Sahra Wagenknecht, who set up Aufstehen (Get Up) in September, said the French demonstration encouraged her to believe it was possible to effect change without being a political party. She cited growing inequality in Germany and frustration over the government’s failure to adequately tackle it as a powerful motivating force for a protest movement.
The public face of Aufstehen, which has almost 170,000 signed-up members, Wagenknecht said she admired Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) and the Jeremy Corbyn-supporting Momentum in the UK and that she was effectively modelling the movement on them.
“We have big plans for next year, not least because we recognise when people go on to the streets to protest – especially those who have not had a political voice for many years who rediscover their voice by protesting – then political change can happen,” Wagenknecht said, speaking to the foreign press association in Berlin. “This is what we’re seeing in France right now.”
Wagenknecht was quick to stress that she did not support violence, but said she was sympathetic to those who felt the need to use it to express their anger. “I think it’s completely wrong to reduce the yellow vest movement in France to violence,” she said. “Of course there are those ready for violence amongst the protesters, but the movement is much broader than that.
“I’m clear that we don’t want any violence, but at the same time you have to recognise that it is a clear expression of pent-up anger. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere.”
The Marxist politician, who has risen to prominence through the Die Linke (Left) party, did not say what form Aufstehen’s protests would take, but said: “We will be visible on the street and in the public eye in 2019.”
Wagenknecht said Aufstehen, whose supporters include prominent German writers, political scientists, historians and actors, hoped to galvanise support from ordinary voters across the political spectrum and unite leftwing parties – particularly Die Linke and the Social Democrats (SPD), who are struggling in the polls, as well as the Green party – in a common front against the social problems dogging the whole of Europe.
“We don’t intend to compete with these parties. We want a movement that contributes to bringing these parties on the left together and instigates a new social revival,” she said.
She said the examples of France and the UK proved that initiating change outside the strictures of political parties had a better chance of success.
“It is of importance to us to remain above party politics and I believe that for many people who are becoming involved with us, this is part of our charm, as well as of the movements in France and the UK – that they don’t have to fall in line within a rigid party structure.”
Criticism of her initiative has been most vehement from within her own party, with many accusing her of risking its destruction. Die Linke was formed in 2007 after the merger of two parties, including the descendant party of the rulers of communist East Germany. Meanwhile, the SPD, amid fears for its own political survival, has accused Wagenknecht of being “on an ego trip”. Many have voiced suspicions that Wagenknecht wants to set up her own party, a claim she has repeatedly denied.
Wagenknecht said it was harder in Germany than in France to persuade ordinary people to take their protests on to the streets. “France has a completely different protest culture to that of Germany,” she said.
“Repeatedly, from the storming of the Bastille to farmer protests, there are examples of the French rising up against a fatal form of politics. But quite honestly, people in Germany, in particular those who do not feel represented by German politics, will realise that they are far more able to put pressure on the government if they go out and protest.”
Germany’s new movement: a leftist pitch for the left behind
She said Aufstehen was being advised by activists at the heart of Momentum.
Wagenknecht blamed “wage dumping” – keeping wages low using cheap labour – for triggering the most dissatisfaction with the EU and said it would lead to the bloc’s “further disintegration” if not tackled. She said the British economy was one that had arguably benefited most from cheap labour from eastern Europe, as well as from low corporation tax. That had led to a low-wage economy, which in turn encouraged Brexit.
“Some of those who voted for Brexit did it out of a sense of social frustration … people working in former industrial areas where the already low wages have not risen, because unlike in Germany the companies have been able to depend on east European workers.” That experience had made it hard to “sell” the EU to many of its citizens, she said.
“The poorer half simply doesn’t have access to the positive things in Europe. The freedom of movement, Erasmus, the possibility to find work in other countries – these are advantages that are only enjoyed by a small proportion of society.”
Adding that she was watching developments in Britain closely, she said Brexit could be viewed as an opportunity for the country if whoever was in power used it as a chance to address the growing inequalities.
“How Britain continues to develop will not be just to do with Brexit, but with who the decision-makers are,” she said. “I could imagine a Britain after Brexit under a Labour government as something very different in which the poor are not the losers. But that’s a question of organisation and where the priorities lie.
“The question will be whether Britain continues as the Tories under Theresa May would like it, becoming once outside the EU a special tax oasis for companies, leading to yet more inequality and more poverty, or will advantage be taken of the freedom to really introduce a new, more social [caring] policy. I like to think that’s what Corbyn and Labour will do if they win an election.”
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