By Antoine Bouziat
Despite a glooming campaign for the European parliament elections, something is happening in French politics. A new party has gathered 8,000 citizens in six months around iconoclast economists and popular figures. As an alternative to European blind austerity and national right-wing populism, they promote common sense, participative democracy and social progress.
Politically speaking, two things seem highly symbolic of the French people to British eyes. The first one is their taste for public debate and democracy. Even if voter turnout in France is falling in a worrying manner, it still stays well above the level we observe in the United Kingdom, while the intensive use of leaflets, posters and rallies strongly contrasts with the usual apathy of British political campaigns. The second one is their passion for equality and social justice, deeply rooted in French history since the fall of the Bastille, the rise of the “Popular Front” in the 1930’s, and the project of the “National Counsel of the Resistance” after the second world war, which imagined under the name “Les Jours Heureux” (“The Happy Days”) most of the French welfare system we still know today.
The least one can say about the current campaign for European elections is that the nature of the French people is being challenged. Public debate seems polarised between two camps in equal democratic despair. On one side, the two major government parties (the “Socialist Party” of Mr. Hollande and the “Union for a Popular Movement” of Mr. Sarkozy) seem unable to understand the fracture between the French electorate and the European Union, which has dramatically increased since the adoption of the Lisbon treaty in 2007 despite its rejection by referendum two years before. On the other side, Marine Le Pen maliciously uses legitimate critics against the European Institutions to promote the nationalist and xenophobic agenda of her “Front National” party, which designated no less than her sulphurous father Jean-Marie as candidate in the South-East constituency. In the meantime, the country is still suffering from a strong social crisis. Statistics show unemployment has risen by 400,000 people since Hollande’s election in 2012 and the €50 billion economic plan launched by the new prime minister Manuel Valls will hit social benefits and public services.
Given the context, it is little surprise that a movement based on citizen participation and solidarity with the poorest emerges on the French political scene. Pierre Larrouturou is an unusual economist who gained popularity 15 years ago defending a “four days a week” reform to fight unemployment. Last November, he created a party called “Nouvelle Donne” with famous intellectuals and mediatised personalities, like philosopher Edgar Morin or humourist Bruno Gaccio. The name of his party is a direct translation of the “New Deal” politics led by American president Franklin Roosevelt to face the 1930’s economic depression. Nouvelle Donne has rapidly encountered success, gathering more than 8,000 members in a few months, and showing in the opinion polls at similar levels as well-established formations like the Trotskyist NPA or the Gaullist DLR, which both had a candidate in the last presidential election.
Nouvelle Donne militants come from very varied political backgrounds. Most of them had never taken part in any party before and had even lost faith in politics because of a lack of transparency from career politicians. Some others are former socialist supporters disappointed by the shift Francois Hollande made to economic orthodoxy, after being cynically elected on a more progressive agenda. Some more are activists from ecologist or radical left movements, tired of the ego clashes among the “Green party” leaders or the excessively tribunician posture of Jean-Luc Melenchon, founder of the “Left Party”. And few last elements of support come from more centrist or right-leaning formations. Such an eclectic group is possible because Nouvelle Donne does not refer to ideology or philosophy, but to a number of precise and concrete economic measures. Larrouturou already defended most of them during the last presidential election with a non-partisan collective named “Roosevelt 2012”, or in his book “La Gauche n’a plus le droit à l’erreur” (“The left cannot afford to fail again”) written with former socialist prime minister Michel Rocard right after Hollande’s election.
Centrepieces of Nouvelle Donne’s manifesto include the end of austerity in Europe and a more expansive monetary policy, with a tough fight against the deflationist threat. The party notably advocates financing the old sovereign debts with a 1% interest rate by the European Central Bank (which is not forbidden by the current treaties if done through the European Investment Bank) and creating a national currency in addition to the Euro, allowing the Bank of France to print an unconditioned supplementary benefit of 150 euros (125 pounds) for every household. It also defends a tight regulation of the financial industry with a clear separation of banks between deposit and investment functions (whereas a law recently voted by the French parliament only separated 2.5% of them), a taxation of the stock-exchange transactions and a ban on high-frequency automated trading.
Larrouturou is convinced occidental countries should not rely on a hypothetical return to consistent economic growth for job creation. That is why he gained the support of fellow economists like Jean Gadrey and Dominique Meda, both globally recognized for their work on the limits of GDP. Together they propose to decrease the weekly working time to 32 hours in order to compensate the job losses caused by the rise of robotic and computer sciences. They note that, contrary to common stereotypes about French culture, productivity is higher in France than in Britain and the gap corresponds approximately to the difference of unemployment rate between the two countries. Nouvelle Donne also believes in energetic efficiency and transition to renewables as sources of future jobs and would like to negotiate a plan of one thousand billions euros at the European level to go in this direction. This proposition could find some echo in the German government, Angela Merkel being more green-friendly than most conservative political leaders.
When it comes to European institutions, Nouvelle Donne partisans remain strong believers in the federal project, but they refuse to sacrifice social progress and democracy in this purpose. They are ready for a confrontation which would clarify the goals followed by the European construction, as Margaret Thatcher was at her time to impose her liberal views on the continental economy. They want to create a zone of strengthened collaboration with a few countries sharing the same objectives and rely on this club to force the negotiation of a new treaty. It would add criteria of social convergence to the economic ones leading the Euro zone since the Maastricht treaty, as well as a set of measures against relocation. It would also make referenda unavoidable to further steps of integration, and reinforce the power of the European parliament in comparison to the Commission, in order to decrease the weight of industrial lobbies.
Nouvelle Donne’s action for more democracy in Europe is in line with a commitment to freshen up political practices in its own country. For the end of May elections, Nouvelle Donne candidates were not selected by the party representatives but by a committee randomly drawn among all members. That is how citizens like Arthur Devriendt, 27 years old, Joseph Buisson, 29 years old, and Isabelle Maurer, unemployed mother, will lead the campaign in the North, South-West and East consistuencies whereas Francoise Castex, a professional politician who had already served 10 years as a socialist MEP, was not chosen. In the Ile-de-France consistuency including Paris, Larrouturou will be in the front row but the third place was given to Eric Alt, a magistrate famous for his fight against political corruption.
Even if Nouvelle Donne is growing quickly, it has still a long way to go before disturbing the game between the three major parties. However, the result of the municipal elections last March gave good hope to the members. In Grenoble – a city of 150,000 inhabitants and capital of the Isère department at the foot of the Alps – Eric Piolle, long-time friend of Larrouturou with whom he founded the “Roosevelt 2012” collective, won the election by federating ecologists, radical left supporters and members of several citizen associations around a common manifesto. His list got a stunning 40 % of the ballots, far ahead the Socialist Party and the Union for a Popular Movement which got only 27 and 24 % of them, the National Front finishing last with 9 %. Can Nouvelle Donne achieve such a breakthrough on the national and European stages? First clue on May 25th.