving people lessons. We also need to avoid being
suffocated by the past--as if everything was glorious
before and it's all rubbish now. It shouldn't be dry
On 3 June the Front de Gauche initiated a march and rally
to commemorate Emilienne Mopty. She was the organiser of a
1,500-strong demonstration in 1941 by miners' wives. They
were protesting in solidarity with 100,000 miners from
across the region taking part in the first mass strike
under the Nazi occupation. Mopty was also a resistance
fighter--arrested and tortured by the Nazis and beheaded in
Cologne in 1943.
Several thousand joined the march. At the rally, Melenchon
spoke of the 29 different nationalities that made up the
workforce in the mines, listing each one in turn. He told
the crowd, "Here, on the land that gave rise to the labour
movement and to socialism, we're supposed to endure the
shame of it apparently being the fiefdom of the abject
descendents of those who invaded, occupied and betrayed
us. We're going to make them leave, we're going to hunt
them down and politically eradicate them."
He explained why he had prioritised the fight against the
FN. "The Front National is a threat in France and in
Europe. Politicians make use of it. The FN gives the right
a pretext to shift their rhetoric in a direction that they
think will bring them electoral gains. But the basic
function of all this in a period of crisis, when people
are uniting together against the power of neoliberalism,
is to divide them.
"This reality exists for capital. So the FN represents a
threat to our democratic institutions and also a danger in
terms of the possible ways out of the crisis. In the
presidential election we set ourselves the aim of
finishing as high as possible. At the start our main
target wasn't Marine Le Pen, it was to eliminate the
[centre right candidate] Francois Bayrou so that the
Socialists couldn't make an alliance with him.
"It was only in March that we overtook Bayrou. Then I set
the next target--'We're going to catch her [Marine Le Pen]
and beat her.' I didn't beat her in the presidential
election so the campaign is still going and I will
continue to pursue it until I've had the last word. That's
why we've come here, where the problem is greatest because
she's here herself."
Melenchon sees this as a part of a national fight for
political influence. "I'm demonstrating that we are
stronger, more numerous, more disciplined and more clear
sighted than this band of badly-educated gorillas who've
been caught in the street handing out fake leaflets like
the cretins that they are.
"There were those among us who hesitated about standing,
who said, 'You're going to narrow down our message'. I
said 'No, it's you who are reducing the meaning of the FN
to a moral question'. The FN question is a social
question, it's an ideological question. Either they win
authority over the masses or we do. And the question will
be--is it the banker or the immigrant who's responsible for
the crisis? That's what's at stake here, in this place--and
in the wider world. So the struggle must be implacable and
to the end."
The Front de Gauche is trying to involve and inspire
confidence in ordinary people. Melenchon explained, "My
method of intellectual combat is to link three threads all
the time. The first thread is the programme. It's the
rational, reasoned way of opening up a debate--there's a
problem, here's the solution. It's radical but concrete.
We always make sure we show how things are going to be
Underpinning his strategy is an attempt to make ideas
accessible and inspire a belief that there are practical
political answers that can be found to the problems
society faces. "In the old far left, or the left of the
left, the tradition is to say 'we just have to...' or 'what
we must do is...' without showing how. So concrete
Culture, Melenchon's "second thread", is a highly
contested area --and one that ordinary people often feel
excluded from. He said, "These values mustn't be evoked in
a metaphysical way. There's a way of relating them to the
means of making them thrive. The culture we draw on is
made up of principles and cultural acts, words that don't
need any justification.
"I read a whole page of Victor Hugo in a mass meeting.
There were 10,000 people there. People loved it because
they understood what I was doing. I read a poem by Louis
Aragon [a Communist poet], everyone was quiet and listened
Finally, there is history, the subject of intense debate
in France, particularly over the question of "national
identity". "The battle is profoundly ideological. There
are those who talk about roots as something that pre-exist
us, that are immobile and that we should try to reproduce
in order to live correctly. That's the classic reactionary
obscurantist ideal. They tell people it's a way of
'returning to an identity'," said Melenchon.
One alternative is to remind people of their radical
history, from the French revolution to resistance against
the Nazis. He said, "Against their ethnic roots, I
counterpose historical roots and proclaim that, 'we are
the inheritors of Maximilien Robespierre and Emilienne
"This is how the struggle is radically and integrally
ideological in character. But it's the way of doing it
that's the most important thing. It's Marx who says that
hunger satisfied with raw flesh torn off with fingernails
is not the same as hunger satisfied with a knife and fork.
"We have to start with the idea that we are cultured
beings. That the working class is not just a stomach, it's
a brain. Of course it's the stomach that ends up deciding,
but the call of the stomach also passes via the brain. "So
it's this vision of political struggle that we take into
'Everyone has a role in the Front de Gauche'
Melenchon's campaign has mobilised hundreds of thousands
of people in demonstrations, rallies and electioneering.
He said, "Everyone has a role in the Front de Gauche. Mine
is to put words together. Little by little you can hear
people talking again about revolution, the red flag, the
clenched fist and nobody seems to find it strange any
He sees a thirst for radical politics, arguing, "Even a
few years ago if you heard the word capitalism, half the
room would faint and the other half would burst out
laughing. That's all finished. Now we can talk about
revolution. So I think we've won a series of battles
through the influence we've got over the vocabulary of
'A campaign that inspires hope'
Whatever the outcome of the parliamentary election, the
Front de Gauche campaign has had a big impact on activists
in the area. Antoine is a member of the New
Anti-Capitalist Party. He told Socialist Worker,
"Melenchon's campaign has managed to give hope back to the
left and to the working class. That's a medium term
"It's about saying 'No, things don't always need to be
this way. We can get beyond capitalism. There is a
collective force that can be mobilised, and no, there's
nothing inevitable about the extreme right gaining an
influence in this area.'
"There's a hope in this campaign that's inspiring. I've
lived here for eleven years. We've done lots of
painstaking anti-fascist activity--it's been hard
sometimes. Now there's more of a sense of our mass,
First round results favour Hollande
The first round of France's parliamentary elections
confirms the rejection of austerity that led to Nicolas
Sarkozy's defeat in presidential elections last month. The
combined left vote was 47 percent. The right won 35
The fascist Front National's score of nearly 14 percent
has more than tripled since the last parliamentary
elections five years ago. The abstention rate of 43
percent is the highest ever.
This indicates that the results reflect a lack of support
for the right rather than positive identification with
Francois Hollande's Socialist Party. He is expected to win
a parliamentary majority in the second round on 17 June.
The desire to beat the right also appears to have squeezed
the vote for radical left candidates. In the northern town
of Henin Beaumont FN leader Marine Le Pen came top with 42
percent of the vote. She now faces a second round run-off
against the Socialist Party candidate.
The Front de Gauche's Jean-Luc Melenchon was narrowly
beaten into third place. The Front de Gauche took its
opposition to the FN into workplaces and markets, housing
estates and community centres, organising meetings,
rallies and a march against fascism and austerity.
Having only announced he would be standing last month, he
won 21 percent of the vote and vows to continue the fight
in the area.
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