It’s about the kitchen, not the cake

transform! europe’s Roland Kulke on the most recent study days of the Left Group in the European Parliament.

The Left Group in the European Parliament met in Marseille for its traditional study days. These days are different from the usual life of MEPs. It is not about legislative proposals and amendments, but for once about discussing together, also with guests. For the first time, representatives of transform! europe were invited to take part, as well as representatives of the Slovenian Levica Party, the Polish Razem, and the Vice-Chairman of the Left Group Hişyar Özsoy (Turkish HDP) in the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Council.

Marseille truly lends itself to reflections from a left perspective. It is the eternal second city in France. With its port it has always been of strategic importance for France. But perhaps that is also the reason why the governments based in Paris always treat Marseille somewhat stepmotherly. At 26%, poverty here is a full 10% higher than the national average.

In 2018, a major disaster occurred in the city when residential buildings collapsed, although citizens and experts had warned the city administration for years. Eight people lost their lives and over the next days and months, 6,000 people were evacuated from 900 homes, often with immediate effect and without prior warning. Kévin Vacher from the Collective 5 Novembre had therefore been invited to report on the Right to Housing on the second day. He underlined the link between climate change and poverty, as the increasingly frequent torrential downpours in Marseille are new and had contributed to the misfortune.

But local social struggles were certainly not the only reason for the left to come to Marseille. Three others made Marseille so important: first, France currently holds the presidency of the most important EU institution, the Council, where heads of government decide the broad lines of EU policy. This is linked to the upcoming election of the French president in April this year. And Macron would not be Macron if he did not use the presidency of the EU Council to win votes for himself. Macron is trying to position himself as a new leader in the "post-Merkel context" of the EU, as the Co-President of the Left Group Manon Aubry (of La France Insoumise (LFI)) called it.

"Good guy, a good guy!"

This was the reaction of a young waiter in a tourist restaurant at the Old Port when he saw the new election programme of LFI ("L’avenir en Commun", Nov 2021, 3 euros in bookshops) on my table, with a photo of Mélenchon on top. And that was certainly the best reason to come to Marseille: Marseille is the hometown of Mélenchon, the head of LFI. Mélenchon is by far the most promising politician in the fragmented field of left candidates for the presidency.

Regarding LFI’s European programme, it was exciting to hear that there is a change compared to the last election in 2017. Back then, they had been, as it was put, "more static" against the Lisbon Treaty. This time they would "pragmatically" go through point by point where things can be changed for the better within the treaties and where treaty changes are necessary.

Another exciting insight into the discussion in LFI and France was to learn that Mélenchon actively uses the term "creolisation" of France in the media, to the horror of the right. This term has been adopted from the works of the poet Édouard Glissant (1928-2011), who describes the confluence of many, then equal, cultures into a new stronger and larger culture. Following Manuel Bompard (LFI), his party actively opposes right-wing identitarian thinking. However, this is not done by negating identities and their meaning for people, but by offering a greater common identity for all people in France.

Three points are at the centre of LFI’s election campaign: 1. the Social – this is also about "shock moments", as it was clearly stated. The media should thus be forced to enlarge the space of discussion. For example, LFI demands price freezes for essential goods such as noodles, rice but also petrol. Ecology as the second element and then democracy with the demand for a "6th republic" with much more direct democracy as the last element.

It is important for LFI to mobilise voters, especially the young. The new "People’s Union" ("L’Union Populaire"), with 180,000 members, helps with this. You don’t have to be a member of LFI to participate. This union is crowned by a "Parliament of the People’s Union" with 240 members, half of whom are LFI members and the rest of progressive civil society (especially trade union members). Every fortnight they meet online to analyse the election campaign and see where things could be better.

The representative of the French Communist Party (PCF), Audrey Cermonlacce, focused on local politics. She described how exhausting local politics is because the city of Marseille has little room for manoeuvre compared to the larger metropolitan region of the area. For example, the municipality had to interpret the law at least more freely, in order to take a waste crisis into its own hands and solve it. On the other hand, she could proudly point to real successes in setting up partially free local transport.

In terms of content, there were two major panel discussions at the study days, where, on the one hand, the new world of platform work was discussed. On the other hand, following the yellow vests, the slogan "End of the world, end of the month – the same struggle" was used to discuss how the social could be placed at the centre of a just policy of "planetary boundaries".

Marseilles workers’ struggles – it’s about the kitchen, not the cake

What stimulated our discussions a lot were two site visits in Marseille, where workers have appropriated their companies in recent years. In an industrial area there is a company called "Scop TI" (or simply "1336"), which produces tea (ZA De la Plaine de Jouques, 500 Av. Du Pic de Bertagne, 13420 Gémenos), which is now also quite well known outside France. About five years ago, more than a hundred workers occupied the company for 1336 days to win a big victory against the multinational Unilever. Actually, everything was to be closed down and the production shipped to Poland, due to lower wages. The workers secured machines and are now their own masters and members of their cooperative.

Last year, a similar struggle took place in a McDonald’s in the north of Marseille. Workers there managed to prevent the closure of the site. Now they are slowly transforming the fast-food restaurant into a social restaurant with reduced prices. In the current Covid crisis, the resto provides food donations to over 700 local families (Monday mornings), and one women primarily cooks over 800 hot meals (every Thursday). It is now beautifully named "After-M" (French: "L’Après M", 214 Chemin de la Sainte Marthe, 13014 Marseille). What was clearly said on the spot: this struggle succeeded and still succeeds only because of the deep roots in the neighbourhood and its communities, which also repeatedly came to the rescue against eviction attempts.

Now it is time to keep our fingers crossed for the left in France in the coming elections, both for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. And in the medium term, in two years, the EP will be elected again. Strengthening the radical left, especially in Central Eastern Europe, was the background to the invitation to Levica and Razem.

Originally published at the website of DIE LINKE in the European Parliament.