Filmmaker François Ruffin has become a leading critic of the destruction of France’s welfare model. Today an MP, Ruffin told Jacobin how the Left can rediscover its purpose — and again rally the discontent of rural and peripheral France.

National Assembly member François Ruffin is fighting against retirement reform in France. (Courtesy of François Ruffin)

A former journalist and founder of alternative newspaper Fakir, in 2016 French filmmaker François Ruffin drew comparisons with Michael Moore for his acclaimed satirical documentary Merci Patron! (Thanks, Boss!). The film follows textile workers facing a factory closure as they chase down the billionaire CEO of their employer’s parent company, Bernard Arnault — today the world’s wealthiest man. That same year, Ruffin helped launch the Nuit Debout movement, in which protesters occupied city squares in opposition to pro-employer labor reforms.

Ruffin soon also made his mark on institutional politics. First elected to the National Assembly in 2017, Ruffin was reelected to a second five-year term last June. A member of La France Insoumise’s parliamentary group, Ruffin is known for his independent streak and his insistence on winning over voters in rural and peripheral areas that have seen growing support for the far right, like his native region of Picardy, in the country’s post-industrial North.

Today, he is fighting President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to increase the retirement age — a key attack on the French welfare model. A few hours ahead of a rally against the reform, Ruffin sat down with Jacobin’s Cole Stangler at a café near the National Assembly in Paris. They discussed the pension reform bill, the state of La France Insoumise and its broad parliamentary alliance, how the Left should appeal to voters outside large cities, and why Ruffin embraces the ideal of “revolutionary reformism.”

Cole Stangler

The government is about to unveil its long-awaited retirement reform bill, which will raise the retirement eligibility age from sixty-two to sixty-four and accelerate the phase-in of the threshold [of forty-three years of work] required to obtain a full pension. What do you think of it?

François Ruffin

The history of the labor movement is the history of the struggle for reduced working hours. That started with ending child labor, then having Sundays off, then Saturday afternoons off, then paid vacation. Then it was retirement, which the Labor Minister in 1945 called a “new phase of life.” In 1982, the ruling Socialists lowered the retirement age to sixty. Since this period, we haven’t won any more paid time off from work.

How is that possible, when over the last forty years, we’ve had advances in robotics, in technology, in digitalization — productivity gains that should translate into reduced working hours?

This trend began in the US. I was very surprised to learn that at the end of the 1970s, the Western country where people worked the least was the United States — less than Germany, France, and Italy. But then, the US “liberated energy,” like Macron says over here, producing an increase in working hours that allowed the wealthiest to get even wealthier and forced others to take on multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Ultimately, this happened here too, with a delay. Since 2005, we’ve been moving toward an increase in working hours.

I think fundamentally, the question of retirement opens the door to the question of what direction history is headed.

At the same time, raising the retirement age has very concrete effects. When we moved from sixty to sixty-two years, the poverty rate increased, the rate of people receiving the Revenu de solidarité active [a welfare program for those without a source of income] quadrupled among sixty- to sixty-two-year-olds. These people can’t work any longer because they might have serious back or shoulder pain but they’re not yet at retirement. The risk is that such people will have to hold out even longer. A well-deserved retirement is being replaced by poverty handouts.

Cole Stangler

It’s a reform that’s going backward?

François Ruffin

It’s been going on for four decades. In the US, the turning point was [Ronald] Reagan’s arrival in power, which, fundamentally, was a counterrevolution: a big step backward socially and economically but also environmentally and in the relationship with working hours. The trends of history were reversed.

John Maynard Keynes thought that by the end of the twentieth century we’d be working under twenty hours a week. The French author Jean Fourastié, who wasn’t a leftist at all, thought we’d work thirty-five years for thirty hours a week — and that’d be it. We’re in a new phase now because the moneyed forces, if you will, are able to have control over our lives — including on Sundays, which they’re trying to reintegrate into economic time, into time for production and consumption.

The question is, how do we put history back in the right direction? How do we make it so that large corporations are being taxed more than ordinary people?

There’s another issue at stake here, which I call a-capitalism. People aren’t necessarily anti-capitalist. On the weekend, when they bring their kids to the football pitch with their neighbors, they’re not necessarily against capitalism, but they’ve taken this space outside the domain of commodification. Outside of earning money. Out of the economy.

The question is, how do we put history back in the right direction? How do we make it so that large corporations are being taxed more than ordinary people? How do we make it so that we have environmental standards, constraints on free trade that allow us to put the toothpaste back in the tube?

Cole Stangler

You referenced Reagan. Is it fair to say Macron is the French Reagan?

François Ruffin

I’m convinced. When he came into power, I said it was Thatcherism with a baby face.

In the 1980s, we saw the emergence of keywords like competition, growth, and globalization, which, for me, are each pivotal. Today, we see how exhausted they’ve become. These same words produce no enthusiasm among people. They inspire indifference at best, but in general, they provoke discomfort. We have an economic liberalism that’s no longer winning over people’s hearts and minds, but is nevertheless increasing its grip on society.

In 2017, Macron became the new face of this. He’s applying the same policies that have been implemented for forty years, but more deeply. Look at what the retirement reform is going to help pay for. It’s going to help lower taxes on companies and large corporations.

In 1983, the first secretary of the French Socialist Party Lionel Jospin said, “We’re opening a liberal parenthesis.” Today the question is: How do we close it? I think that’s true for the Left, all over the world.

Cole Stangler

Macron has something of a positive image on climate issues abroad. Is that image well-merited?

François Ruffin

That’s the illusion that he managed to give Donald Trump. There was very little in his 2017 presidential program, but Macron latched on to this to present himself as a counterpoint to Trump, saying “Make Our Planet Great Again.”

Today, the solution he proposes in France itself is technology. Because there is a refusal to change society, to regulate, to regulate inequalities — fundamentally, a refusal to intervene in the economy to regulate it on the level of globalization or on the level of inequalities.

There’s a €54 billion plan called France 2030. It’s not at all about organizing society differently to adapt to the consequences of climate change. To put it bluntly, that would mean an attack on profit margins, and that’s not possible.

Cole Stangler

What are the other big issues facing the French public? What do you hear from the people you represent?

François Ruffin

Without painting too dark of a picture, we have a hospital system that’s on the brink. There’s a big battle to just have trains that run on time in the morning. This affects students and people who might lose their jobs because they’re chronically late. There’s the uncertainty around energy: Are there are going to be blackouts? At the same time, there aren’t enough teachers in classrooms so you have to recruit temporary ones online.

This is not a coincidence. This is a conjunction [of factors]. I go back to my story of forty years: that’s how long spending in public services has been declining. And ultimately we’re not investing in health, transit, schools, or energy because we want to save money — and so we end up with a hollowed-out system.

I’m also dealing with an industrial decline that’s been taking place for forty years. Nearby, there’s a factory that’s closing, Carelide, which makes IV bags. It’s closing because French hospitals aren’t buying French. What I’m asking for is the equivalent of a Buy American Act that protects key industrial sectors like health and medicine.

Cole Stangler

On the European level or the French level?

François Ruffin

If we can’t do it on the European level, then on the French level. I’m a protectionist.

Cole Stangler

As other journalists have observed, your style of politics is evolving. At the beginning of your first term, you had this image as a kind of outside agitator. It came from your film Merci Patron!, but I’m also thinking of the “Macron Festival” you organized [a jovial 2018 protest in Paris featuring music, puppets, and picnics]. Now, you say you want to “social-democratize.” You say you’re a “reformist.” What does it mean to be a social democrat?

François Ruffin

I never said I was a “social democrat.” L’Obs ran with that as an interview title. I said I was “social” and “democratic.”

When I see the Socialist Party, I tell them, “The problem is that ‘social’ and ‘democratic’ are two beautiful words, but for the last forty years, you’ve been neither “social” nor “democratic.” If we take these words seriously, being “social” means making sure the tax burden lands on large corporations and the wealthiest, not the least well-off. It’s about making sure there are pay hikes. That’s not what’s been happening. As for “democracy,” in 2005, 55 percent of the French public voted against the EU Constitution, against a Europe of unrestrained competition, against the free circulation of capital, including with other countries. If you’re “democratic,” you have to acknowledge this.

For me, ‘reformist’ isn’t a bad word. The workers’ movement hasn’t only advanced through great revolutions but also through certain small steps forward.

For me, “reformist” isn’t a bad word. The workers’ movement hasn’t only advanced through great revolutions but also through certain small steps forward: the end of child labor, winning Sunday as a day off, winning Saturday afternoons off. These aren’t revolutions, but they’re able to do two things: they very concretely transform people’s lives in the present. That matters. And they offer a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. They show “it’s possible” to live better. It gives confidence to people and makes them aware of their power.

What Macron’s doing, like others before him over the last forty years, is a counterreform. Being a “reformist” means asking, “How do we put history back in the right direction?” We’re not going to win the stars right away. I’ll even say that the more I promise the stars, the less likely the people back home are going to believe me. On the other hand, saying we’ll put the trains back on the rails…

Cole Stangler

Is it fair to say you’re in the tradition of François Mitterrand, someone who had an ambitious vision but also promised to deliver very concrete measures?

François Ruffin

I wouldn’t say so. There are figures that I like a lot in the history of the Left. Abraham Lincoln, from where you’re from [laughs]. But this term “revolutionary reformism” comes from Jean Jaurès. I don’t recognize myself in the figure of Mitterrand in terms of how he exercised power — which is to say, a certain gap between promises and action. Maybe the path toward [the 1981 presidential election] victory was interesting. But he’s not a figure I like a lot. There’s a book from François Cusset, La décennie: le grand cauchemar des années 1980 [The Decade: The Nightmare of the 1980s]. I think it was a nightmare: the moment where we started the big slide, where the working class was betrayed.

Cole Stangler

France’s united left alliance, the NUPES [Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale], was created eight months ago. Is it going to last in the long run?

François Ruffin

I’m not a prophet. But I know we don’t have the choice. Necessity imposes it.

We have a liberal bloc that’s falling apart. Before, they had the benefit of dividing into center-left and center-right and alternating turns in power without offering any real alternative. It’s been fragile since 2005 and successive crises are eroding it further. They have basically only one candidate to rally behind, Macron.

The question is, “Where are the particles that fall off the liberal bloc going?” Today, in the race between the far right and the Left, we’re running late. The far right’s winning more support. We’re obligated to unite because otherwise defeat is guaranteed. It’s important to know where I’m speaking from, an especially politically depressed area. [Picardy] is a historically working-class area that sent a bunch of Communists and Socialists to the National Assembly for a century. Today, eight out of the seventeen MPs [representing the three départements] are from [Marine Le Pen’s] Rassemblement National.

I was in favor of this unity on the Left. Already in 2017 I was elected after bringing together the different parties, albeit with the exception of the Socialists. But, the question is: “Who’s driving the train?” Before I was elected, I said, “We’ll never vote for the Socialist Party again.” If the locomotive is the Socialist Party and we’re the carriages behind it, that won’t work at all.

Given the level of inequality in the country and the environmental crisis, we can’t just put a Band-Aid on the system. There is a need to break with competition, growth, and globalization. How do we, as a society, have less competition and more mutual aid? Less growth and more sharing? Less globalization and more protection? It doesn’t mean that there’s no more competition, or that there isn’t a part of the economy that’s growing. It doesn’t mean that we end all exchange and become an autarky. But how do we have a major shift and bring the system toward something else? It can’t be cosmetic.

Cole Stangler

There’s lot of debates right now about the current “locomotive”: the driving force in NUPES, La France Insoumise. Is it fair to say it suffers from a lack of internal democracy?

François Ruffin

Yes, I’ve said it before multiple times. For a party that calls for the Sixth Republic [i.e., a rewriting of the constitution to devolve power from the presidency], it wouldn’t hurt to have a bit more democracy.

I don’t think any organization has a perfect democracy. I can say that after participating in the Nuit Debout movement; I saw the limits of the permanent general assembly [model]. To move toward action, it’s also important to stop navel-gazing. We need to be pushed toward the outside. I understand all this.

At the same time, some more democracy wouldn’t hurt.

Cole Stangler

Do you think things are moving in the right direction now in La France Insoumise?

François Ruffin

You saw in the article where I mentioned Jacobin, this battle is not my priority. I also know we can’t just put our heads in the sand.

Cole Stangler

I wanted to finish by talking about political strategy. Everybody more or less agrees that your camp needs to broaden its electoral base if it wants to win. On the other hand, there are a lot of debates about how to broaden this base. You’ve highlighted the weak scores of La France Insoumise and the NUPES in rural and peripheral parts of France. What should be done to win over these voters who seem to be moving further and further away from the Left?

François Ruffin

What is the historic bloc that we need to build? In France, it’s necessary to successfully realize the alliance between the middle class and the working class, which itself is traversed by a split between people in urban areas that tend to be of immigrant origin, and people in rural areas who tend to be whiter. That’s the double divorce that we need to resolve.

It’s necessary to successfully realize the alliance between the middle class and the working class.

In our history, we’ve never succeeded without this alliance. The French Revolution was the alliance between the bourgeoisie in the National Assembly — lawyers and landowners — and the lower classes in cities and the countryside. The Popular Front in 1936 was the alliance between anti-fascist intellectuals and workers who wanted forty-hour work weeks and paid vacation. May 1968 was led by students and workers. The election of François Mitterrand in May 1981 was an alliance at the voting booth — not in the streets, and I think that’s what was missing — between [civil servants] and workers.

Since then, we’ve had a split in our historic bloc. For me, it’s due to globalization, which cuts like a knife through butter, marking the winners and the losers. We have people with degrees who are generally protected from mass unemployment. The unemployment rate among the intermediate professions has stagnated more or less since the 1980s. It’s quadrupled for blue-collar workers and risen seven-fold for unskilled workers. The experience of unemployment in working-class families is a family-wide experience that haunts the surrounding environment. It means finding a lot of gigs, scraping by in jobs that lack stability.

How do we patch things up and end this divorce? Before, when we said we needed to end unrestrained competition for industrial and economic reasons, it was very popular among working-class people, but the more highly educated weren’t in favor. Today, with ecology, there’s the possibility to bring people together around this. There’s a possibility to say that unrestrained competition is bad for everyone. It’s bad for workers and it’s bad for the planet. That’s one theme, but there are others.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon won two-thirds of the bet. He succeeded in winning over young people in cities, and he succeeded in winning over young people in certain working-class neighborhoods. He was missing peripheral France, rural France, the France of the gilets jaunes — I mean there’s a thousand different ways to describe this, but there’s a big missing piece there. How do we win back this electorate? I’m not saying it’s easy, but you have to start by identifying it as an objective and asking what are the paths forward.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon was missing peripheral France, rural France, the France of the gilets jaunes.

I’ve suggested several things. For example, the so-called “frontline workers” during the COVID-19 crisis — home care assistants, agricultural and food workers, [and others] — should be applauded as the new heroes of our time. We should ask, job by job, how are we going to revalue these professions on a symbolic level and on a material level? I think that’s an entry point. Then there’s the question of the train system, which you can link to the current problems on the Paris subway and the Paris commuter rail network. Taking up themes like this allows you to shape the reality of people’s daily lives.

I was reading a book by Luc Rouban, La vraie victoire du RN [The Real Victory of the RN]. The Rassemblement National is clearly gaining traction among these professions I was describing. They have a feeling of contempt for not being recognized by society and for being looked down upon. [Rouban] says the strength of what that party says is that it appears like a discourse of real life, whereas the Left immediately enters into theoretical discourse. I think we need to reappropriate real life. We also need to show positive figures from the Left in [rural] areas. There used to be the village schoolteacher or the Socialist activist who was also the treasurer of the football team. These figures have disappeared. The terrain is open, and we need to take it back. I also think we need to uphold labor as a left-wing value.

Cole Stangler

Does this strategy also mean that one should avoid talking about certain topics? I’m thinking about immigration, racism, and police violence.

François Ruffin

One shouldn’t stop speaking about these issues. On the other hand, the question is what do you center around? I don’t think there are difficulties talking about these issues, establishing positions, and ideally very clear positions.

For example, on the question of police violence, I haven’t avoided it. I put forth a bill and a legislative report on the topic while meeting with police unions. I’m not brushing it under the rug. But when do we center around this? At what point in an electoral campaign does one decide that this is a theme that’s going to bring people together or, on the other hand, is a theme that’s going to function as a boogeyman? We need to be smart, but I don’t think we should avoid these questions. On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves, “What brings the most people together?”; “What offers the most resonance?”

Cole Stangler

I’m thinking about another thing you said [after the parliamentary elections]: “We can’t become the Left of the big urban areas against the Right and far right of the small towns and fields.” What you’re saying now is the goal is to be the “Left of big urban areas” and the “Left of small towns and fields.” It’s to do both at once?

François Ruffin

Yes. I’d say the themes that I put into public debate are not ones specific to rural France. We organized a meeting at the National Assembly [that featured] health assistants from Caen who, to put it crudely, are white women, alongside forklift operators from the Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers who, to put it crudely, are men of North African origin. The dialogue was great because they were telling each other the same thing: about their relationship with time, how they live on €1,100, €1,200, €1,300 a month, how their bodies are impacted by their work.

I’ve been elected to represent working-class neighborhoods of Amiens, which have a strong presence of people with immigrant origins, and Flixecourt, which is a whiter France. The question is, “How do you find the themes that instead of dividing them, are going to bring them together?”

Cole Stangler

Are you optimistic for what comes next? Is the Left going to emerge stronger after another five years of Macron?

François Ruffin

You know the Antonio Gramsci quote? “Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will?” The current political situation is not glorious. But we’ll see what we manage to do with it.

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