Interview with John Mullen (JM) carried out by International Socialists in the Netherlands (IS)
IS : I think it’s important to start off with the current crisis. Can you say something about what’s been happening in France?
JM: The virus in France has killed nearly 30 000 people, but the sanitary and the economic effect of the virus is at least twenty times worse because of capitalism. If we look specifically at the economic side – due to the lockdown, Gross National Product in France will probably be down ten or fifteen per cent this year. That is to say, it will be down to the level it was at around twelve years ago. In any rationally organized society, this would just be no big deal, we would just have a rest and then get on with it. But under capitalism it’s a catastrophe – profits are down, it is harder for French companies to compete abroad, economic warfare is strengthened, and the capitalists try to make the workers pay the cost of the crisis (as well as some of them trying to make money out of vaccines, masks and so on).
All social classes, but in particular the working class and the ruling class, will have their leadership tested by this crisis in a way which may not have happened since the Second World War. There could be hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs, thousands of companies going bankrupt and larger companies greedily buying them up cheap.
IS : So, what about Macron? What about the response of the French government and ruling class?
JM: Macron‘s mission, when he was elected in 2017 was to impose full-spectrum Thatcherism on French society, hiding behind a “neither right nor Left” fantasy. He wanted millions more unstable work contracts, privatizations, tuition fees, massive tax cuts for the rich, a fundamental and long term weakening of trade unions, a radical weakening and pauperization of local government and of public services. He wanted more private health care, privatized pensions, more police violence.
When the covid 19 crisis came along, Macron understood fairly quickly that this was a crisis of historic proportions, and he is showing a fairly long-term view of the interests of French capital. He has realized that if he takes French capitalism safely through this, he will be their hero.
Nevertheless, the lockdown came late and that cost many lives (although in the present political snowstorm it is not clear how visible and politically costly this mistake will be). Certainly far, far less was done about testing, ventilators and masks than should have been – industry wasn’t requisitioned, neither were private hospitals, and intensive-care wards barely survived the worst of the virus wave. And Macron had already been weakened by the mass strike movement to defend pensions, which I will talk about in a moment. So he has to tread carefully. Right now, polling says 39% are satisfied and 60% are unhappy with him.
IS : And was this an improvement on his ratings during the pensions struggle over the winter ?
JM: Macron was very unpopular indeed during the pensions struggle. At the beginning of the COVID crisis, as in many countries, his government got less unpopular. People are frightened and they want to believe the country is in good hands. But after only a few weeks, Macron is back to these very low figures. Sixty percent of the population against him – and far more than that among the working class.
In the present crisis, Macron’s central mantra is “put companies first”. So, during the lockdown, 8 million permanent workers who cannot work by internet are being been paid 80% of their wages by the state. After the lockdown, of course, companies will happily throw people out of work. And already there are terrible consequences.
In contrast, there is almost nothing done by the state to help people who cannot pay their rent, for example. In some other countries, rents for poor families have been cancelled, but not in France.
Many non-essential factories stayed open, and Macron’s only half-successful push to reopen the schools too early is aimed at defending business interests which wanted parents back at work. Meanwhile big companies like Air France are getting billions of euros in subsidies. The electronics chain store Darty got a state-guaranteed loan of 500 million euros, the huge DIY chain Castorama got 600 million. The furniture store chain Conforama is hoping for 300 million, which it says will, among other things, pay redundancy pay for the 2 000 it is planning to sack.
So there are few real surprises in Macron’s policies. But ideologically it’s very hard for his side. He has been claiming for years that what keeps France going is the start-up mentality, that his heroes are “that small group who pulls everyone up the mountain” (“les premiers de cordée”) and that reducing taxes for the rich and reducing state intervention in the economy is the exciting neoliberal future we need. And now, suddenly he has felt obliged to decide massive, unheard-of state aid for companies, and at the same time everyone is aware now that the people who really keep France going are the nurses and lorry drivers, refuse collectors and supermarket cashiers, cleaners and bus drivers .
So Macron does need to think about how he can get millions of workers to vote for him again. (He got eight and a half million votes in the first round in the presidential elections of 2017, and 21 million in the second-round run-off against Marine Le Pen).
Because, as I was saying, the crisis has shown up some of the vicious lies the system is built on. The state suddenly found a way to get most homeless people off the streets and into hotels. This was supposed to be impossible, but once homeless people were seen as a health risk rather than as suffering human beings, it was possible.
IS : So, what is Macron’s strategy likely to be in the coming months and years?
JM: There are two key areas – the economic and the governmental. Let us look first at the economy.
If the French state comes out from this crisis, it is going to borrow hundreds of billions of euros. Sooner or later (unless we overthrow capitalism) this will have to be paid back, which means either more taxes for the rich or more suffering for the workers. Now, the top 40 French companies alone made 80 billion euros profit between them in 2019. There’s plenty of money : but there are no prizes for guessing what Macron’s priority is going to be. His think-tank friends are already suggesting that the number of bank holidays, and the amount of paid leave for workers be reduced to help keep France competitive.
But he may well be obliged to make concessions to our side. Take the question of health workers. Every evening at 8pm, for months on end, people went to their windows and balconies to clap for the health workers. In my building, about a quarter of the fifty flats I can see from the windows were clapping almost every night. Nothing like this has ever been seen. The unions have called a day of action on June 16th for the health workers, and it could be huge. There have already been demonstrations in front of some hospitals.
Under the immense pressure, there may well be substantial wage raises for health workers, much more investment in hospitals, state support to stop some redundancies. He has been making surprisingly specific promises about health worker wages. He has been obliged to say publicly that he was wrong and that we need to put an end to poverty wages in the health system. Just this week a major negotiating round with health unions has been set up in record time, and expectations are high. The health minister is promising “radical changes”. Macron has also promised this week considerably more money for services for old people.
We cannot assume there will not be significant concessions in the short term. Of course any concessions he makes will also be mixed up with neoliberal priorities: more investment for hospitals, but an even bigger role for private companies, for example, and more performance pay, more obsessive management etc.
On the parliamentary side, Macron will also be trying to remould a governmental stability. He recently lost his parliamentary majority because a group of rebel MPs left his ramshackle party. He may move a bit to the Left, perhaps even in the hope of forming some sort of national government with other parties such as the Socialist Party. At the moment the Socialist Party is a very weak party, which got only 6% of the votes in the first round of the 2017 parliamentary elections, but it is a party which has a long history of bouncing back.
What tactics particular parties will try in a historic crisis is difficult to judge. What strategy the ruling class will follow, however, is easy to know : they will want workers to pay for the crisis by working longer hours, getting fewer public services, receiving lower pensions and benefits. The capitalist leopard will not change its spots.
IS : What has been the reaction of the French labour movement?
JM: There is a huge amount of suffering because of covid 19 and the economic shutdown. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of short- term contracts have not been renewed. Eight million workers have been temporarily laid off, usually with 80% wages. Three million self-employed have seen a big fall in their income. In poorer areas, 20 per cent or more of low-rent housing tenants have been unable to pay their rent. Demand for food banks has gone through the roof.
Trade union organization has been crucial, (and now incidentally is the time for a massive recruitment campaign to trade unions). During the lockdown, in several factories, workers’ action obliged the bosses to close down, like in the car gearbox factory in Montluçon. In other factories, the trade unions managed to delay reopening until safety measures were stronger. But Airbus continued building aeroplanes near Toulouse. And Michelin reopened some of its factories at the beginning of April. The CGT trade union federation has done a huge survey of 34 000 wage workers. Only 21% of those surveyed said safety measures like masks, gel etc. were completely satisfactory! Forty per cent said there were not enough masks. Thirty per cent of those who were obliged to keep working during the lockdown said that their work was not essential work. So, everywhere, profit tried hard to come before health.
Resistance has helped. The big freight depot just north of Paris, Geodis, has 300 workers. At first the boss’s provided one canister of gel for all of them: it lasted three hours. Trade-unionists begged borrowed and distributed face masks and then organized a two-hour strike which won better protection.
Trade unions took Amazon to court and closed down its activities except food delivery for months because working conditions were not safe. Resistance from teachers delayed the reopening of the schools and reduced class sizes to fewer than ten children in most towns. Last week bus drivers in Orleans went on strike for more frequent disinfecting of buses and drivers are planning a strike next week in Lorient to demand better safety conditions. In Poitiers, refuse workers went on strike for similar reasons. There are quite a number of other examples. Union Resistance has been key.
IS: And what about Left wing organisations, what has been their reaction to the crisis?
JM: Left wing organizations have found it a difficult time, and there has been a real paralysis. Lockdown is a time when it is easier for parliamentary parties than activists to be visible, because they can get on the television etc. Very large numbers of Left activists, but also trade unionists, Christians, Muslims, etc. have been involved with food banks – there are a lot of hungry people around – at a guess at least five times more than usual. In my town, the Communist Party, the France Insoumise and the anarchists are all involved in organizing food collections. Socialist party branches also do this. It is important to be involved.
Radical Left groups like the France Insoumise (“France in revolt”) or the New Anticapitalist Party have been having online public meetings, including some with representatives from different people in struggle. A tiny minority on the far Left foolishly campaigned against the lockdown.
It is crucial what the Left and trade unionists do. With the threat of cuts, redundancies, and dangerous working conditions multiplied by the new situation, it seems to me it would be the perfect time for a massive recruitment campaign in all trade unions. And for the wider movement, we need a small number of clear and simple slogans – free masks! Double the health budget for the next ten years! Things like that. As the lockdown is gradually lifted, it will be easier to organize resistance on the streets, even if this still poses complex problems.
IS: The labour movement in France has been quite combative over the past decade, and this culminated in a huge mobilisation against Macron’s neoliberal pension reforms. Could you tell us a little bit about this strike wave, and how successful it was?
JM: The level of class struggle and class consciousness in France is high and has been for quite some time. In the last couple years there have been two huge movements. First there was the Yellow Vest movement, which started in October 2018 and lasted over a year. The Yellow Vests were an inspiration. Rooted in the small-town working class, traditionally little-mobilised, the movement transformed many thousands in the struggle. In my working-class French family in the South West, I found some people who previously ‘never talked politics’ were enthusiastically involved, and arguing, with all the facts at their fingertips, about tax policy or police violence.
Every weekend for over six months saw between 20,000 and 160,000 protesting. Macron was humiliated every Saturday by joyful Yellow Vests and imaginative action, whether blocking motorway toll booths, picketing tax-avoiding multinationals, or forcing their way into a ministerial HQ with a handy fork-lift truck. The movement had consistently more than 50% public support. They succeeded in keeping worker poverty and pensioner poverty on the front pages, and government concessions were insufficient but real: more money for minimum-wage workers, less tax for pensioners, re-indexation of lower retirement pensions on inflation, a moratorium on hospital and school closures.
It showed how unity across very different movements was possible. Joint demonstrations were held by the Yellow Vests with environmental protesters, with women’s rights marchers, with campaigns against homelessness and with striking teachers; Black groups campaigning against police violence also joined with the Yellow Vests. Of course, there were people getting involved who had voted for the National front: but ten million people voted fascist in 2017. Building mass revolt without talking to these people is a ludicrous fantasy.
This movement was followed by an enormous strike wave against the slashing of pensions. Mass strikes in transport, on the docks, among refuse collectors and teachers, among court workers and retail workers stood up against Macron’s plan to transform the pension system and in particular take millions of public workers off a final-salary system and onto a points-based, lifetime-salary system. The government’s aim was to pave the way for privatizing pensions later. Macron was extremely determined despite seven national days of action with millions on the streets in a very popular revolt. He was obliged – in December I think – to make a big concession – his new system, he announced, would not apply to everyone born after 1963, as had been the plan, but to everyone born after 1975. Nevertheless the revolt went on, and when the coronavirus crisis hit, Macron (with some of his own MPs no longer supporting him) decided to shelve the reform. I think this counts as a victory for the workers movement – if there had been no revolt, the new system would have been in place eight months ago, and applying to millions more workers.
IS: So we can take a lot of inspiration from the French labour movement and workers struggle, more generally, but perhaps one area where there are real problems within the French Left is with regards to islamophobia. I know you are quite passionate about this issue. Can you tell us a little more about the French Left’s relationship to islamophobia?
JM: Yes indeed. Islamophobia has been a historical blind spot on the French Left, which we should be very ashamed of. There is a long tradition of hard-line secularism, and generations of Left activists have assumed that detesting believers is part of being on the Left. So when, in the 21st century, the new enemy on an international scale seemed to be certain groups of jihadist Muslims, this anti-believer nonsense hit French Muslims very hard. Most of the Left, including most revolutionaries, supported or ignored the islamophobic laws of 2004, when high school students wearing headscarves were expelled from school, and the law of 2010 banning women wearing the face veil (niqab) from leaving their homes and walking the streets.
Because the Left would not defend Muslims, the question became a perfect gift to the right, who could divert attention from social issues by fabricating scandals, like the one about full-body swimsuits on beaches two years back.
The situation on the Left today is better than twenty years ago. In 2004 the demonstrations in Paris against the islamophobic law were often of two hundred people and I knew half of them. Last December in Paris many thousands marched against islamophobia, singing adaptations of Yellow Vest marching songs. Still most Left groups only sent a few dozen people, the issue remains absolutely explosive inside each radical Left organization ( including the NPA and the France Insoumise) and the leaderships of the organizations tend to try to desperately avoid the question. But as I said things are slowly improving. The joint slate presented by the NPA and the France Insoumise at the municipal elections in Bordeaux three months ago explicitly mentioned opposing islamophobia.
IS: Continuing with the issue of racism and islamophobia, I want to talk a bit about the current state of the far-right and fascism in France. In the political realm, the FN received around 10 million votes in the last presidential elections. Have the National Front consolidated their worryingly strong position?
JM: The short answer is no, although they remain a grave danger. The RN (they changed their name recently to National Rally) got ten and a half million votes at the second round run-off of the presidential elections in 2017 and three million votes in the parliamentary elections immediately afterwards. Before the recent municipal elections, 14% of the electorate said they supported them. That’s a lot of support and it needs explaining.
The RN has been very successful in persuading a lot of the population that they are no longer fascist, and that the other parties have been tried, but the RN is new. Marine Le Pen s father, Jean Marie Le Pen, was expelled from the organization because he could not stop himself from regularly declaring that the murder of six million Jews was not important to him.
But for a party that reached a peak of ten million votes, the RN has not much managed to translate that into grassroots activists and structures. They can never get more than a few thousand out on a demonstration, and in many towns cannot campaign openly at election time because of antifascists. They claim 40 000 paying members, but certainly have fewer activists on the streets than five years ago. Developing local roots is not generally going well for them. At the local elections in March 2020, they stood in 262 of the larger towns (over 10 000 inhabitants). In 2014 they stood in 369. In 2014, they got over ten per cent of the vote in 317 of these towns. In 2020, this only happened in 136. Nevertheless, there was dreadful news from Perpignan, which has 120 000 inhabitants and where the RN now control the town council, (and they were re-elected at the head of several town councils they already controlled).
The three last major episodes in French political life – the Yellow Vest movement, the fight against pensions and the present COVID 19 crisis have all posed severe difficulties for the RN. The Yellow Vest movement was very popular and was repressed with extreme police violence- over 4 000 people injured. And popular opinion about this violence was very hostile to the police. Although the far right wanted to see this movement as a movement of the little people against the elite, and would probably be encouraged by the fact that it tended to prioritize demands which would not alienate the many small employers and self-employed involved in the movement, it had a problem. The fascists cannot denounce police violence: their support within the police force is huge. So Marine Le Pen tended to be side-lined, and excellent work by Left activists among the Yellow Vest made sure that the far-right elements became marginalized as the months went by.
The struggle to defend pensions was also hard for the fascists. When you have a massive class-conscious fight, the far-right politicians have much more difficulty getting traction. They could not support the class in its fight, but to oppose it was impossible too. Finally with the covid 19 crisis, Marine Le Pen’s popularity ratings are up and down all the time, though 20% of those polled consider that she would do a better job than Macron in this crisis. Her refrain that the main solution to the covid crisis is to close the borders has not gained much popularity. This despite Marine Le Pen’s attempt at poetry, declaring “our borders are like our skin – they are supposed to let in what is good and keep out what is bad”. She also claimed that towns with a high immigrant population were not respecting the lockdown. In reality, death rates were higher in these towns, largely because of the high proportion of care workers, cleaners and so on who kept society running, while Le Pen resided in one of the several manor houses she possesses.
So Le Pen is struggling to be visible politically – she loudly criticizing government policy failings on medical equipment and so on, but having any answers which will win her more support. The central problem remains the same though – if the radical Left cannot put forward a visible radical proposal for the rapidly deepening problems of workers, the temptation to move to the far right will be ever more real.
IS: You identify as a revolutionary socialist but you are also a supporter of the France Insoumise, who are a Left-populist, but also a somewhat nationalist and certainly reformist organization. As a revolutionary socialist, why did you join them and not the NPA, for example? And relatedly, how do you reconcile the somewhat opposing positions of being a revolutionary and engaging with reformist parties?
JM: That seems to be three questions in one: What should revolutionaries do with reformism? What is the nature of the France Insoumise? and What should revolutionaries in France do right now? These are huge questions which need to be widely and fraternally debated.
Being a revolutionary is not a matter of identification, but of ideas. I’m a revolutionary because the present economic system – where all the crucial decisions are made based on what can make a profit, what will reassure the markets, what will make the nation stronger against other capitalist nations – this system is not going to change; it is not going to learn how to abolish poverty, hunger and homelessness, fix the climate and stop alienation being a central feature of our lives. So we need a revolution, and revolutionaries have to be organized – we need a revolutionary party.
At the same time, most of a revolutionary’s job is talking to reformists, because most workers are reformist. Reformist ideas are reborn again and again from the class struggle. Those revolutionaries who think reformism can no longer exist are condemned to irrelevancy, and sadly we have quite a few of them in France. We don’t need more pure revolutionary shopkeepers.
Any revolutionary socialist living in a country where there is no mass revolutionary has to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of the various smallish revolutionary groups and where it is best to work. Now I wouldn’t want to get into giving out good and bad marks to comrades who are doing more stuff than I am, but I was a member of the New Anticapitalist Party and its predecessor for almost ten years. They have hundreds of excellent grassroots campaigners, but a number of weaknesses . Firstly, it is extremely federal – each town does their own thing. In local elections in March the NPA stood jointly with the France Insoumise in Bordeaux, (the slate got 11% of the vote), but in other towns they stood against the France Insoumise, and in others they called to vote for small Trotskyist groups. This federalism is a real problem for me – the NPA is more a network than a party. Secondly, internal factions are very prominent in the NPA in a way I don’t find helpful.
But mostly the national organization and its newspaper is very sectarian against the new reformist movement, la France Insoumise. It is literally the case (as a quick google search will show) that the FI leader Jean Luc Mélenchon is only mentioned in the NPA paper to be denounced. I think the correct approach would be more like that of the SWP last year concerning Corbyn’s reformist leadership last year. Defend Corbyn, defend whole chunks of his program, and patiently explain why it does not go far enough and why there is danger ahead.
What does the France Insoumise represent? It does not have members, but supporters, and it is quite possible, if you find it useful, to be both a member of a far Left party and an active supporter of the France Insoumise – quite a few people are. There are a couple of smallish groups who are inside the France Insoumise and who publish revolutionary newspapers. This is allowed. So it seems to me it is a milieu where a revolutionary can be open about his or her ideas.
Personally, I think that “Left populist” is not a very useful description of the movement, although Mélenchon and his team do take some ideas from Left theorists like Mouffe and Laclau. Indeed, when Mélenchon a few years back had a long public conversation with Chantal Mouffe, one of the theoreticians of Left populism, what was visible was the huge difference between them. Mélenchon likes to repeat that the only limit which is placed on exploitation is the resistance by the exploited. He speaks of a citizens’ revolution. In a pamphlet published this month, this is what he wrote
“Our analysis is that the present period could end with a revolutionary event in which citizens take control over the power structures in society. But we are aware also that it could go the other way, and end with a far tighter control over citizens by the power structures”.
Now these are not my words: I am a Marxist. But a team based on this kind of perspective and which got seven million votes is worth taking seriously and working with.
It is not accurate to describe the France Insoumise as a nationalist organization. A good part of the leadership goes for a kind of Left patriotism. They like to say “the real French tradition is not colonialism and racism. The fascists say the French tradition is about superiority and racism. The French tradition we want to celebrate is the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, Jean Jaurès!” Just like the Yellow Vest movement, the leadership of the France Insoumise sometimes uses the tricolour flag. Now there are plenty of problems with this approach, which need to be talked about, but to pretend it is similar to Le Pen’s nationalism, as many rather foolish journalists do, is simply not correct or helpful.
The France Insoumise has some revolutionaries in it, but it is a reformist movement. It got seven million votes at the presidential elections on a programme very similar to Corbynism, which included nationalization of energy companies, of pharmaceutical companies and some banks, the end of nuclear power and a move to 100% renewable energy, the establishment of a maximum salary, a shorter working week, building a million low-rent houses, retirement at sixty, leaving NATO, free school canteens and a free health service.
And the role of the France Insoumise has been positive in recent struggles. Mélenchon and the 17 MPs of the France Insoumise in parliament have been harrying Macron at every turn. They are demanding that going back to work should be controlled by workers committees in each workplace, that the pharmaceutical industry be nationalized, and a whole series of other fine things.
They have helped put the struggles of the Yellow Vests, of the defence of pensions, and many others, onto the platform of parliament and into the television studios. At the moment they are campaigning for masks to be distributed free, and for it to be banned for one year to stop money for an unemployed person for whatever reason, and they have been supporting the campaign for mass testing and the campaign to keep schools closed until it’s safe. Other France Insoumise proposals presented in parliament include that funeral bills for those who die of the virus be paid for the state, that banks be obliged to cut their fees when people go overdrawn. In every area, people before profit.
Now the programme has plenty of weaknesses. There is certainly nothing like a clear understanding of what French imperialism is doing in the world. And the centrality of islamophobia in today’s racism is very unclear ( as in all French Left organizations). But it seems good to me for revolutionaries to work in the France Insoumise, popularizing this programme, and certainly better than simple outside denunciation.
At the same time, the general problem of what the ruling class will do if a strong Left reformist organization gets in the government is a crucial question. We have to work to prepare people for what happens afterwards. What happens if the France Insoumise gets many dozens of MPs elected, but to be the government would need an alliance with other organizations? What is an acceptable compromise? We need to be having these debates. The advantage of having them in the milieu of the France Insoumise is you can be talking to many thousands and not to a few hundred.
IS: Finally, what do you think will happen over the next short period in France?
JM: Many commentators are expecting a high level of conflict between the president of the rich and the mass of workers. I already mentioned the health sector, but there are many more. Macron’s new neoliberal attack on universities is going into parliament in a week or two. And a huge wave of redundancies across the economy, along with rising poverty, means there will be resistance. Renault has just announced 5000 redundancies. Airbnb, Uber, André, General Electric, Air France, Airbus and others have also announced job cuts.
But there is also resistance. The international private care home company, Korian, faced with a fightback, just said they would give a 1500 euro bonus to all their staff… There is plenty of work to be done both building resistance, and building clarity about what capitalism can reform, what it can’t reform, and how to overthrow the dictatorship of profit.