The bid of Jean-Luc Melenchon for the French presidency, while ultimately unsuccessful, has given the Left Front, an alliance of far-left parties, massive visibility in France.
The Left Front's candidate won fewer votes than was widely expected, after opinion polls suggested he could sway as many as 16 or 17 per cent of voters.
Nonetheless, with the leftist coalition's candidate's score of 11.1 per cent, placing him in fourth place out of some ten candidates, the far-left has managed to reassert itself and regain a place in the political conversation of the nation.
Al Jazeera's Yasmine Ryan spoke with the Left Front's Raquel Garrido, a longtime ally of Melenchon. Along with Melenchon, Garrido also quit the French Socialist Party in late 2008 to take part in the new movement.
Yasmine Ryan: You left the Socialist Party right when the financial crisis was beginning. Did that crisis help trigger the group's decision to leave the Socialists?
Raquel Garrido: It helped, it's true, because we knew that times were going to get harder and that the left needed to face the speculative attacks and the financial crisis with a harsher standpoint than that which the Socialist Party, and Social Democrats in general in Europe, were ready to take.
But we actually did start thinking about leaving the Socialist Party before, a long time ago. We first started questioning our strategy when we started seeing in Latin America left-wing governments coming into power, but not with your traditional Social Democrat party.
To the contrary, most of those experiences – in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia – were being triggered by new parties. New political instruments that were organised outside of Social Democratic, left-wing, traditional parties.
And the methods they were employing were radical, whether it be in their fight against the IMF, or whether it be in the means of remobilising their societies through constitutional assemblies.
The constitutional assembly is a French invention, [born of] the French Revolution. It means ensuring that sovereignty lies not in the monarch, but in the people themselves.
Suddenly, at the end of the 1990s, the method was being used in Latin America, and quite successfully so. So that suggested that the social democratic movement in Europe was failing, and wasn't going to deliver what it expected to deliver after state communism failed.
We took from Latin America that idea that we were facing two failures: the failure of state communism, and the failure of European social democracy. And that the left needed to reorganise in creating new instruments.
In 2005, in France we had a referendum on the European constitutional treaty. Although the Socialist Party in France decided to support that treaty, our faction, around Jean-Luc Melenchon, opposed the constitutional treaty, and we campaigned with all the groups to the left of the Socialist Party that had a very clear analysis on the dangers of that treaty, the fact that it was enshrining into hard regulation very ultra-liberal principles of free trade, of prohibition of grants to public services…
And we won that election. We campaigned for a "no" vote, and we won.
We were empowered by the vote, and thought that if we dared defend what we were really thinking, instead of sticking to internal competitions within the Socialist Party, if we took that battle outside to the people, it was possible to win it.
And right after that, we were invited to Germany, where the former Social Democratic minister of the economy, Oskar Lafontaine, had left the Social Democratic Party in Germany and created a new party, Die Linke ["The Left"], with the former communist party.
We were invited to that founding congress, with Jean-Luc Melenchon, Pierre-François Grond and myself. And that was what did it at the end, to convince us that that was the way forward, there was no future remaining [inside the confines of] those little battles inside the Socialist Party.
We took time to correctly prepare that departure from the Socialist Party, and, in 2007, we had Segolene Royal as a candidate and she failed to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy [in that presidential election]. Although the Socialist Party was strong, there was no other strength coming from the left against the right.
So, in 2008, we left, and immediately agreed with the [French] Communist Party and others about [forming] a coalition. The strategy to our succession was to urgently reunite the other left [parties]. The rest of the left couldn't remain in small groups, it had to reunify.
That's what we've been doing, up until now, and we've managed to have all those groups support Jean-Luc Melenchon's presidential candidacy.
YR: To what extent have the movements of the Arab world inspired you? Do you see your party as retaking socialism?
RG: Yes. Even more than retaking socialism, we're retaking a cultural nerve that exists in France, as a core underlying cultural identity – "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity".
For us, what is very interesting in the Arab Spring is the fact that, if you look at Tunisia, or even Egypt, the method of the regime change is a constitutional assembly. It's going back to the people, it's not just internal rearranging. The solution is in the people.
You have to change the regime, and in Tunisia, the regime was a kleptocracy. You had to change that and you had to do that through the people. That really inspired us. Although the Latin Americans had inspired us, they are really far away, whereas Tunis is right nearby.
The history of French socialism has always been to merge that underlying cultural French revolutionary background with the importance of the working class and trade unions and workers' rights.
We took that banner, and we added two more [elements]. The first one was environmental issues.
We decided to organise a very front-on opposition to the National Front [the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen, which accrued a record 17.9 per cent of the first round poll]. I think all the commentators would agree that we were alone in doing this. The results show that we were right in analysing that the National Front was an important issue in France that needs to be dealt with. Not only with moral opposition, saying that racism is bad. We need to be more precise on its programme.
That's what we did. We showed that we thought the National Front was trying to present itself as a party defending workers' rights, actually it isn't. If you look at its programme, it always opposes the redistribution of wealth from capital to labour.
Verbally, it will always present itself as [being] on the side of the poor and working class. Which is typical of fascism and extreme right-wingers. But we were the only ones to reply, and to look at the programme.
The same thing applies to women's rights. Marine Le Pen was present at the outset of this campaign as a modern woman. Jean-Luc Melenchon was the one who showed that if you look at her programme on abortion or other [issues impacting particularly on women], she was clearly not defending women's rights.
I think that's something no one will forget, that we were the ones that started that process of trying to strike back against the National Front.
YR: Most of the commentary, until the results were confirmed yesterday, suggested that the Left Front and the National Front were competing for the working-class vote. But the voting results show that both of your votes were record highs – the Left Front being a new party, and the National Front rising significantly compared with 2007.
RG: You are right on the spot. Actually we do not compete for the same votes. The National Front competes with the right, the UMP [Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement].
If you take the scores of the right-wing and the extreme right, you're around 60 million votes. And that's been the same in other elections. What happens is you have transfers. Sarkozy got votes from them [in the 2007 election] and now they're getting them back again.
And the more the UMP goes along with the themes that are suggested by the National Front – immigration, insecurity, halal food, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab – actually all it does is favour the National Front.
Whereas on our side, our three million new voters are actually three million new voters for the left. So our rise is spectacular on the left.
We did our best, so that the working class that usually abstains, voted for us – or in any case, didn't go vote for the National Front. We did that containment job very well, I think. The Socialist Party doesn't do that. Even now, they are barely speaking about the National Front's high score.
After the Toulouse killings, when the right-wing came right at Arab people and Muslims, it was only Jean-Luc Melenchon who said "Stop the harassment". While Sarkozy imitates the National Front, the Socialist Party just shies away.
YR: Sarkozy's strategy for at least the past year seems to have been to seek the far-right vote. Within the UMP, it seems this has caused a lot of internal conflict, with many who would prefer to be closer to the centre of the political spectrum. Why do you think the National Front vote has skyrocketed in spite of this strategy?
RG: It is directly linked to the fact that the UMP was convinced that the way to win was to focus on those themes. The score shows that this was wrong.
The only result they achieved by that strategy was to help the National Front. So if they do it again between the two rounds, they will do it again.
On the other hand, the National Front's strategy is to have the UMP collapse and reorganise the right-wing around themselves. They want to split the UMP.
Athough they have an anti-system rhetoric, their real strategy is within the parameters of the right [as a whole], and how that can be organised after Sarkozy, if and when Sarkozy loses on May 6.
YR: So you think Le Pen will not endorse Sarkozy?
RG: No. What she will probably do is to appear as though she is negotiating on issues – immigration and security – to force the UMP to go there, to win that cultural battle on the common programme of the right in France.
Then she will watch Sarkozy lose and say: "Okay, you tried it your way, now we are going to try it my way."
YR: In terms of the Left Front's own strategy – this is the highest score for the far-left since 1981 – are you going to seek to negotiate with Hollande?
RG: No, we won't negotiate. Our strategy is to govern on our programme. That strategy needs one compulsory entry point, which is to defeat Sarkozy. That's way we will support the Hollande ballot against Sarkozy with no negotiation needed.
Then after that, life comes back. The ongoing debate on the legitimacy and efficiency of austerity plans is right there on the table. It will be for the next weeks because we have parliamentary elections [in June], and we will be campaigning for our own candidates everywhere in France.
We certainly do not want to participate in any government whose objective would be to implement austerity plans, as Francois Hollande is planning to do.
YR: So you won't be seeking any cabinet posts?
RG: No. Millions of people have put their trust in us, have shown up to our meetings and rallies. Something really powerful happened with our campaign, and it would be very disappointing if all of that ends up in a cheap negotiation with the Social Democrats.
Our intention is to replace the Social Democrats as leaders, across Europe. It will take time, but that's where we're going.