Q&A / March 29, 2024

Can France’s Left Build a People’s Union?

Mathilde Panot, the president of La France Insoumise, discusses how to beat back the Macronists and the far right in France.

Jonah Birch

Mathilde Panot

(donlemo / CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Since its establishment in 2016, La France Insoumise (LFI) has become the foremost party of the French left. Bolstered by the high-profile presidential campaigns of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2017 and 2022, it has solidified its position as a key opposition force within the French parliament, with 75 deputies in the National Assembly.

In 2022 LFI unified the left by forming an electoral coalition with the Communists, Socialists, and Greens. This coalition, known as the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale coalition (NUPES), controls a block of 151 deputies.

Throughout its rise, LFI has fiercely contested President Emmanuel Macron’s policies, including contentious reforms such as a highly controversial increase in the retirement age and a polarizing immigration law. LFI has denounced Macron for his perceived collaboration with the far-right Rassemblement National, evident in the passage of a new xenophobic immigration law. LFI has also criticized Macron’s government for using Article 49.3 of the French Constitution to push through controversial reforms. Article 49.3 is an undemocratic provision which allows the government to bypass parliament for certain kinds of legislation.

Since Israel first attacked Gaza, LFI has called on the French state and the European Union to push for a cease-fire and back the International Court of Justice’s ruling against Israel. As a result, it is regularly attacked by the French press and opponents on the right as antisemitic and soft on terrorism.

The Nation had the opportunity to interview Mathilde Panot, president of the LFI group in the National Assembly, in New York about these pressing issues. Elected to parliament in 2017 from Ivry-Sur-Seine, a working-class suburb southeast of Paris, Panot has emerged as a key voice for the left in Parliament, notably championing the recent constitutional reform enshrining the right to abortion in France.

—Jonah Birch

Jonah Birch: Your delegation just addressed the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, after you passed a reform to enshrine abortion rights in the French constitution. Can you tell us about how that was achieved?

Mathilde Panot: On March 4, France spoke to the world and made history, becoming the world’s first country to constitutionalize abortion rights. This is first of all a victory for the feminist activists and associations who have been fighting for decades to guarantee the right to abortion in our country’s highest law. It is a parliamentary victory, too, since I had the honor of passing the law for France Insoumise on November 24, 2022 [when the National Assembly voted for her initial bill]. Then it went on to the Senate, and we managed to win the Senate vote, too. And it was on March 8, 2023, that Emmanuel Macron promised to constitutionalize the right to abortion. And then… nothing. We petitioned, we demonstrated, we raised questions. Nothing happened. Finally, we managed to get a bill through parliamentary pressure, popular pressure, and the pressure from associations. So, this March 4, France became the first country in the world to constitutionally guarantee abortion.

For us, this is a really important signal for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who won’t have to relive the suffering of the generations that went before them. But most of all, it’s also a political signal for women all over the world who are fighting for the right to abortion. I’m particularly happy to have brought this to the United Nations. But also to the United States, where women in many states have lost these abortion rights. To women in Hungary, where they are forced to listen to the fetal heartbeat before they can have an abortion. To women in Poland, where six women have died since abortion was virtually outlawed. To women in Italy, where, like everywhere else, the far right first of all attacks women’s rights. I hope that this victory will lead to many other victories for these women who are fighting for the right to control their own bodies.

JB: France Insoumise has been very vocal about Palestine and has faced political and media attacks for that stance. How do you think you can reach the masses of French people while you’re facing these kinds of attack and the accusations of antisemitism and of softness on terrorism?

MP: First of all, I’d like to say that the huge majority of French people are for peace and for Palestinians’ right to live in dignity and security. I’m glad we could have a discussion meeting here with DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace. I believe that all over the world, people are showing that they are on the side of peace and absolutely reject the genocide that is taking place in Gaza. It’s a graveyard, an affront to our common humanity. We’ve just learned this shocking figure from the United Nations, telling us that in four months in Gaza more Palestinian children have died than in all the conflicts worldwide over the last four years. So, we’re seeing levels of horror that call into question our humanity.

What is happening in France is a way of silencing voices for peace. It’s happened to us. It’s also happened to some intellectuals and artists who’ve spoken out, and to trade unionists who have had police officers come and arrest them at 6 am just for writing a pro-peace leaflet. The president of the Jewish Union for Peace was arrested for taking part in a banned demonstration; indeed, for a month and a half, France banned demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

So, it’s a way of both intimidating and silencing voices for peace. I’m proud to be the president of a parliamentary group that has always spoken the language of peace and international law. And we won’t let up denouncing what is happening in Gaza, just as we will not stop calling for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire. We have tabled a resolution calling on France to finally recognize the state of Palestine at the United Nations, as 138 countries around the world have done already. We are also calling for sanctions against the state of Israel. Since Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017, France has issued sanctions against Venezuela. That means financial sanctions, sanctions on weapons, and even territorial bans for a number of Venezuelans. But refuses to put sanctions on Israel. So there’s a double standard that’s simply unacceptable, at this point.

We’re calling for sanctions, and we’re obviously asking for an arms embargo. We are here in the United States, together with Jewish Voice for Peace, because we know that this is where things can snap. Because if the United States stops giving its unconditional support to Benjamin Netanyahu, then he no longer has the means to continue the offensive he’s waging and the genocide of the Palestinian people. We have taken many pro-peace initiatives. Jean-Luc Mélenchon went to The Hague for the historic decision of the International Court of Justice, with the provisional measures against Israel—thanks to South Africa. We are truly grateful to South Africa. He went to Lebanon to warn of the risk of a widening conflict. A parliamentary delegation led by France Insoumise went to the Rafah border crossing to demand an immediate cease-fire. We also staged a major demonstration in Geneva, in front of the UN headquarters, to call for peace. So, they can smear us all they want. But we won’t keep quiet. We’ll continue to raise our voices loud and clear.

JB: Another major controversy over the winter was that the Macronites passed a new immigration law with the support of the Rassemblement National. This in general normalizes Le Pen and the far right, and in some ways it makes their positions on immigration more mainstream at the same time that Macron is demonizing the far left. What do you think the effect of this law will be politically? Are you afraid of the specific danger of the far right taking advantage of this?

MP: We should understand the line that’s been crossed. This is the first time since 1945 that the far right has voted to pass an immigration law. It’s never happened before, and it’s the first time that ideas put forward by Jean-Marie Le Pen—a Holocaust denier who said that the gas chambers were a “detail of history” and who tortured people in Algeria—and parts of his program, including “the priority for nationals [préférence nationale]” have been directly integrated into the law. This was not only done by the Macronists with far-right ideas but done with far-right votes, because if it hadn’t been for far-right votes, this law wouldn’t have passed. So they relied on far-right votes to push this law through. This is very serious in terms of the line that’s been crossed. It means that the bourgeoisie in this country has decided that, between us and them—and when the Macron camp collapses, it’ll be either us, the popular bloc or the far-right bloc—they prefer to defend their interests even if it means going with the far right. That’s the political signal that’s being sent out. And you’re starting to have a fusion of Emmanuel Macron’s extreme-market bloc and Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right bloc.

How can we fight this? First of all, the Constitutional Council has rebuked 40 percent of the law, which means that the worst things have been removed. But there are still some horrible things in there, so we’re telling the government that we’ll repeal this law. That’s the first thing. To fight this, I think we need to go with the masses. An interesting film that came out recently, which talks about the lists of grievances [cahiers de doléances] that had been made during the Yellow Vests, which was a revolt about people’s dignity, both about being able to live with dignity, but also about being able to decide to really be citizens of this country. Well, when you look at these lists, where you have hundreds of thousands of people expressing their grievances in notebooks in every town hall in France, less than 5 percent of the things people asked for have to do with security and immigration. The vast majority are about being able to live well, being able to live decently, being able to make decisions, demands about being able to live in the only ecosystem that is compatible with human life, i.e., things about ecology, things about women’s rights. So, nothing to do with the themes that the far right is constantly pushing to try to play on fears and build hatred between people rather than mutual aid and solidarity.

I think the only way to put a stop to what’s going on—with the media bought by the far right and billionaires constantly repeating that the far right is going to win the presidential elections in 2027—is to continue building the people’s bloc and getting people back to the polls. In France there are 10,000,000 of unregistered or incompletely registered voters. And if we can reduce the number of unregistered voters, i.e., get people on the electoral rolls, we can also reduce abstention. So, if a large number of people go to the polls, on the one day when their vote is worth exactly the same as Bernard Arnault’s—the richest man in France, if not the world—we win. We know that the vast majority can win and completely change the path they’re trying to take us down, both the Macronists and their allies in the system, the Rassemblement National, who vote hand in hand against pay rises, against the reintroduction of a solidarity tax on wealth, for rent rises, and so on. The far right is just a decoy which serves to keep their system going. But the people can change everything. That’s what history always teaches us.

JB: The left-wing coalition that France Insoumise initiated after the presidential election has basically collapsed. Or at least, it’s no longer functioning for the upcoming European elections. There was a lot of debate on the left about the aftermath of October 7. Do you think that the unity of the left-wing parties is important right now, and if so what will it take to make that happen?

MP: Just to remind you of the history of the NUPES. Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the L’avenir en commun program won 22 percent of the vote in the 2022 presidential elections, while the other three political partners in NUPES—Greens, Communists, and Socialists—won 5 percent, 2 percent, and 1.7 percent respectively. So, in 2022, the electorate decided on a program of rupture, which is what we in France Insoumise stood for. Given that we missed the second round of the presidential election by 400,000 votes, and that if it hadn’t been for the other candidates, we would have made the runoff, perhaps history would have been completely changed for our country and all those who live in it. We decided—to use Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s expression—to drop the grudges into the river. We proposed to strengthen the people’s bloc, to build NUPES around a program of government comprising 650 programmatic measures. All of the NUPES’s 151 MPs were elected on that program. Since then, our political partners have constantly tried to call this program into question—the Socialists saying, for example, that they no longer want to stand for retirement at 60, the others I don’t know what, and inventing pretexts to break up this people’s bloc that we had created.

I want to hammer home just how irresponsible this is faced with what is happening. The far right has reached power in multiple European countries, and it’s France that can open things up again, to invent another collective future. All the polls say that if the NUPES were united at the European elections, then we’d be the most-voted list, ahead of the far right and ahead of the Macronists. Obviously, the signal that would be sent to the country would be quite different from the one that is now being worked up, where the far right could well come first in the European elections.

But we will continue to uphold the program of the NUPES and to build the People’s Union, with all those who want it, even if the party machines do not. In particular in the list for the European elections, you have Anthony Smith, who is a labor inspector who has led an enormous struggle on the question of workers’ rights. You have Rima Hassan, a Franco Palestinian jurist and activist who speaks out on behalf of Palestinians. In this election. You have Damien Carême, who was a Green MEP and who has joined us, as well as a Green MP [Aurélien Taché] who has just supported our list, saying that he continues to support the NUPES program. You have the former coordinator of Générations, another party of NUPES, who has also joined our list with hundreds of militants who agree to keep going forward.

We insist that the people have the strength to change our history and that we’re continuing to carry forward the NUPES program, together with all those who want to come with us. And, I would remind you, that is the program that won the first round of the [2022] parliamentary elections.

JB: Let me ask you about relations with trade unions. At times, the unions have been very strong in the mobilization against Macron’s retirement reform. But the relationship between the left and the unions in France has not been close in recent years—in general, but particularly between the CGT and France Insoumise. The CGT now has a new president, Sophie Binet. What do you think of the relations between the parties and the unions: What should they be, and how do you see that relationship moving forward?

MP: The pension reform saw 90 or 95 percent of workers refusing to work when they are being robbed of two years of their lives by the pension age being pushed back from 62 to 64. Faced with the biggest protests and the biggest social movement we’ve had in France in 50 years, the National Assembly—pushed by the people and seeing the strength of the mobilizations—decided to change its vote. It was going to vote against retirement at 64. So, normally, it’s not possible to lose a battle like that. Now, we know that Emmanuel Macron used [Constitutional Article] 49.3 to prevent the National Assembly from voting, so that he could force the issue.

We know how much repression there was against the demonstrations. But we need to learn a lesson from this. The first lesson is that the unions refused what we were proposing, which was that there should be coordination between the unions, the political movements, and the workers’ collectives that would have helped lead and win that battle.

Since Sophie Binet became general secretary of the CGT, she has called for a normalization of relations with political parties. I can only see that as a good thing, since the previous general secretary spent part of his public statements bashing us, which I don’t think was at all useful at a time when everyone was fighting to bring down a reform that is going to spoil the lives of millions of people in France.

It’s good to normalize relations, but we haven’t yet reached the point of what we call a people’s federation or a people’s union, which really allows the forces from associations, trade union forces, and political forces to work together, to turn the tables on what’s happening and break with the system of social and ecological abuse in which we find ourselves. We did make some progress, for example after the police murdered Nahel [Merzouk, a teenager shot by police while driving away from a traffic stop] for “refusal to comply.” In a year and a half in France, we’ve had 16 deaths for “refusal to comply” with a police stop. Neighboring Germany has had one death in 10 years. With France Insoumise, ecologists, unions, and associations, there were around a hundred organizations who organized a huge demonstration to demand, among other things, the repeal of the law that has led to an explosion in the number of deaths due to refusal to comply. Similarly, on Palestine, we took the initiative with Urgence Palestine and various other collectives and trade unions in organizing demonstrations that took place when France finally authorized them, Palestine demonstrations that were held every Saturday.

I believe that the coordination of political, trade union, and associative forces must be much closer. In any case, that’s what we’re doing at France Insoumise, and that is also what enables us to win victories. That’s how we won on abortion. Let me remind you that Emmanuel Macron was against enshrining abortion in the Constitution. And we won because, with the associations, collectives, and parliamentarians, we met every month, sometimes several times a month, for over a year and a half, to win that battle.

JB: One of the unique features of French politics is that even though the old parties have become much weaker at the national level, they still have a lot of control locally. Whereas La France Insoumise is quite weak at the local level, and the far right is getting stronger there. Is there a path for France Insoumise and for the new parties of the left to get significant position in local government.

MP: We’re a young movement. We started France Insoumise in 2016, so it’s normal for it to take time to take root, building up little by little. Still, we’ve gone from 17 MPs in 2017 to 75 MPs in 2022 — that’s for France Insoumise, as part of the 151 MPs for NUPES. So, we’re gradually building strength in different places. And I don’t think there’s any reason why what resulted in 22 percent of people voting for the L’avenir en commun program promoted by Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2022 shouldn’t also be reflected in local elections, and in particular in the municipal contests that will take place in 2026. We’re going to continue working on this, starting with the European elections which will be taking place this June 9 in France. Now we’re working on voter registration, so that there won’t be another election without the people. We’re continuing our efforts in that sense.

JB: Obviously, before October 7, one of the attacks on France Insoumise was around its position on Ukraine. How would you describe its position on the Russian invasion and what the response should be to that?

MP: When Russia violated international law and started the war in Ukraine, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was traveling and so he was awake when it happened, I think it was at 3 am. We were the first to condemn the fact that Russia is violating international law and committing war crimes.

Since the start of the conflict our guiding principle has always been international law. We don’t believe in a warlike escalation between nuclear powers—that would be madness. Let me remind you that France is a nuclear power, and Russia is a nuclear power. So, we believe that negotiated solutions are needed. We proposed that there should be an OSCE peace conference, attended by Russia, Ukraine, thecountries of the European Union, and the United States. [The OSCE] was created at the height of the Cold War for this exact reason. We said it was necessary to find a diplomatic solution, with mutual security guarantees. We want France to work for peace. And, for example, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was the first to propose that the Blue Helmets should go and secure the Zaporizhzhia power plant and thus protect the whole of Europe from another nuclear accident. It would be a disaster wrapped within a disaster if there were a nuclear accident as well as the war in Ukraine.

We want to speak the language of peace at all times. We are the only political movement in France that has not only helped committed anti-war Russians to get out of the country but has also hosted them, including financially, for the last two years—that is, opponents of Vladimir Putin. We are working with Russians who totally disagree with the war being waged in Ukraine.

We don’t agree with the escalation of war. I must say that I’m very worried to see President Macron making this intervention, just a few days ago, saying that it’s not out of the question that troops could be sent to Ukraine—i.e., putting France in a cobelligerent status, in what would be a war between two nuclear powers. Added to that, Macron has once again humiliated France, since this claim was immediately denied by practically every country and even by NATO. This is drawing us into a warlike escalation. We will continue to be the camp of peace, no matter how we get painted.

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Jonah Birch

Jonah Birch has a PhD in sociology and is a contributing editor at Jacobin.

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