There Is Nothing More Anti-Capitalist Than “The People First“

The candidate of the Front de gauche in the French presidential election (22 April and 6 May), Jean-Luc Mélenchon is interviewed by the editors of the weekly magazine l’Humanité Dimanche.

The candidate of the Front de gauche is now above 10% [i] in the opinion polls. The credibility of this campaign was again reinforced by the immense popular success of the march to the Place de la Bastille on 18 March.

For l’Humanité Dimanche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon explains the meaning of the citizens’ revolution, specifies the first measures that the government of the Front de gauche will place on the workbench once in power, and describes the steps to be taken in order to impose these measures on the French and European oligarchy.

The Effects of the Campaign of the Front de gauche

HD: To the surprise of many, your proposals to track down the rich in their fiscal exile has found an echo, when even Nicolas Sarkozy makes a feint in their direction (pretends to threaten them).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: This goes to show that the political space occupied by the Front de gauche continues to grow. Our words, our vocabulary, are no longer marginalized, as they were in the decades 1990 and 2000. In 2007, the hegemony of the ideas of the right reached their paroxysm. It was a period when they hammered us with the idea that everything should be managed “like a private enterprise”. It was also the moment when the social [ii] movement caved in, when the Socialist Party (PS) renounced its singularity with respect to European social democracy by placing in question (abandoning) its central alliance with the communists.

After this crushing cultural victory, Nicolas Sarkozy sought to break the main social fortress by enacting the LRU [iii] the objective of which was to deliver the education system to the private market, and by attacking the workers’ fortress, as represented by the railway workers.

Today, the Sarkozy government is up to its neck in a situation it no longer controls. There is no longer any room for a popular renewal of Sarkozysm.

Meanwhile, the question “What to do otherwise?” remains unanswered. Voters are tip-toeing. 40% of voters say they are on the left or on the right. Others, a majority, are still waiting, watching in expectation. There is rejection of neo-liberalism and recognition of the fact that capitalism does not work any more. In view of this, the various political forces attempt to find some old foothold. Nicolas Sarkozy uses the triangulation method so dear to Tony Blair, which consists of taking the words of his adversaries in order to empty them of their meaning.

The Sharing of Wealth

HD: François Hollande, also, bounced back on your proposition, with the Front de gauche, to tax the very high salaries.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: That’s true. But the proposition by the Socialist candidate to create a tax bracket at 75% for salaries over a million euros was just something scribbled on a table mat. For proof, note that between the fifth and sixth brackets you would pass from a 45% to a 75% tax rate. No fiscal system can propose such a jump up between two consecutive brackets. The progressive taxation curve should be smooth. As another proof of this amateurish approach, when they question François Hollande about what he proposed to do, for example, with the fiscal exiles, he said he will count on their patriotism. Funny idea! Capital, by definition, has no country. The problem is that this sort of amateurish approach damages the credibility of a good idea. In order to avoid its crash, I re-entered the debate, explaining that the differential taxation between what the financial exile pays in the country where the income is declared, and that which he would have to pay on the same income in France, should be paid to France. With these two examples, tracking down the fiscal deserters and taxing big revenues, we arrive already at the triumph of “concrete radicality”.

And that’s not all: the Front de gauchenot only has a radical position but is capable of explaining how it intends to put it in motion, whereas our adversary remains muddled and vague, with approximations. My candidacy is not one that simply takes postures before events. We weigh in directly to the debate in the electoral campaign.

What Will Change Immediately

HD: To which measures will you give priority, assuming you’re successful in May?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: As agreed to by the Front de gauche, we will organize the election of a Constituent Assembly, after having installed a meter for the electric system in the apartment at the Elysée that I will occupy. [Laughter] I prefer to live at the office. It’s easier to work. First measure, then, the election of a constituent assembly, to put an end to the Fifth Republic, this 5-year renewable monarchy.

Then, a series of measures creating a “social breathing space”. We make ordinary contracts (of unspecified duration) for the 800,000 persons in precarious employment within the public service. This means progress in the life of all the people. The possibility to settle down, to build a life. For the country, it means a renewal of activity. Another measure, the increase of the minimum wage (SMIC). We want to bring it to 1700€ gross per month. For thousands of people, this means a transformation of their daily life. The passage from accounts always in the red to those with a touch of green.

These two measures are feminist measures. 80% of wage earners paid at the minimum wage are women, and they make up 60% of those with precarious positions in the public service.

We will proceed to the installation of a committee for ecological planning. The first work of the committee will be to organize the debate on the nuclear power issue, which will be decided by a referendum. Will the question that we pose be “yes or no” to the nuclear? It’s the plans for the production and management of energy that must be submitted to referendum.

Then comes the European question. No question of remaining in this present straightjacket. We will organize a referendum on the most recent treaty of the MES (European Security Mechanism).

Finally, we will get out of NATO during the month of May. And, of course, withdraw our troops from Afghanistan. We will build a new anti-globalization alliance. The world-wide economic model is beginning to branch into two. The United States of America is losing its hegemony. They have only one relative advantage left – their 700 military bases on five continents. A wounded animal is dangerous. It is a question also of revaluing the role of the United Nations.

In the Face of the European Union

HD: In a Europe where the majority of governments follow the logic of neo-liberalism, how can one succeed in imposing these measures?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: In any case, whoever is elected will be under attack. If it is Nicolas Sarkozy, he will be under pressure from the bond-rating agencies. If it is Hollande, the pressure will be equally great. We have the proof before our eyes that it has been the social-democrats who have given in to international finance. In the beginning, in Greece, then Portugal, then Spain. These events are comparable to the vote on credits for the war in 1917. The offensive [iv] would never have taken place if Greece had resisted. Resistance on their part would have forced the European Central Bank to intervene much earlier to purchase the Greek debt and to suffocate the speculation. So we have to develop a relationship with the popular forces. The more France is welded to the objectives of the citizens’ revolution, the more the forces of international finance will be dissuaded from their attacks.

We must “engage” our European partners in a discussion in which nationalism is not an issue. There is no German solution, no French solution. There are solutions on the right and on the left. We must work for convergence among nations. The Germans will vote one year from now. So we have one year to prove that we are advancing. In a way, we have to open a breach into which the Germans can rush.

At the same time, we have to develop a dialogue based on rational argument. We must draw up plans that are suitable for each nation, in such a way, for example, that the Germans bear in mind our needs, as we do theirs. Germany has an ageing population. They must take care for their pension funds, since their retirement system relies more and more on capitalization. This again is costly, and risks rendering unstable the balance of accounts in the society. Finally, Germany’s expansion, founded on manufacturing and export of intermediate goods is menaced both by China and India. On this side of the border, France must face up to its demographic growth. In 30 years this country will be the most populous in Europe. The market cannot respond to this issue. To manage, France has the obligation to develop its public sector finances. Beginning this way, it is a question of constructing a monetary policy that satisfies everyone.

What “Useful Vote”?

HD: In the face of polls that place their candidate high on the ladder, certain members of the Socialist Party are trying to ride with the theme of the “useful vote” [v].

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: It’s up to the Socialists to ask themselves why their campaign so lacks dynamics. That’s what they should do first. The “useful vote”, in present circumstances, is totally meaningless. Madame Le Pen has 10% in the polls, almost 5 percentage points behind. So there is no possibility at all of eliminating all left-wing candidates from the second round of the elections. The Socialists have decreed that they should be placed as high as possible, without making proposals meriting that level of support. In 1981, Mitterrand was second, and he won. In 1995, Jospin was first, and he lost.

I analyze these appeals for a “useful vote” as a sign of panic in François Hollande’s campaign. They no longer know what to do. The last stick of wood has been thrown on the fire, a badly pieced-together theme, their taxation at 75%. There are still plenty of good ideas they can take from us: the maximum salary, for instance.

François Hollande could, for example, make an announcement about the minimum wage. That’s something that would advance his cause. The disorientation on their part has led them to create a situation of division on the left. When you start to wave your hands about the “useful vote”, you create trouble on the left.


HD: How about participation in a government directed by the Socialist Party?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: No context for such participation has been established, and this is not of our doing. We are serious people. We made a public offer to debate last August, and I reiterated that offer up until the end of the year 2011. We have never had a reply, nothing but haughty disdain. What’s more, François Hollande said in his broadcast Les Paroles et Les Actes that he had nothing to discuss, that we should just join him. That is not conceivable. We have clearly stated what we will do if we end up leading the left wing. If this is the case, we will immediately open a discussion with those socialists who wish to govern with theFront de gauche. This is the traditional logic of the union of forces on the left. What is totally new is the attitude of François Hollande, who has said not only that he has nothing to negotiate, but also anyone else can join in. This means that, in his eyes, there is no difference between François Bayrou and the Front de gauche. TheFront de gauche is a political reality, and the Socialists had better get the idea through their heads that it is not assimilable with their habitual baggage, which is the Parti radicale de gauche, the greens, and the Chevenementists.

The Front de gauche is an entirely new political construction. It has a capacity to attract: we registered, on the same day earlier this week, the support for the candidacy of the Front de gauche by Paul Ariès and some anti-growth ecologists, and by Didier Motchane. Naturally, I have not become a anti-growth ecologist by virtue of Paul Ariès joining the Front de gauche, nor have my comrades. But the margin that permits these political forces to join in common battles is sufficiently clearly perceived, in order that one of the philosophers of anti-growth ecology, Jacques Testart, finds himself comfortable with the propositions of theFront de gauche. This is a new political fact.


HD: The present forms of globalization make inequalities more severe, and are worrisome. Some people predict the return of a type of protectionism.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: There are two postulates in contradiction. One says “The world will be better if it is open,” with, as corollary, unrestrained competition and free circulation of merchandise. This is the point of view of the social-liberals and is written into the Treaty of Lisbon. It is not just unrestrained competition within the European Union, but between Europe and the rest of the world.

The other postulate constructs a multipolar world, organized by regional entities in cooperation. We think that Europe offers a good scale for work toward an internal market that is self-sufficient. Our political purpose is to relocalize. We challenge anyone to prove that the generalized free market has increased productivity and quality of life in the world. That is false, and the contrary is true. When, in a country, you replace a local agricultural production, not always rendered monetary, by an agriculture for export, this shows up in the international statistics. But at home, no one has food to eat any more.

Ecological Planning

HD: And in France?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: On the national level, also, there are two doctrines. One of “supply”, the other of “demand”. In the “supply” doctrine, you lower the price and increase the performance of the object by innovation. You do lots of advertising in the hope of finding customers. Then there is the “demand” doctrine. This starts with the question “What do we need?” For example, we need, for the transition in energy production, to install 200 deep geothermal plants, located in different places across the land. Then we need steel works. But steel works pollute a lot, so we have to make them less polluting. We know how to do this. So we say, “We won’t let our steel plants close and relocate.” This proves that we must set up democratic planning, in order not to make mistakes. A regional council, a departmental assembly, are good places to discuss that sort of planning. We have thousands of democratic structures that the present government is trying to kill with their “territorial reform.” The liberals plan the invasion by the market, and they choose, as regulators, the market norms. But we, we plan ecological and social change, and choose, as regulator, the citizen.

We all know that the essential question in the organization of production in the European Union is social dumping. No matter in which country production takes place, the requirement for quality is the same, so it’s not the content of the work that is in question, but the pay received by the worker. So we run head on into a purely political question. And we have a solution: put an end to social dumping. It is clear that we cannot impose the same minimum wage everywhere at the same time. We’ll set up zones, and criteria for convergence.

Then, between the European Union and the exterior, we have to bring back delocalized production. For this, there will be a kilometer tax, and environmental visas. Why do 3 out of 5 Renault automobiles purchased in France come from the Maghreb? Look: it’s a fine thing that Renault automobiles are made in the Maghreb, but I hold that the workers in Tangiers should have the same pay, and that we sell those cars in the Maghreb, not in the European Union.

So, yes, in order to prevent delocalization we have to take control of certain privately owned means of production, even if it be by requisition. Can we do that? Yes. We have Book 4 of the Penal Code, which punishes those who, under the influence of a foreign agency, act against the fundamental interests of the nation. Everything necessary is already provided in the law as it stands today, except for the punishment of economic crime. OK, we’ll have to see to that.


HD: What rights for foreign workers?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: Already there are thousands of workers who are placed at the disposition of their bosses by the Bolkestein directives. With us, that’s finished. It’s illegal. How do we check? We increase the number of workplace inspectors and ask the unionized workers for their assistance. And there’s also the citizens’ revolution. It is absolutely vain to think one can cheat with us once the law says: it is illegal to bring a worker into France if he is paid less than required by French law. The European Commission should get busy on this. The British have the right to opt-out, a right they exercise in order to establish social norms lower than ours, and we wouldn’t have the right to do the contrary?

Then there are the workers without official papers. Well, the solution is to give papers to those workers who do not have them. First of all, because we don’t want people to live in fear. Secondly, we want these workers to lead a decent, normal life, and to be able to exercise their rights, so that they won’t be used as pawns in lowering working conditions and salaries.

In the Face of theFront National

HD: You have made the ideas of the extreme right, spread by the Front National, an important target of your campaign.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: The Front de gauche has derailed the train of “de-demonization” of the Front National. This result cannot be attributed to anyone else. Madame Le Pen had all the qualifications she desired. For no one challenged the qualifications she claimed for herself: that of being a supporter of seculalrism when in fact that she is anti-Moslem, or that of being a feminist when she is against abortion. We accepted the task to let nothing slip by from the Front National, and we won’t stop. And I repeat, the progress of the extreme right amongst working people is a process of extreme right indoctrination of people who normally support the right wing. It is true, since a certain left had nothing to propose to the working class, the weaker minds let themselves be tempted, but this is a residual phenomenon.

I emphasize that we deliberately hit home on the question of abortion because it lies at the heart of the differences between them and us. Are all humans equal in rights and in law? If a man can decide concerning his own fecundity, should a woman not also do so?


HD: What do you think of the call of the CGT to vote against Sarkozy?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: It is an important event. Because it has two new aspects. It is a form of involvement in the presidential campaign that is respectful of the autonomy and independence not only of the union but also of the political organizations. The union sets forth its own priorities and calls upon the collective intelligence in order that each citizen, starting with his own social interests, freely determines the political form that best answers to them. This step is important to us as citizens of the republic. To be honest, it would be in no one’s interest that the CGT call for a vote for one or another candidate on the left. That’s not what is expected of them.

The CGT text supports the social imperatives of our campaign. It has posed a question of each citizen, proposing a basis of reflection upon which to make a decision, contrary to what the right and the social-liberals want. The right wants an emotional vote, against foreigners, a nationalist vote. The social-liberals want a “useful vote”, that is, a vote that you make, closing your eyes, no matter what the content, as if you were betting on a horse race. Every step that structures reflection and anchors it in reality is an enormous advantage for us.

What is more, it is a secret to no one that the program of theFront de gauche was written starting with forums that we organized and from what was proposed by the social forces and the unions. For example, the level at which to set the minimum wage. Force ouvrière asked that it be about 1300€ net, which comes to 1700 gross, which we propose. My first address to the workers at Fralib, on 20 June, was to say “This campaign will serve to render visible what is invisible.” And that’s what we have done. We have managed to put into this campaign the factories, the working class, the rich, and over-accumulation. We have managed to crystallize all that.

The Meaning of Life

HD: You often evoke the question of happiness. Do people respond to this?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: Yes, I speak of happiness, of love. These are the things that count in life. We are moving at counter-current to a culture that speaks only in numbers, in money. I add that it is impossible to live happily in an ocean of grief. One never draws up the balance sheet of what it costs when people are deprived of happiness. I don’t wish to justify a right to happiness, but I do say that it costs less to live happily than to organize grief. To treat people’s ills costs less to the society than to leave them sick. The Front de gauche cannot initiate its program and sidestep all that. There is nothing more anti-capitalist than l’Humain d’abord (The human being, first). It’s the opposite of “cash first”.

What is human, after all? As social beings we are determined by a certain parallelism of exchange. But what is properly human is what you give in return for nothing, what is for free. Capitalism is the appropriation of costlessness, an exploitation of costlessness. Because one pays to an employee only a part of the value he produces. That’s the reason why we carry on the battle for free time. I believe that the central value of costlessness is love. The most manifest proof of the disinterestedness of human behaviour is love. We must not be afraid to talk about it. It is a radical notion. I remember this unbeatable sentence by Saint-Just: “Happiness is a new idea in Europe.”

Photos by the translator, taken during a viewing, 29 March, at the “Usine”, headquarters for the campaign of the Front de gauche in Les Lilas, suburb of Paris, of a documentary film on suffering at work, by Marcel Trillat et Cécile Mabileau, followed by a discussion involving Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Bernard Gori. The session was chaired by Yves Husson, journalist at l’Humanité.

Translator’s note: In the lapse of time necessary to complete this translation, this opinion poll figure has risen to 15% (1 April — No joke!)

The term “social” is employed in this article in its primary signification: “capable of being associated or united in a human community”, and designates the interests of the working class and people as a whole. It is not here used in its diluted form, quite common in American English, where it refers rather to festive gatherings. In a similar vein, the term “people” does not refer to the the subject of the so-called “popular press”, tracked by the “papparazzi” and abstracted from humanity to become consumers.

loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités, Law relative to the liberties and responsibilities of universities, which transfers new powers to the presidents of universities to control their budgets and human resources, and introduces a ranking of educational institutions, a move toward competition and privatization.

against Europe

The same argument used in the United States, to discourage people from voting for a third-party candidate.

(Translated from the print version of l’Humanité Dimanche by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Bill Scoble and Isabelle Métral.)