Interview with Jean-Luc Mélenchon
Prior to last April’s French presidential election, few on the British left had heard of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The experience catapulted him to prominence both in France and across Europe – coinciding as it did with the emergence of Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek left coalition Syriza.
For a couple of months it appeared that the French left was resurgent and the Greek left was on the verge of government. Mélenchon is keen to maintain this momentum. Now an MEP, having served as a minister in the Jospin government, he is building links between left parties, unions and movements across Europe and beyond. His visit to the UK was part of that process.
He predicts, “There will be a shock in Europe. We don’t know where or when or whether it will be social, political or financial – or all three combined.” The left, he believes, must be ready for office.
“The first to win an election [in Europe] will inspire all the others. Our job in our respective countries is to prepare the ground. We have to be well-organised, disciplined, and with a concrete programme.”
Mélenchon describes his approach as “concrete radicalism”. One example he gives is that during the presidential election campaign, “I said that over €300,000 there should be a 100% tax – it made people stop and think.”
Similarly, Mélenchon proposed a law to bar profitable companies from making redundancies. Why would profit-making companies want to sack staff? Surely only because of greed for ever higher profits? Surplus staff in one area could always be redeployed and retrained in another. If Ed Miliband is serious about taking on ‘predatory capitalism’ and building ‘responsible capitalism’ wouldn’t this be the sort of radical reform necessary?
“I am now convinced you have to speak to the people. You have to re-educate people, explain what left wing ideas are,” he says. “[During the election campaign] I was telling a story that unites people and I talked about figures from French history and rehabilitated them, including Robespierre.”
“In my speeches, I explained why we use a red flag, and why a clenched fist — and integrated this with concrete examples of the measures I was proposing. You need to explain. This is popular education and shows why it is important to work with trade unions.”
Although no youngster at 61 — and selfconfessedly not into sport or popular music — Mélenchon resonated with young voters. He also displays an energetic and engaging speaking style — so much so that even English people at his public lecture seemed beguiled, despite the failure of technology that was supposed to be providing simultaneous translation.
During the election campaigns, and since, Mélenchon has been keen to take on the far right, which he acknowledges is “very big in France”. He explains: “The far right was successful because it became a respectable party. The centre-left have helped to make them more acceptable. [Hollande] recently received Marine Le Pen.”
It’s similar here, with successive New Labour Home Secretaries echoing the language of the right in their rhetoric and framing immigration as a problem.
“The media adds to it,“ Mélenchon continues, “if there is a story about immigration they go to Marine Le Pen.”
One of his slogans in the presidential campaign was “our enemy is not the migrant, but the banker”. He says, “It was important for us to restore our culture, our values. France for us is all nationalities and ethnicities.”
While Labour’s ‘One Nation’ rhetoric has received a largely cool reception on the left, there is a stark cultural contrast with the French left. Mélenchon argues that ”we need a new national narrative. We sing both the Marseillaise and the Internationale at the end of our meetings.” Combined with rehabilitating Robespierre and relating events to French history, it is clear that a confident left building a national vision need not be reactionary.
While the UK national anthem is never likely to be sung at the British left’s events, it should make us question whether we do enough to integrate the left with our collective history – as Tony Benn did in the 1980s by referencing the Chartists, suffragettes, Levellers, Tolpuddle martyrs and others.
Mélenchon accepts lessons from one country cannot be simply transposed onto another. He concedes, “People in France look down on Latin America – they believe it is not like us. But their victories are ours … we learned from the experiences in Latin America.”
The British left could learn a lot from the experiences of the French left too.