Jean-Luc Mlenchon ready to lead Frances new resistance

The hard-left leader is prepared to fight in parliament or on the streets. And tackling Macron on workers rights is first on the agenda

Entering the French lower house of parliament as an MP for the first time last week, Jean-Luc Mlenchon pointed to the European flag planted next to the French tricolor, turned to the camera tracking him and said: Do we have to put up with that?

Earlier he stood on the steps of the Assemble Nationale, alongside the other 16 newly elected MPs from his hard-left party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), raised a clenched fist and shouted Resistance.

Mlenchon declared they were there as opposition MPs in the service of the people. He had begun as he means to go on for the next five years going head-to-head with president Emmanuel Macrons La Rpublique en Marche (La REM) majority government.

It is a battle that will be fought in parliament and as Mlenchon has made it clear out on the streets if necessary.

Macron, a former investment banker who is deeply pro-Europe, is seeking to loosen Frances complex labour laws to allow companies to hire and fire more easily, negotiate working hours and wages with employees and not the unions, and cap unfair dismissal pay-outs. Frances youngest president is planning to use ordinances a process to push through legislation quickly by decree which French unions will bitterly contest as sweeping away social dialogue and consultation. He has also pledged to cut public spending by 60bn and lay off 120,000 public-sector workers. Mlenchon has promised not a single concession on workers rights without a fight.

His party has only 17 seats out of a total of 577 in the National Assembly but is at least a unified opposition, which is more than can be said for the general election runners-up, the conservative Rpublicains, which won 112 constituencies but is currently tearing itself apart, or the Socialist party, which is also catastrophically riven and now has just 29 seats compared with 295 in 2012. Macrons REM has 308 seats and his allied Democratic Movement, MoDem, party has 42.

Mlenchon gearing up for the second round of parliamentary elections earlier this month. Photograph: Claude Paris/AP

Even so, the political scientist Dominique Reyni, director of the progressive centre-right thinktank Fondapol, said he doubted everything would go the way Macron wanted once the electoral honeymoon period was over. He will face opposition. If not in parliament then outside, on the streets, Reyni said.

Bruno Jeanbart, deputy director of the pollsters OpinionWay, had already warned even before Macrons triumph: Where is the opposition? If it doesnt happen in parliament, it will happen in the streets, in the press.

Their warnings were echoed this week by Luc Rouban, a political scientist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, who described the political situation in France as potentially explosive. Rouban said FI could put up a little resistance but opposition is likely to express itself outside parliament.

Even before he took up his seat in the Assemble Nationale, Mlenchon was making headlines. Referring to one of Macrons more flamboyant new and inexperienced MPs, the prizewinning mathematician Cdric Villani, as the maths guy, he added: Ill explain to him what the labour law is all about and hell be astonished. Hes no idea whats in it! He doesnt realise the eight-hour working day was the result of 100 years of battle. Villani responded in good humour. Dear Jean-Luc Mlenchon, he tweeted. As director of IHP [a mathematical research centre], Ive seen work contracts. But its always a pleasure to have a private lesson!

Rouban said that Mlenchon and the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, who was also elected to the French parliament for the first time with seven other FN MPs, could become the cheerleaders for a social challenge, a strong theme for the presidential election. The situation was made even more unpredictable, he said, because the opposition parties had little real power. And the decider would be whether what they say carries any weight with public opinion or whether there is a form of apathy among the working classes and of patience among the upper classes.

Pierre Gattaz, head of the French business leaders organisation Medef, dismissed the idea of Mlenchon leading any kind of credible opposition to Macron. He said Mlenchons worship of Cubas Fidel Castro and Venezuelas Hugo Chvez made him a man whose ideas were extremely dangerous.

He can talk. He has a great talent for oratory, but well have to see how it finishes for those who put their faith in someone who speaks well, but whose ideas will lead to ruin and desolation for France, Gattaz told the Anglo-American Press Association.

We have to call a spade a spade. He has never produced a single idea for creating jobs in France. Let Mr Mlenchon set up his own company and create a few jobs and then he can say something.

Gattaz, who believes Macrons economic reform plans do not go far enough said he was optimistic that reform would happen. If not, we will be looking at Mlenchon and Le Pen in the second round in 2022, he said.

Asked where he saw opposition to Macrons economically liberal programme coming from, Gattaz said possibly from the streets.

The historian Jean Garrigues said opposition parties had few weapons against an absolute parliamentary majority, adding that the opposition vote against cant make much difference and they had the choice of ganging up on the government by joining forces or taking the fight to the streets. The latter only worked when theres pressure from unions and public opinion. Olivier Rozenberg, associate professor at SciencesPo university, said: The opposition isnt going to change laws, but they can make their point of view heard. They force the majority to justify itself, which is important.

Mlenchon believes that his best ally is the record 57% bloc of French voters who, orphaned by the disintegration of the traditional left and right parties, did not bother to cast a vote in the general election. The president has no legitimacy to perpetrate a social coup. I see in this abstention an energy that’s availableif we know how to use it for our fight, he said.

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