From Austeritarian Europe: An Interview with Jean-Luc Mélenchon

By Iddhis Bing

Paris, Ocober 5, 2012.

       Love him or loath him, Jean-Luc Mélenchon knows how to put his finger in the wound, and he does it with a skill most of today’s politicos would kill for. 

        While the French press, and to a limited extent, the American, react to François Hollande’s proposed 75% "wealth tax" (would there were a candidate in the U.S. mad enough to propose that) a much larger battle is shaping up: that of the European Fiscal Stability Treaty. Rumbles of discontent are making themselves heard throughout France, from the right as well as the left, and if the polls are to be believed, from citizens of no discernable ideological stripe.

        If Marine le Pen of the National Front is a reliable source of gibberish about anything to do with Europe, the fact remains that in numerous polls, a majority, however slim, of the French want the treaty to be voted on in a referendum, a possibility that causes no end of angst among the technocrats overseeing the creation of a new mega-state. Democratic consultation is not their strong suit.     

        François Hollande, opposed to the treaty during his campaign, has now advocated it with the utmost urgency. The job of opposing the treaty-as-is is therefore left to Mélenchon.

        The Fiscal Compact (formally, the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union),  was finalized on January 30th of this  year and voted on by EU-member countries on March 2, all of which hardly gives it the imprimitur of Ancient Writ.  It is, in fact, a temporizing measure that is going to squeeze European countries into a fashionably tailored straightjacket.

        Among its goals are enforced balanced budgets which aim at stopping countries from running up unpayable debts, thereby repeating what some call the Greek saga. Under these rules, countries will face economic sanctions if their budgets go into the red, as Athens has so spectacularly done.

        At that EU meeting in early March only the Czech Republic and Great Britain voted against. Everyone else was quite sure the old, familiar corner had at last been turned.

        "It’s a huge relief to see that European summits are not devoted to the financial crisis and it’s a huge relief to see that the financial crisis isn’t on the top of the news," riffed then-President Nicholas Sarkozy in his manic, talking-to-slow-children style. Germany’s Angela Merkel, doomed to play the role of the sober wife with wastrel husband in tow, stumbled into an apocalyptic forest: "I think it is very important to say yet again that we are in a very, very fragile situation. The waters have been calmed somewhat, but we are not out of the woods yet."

        From the perspective of early October 2012, those days when the financial crisis was yet again behind us seem far off. The waters continue to rise, Europe’s leaders dutifully paddle towards the cataract with heads held high while the band serenades from a clearing at the edge of Merkel’s forest. Hence, more than likely, Le Pen’s appeal among the disenfranchised.

        No European politician has, publicly at any rate, taken credit, nor is any due, for tackling either the pivotal issue of the debt owed by the smaller countries, nor in resolving the various tangled issues such as stimulus versus austerity,  environmental protection versus growth. Stop gap measures and endless wrangling are the order of the day. A summary judgment that applies to the other side of the Atlantic as well.

        President Hollande has, within the context of an austerity budget, proposed a 75% tax on the incomes of France’s wealthiest earners. That has, predictably, received the most notice. And yet, early this week, his Prime Minister, Jean-Marie Ayrault, presented the Fiscal Compact signed in March to the National Assembly as a fait accompli. A done deal, much like President Clinton did for NAFTA nearly twenty years ago. 

        From inside the fortress that is Chez Le Pen, Marine, daughter of the infamous Jean-Marie who founded the National Front, one hears the predictable war cries:  "The treaty transfers budgetary sovereignty to Brussels technocrats" and would create "a German Europe … a diktat of the privileged caste and the banks." She continued: "Worse, it will require [the French] to pay the debts of other countries." Le Pen is presumably ignorant of the fact that plans to support Greece and Ireland are based on loans which will keep the citizens of those two countries – soon to be joined by Spain – impoverished for several generations.

        Mélenchon was the candidate of the Front de Gauche who secured 11% of the vote in the first round of presidential elections. Marine La Pen, lightning rod for the far right, did far better at 17.9%, numbers which obscure the fact that while La Pen has no actual power, Mélenchon is rallying those members of the left, even within Hollande’s Socialists, disenchanted with any attempt to push the Sarkzy-sanctioned Treaty through.

        "There was supposed to be open debate from the beginning of his mandate to the end," Mélenchon observes about Hollande. In language endlessly more subtle than Le Pen, Mélenchon argues that it is France’s role to counterbalance Germany,  to provide ideas and a human context to political actions. Austeritarian is his word, which, while a mouthful in English, accurately describes the politics of the present moment. 

        Mélenchon would seem to be trying to turn Metternich on his head. While the Austrian diplomat famously observed that "When Paris sneezes, Europe catches cold," Mélenchon argues that without France adding fuel to the fire, Europe will soon be a cold place indeed.

        The interview which follows appeared in Direct Matin on Wednesday, October 3, 2012. The one footnote is mine, as is the translation.

 

"Europe has become Austeritarian"

        A day after a well-attended rally in Paris against the ratification of the European Budgetary Treaty, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Front du Gauche, is upping the pressure on the members of Parliament who are taking a look at the text of the proposal. He accuses François Hollande of leading France towards recession, while arguing that rejection of the treaty is vital for Europe.

       Daily Matin: Do you think that François Hollande is avoiding the debate taking place in Europe?

        Jean-Luc Mélenchon: He seems uncomfortable, not like someone proud that he won the election. He is confronted by an unprecedented situation, in which he divides the left in order to pass a text signed by his predecessor. François Hollande uses his Prime Minister in the most trivial manner in the history of the 5th Republic, like a fall guy.  So yesterday Jean-Marc Ayrault made a calamitous speech in which he was forced to admit that he was introducing  the very text Nicholas Sarkozy signed.

        D.M.: Ayrault argues that failure to pass the treaty would result in a political and monetary crisis.

        J-L M.: That’s fairy tale propaganda put out to scare people. If France doesn’t ratify the treaty, then negotiations can begin seriously, because France is the second biggest economy in the EU. What we do, the others must take into account. Europe cannot continue without one of its two giants.

        D.M.: What kind of Europe do you want?

        J-L M.: Europe has become "Austeritarian," with a financial dictatorship governing the different states. I want a social, democratic Europe that looks beyond its borders, with social and ecological filters. Not the sieve you have today. A Europe where social dumping is forbidden, and not one where workers in certain countries are paid three times less for the same work. Finally, a Europe with fiscal harmonisation from the top down, so that no one can hide their money 12 miles from where they made it. 

        D.M.: So Europe hasn’t changed for the better since Hollande’s election?

        J-L M.: No, it’s become worse. Along the way, Greece has once again been brutalised, with Hollande’s tacit consent, and Spain is entering in its death throes. Moreover, every decision taken over the last six months was proposed during Sarkozy’s presidency. The more France grips the vise the way Madame Merkel wants, the more terrible the situation will become all over Europe.  One of the countries has to break the treaty chain.

         D.M.: At root, is it budgetary restrictions that pose a problem for you?

        J-L M.: Let’s be clear about the words we use. Listen to what you’re saying. Everyone is in favor of a serious management of public finances, but the word to describe their policy is austerity: the brutal contraction of public expenditure. It’s this policy that I condemn because it is leading our country towards a catastrophe like Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy. There isn’t a single example worldwide where the austerity cure led to anything other than recession and unemployment. How long will it take before we admit that that’s true?

        D.M.: Even so, a return to budgetary equilibrium was part of François Hollande’s campaign.

        J-L M.: He also said that he would renegotiate the treaty, which he hasn’t done. (1) During the campaign I explained that a return to a 3 percent deficit in the next year would cost 30 billion euros. I said I would oppose it. But that’s what’s happened. The French did not vote for a deflation of their economy to the tune of 30 billion Euros. In any case, we elected a president, not a monarch. No one gave François Hollande a blank check. There was supposed to be open debate from the beginning of his mandate to the end. And we must face the fact that the parties on the right are not standing still.

        D.M.: In any case, you’re asking Hollande to adopt your program.

        J-L M.: I haven’t asked him that, because I’m the best person for that job. And the moment has arrived.

 

1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17755019 « France election: Hollande threatens to veto fiscal pact »

Iddhis Bing lives in Paris. The Invisible Money series will pick up again early next week.